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Kansas native is back in Greensburg to attend Seton Hill

| Friday, Nov. 25, 2011

Shannon Webster likes to have a little fun with students at Seton Hill University when they ask where he's from.

"Greensburg," Webster, an 18-year-old freshman theater major at the Greensburg campus, will say.

And inevitably, they'll ask if he went to Greensburg Salem Senior High School.

"No. Kiowa County High School," he'll answer. "It's right off Main Street."

Webster comes from Greensburg, Kan., a town of 1,600 people that was leveled by an EF-5 tornado on May 4, 2007.

That tornado brought Webster to Greensburg, Westmoreland County, in an exchange program sponsored by the Greensburg Rotary Club.

Those visits to Pennsylvania would lead Webster to attend Seton Hill.

"I already kind of have a family here in Greensburg," Webster said. "If I need anything, I can rely on them, and plus it's good to be around people who care about you."

In 2007 , Webster, 14, was finishing eighth grade.

"Living in Kansas, you always have bad storms," he said. "You usually have these false calls to go down into the cellar."

As the weather radio was calling for a tornado, his mother directed the family to head down there. They heard a deep groaning noise and, through lightning strikes, could see the twisting form of a tornado in the distance.

Their home — built in 1890 — was virtually unscathed. Only Shannon's bedroom suffered significant damage when part of the roof came off.

They were spared because they lived a little more than a mile from town — where devastation prevailed.

"We heard on the weather band 'direct hit' and none of us fully understood what that meant," Webster said.

They headed to town to see what was going on and came across a friend. "His home was destroyed. He couldn't find his parents, and he was just walking the streets," Webster said.

They went home, still not fully grasping what had happened.

Because they had no utilities, they went to his grandparents' house in Hutchinson, Kan. — a 90-minute drive.

When Shannon saw an aerial view of his Greensburg, he saw "nothing left standing except a grain elevator," he said. "I was just completely in disbelief. All of my memories of the past places were dust in the wind."

They returned a few weeks later to a National Guard checkpoint outside their house. In town, "it was really Armageddon there," Webster said.

At his junior high school, he discovered his old locker twisted in the rubble.

"Some of the places that were (supposed to be) the safe places during a tornado didn't hold up," he said.

His house suddenly became the oldest standing structure in the county.

Students attended classes in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for three years. A new high school was built during Webster's senior year.

"There's probably not anywhere like Greensburg (Kansas) in any other part of the country," he said. "Everything is glass and solar-powered. It's really like the city of the future. I like it. I love it there."

A year after the tornado hit, Webster was among the second group of Greensburg, Kan., teenagers to travel to Pennsylvania through the Rotary Club.

He returned in the summers of 2009 and 2010. The recently constructed Seton Hill Performing Arts Center put the university at the top of the theater lover's list.

"There's nothing I enjoy more in life than making people laugh and being someone I'm not," he said.

He's already had a role in "The Tempest" earlier this month.

Greensburg Rotary Club Treasurer Mark Barnhart said he wasn't surprised that Webster chose Seton Hill.

"I know his parents are very relieved where he's somewhere he has a support system, being that far from home," Barnhart said. "He's doing his own thing up there, but he knows that we're here if he needs anything."

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