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Survivors and residents recall 50th anniversary of Oak Lawn tornado

  • Written by Joe Boyle

ambulance photo 4-20

Photo courtesy of Oak Lawn Library

Ambulances were a common sight along Oak Lawn streets after the F4 tornado hit Oak Lawn on April 21, 1967.

John Brodemus recalls that it was a warm day. His primary goal that late afternoon was to ask a girl on a date.

However, his intentions and focus changed rapidly when he looked up and felt rain coming down and black clouds rushing toward them. He and the girl ran into her home on the 9300 block of Southwest Highway in Oak Lawn and took cover with other members of her family in the kitchen.

“It was loud but I can’t say that I heard a train,” Brodemus said. “She lived near trains. But when I came out, I knew.”

Brodemus, like thousands of other Oak Lawn residents, were stunned after scanning the aftermath of the F4 tornado that ripped through Oak Lawn and portions of Hometown and Evergreen Park on April 21, 1967. The tornado could also be seen, although with considerably less might, in Chicago before disappearing in Lake Michigan.

But in its path in Oak Lawn, 33 died and over 1,000 people were injured. The winds were reported as fast as 200 miles per hour.

The 50th anniversary of the tornado that struck Oak Lawn and surrounding communities will be recognized at an exhibit that opens at 6 p.m. Friday, April 21 at the Oak Lawn Library, 9427 S. Raymond Ave. The exhibit will feature over 100 images, archival footage of the aftermath and recollections from witnesses.

The National Weather Service had issue a tornado watch at 1:50 p.m. that day for much of central and northern Illinois. The town of Belvidere, 65 miles northwest of Chicago, was struck by the tornado. Other northwestern suburban communities were struck by a tornado just after 5 p.m. that resulted in 20 deaths.

Kevin Korst, the local history coordinator for the Oak Lawn Library and author of “Oak Lawn Tornado of 1967,” wrote that at 5:15 p.m. an off-duty weather bureau employee witnessed a mass of clouds forming directly overhead. The clouds began to move near 88th Avenue, the current site of Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills. The clouds swarmed and were followed by golf-ball sized hail. The twister picked up mud and uprooted trees. The tornado crossed the 294 tollway and into Chicago Ridge before ripping by the Starlite Drive-In before entering Oak Lawn.

The corner of 95th Street and Southwest Highway was lined up with vehicles at the stoplight while shoppers were everywhere. The tornado quickly ripped through the south gym and pool of Oak Lawn Community High School, tossing vehicles into the nearby pedestrian overpass and in every direction. Shoot’s Lynwood Lounge, Fisher’s Motel, the Fairway Super Mart, Sherwood Forest Restaurant and two gas stations sustained heavy damage.

The tornado tore apart the Suburban Transit Company at 95th and Menard, with buses stacked on other buses and vehicles. St. Gerald School was damaged and the Airway Trailer Park and the Oak Lawn Roller Rink along 91st Street and Cicero Avenue were destroyed. The Oak Lawn Dairy Basket, McDonald’s and other buildings near 91st and Cicero were also demolished.

Brodemus, 17, who was a senior at Oak Lawn Community High School at the time, just wanted to get home at that point.

“I left her house and was directed (by police) to go down Cicero Avenue to 111th Street, west to Harlem Avenue, north to 87th Street and finally east to Austin Avenue, “ Brodemus said. “I knew all about it by then. It was all over the car radio.”

He was allowed to go home where he met his distraught mother. His sister, Christine, who was 14 and a freshman at Oak Lawn High, had been practicing water ballet but was out of the pool at 5:15 p.m. Brodemus said they had shut down practice. She later ventured to the end of the school, away from the main force of the tornado.

His brother, Bob, also attended Oak Lawn High. His tennis meet with Thornridge was called off because of the sudden storm. He decided to take a shower and thought his teammates were playing a prank when the lights flickered and finally went out. He yelled but no one replied. Then he heard his doubles partner Chuck Nowak scream from downstairs that a tornado was coming.

Bob Brodemus then witnessed the double doors next to him slam open and shut in a rapid rhythm. He saw the concrete ceiling crack above him and rainwater leaked upon his shoulders. He grabbed the corner of the wall and he was shaking back and forth. Lockers and light bulbs crashed all around, he said.

After viewing a blue-green sky through the cracks, he quickly got dressed and ventured outside. He began going through debris and saw many dead bodies. After a couple of hours of helping the injured and cleaning up the debris, he went home and was happy to see his mother. His father also arrived home. The Brodemus family, who lived on the 9200 block of South Massasoit Avenue, was OK, at least physically.

“”I cried that night, the cry I should have had earlier,” wrote Bob Brodemus years later. “It was a luxury to cry – a real soothing luxury.”

Skip Sullivan was 15 and a sophomore at Oak Lawn High School. The baseball game they had scheduled with Sandburg was cancelled that day due to the sudden rain. The rain had stopped and he was watching the track team at school when a huge storm moved in with fast moving black clouds overhead. He quickly went into the school by the lockers.

Then the golf team rushed in and said “here it comes, get down,” recalled Sullivan.

“When we finally got out I remember hearing a car horn and seeing a man slumped over in his car, dead,” Sullivan said. “There were cars on the athletic field and a bus on a roof of a house. We worked our way to the main parking lot and could see the pool was totally leveled. The floor was buckled. It was like someone dropped a bomb. The fire department and police officers were asking for us for help.”

Sullivan, like Bob Brodemus, began to go through the debris and assisted the injured while seeing many fatalities. His father later came by a couple of hours later to find his son. Sullivan said his father looked relieved when he saw him.

Debbie Fisher, whose father operated Fisher’s Motel near 95th and Southwest Highway, was sick that day and did not go to school. Her mother and aunt brought her to the family doctor and she received some medication. She was beginning to feel better after that. Her mother suggested they go to the store to pick up some food for supper. They noticed the black clouds and the rain so they hurried into the store. A man then rushed in to tell them to get down. They went to the back of the store, and they heard the roar. The lights went out and debris fell everywhere.

When they left the store, they immediately went to her father’s motel. They noticed his front office was destroyed. But a few minutes later, they saw their father walking toward them.

“He was OK because he walked out of the office to change a light bulb in one of the rooms,” Debbie wrote a year later. “When he saw the tornado coming, he rushed into one of the rooms and slammed the door and got down on the floor.”

They hugged each other and arrived home later that evening. Their house was also intact.

Mary Lou Harker often sent her children to eat at the Red Barn Restaurant. But this time her husband, Oak Lawn Fire Lieutenant. Elmore “Al” Harker, who would become fire chief in 1976, said that they were going to take the children somewhere special for dinner.

That decision may have saved the children’s lives. The Red Barn was destroyed by the tornado. The Harkers were not directly hit by the tornado, but Mary Lou recalls her daughter seeing a desk flying in the air and part of a street sign that crashed through her neighbor’s window. They also noticed water that was originally from the nearby Oak Lawn High School swimming pool was dumped on their front lawn.

Mary Lou also checked on someone who was missing. She recalled seeing a deceased girl who still had her roller skates on. The deceased were taken to a temporary morgue at the Johnson-Phelps VFW Post. Her daughter, Michelle, 7, later had to attend a wake for a friend.

“She was wearing her Holy Communion dress,” Mary Lou recalled.

Mary Lou said the police and fire department worked valiantly over the next week or so. Many people also volunteered their efforts.

Korst said there is not one incident that stands out about the tornado.

“The devastation of the roller rink and 18 people were killed at the corner of 95th Street and Southwest Highway,” Korst said. “And people mention the National Guard.

“But the one thing I hear is the sort of pride people felt in helping each other,” Korst said. “A lot of people had a hand in the recovery from this terrible incident. They helped to rebuild and they moved on.”