MURRAY — Tuesday, Martha Alls was performing her usual duties at the Book Mark business on Murray’s court square.
However, on Monday, she had been in the northwest Alabama town of Phil Campbell for a special occasion. It was a day of celebration, as well as reflection as her son, Joe Mark, was the focus of a ceremony at Northwest-Shoals Community College, where he taught for 30 years.
Joe Mark had retired from teaching not long after one of the darkest days in Alabama’s history as a swarm of killer tornadoes ripped across the landscape on the afternoon of April 27, 2011. The outdoor classroom at Northwest-Shoals that he held so dear was destroyed when one of those twisters hit Phil Campbell.
So, on Monday, one day before the 10-year anniversary of one of America’s worst tornado outbreaks, Martha was there to see that outdoor classroom, new and improved, re-open … in her son’s honor.
“He deserved it,” Martha said Tuesday, repeating the words she had told a man named Chad Fell, now a reporter at the Haleyville Alabamian newspaper, but a former student of Joe Mark’s at Northwest-Shoals, on Monday. “And (Dr. Timmy James, an associate dean at Northwest-Shoals) explained it so well when he said that Mark loved the college, but he also loved those students. They had classes (at the outdoor facility) and the community did programs there.”
James and Joe Mark had been particularly close. It was James who spoke at both funeral services for Joe Mark after he died in 2019, the first of those ceremonies in Haleyville, the second in Murray, where he was buried.
“(Joe Mark) wanted to build it back, but he retired after 30 years and he had decided that he wanted to go fishing with his granddaughters and do things like that. But he had collected funds,” Martha said, turning her attention to James. “He was the one that applied for the grants and got the money.”
That was how Martha, with an invitation from James, found herself a participant of Monday’s ceremony. First, she took a seat in the newly-built amphitheater to hear numerous speakers, including at least two sitting Alabama state legislators who both were her son’s students. Then, she was standing on a new version of the wooden swinging bridge that crosses a creek behind the campus, where she and campus President Dr. Glenda Colagross each took possession of a pair of oversize ceremonial scissors to cut the red ribbon and bring one of Joe Mark’s favorite place back to life.
Joe Mark had been on the campus the day time stood still throughout Alabama, the focal point for an outbreak that observers have dubbed “Super Outbreak 2011” or, in some cases, “Super Outbreak 2.” On that day alone, 219 tornadoes touched down, many of which were EF-4 or stronger, which ranks as the most in a single day. That shattered the previous mark, set on April 3, 1974 of 148.
Of those, 59 were reported in Alabama, which was actually not the most of any state that day. Of the 324 people who died that day, 72 perished from the mile-wide wedge twister that hit Phil Campbell. Also struck was the tiny town of Hackleburg, about 20 miles to the southwest.
“My son taught in the science department and it destroyed the building beside him. They had known it was coming (from reports being received from Hackleburg),” said Martha, who said she knew bad storms were happening that day as she followed coverage on The Weather Channel.
And she, like many viewers across the world now glued to the coverage, had a front-row seat for what came a few hours later on that Wednesday afternoon. Having not heard anything from Joe Mark, now she watched as cameras provided a start-to-finish viewing of another monster twister headed for Tuscaloosa, and the University of Alabama campus, where granddaughter Mary was a student.
And it was not until two days later, thanks to power outages caused by the storm, that Joe Mark’s wife, Selena, was finally able to make a call. It was then that Martha learned how things had gone for Mary.
“My granddaughter was on the 11th floor of her dorm at the University of Alabama when it came through, and she stayed there,” Martha said. “Later, I asked, ‘Mary? Why didn’t you come down and find a safe spot?’ She said that she was so frightened, she couldn’t move. She just stayed there, so that was terrifying for me to know. Then, you’re coming to know that another one came to where Mark was. Also, a friend (of Mary’s) was killed that day, so, yeah, that was a big day for them.
“This ceremony was actually supposed to take place (Tuesday, the anniversary day), but I think they wanted to have it earlier because all of the dignitaries from the state had other places to be (Tuesday). They were having things all over the state I think. I remember my little great-granddaughter (Callie) would count all of the names on the memorial (in Phil Campbell) and I also remember how people from here went to Hackleburg to help out down there after it had happened.
“It was a pretty impactful day, but I don’t think I realized how much until I was there (Monday). That’s when you hear the speakers say, ‘let’s hope nothing like that ever happens like that again.’”
Alls said Joe Mark and his family left Haleyville, which was not hit that day, two days after the outbreak and headed to Murray for a few days to, if nothing else, get away from the chaos ensuing back home.