Residents' German roots shine through in tenacity
Nobody seems to be giving up on Gifford.
"I believe everybody will be back. I don't think you'll see anybody moving out. Even those people whose houses were completely destroyed on Plumb Street," said Neil Baker, who has spent all 54 of his years in the northwestern Champaign County town raked by a tornado Sunday. "Almost everyone has family around here, as well as good friends. This is a great town to live in. Why would they go anywhere else?"
Family is big in Gifford. Bigger than its German heritage. Bigger than the pride in its 200-student, K-8 grade school. Bigger than almost everything but faith.
"You can't sling a dead cat around here without hitting a relative of mine," joked Baker.
George Stalter seemed to be in a trance as he looked at heavy-equipment operators clearing tree limbs and remnants of houses across the street from where his home once sat.
"I don't think we're gonna rebuild here, but we're going to try to find a place already built. This is where family's at," Stalter said. "Over there's where Stalter Brothers Construction used to be. We did every sidewalk in this town. We worked on just about every house in this town, me and my brothers. We'll stay here. This is where it's at."
Cory Evans, 36, has lived around Gifford all his life and now is raising his own family there, two boys and a girl, all at the grade school.
"I think everybody will come back. It will be rebuilt and it will be fine," said Evans, whose home was not destroyed. "All of our family is around here. My uncle farms outside of town. My grandparents are here. My brothers are here. We won't go nowhere."
Carl Withers and his family have lived in Gifford since 1975. He runs the scoreboard at the grade school basketball games, even though he has no children at the school.
"Because of the stuff you're seeing right now. That's it. That's why we live in small towns, because of all this, people helping each other," he said. "It's a lot of good people, stubborn Germans. They're not going to let the weather get the best of them. That's for sure."
Kristi Bruns lives in Rantoul but spent the first 30 years of her life in Gifford.
"There is no doubt in my mind that this town will be back," she said. "I was here right after it got hit (by the tornado). People were holding hands. They were making sure everybody else was OK. A lot of these people had lost homes, but they were worried about everyone else too.
"Everybody has a smile on their face now. They're happy to be alive. This town will flourish more than it did in the past. Germans are good, sound, hard-working people. Yes, that's a big force in this. But this community is full of all types of people and it takes a village. They're here and it will be fine."
Margie Lewis, aided by her family, retrieved as much as she could from her heavily damaged house high on the appropriately named Summit Street.
"It's been safe here for 40-some years," she said, clutching two family Bibles she recovered. "I've lived here since I was in grade school. This is home. The new home is going right back where the old one was."
Carol Scott's home suffered what she called "minimal damage." Her neighbors were less fortunate, but she said they would rebuild in Gifford.
"Our neighbors across the street, their roof was picked up and dropped back down," she said. "They're living outside of town in a rental house, but they're planning to come back. Why? You're looking at it. You're looking at neighborliness. At kindness. At goodness. At generosity. It's just a great place."
Justin Fullenkamp said he grew up in Rantoul and moved to Gifford 13 years ago, finding it "a very strong, pretty tight-knit but still welcoming town to outsiders. I know because I was an outsider. But when I came here, I found open arms."
Fullenkamp is developing the Eagle Prairie subdivision on the north side of town. He has 19 lots left.
"I'll have some problems now because of this," he said of all the lots in central Gifford that soon will be vacant. "People who were going to build up north, this will slow that process down, but that's OK. We're all in this together. We're all here to support each other."
Debbie Kennedy, who called herself "a newbie" because she's been in Gifford only seven years, has no doubt that Gifford will be back.
"We'll be bigger and better," she said. "God has his hand over this little village. We're very, very God-fearing people, and Gifford will be bigger and better because everyone around here sticks together and helps his neighbor. That's what it's all about."
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.