Parents of Joplin tornado victim begin to heal

Mark, left, Sara, center, and Trish Norton look at a still from one of Will Norton's YouTube videos in Joplin Mo. Will Norton was headed home from his high school graduation when he was sucked away by a deadly tornado on May 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Roger Nomer/The Globe)

Mark, left, Sara, center, and Trish Norton look at a still from one of Will Norton's YouTube videos in Joplin Mo. Will Norton was headed home from his high school graduation when he was sucked away by a deadly tornado on May 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Roger Nomer/The Globe) Photo by The Associated Press.

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — Two Joplin parents whose son was headed home from his high school graduation when he was sucked away by a deadly tornado are beginning to heal as they head into the first holiday season without him.

The Joplin Globe reported that (http://bit.ly/sF8llw) Mark and Trish Norton are trying not to think of their loss. Instead, they say, they are focused on how their community rallied together, the strength of their faith, the support of friends and family, and the kindness of strangers touched by their son's story.

Will Norton's body wasn't found until five days after the May 22 tornado hit. The EF5 twister packed 200 mph winds and killed 161 people. During the search, the horrific story captivated the nation. The storm pulled Will Norton out of the family's sport utility vehicle as his father tried to hold onto him.

"How could you be at graduation, one of the happiest days of your life, and then have a cloud come down out of nowhere and suck you up out of a car?" asks Trish Norton, Will's mother, with a rueful shake of her head. "He wasn't driving drunk. He wasn't doing anything he wasn't supposed to. ... He was just coming home from graduation. Unfair."

But six months later, Trish Norton said she has reached a turning point. She still grieves, but she wants to start greeting each day with the same attitude exhibited by her son.

"I'm a positive person, an outgoing person, and I don't want to be sad any longer," she says. "Will was very positive and did really awesome things for people. I'm trying to continue that tradition."

Will Norton had a wide following on YouTube, racking up millions of hits on videos ranging from an informational piece about pet sugar gliders to chronicles of his travels. He had been accepted into the prestigious film program at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.

The final post on his Twitter account came at 11 a.m. on the morning of May 22: "I'm graduating today!"

Will Norton rode home from graduation with his father, while his mother and sister, Sara, left a little earlier in a different vehicle so they could get ready for a reception planned at the family's home.

His mom and sister had barely reached the family's home when the electricity went off. Trish Norton recalled that her daughter was on the phone with her husband.

"He told her to hit the garage door because they would be coming in really quick," Trish Norton said.

They never made it. More than 150 volunteers were involved in the search, and thousands of people followed the "Help Find Will Norton" Facebook page.

Mark Norton still walks with a limp, though it's a miracle that he's walking at all.

He had 17 broken bones, and rescue workers had to use the Jaws of Life to remove him from the wreckage of his battered vehicle.

Trish said her husband has thrown himself into his work. The manager of Great Southern Travel, he also owns Mark Norton Properties and is building an apartment complex on North Main Street.

"Most of our construction is high-end homes, but we're building a 60-unit apartment complex," he says. "We had the property out there near Airport Drive and felt like it was something we could do. There are so many people who need a place to live now. We're getting ready to start leasing the first units."

Trish and Mark Norton, who have lived in Joplin their entire lives, say watching the community rally after the tragedy has been heartening.

"You see what the people in this area are made of," Mark Norton said. "The true spirit of Joplin comes out. We should all be proud of our community, the citizens, our leaders. Really remarkable things have happened."

The kindness shown by friends and total strangers also has been a blessing to the family, Trish said. The first flowers the family members received in sympathy for their loss came from an Australian fan of Will's YouTube videos.

"(Will's) story went out everywhere," she says. "I still get cards from people."

More than 50,000 people still follow Will's Facebook page, which Sara Norton continues to update with news from the family.

His memory also lives through a presidential scholarship created in his memory at Chapman University.

Plus, there's a project under way to build a baseball field that will bear Will's name for children with disabilities. Donations made through Rotary International are paying for the project; Mark is a Joplin Rotary member.

"Will always cared for people so much, and he would be happy that there was good coming out of this," says Mark. "He would be proud that he left a legacy that will do so much good for other people. It's a good feeling."

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