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Randy Turner Headshot

Joplin High School Tornado Victim Was a Shooting Star

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Will Norton had an eye for the absurd.

In a series of 67 well-received YouTube videos, the 18-year-old gleefully shared his life, not only with friends from Joplin High School, but with thousands of teens across the nation.

Calling himself Willdabeast, Will began posting his videos three years ago, finding material in everything from snow days to prom to renting videos from Walgreen.

I never had a chance to meet Will Norton, but my former students were fans and encouraged me to check out his YouTube site. In those videos, I saw what they saw, a free spirit who never took anything seriously (at least judging from the videos' content), but what I also saw was a budding filmmaker who apparently had a deep respect for the directors and stars of long ago.

At times, you could almost see elements of Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, or at least how you might have imagined them developing had they been born in these days of the internet, in his vignettes.

The budding filmmaker loved the absurd and nothing could have been more absurd than for Will Norton to have become the face of the tragedy that hit my community of Joplin during this past week.

The tornado hit just a short time after Will reached a major milestone in his life, striding across the stage at the Leggett & Platt Center on the Missouri Southern State University campus and receiving his Joplin High School diploma, a symbol of his passage to adulthood, a steppingstone in his goal to do much more with cinema. Naturally, he accepted his diploma with the same million megawatt smile that made him a new media star.

Two hours later, his life had ended, as a tornado had ended his life. Will was taken through the sun roof of the Hummer H3 he was driving, a vehicle whose virtues he had extolled in a YouTube video made on his 16th birthday.

Though the end came quickly for Will, his body was not found immediately. For the next six days, the hunt for the teenager took on a national importance, a desperate hope that somehow, something positive could come out of this tragedy which has changed the face of Joplin forever.

We learned of how Will's father, a passenger in the same vehicle, had desperately tried to hold on to his son when the tornado hit, an unsuccessful effort which resulted in a broken arm for the father. Family members called one hospital after another, after receiving an unintentionally cruel glimmer of hope when someone incorrectly reported Will had been taken to a hospital. In the confusion that followed the tornado, as in any such horrendous event, much misinformation was spread.

The family's hopes, already diminishing, were dashed forever today when they learned that Will Norton had been identified as one of those who perished during the tornado.

When word was released to the public, the outpouring of grief was intense and immediate. Facebook sites that had been established to help in the hunt for Will became a vehicle for his friends, and for people who had only been exposed to Will through the media coverage this week, to offer their condolences to the family and express what they felt about the passing of someone whose videos provided the purest definition of youthful exuberance.

We will never know if his future would have included fame and fortune, but one thing is certain.

Thanks to modern technology and the wonder that is YouTube, we will always have a record of the cheerful young man that Will Norton was, a shooting star who passed through our lives far too quickly.