| Opinion Contributor
Standing atop a hill behind what’s left of the Dawson Springs city park, I hugged my old friend amidst a never-ending landscape of debris, rubble and personal pain. She may be the toughest woman in America.
“I literally have 13 different insurance claims going on between Logan’s death and the house and the cars. Jason’s grandfather passed away two months ago and I’m still helping grandma with her stuff. Overwhelmed is an understatement,” she told me.
Ashley McKnight, 41, is living a triple nightmare – a close relative lost to COVID-19, an 18-year-old son killed in a car accident, and now a house and hometown wrecked by a savage tornado, the likes of which Kentucky has never seen.
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And all within the last three months.
“Some days I feel like I am holding on like a hair in a biscuit,” Ashley said.
The schoolteacher and mother of three has lived in Dawson Springs all her life. She graduated from its high school in 1998, and married her sweetheart, Jason, a police officer, in 1999. They live on Oak Heights, one of the hardest-hit streets in one of the hardest-hit tornado towns of Western Kentucky.
The winds of tragedy had already blown through the McKnight household just a few weeks prior to the deadly storm. In September, Jason’s grandfather died after a month-long battle with COVID-19. Ashley took charge.
“I made the funeral arrangements and have been making sure Jason’s grandmother is taken care of with his pension paperwork, life insurance and all that comes when someone dies,” she said.
Getting the phone call
Then on November 23, Ashley got the call every parent dreads.
“It was Wednesday, and my son Logan was home for Thanksgiving. And his older brother Jett and his little sister Kara were here. We were all there together in the same house at the same time, which never happens,” Ashley said.
Logan, a budding freshman at Western Kentucky University, had brought his college girlfriend to Dawson Springs to meet his parents but sent her home early so she wouldn’t have to drive in the dark. Logan then took off with a couple of his high school buddies.
Around 7 p.m., Ashley received a text from a friend inquiring about a terrible car accident involving another local boy named Landon Pace. Ashley’s heart sank, because that’s who Logan had joined for a drive to Cadiz to watch a high school basketball game.
“My husband Jason [the police major] has delivered that kind of bad news to families. But you never really think you will be on the other side of the table,” Ashley said. The McKnights rushed to their son who lay dying at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville, but after a few hours had to say goodbye.
Logan’s death shocked his hometown. His memorial service on Dec. 1 was held in the Dawson Springs High School gymnasium where he had worn number three for the Purple Panthers. There wasn’t an empty seat as one thousand people mourned his loss.
“We are a town of what, 2,700?” Ashley said, marveling at how many townspeople had turned out. “We buried him in his basketball jersey. He loved his school and his teammates and this town so much,” Ashley said.
“Just about every day I hear about a kind word or deed Logan had done for someone. The day he died, I looked at his bank statement. He had spent $27 at Sonic. That kid was always buying everyone else’s meals,” Ashley said, laughing about the times she had chastised him to stop.
His death has spawned a slogan in Dawson Springs — “Live like Logan” — which appears on rubber bracelets adorning wrists all over town.
“You try to find the silver lining in times like this. Maybe if someone is inspired to do something nice for someone else or to put their life on a better path — to ‘live like Logan’ — you can say he made a difference,” Ashley said.
Then the tornado came
And then, with Logan’s loss still smothering the McKnight household, the storm came.
“I wasn’t taking it as seriously as I should have,” Ashley said of the Dec. 10 tornado that tore through Western Kentucky. “But we finally realized it was going to be bad. We had some close friends who didn’t have a basement down there with us. Our phones all went off at the same time with alerts. Then the power went off. Our ears popped. And then you could hear glass busting.”
In the aftermath of the nighttime storm, her husband Jason, a 15-year veteran of the Madisonville Police Department, ran into the darkness with her oldest son, Jett, a recent Eastern Kentucky University graduate who is about to join the Richmond Police Department as a rookie.
“After it was over, we walked outside and all you could hear were people screaming. There was a guy walking up the street with blood pouring from his head,” she said. “Bones were sticking out of people everywhere. Jason and Jett spent hours pulling people out.”
Living with the tragedy and pain
As the sun came up Saturday morning, Ashley realized the breadth of the devastation. Destroyed were her neighbors’ homes, the apartments she could see from her backyard, and the city park where she had spent countless nights watching her children play ball.
“On this end of the street, I have about the only house with walls and a roof. Everything outside my door is gone. The only thing I can figure is that Logan was up there looking out for his family. He had to have been,” Ashley said of her badly damaged — but still standing — home.
Never has Dawson Springs needed to “live like Logan” more than it does today, as the tasks of cleaning up and rebuilding seem overwhelming. But there are signs of hope—chainsaws whir nonstop as neighbors help neighbors cut up trees, while other people provide free food and water. Massive quantities of basic living necessities have poured into the school and local churches.
“Logan is everywhere,” Ashley said. “You look around and realize everyone is trying to do good deeds.”
The Mayor of Dawson Springs, Chris Smiley, estimates 75% of the town’s houses are destroyed. Whether suddenly homeless families can or will rebuild is an open question.
But not for Ashley McKnight.
“For us, the Dawson Springs school system is where I wanted to teach and send my kids. This school is like our backbone here. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I am not leaving this town. For me, Nov. 23 was the hardest day of my life. If it wasn’t for this town, I’d be in a dark place right now,” Ashley said.
Distraught but unbowed, Ashley has been at her home every morning since the tornado cleaning up, using Logan’s beloved truck to get around because her other car was damaged in the storm.
“In some weird way, the tornado forced me to get past some stuff that it would’ve taken me years to overcome. I packed up Logan’s room along with the rest of the house because I had to as we figure out if we can save this place,” she said. “If I had lost Logan’s bedroom, it would have destroyed me. My intention is to rebuild this house. This is the last place we all shared. Together.”
Buoyed by faith in her hometown and its people, Ashley’s story is emblematic of the small, declining, rural towns that dot middle America — suffering, struggling, yet unwilling to give up in the face of enormous hardship because the roots of family and faith run deep.
“I know this community is torn apart right now. I see everyone looking in, and I hate it because all they see is a torn-up town,” Ashley said. “They can’t see the beauty of what we had here. There’s no doubt in my mind this community can pull itself together. The people here pulled me together after Logan. We are going to pull through.”
Scott Jennings is a Republican adviser, CNN political contributor and partner at RunSwitch Public Relations. He can be reached at Scott@RunSwitchPR.com or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.