Correction: This story was revised at 10:47 a.m., June 6, 2011, to state that the crew of the USS Iwo Jima presented an American flag that flew on the destroyer to the father of MaryJane Roberts in 2005.


Portland native Maryjane Gardner Roberts and her husband, Eugene Roberts, decided on a whim to leave their Joplin, Mo., home a day early to drive to Maine to see their grandson graduate from Thornton Academy in Saco.

The next day, May 22, a tornado hit Joplin. It ripped off the roof of their home of six years and soaked everything inside, destroying the walls, flooring and most of their things.

Joplin fire officials have condemned the house, and an insurance company representative is bagging up what belongings remain.

For Maryjane Roberts, 59, there are three things she can’t believe are most likely gone.

She had a framed invitation to the 1933 inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A family member attended, and the invitation had been handed down through the generations.

There was also an American flag that flew on the USS Iwo Jima. The crew of the destroyer had presented the flag to her father when the ship arrived in Portland in 2005 — he had served on a similar ship during World War II.

And she choked up thinking about her favorite picture, of her, her two sisters and a cousin taken on Easter in 1955 or 1956. Her sisters and cousin have all died.

“When I looked at that picture, it soothed my soul,” she said. “Those are the only things I cared about. I still have the memories of those things. Everything else, I have with me. I have my husband. And I am grateful.”

The couple said they didn’t even realize the tornado had hit until they finished the 1,600-mile drive to Portland and saw the news.

“I was in shock,” said Eugene Roberts, 56. “I was in disbelief. It was hard to accept that our home was among the devastation we saw on the news. We were in shock and we didn’t know what to do.”

Now they are temporarily living with Maryjane Roberts’ father, Bill Gardner, who lives on North Street in Portland. Roberts grew up on Munjoy Hill and graduated from Portland High School in 1970.

They have been deeply moved by the support they have received here in Maine. As word of their situation got out through friends and family, unsolicited gifts of clothing and money have made their way to the couple.

“I grew up here and I know how Mainers are, but to experience it myself is just incredible,” said Maryjane Roberts. “People have been so kind and nice. I know it’s going to be OK. It’s only stuff. It’s only material things.”

Since arriving in Portland, their wardrobe has expanded thanks to Margaret Pomfret, a nursing supervisor at Seal Rock Healthcare at Atlantic Heights in Saco, who works with Maryjane Roberts’ daughter, Peggy-Ann Emmons. Pomfret said she felt compelled to help.

“I heard they lost everything, and I couldn’t imagine it,” she said.

The tornado heavily damaged a hospital and hundreds of homes and businesses in Joplin, and killed at least 138 people.

Maryjane Roberts, a personal care attendant in Joplin, had been asked to work that weekend. She believes she wouldn’t be alive today if she’d done so.

The road ahead is uncertain.

The couple is planning to return to Joplin on Monday to view the wreckage.

“It’s finally sunk in that we are homeless,” said Eugene Roberts, his voice cracking. “The community we lived in is gone. We’re afraid.”

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at:

[email protected]