COLUMBIA, Mo. — President Barack Obama will speak at Joplin High School's commencement, a year after a tornado struck just after the ceremony, killing more than 160 people and destroying much of the city.
The high school was among the thousands of homes and buildings destroyed, and students have been attending classes in a nearby mall this year. Word traveled quickly through the student body Monday after the White House announced the president would speak at the May 21 graduation. He'll also deliver remarks at Barnard College's May 14 commencement and the Air Force Academy's May 23 graduation.
"It's just amazing that we can have such huge recognition for our school," said senior Lexi Willcoxon, 18. "It's such a huge honor. To be able to say the president is giving our commencement speech – that's a memory that will last a lifetime."
Obama attended a memorial service in Joplin one week after the deadly tornado, the worst to strike the United States in decades. Seven students and one staff member at Joplin schools were among the victims. Speaking at the memorial service, Obama promised residents "your country will be there with you every single step of the way."
The president will travel to Joplin after the G-8 and NATO summits in Chicago. The school agreed to delay its graduation one day and hold it on a Monday to accommodate his schedule.
Willcoxon was among a handful of Joplin residents who knew Obama was considering a return visit – her father is a Joplin school board member. But she remained skeptical until the 450-member senior class was told at a special assembly Monday morning.
"I was like, `Sure Dad, whatever you say,'" she recalled. "I was shocked, to say the least. Joplin is such a small town."
Joplin schools superintendent C.J Huff said Obama's visit will keep the nation's attention on the recovery effort and honor a senior class that has "grown up a lot this year, just like all the rest of us."
"I can't even begin to express how proud I am of this particular class," he said. "The resiliency they've shown, their leadership, their strength ... Having the president here shines a spotlight on these kids, and all they've been able to accomplish."
The tornado struck the city of 50,000 less than an hour after Joplin High wrapped up its 2011 graduation ceremony at nearby Missouri Southern State University. Will Norton, one of the students receiving a diploma that day, was killed in the storm as he drove home. This year's commencement also will be held at the university.
News of Obama's return to Joplin came other communities were struggling with the aftermath of deadly tornados. At least 40 people in five states died after tornado-spewing storms rolled across the Midwest and South on Friday. In Henryville, Ind., tornadoes destroyed the education complex housing the Henryville Junior/Senior High School and the town's elementary school.
An earlier round of storms last week killed 13 people.
Obama traditionally delivers the commencement address at a different military service academy every spring.
His appearance at Barnard, a women's college affiliated with Columbia University in New York City, is significant in an election year when Democrats are trying to use gender politics to their advantage. A strident backlash by social conservatives against a new federal requirement that insurance plans offer women free birth control has created what Democrats see as a golden opportunity.
Associated Press writer Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.