Sunday, May 29, 2016


Tornado season in the US is officially underway, and parts of "tornado alley" have already confronted several of these monstrous storms. Iowa is part of the "alley," although most of the state does not usually host tornadoes.
Stereoscopic image of 1882 Grinnell tornado wreckage
(W. R. Cross Collection, Black Hills State University, via Digital Library of South Dakota)
Nevertheless, Grinnell has occasionally been the target of tornadoes, most famously in 1882 when a cyclone destroyed most of the college and the residential area north of downtown, killing 39 in town and perhaps 100 across the state. That storm gave rise to a mythic rebuilding that helped define the history of both college and town.

Considerably less momentous was the tornado that blew through central Iowa in September, 1978, but it merits our attention, another illustration of how the present can allow us to overlook a different past. Tornadoes are not common in the northern hemisphere in September—certainly there have been tornadoes in that month, and occasionally, as in 2004, there are many such storms across the plains. Typically, however, September is quiet. Yet it was on September 16, 1978 that an F-3 storm blew across parts of Marshall, Jasper and Poweshiek Counties, killing 6 and injuring more than 40 persons.
It was Saturday night and darkness had already fallen on Grinnell when, around 9 PM, a severe thunderstorm brought heavy rain to the area. Some folk had settled into their rooms at Motel Grinnell, adjacent to Iowa route 146 and US Interstate 80; about 100 guests were having late dinners at the Silhouette Restaurant nearby; some motorists had gotten off I-80 to wait out the storm, and attendants at the four gas stations nearby  were indoors, perhaps mesmerized by the blinding downpour.

There was no tornado warning—no siren, no radio alert—for the storm (at that time opening its jaws about a half-mile wide) that first touched down somewhere north of Baxter, then swept southeast, destroying property near Laurel where it killed a 34-year-old man and his 6-year-old daughter. The twister then prowled further southeast in the darkness, dropping down to earth close to the intersection of IA-146 and Interstate 80, three miles south of Grinnell. Only about 1000 feet wide at this point, the powerful currents chewed up everything in sight for about five miles.
Map of 1978 Tornado by Dave Silk (Des Moines Register Sep 18, 1978, p 9A)
Phillips 66 Service Station at its 1964 opening (Grinnell Herald-Register July 13, 1964, p. 6)
Newspaper accounts from survivors in Grinnell point out how surprising was the storm's arrival. The Des Moines Register quoted Brent Cooper, then just 17 years old and minding the store at Rick's Phillips 66 service station. "I looked outside and the rain was going around instead of down," Cooper said. "I heard a roar and then ducked behind the air compressor in the back room." David Hume, 21 and attendant at the nearby Skelly service station, had it worse: "I was standing in front of the plate glass window when it just exploded. I was knocked clear over the counter." Leon Blankenfeld, 17, was on duty at the Standard service station in the same area, and reported that, although he never saw the funnel, he knew it was a tornado when he couldn't get the door to the station closed. "I hid under a desk in the middle of the room and stayed there till it was over," he said. Marc Guthrie, another teenager (16), worked at Pester Derby. He recalled that the lights at the station first flickered, then disappeared as power lines went down. "I just remember covering my ears because it was so loud. I fell to the floor and everything blew over me." When he got up, "there was nothing left of where I had been when it struck. I couldn't believe it." Bob Cafcules, owner of the Silhouette Restaurant, told reporters that he had had the TV on, and just as "The Love Boat" came to a close, the television issued a storm warning, but there was little time to absorb this news as the tornado was already upon them. When he and his wife realized what was happening, they "screamed at patrons that a tornado was coming. 'The customers hit the deck just like tenpins,' he said." His wife saw "the windows in the restaurant 'bulge in and out' and glass flying all over."
Skelly Station at its 1964 opening (Grinnell Herald-Register May 18, 1964)

No one died at any of these establishments, which was a genuine miracle, as Dave Winters told the Des Moines Register reporter: "All there was was a very large rumble...and then I saw [the tornado] drop down on this [east] side of 146. It hit the Pester Derby station—just poof and it was gone." Cafcules seconded this assessment when he told reporters that "All that's left of the Pester Derby station is a slab of concrete."
Aerial photo of the damage: Pester Derby service station (left) and Skelly service station (right)
(Cedar Rapids Gazette Sep 18, 1978)
If no one in the motel, restaurants or service stations died, the occupants of two automobiles in the area were not so lucky. Bonnie June Thompson Maldonado, 58 years of age and a resident of nearby Newton, was found dead in her overturned station wagon on the frontage road adjacent to IA 146. The Des Moines Register reported that Maldonado was discovered "with a length of 2x4-inch lumber piercing her body."
Entry for Bonnie (Thompson) Maldonado in 1937 Newton High School Newtonian 
Another car carried the Lothar Rau family, returning to their New Hampshire home from a vacation in Vancouver, British Columbia. To escape the downpour, Rau left the interstate—and drove straight into the tornado. His wife, Rosemary Rau, 26, was found dead within the crushed automobile, and bodies of two of the couple's children—Belinda Ann, 7, and Alexander Byron, 4—were found nearby, sucked from the car and tossed by the twister. Another daughter, Melanie, 6, somehow survived, as did a friend of the children, Heather Pulminsano, 3, who was traveling with the Rau family.

Wrecked Toyota of the Rau Family (Grinnell Herald-Register Sep 21, 1978)
At first, it seemed that Lothar Rau, 28 years old, driver of the car and father to the children, was lost; many volunteers searched for the man, ranging far from the impact site both Saturday nite and for much of Sunday. Some drained a nearby lagoon, while others walked the several acres of farmland nearby. Overhead, an Iowa National Guard helicopter and an airplane of the Iowa State Patrol examined a wider area—all this without finding any trace of the missing man. For a time searchers even wondered whether Rau had been in the car when the tornado struck.
Cedar Rapids Gazette Sep 19, 1978
Then on Monday the unexpected happened: Rau was found among the hospitalized in Iowa City. Apparently when first discovered Saturday night, Rau had been incoherent, so that, when he was taken to the Grinnell hospital, officials understood him to say that his name was "Alberto Phonito," and had tagged him accordingly. Hospital records subsequently identified him by this name, so it was only on Monday when a nurse in Iowa City heard the man say—and spell—his correct name that the mistake was corrected.

As gratifying as this late development was, the many volunteers who converged on Grinnell to help clear out the flotsam of the storm confronted an eerily changed world. The motel seems to have escaped with the least damage, about half its rooms ruined when the storm pulled off portions of the roof. The Pester Derby and Skelly gas stations were both total losses, and the nearby Phillips 66 station, also home to a rental office for U-Haul, was badly damaged, and all 15 of the U-Haul trailers and 11 U-Haul trucks were lost, several twisted beyond recognition.
Aerial view of damage (Grinnell Herald-Register Sep 21, 1978)
Of course, the tornado changed more than the physical space; people's lives also changed. Families of the dead suffered the most immediate pain; those who were near and dear would never forget their encounter with the 1978 tornado and the lives that the twister stole.

The impact upon those who lived through the trauma was not so great, but neither was it trivial. The teenagers who were working at the service stations moved ahead in life, graduating from high school. Indeed, the 1979 Grinnell high school yearbook even featured the tornado on several pages, helping mark the graduates' timeline. Later these young people could pursue new dreams, although not without unknown risks. Leon Blankenfeld, for example, who had experienced the tornado from within the Standard service station, graduated from Grinnell High School in 1979, then went on to graduate from the University of Northern Iowa in 1983 before obtaining a graduate degree in engineering at the University of Iowa. Half a lifetime after surviving the Grinnell tornado, he was working for 3M in the Twin Cities, with little reason to call to mind his encounter with near death in 1978. Then, during an August, 1996 visit to a friend in northern Illinois, he fell victim to kidnap and murder, cruelly canceling out his earlier escape from the tornado.
Leon Blankenfeld, 1979 Grinnellian
Jerry Switzer, who owned and managed Motel Grinnell, rebuilt the facility and resumed business. Another ordeal awaited him, however, and cut short the story his life was writing: Jerry, just 47 years of age, died of cancer in 1984.

Reports of the tornado include frequent quotations from the operator of the Silhouette Restaurant, William Cafcules. Born in Chicago in 1915, Cafcules made a career out of operating night clubs and restaurants in the Chicago area and later in Wisconsin and northern Illinois. He and his wife had only moved to Grinnell in 1977—the year before the twister struck—to run the Silhouette. Whether because of the storm or other factors, by 1986 Cafcules had had enough—he retired and sold the business. He died in Grinnell in early December, 1997, perhaps never having had reason to recall that stormy September night that had ruined his business.

Among the injured, the future brought many different fates. Extant records indicate that some of the youngest victims quickly left the encounter with the cyclone behind them. Young Eddie Breeden, for example, just 15 years old and living with his parents on route 3 where his father ran Grinnell Feed and Grain, graduated from Grinnell High School in 1981 and stayed around Grinnell for a time. By 1994, however, the US Public Records Index places him in Woodbury, Tennessee.
Eddie Breeden, 1981 Grinnellian
Another young man among the injured was Scott Latcham, who graduated from Grinnell High School in 1982. He later lived for a time in Des Moines, but by 1999 was back in Grinnell, living on Chatterton Street. So far as the bare-bones records can tell, the '78 tornado was long forgotten.
Scott Latcham, 1982 Grinnellian
Catherine McCallum, who at the time of the tornado had only recently marked her 76th birthday, lived almost twenty more years before her death, January 6, 1997. Born in Monroe, Iowa, where she was finally put to rest, Eliza Catherine Stafford McCallum had grown up in Nebraska where she married and with her first husband farmed. The couple later moved to Iowa and in 1941 to Grinnell, where they divorced. In 1944 Catherine married again, and over the years worked at the Grinnell Shoe Factory, the Longhorn, and other Grinnell restaurants. At the time of the tornado she lived at 715 Pearl Street, and had been a widow already for twenty years. Her obituary did not mention the 1978 tornado, which seems to have caused hardly a ripple in her life story.

It was different with the Rau family that the tornado had decimated. Six-year-old Melanie lost her mother and two siblings; what did she think about this, and how did she deal with the loss? The sources mention her name only sporadically. Her father abandoned their Alstead, New Hampshire home sometime after the accident. Who could blame him? Born in Germany in 1949, Lothar Rau apparently entered the United States as a child, although I was not able to confirm his immigration or its date. Military records report that Rau did a four-year stint (1969-1973) in the Army, suffering a serious injury in Japan in 1971. According to his mother-in-law, who was interviewed at the time of the tornado, "part of [Rau's] skull had to be replaced with a plastic plate...and that was replaced [later] by a metal plate." Even before the tornado, therefore, Lothar Rau had plenty to deal with. But the deaths of his wife and two children along with the injuries that both he and his daughter sustained in Grinnell surely added a heavy load.

How did he cope? Perhaps the move to Florida was part of the recovery. Records show that he was living in Lake Park, Florida no later than 1993, and in 1995 he remarried, taking Wanda Joan Plank as his bride. But by 2009 he was dead, buried in the South Florida National Cemetery in Lake Worth. Only 60 years old at the time of his death, Rau took to his grave several traumas, including, of course, the Grinnell tornado.
Someone driving south today from Grinnell on IA 146 toward US Interstate 80 will see a very different world from the one blown away by the 1978 tornado. The entire scene breathes a sense of normalcy that gives no hint of the devastation—physical and personal—that was visited upon this spot of land in September, 1978.

1 comment:

  1. Once again, this time comes alive for us. You are a wonder!