Ramona Newsom, Brown Mackie College in Salina, Kansas

Once the sun broke through the buttery lace curtains, the senior citizens at the Dignity Care Home sat on the front porch discussing how the storm came up. The subject of the weather replaced the normal conversation, when they usually curse the parents of senseless children who ride bicycles too close to the nearby thoroughfare.

Overnight, the tornadoes came and leaned 100-year-old trees against houses, left branches lying in school crossings, and carried children’s plastic swimming pools into strangers’ backyards. Salina, Kan., has been struck twice this summer with deadly storms. And every time in the residential area near downtown, the foliage that usually keeps a thick cover instead gave way to become the main damage causer.

The damage that winds wreak here can erase history. This is an old town with an aging central business district, with red brick buildings that were laid out on roads once meant for horses and prairie schooners. Taking a car down these streets on a normal day can be an adventure, but even more so on the morning after hail and high winds have twisted playground equipment into metal balls.

Today, the people who were once cowering in their basements are now outside chatting, telling stories about how the lightning flashes came straight down from the sky. Neighbors are out with chainsaws to clear debris from white-washed barns, fences and school crossings.

Out here on the plains, life is still relatively simple compared to the rush in the cities. That’s been the story here since the first people gathered at the river bends, the nearest city being Kansas City. Community is tight in Salina. Spiritual life takes center stage on Sundays, and God is as good of a friend as He is described in church hymns. As down-home as the town might feel, though, there are people here with stories to tell – some of whom retreated to the central plains for reasons they seldom talk about.

Ramona Newsom came here four years ago to hide from her husband. Her one contact was her pastor who helped her escape from Kansas City and an abusive relationship where her life was threatened. On these streets, Newsom effectively started her life over while she put an end to her third abusive marriage. And, after 28 years of starting and stopping the process of obtaining a degree, she used the new start to enroll at Brown Mackie College and graduate from the Business Management program.

The college, like so many other career training institutions, made it possible for Newsom to work around her life situation. Administrators went so far as to allow her a brief absence during a critical finals period because her husband had threatened her life. In this place with rusted railcars and rows of tall grain silos, she found her haven where people love and accept her. The church – and her education – provided the entry point.

Prayer for the meek
Eight years ago, Newsom entered her third marriage to a man who promised to be all that her two previous husbands were not. The men who had come before were abusive, verbally and physically. The only compliments they can be given are that one gave her two children, Carl and Dawn Bailey, and the other inspired her songwriting. Her last marriage started off well enough. Her husband was an Engineering graduate from the University of Kansas. As far as she knew, he wouldn’t be threatened by her pursuit of a higher education the way other men in her life had been. They had made a life together in Kansas City, where she’d been born and raised.

But the two separated after he turned abusive, like the others. And after a stretch of particularly bad luck – losing his parents, his stepfather and an uncle – he broke down and took it out on Newsom. “That sent him over the edge,” Newsom said. “I remember standing in the kitchen with tears streaming down, shaking, thinking, ‘I know I’m going to die. I know I’m going to die.’ I could see it in his eyes. He walked up to me and said, ‘Oh, I see I made you cry.’ And he turned and walked out the door. I slumped to the floor in shock. That was on a Saturday. He followed me to church on Sunday.”

Determined to leave the city, Newsom called Allen Smith, a former Associate Pastor at Palestine Missionary Baptist Church of Jesus Christ in Kansas City. Smith, a friend with whom she had worked at the church, had become Pastor at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church in Salina. He and his family took Newsom in for two weeks until she found an apartment. He also asked her to become the church’s Minister of Music, a position she had held at her church in the city.

“I think Ramona was this dependent person needing affirmation,” Smith said. “The idea that she could walk away from her comfort zone – her family, her spousal relationship – and do it on her own was good for her. She didn’t like to drive long distances. I remember it was a huge thing when she drove to Kansas City by herself, really. One day, it was like she woke up and realized she could do this by herself.”

Shortly after arriving in Salina, Newsom volunteered to go along with Smith to Brown Mackie College to pick out furniture for the congregation’s new church. The college was moving to a new location and was offering its furnishings for free to local nonprofits. It was there that Newsom met Judy Holmes, President of Brown Mackie College’s Lenexa and Salina campuses, who encouraged her to enroll.

By July 2004, Newsom was a full-time student at Brown Mackie College and, admittedly, surprised to find that she was pursuing a degree at a career college. Newsom said the frequent class starts at Brown Mackie College allowed her to jump in without waiting for a new semester to begin. The curriculum focuses on one program a month, and within three months she had acquired 12 hours of college credit.

Two years later, the 47-year-old received her Associate degree and – as her class valedictorian – delivered the commencement address. For four months, she’d been working as a proofreader at KLA Environmental Services Inc. in Salina. It was a dream job for which the admissions and career services directors at Brown Mackie College had recommended her. Her family, church members and her new employers were in the audience.

“I don’t think she realizes the impact she had on students around her and staff around her,” Holmes said. “Just coming into a room and smiling and saying how great she did on a test or a grade she got on a class project. We were living that excitement with her when she got a job.”

KLA Environmental Services Inc. is a civil, agricultural and environmental engineering consulting firm. The primary client base includes cattle feeding facilities and watershed districts in Kansas. Newsom is responsible for proofing compliance reports for grammar, formatting and overall readability before the reports are submitted to appropriate government agencies for review and approval.

Revival
The gloss-coated pews in St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church give it a polished, if not old-fashioned, appearance. But the building is less than 10 years old. The original church burned to the ground nine years before, and authorities were unable to determine a reason for the blaze. There has been speculation that it might have been arson and that the investigation might not have been as thorough as it could have been, which might ordinarily fuel racial tensions between the African-American populace and the mostly white plains community.

Pastor Smith’s congregation has never considered those implications, but has instead chosen to move forward with an overarching enthusiasm and love. New traditions have been established in a new building. Smith even adapted his church’s motto: God is in this place.

Every Sunday morning the modern surroundings are overwhelmed by the regal outfits of church-goers and little girls in their best dresses. Bodies sway and voices rise to the piano music almost as if this were a revival. Up on stage – at the forefront of all the commotion and shouts of “Amen” – the soft-spoken Newsom moves her hands across the piano keys, her deep belief in the Lord behind her eyes.

She is not out of place at all. Playing in time with a full choir, accompanying bassist and drummer joining in, the sound of her piano fills up the expansive auditorium. In at least one way, it completes Newsom’s improbable dream in Salina. Her family was too poor to afford a piano when she was a child. Her mother surprised her with a used spinet just after her father passed away when she was 15. The piano was paid for with what little money was left after paying his hospital bills and funeral expenses.

Newsom was told she was too old to learn how to play, and it was several months before she found an instructor. With a little guidance, they discovered she was a natural at the keys. Newsom repaid the kindness by teaching piano to underprivileged children. And 30 years later, she bought her mother a new piano.

Eventually, Newsom found all of her dreams, and not too late. The timing has always been appropriate – in achieving her education and in repaying gratitude. Out on the plains, she’s shown herself that she will be all right, no matter what storms drop down from the clouds.

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