© 2024 WYSO
Our Community. Our Nation. Our World.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'With the help of the Lord and good friends' Xenia rebuilt from tornado 50 years ago

The F5 tornado destroyed much of the Arrowhead subdivision as it entered the southwest edge of Xenia on April 3, 1974.
Courtesy Green County Ohio Historical Society
The F5 tornado destroyed much of the Arrowhead subdivision as it entered the southwest edge of Xenia on April 3, 1974.

The violent F5 tornado killed 32 people in Xenia, the deadliest of the 148 tornadoes in a "super outbreak" that swept across 13 states April 3-4, 1974.

The clock is frozen in time at 4:39 p.m.

That's when a massive mile-wide F5 tornado flattened most of Xenia, a town about 55 miles northeast of Cincinnati, killing 32 people and injuring 1,600. Winds in excess of 260 mph sucked up mail, like canceled checks and other documents, and dropped them from Columbus to Cleveland, according to news reports.

About an hour later, a second F5 tornado slammed into Cincinnati's Sayler Park neighborhood along the Ohio River west of Downtown at about 5:30 p.m., according to the National Weather Service. The "super outbreak" of 148 tornadoes April 3-4 across 13 Midwest and Eastern states killed 335 people and injured more than 6,000, the National Weather Service says.

The Xenia High School clock at the Greene County Historical Society.
John Kiesewetter
The Xenia High School clock at the Greene County Ohio Historical Society.

Worst hit was Xenia, where I go a half-dozen times a year to bike one of the city's five rails-to-trails paths. My interest in the city of 25,600 prompted me to research that deadly day 50 years ago.

I saw the old clock from Xenia High School at the Green County Ohio Historical Society in downtown Xenia, where tornado survivor Catherine Kidd Wilson is executive director and creator of the YouTube videos called "Blanks in the Landscape: Xenia OH after 3 April 1974."

She was 9 years old that day. She remembers looking out the front window on her brick ranch home in the Arrowhead subdivision on the southwest edge of the city, where she lived with her younger sister, 6, and parents. Light rain was followed by lighting and dark clouds coming toward the city from the southwest. She recognized the cloud formation from her little Golden Book called Weather.

"I saw these big black roiling clouds and asked my mom, 'Are those tornadoes?' And she said, 'Get in the bathtub!' So my younger sister and I and Mom got into the bathtub. Mom said she thought it was strange to be in the bathtub with her shoes on," she says. Wilson's family survived the violent storm.

Wilson, the daughter of an airplane mechanic, compared the tornado's roar to "a giant jet engine."

"It was very, very loud," she recalls. "I could hear broken glass swirling around inside the house, crashing and bashing. A purple dish rag came through the bathroom ceiling. After the storm was over, we looked up and saw the blue sky through a hole in the roof."

Her childhood home on Pueblo Drive remained standing "except for part of the roof and all the windows, which were blown out," she says. "Two blocks away from my house in Arrowhead was pretty much flattened by the storm."

Nearby Arrowood Elementary School, where Wilson attended fourth grade, as well as the Simon Kenton and McKinley elementary schools, were destroyed.

Two blocks northwest of downtown, Xenia High School — which had 2,000 students in attendance two hours before the tornado — was "an unrecognizable pile of junk (with) its huge yellow buses flung into the rubble," wrote Xenia Daily Gazette reporter Phyllis Morrissette for the book, "April 3, 1974: The Ohio Tornadoes."

The tornado wiped out most businesses, from fast food places and grocery stories to the Kroehler Furniture factory. A train car was tossed against a nearby Kroger store. A tractor-trailer truck was hurled onto the roof of the bowling alley across the street. Nearly 85% of the city's 3,357 homes were damaged; more than one-third (1,237) were condemned, Morrissettee reported.

One of the condemned houses was two blocks south of downtown on Second Street, where Ron Ward huddled at his aunt's house with his mother and older brother. They had just arrived from their home on Tomahawk Trail in the Arrowhead neighborhood to take some food to their aunt and uncle.

"I remember standing on the sidewalk and watching the tornado go through what we believed to be our (Arrowhead) neighborhood until it was time to run inside and take cover," says Ward, a Xenia resident and U.S. Air Force veteran who works as a civilian at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

"We all gathered in the center of the house, and everyone started praying that we would be OK. I remember watching the front door being ripped from the house," he says. "We all survived, and no one was hurt. The house on Second Street was later condemned, but it kept us all safe and unharmed."

When Ward finally made it back to 814 Tomahawk Trail, 70% of the house was gone.

"We had a few interior walls and mostly one external end was left standing. We salvaged what we could, but we basically lost everything like so many others in our town," he says.

Ward helped his parents, Duteil and Norine Ward, and brother Bill, clear the slab for a crew to rebuild the house. That's when his father erected an iconic sign in their front yard indicative of the "Xenia Lives" spirit after the massive storm. The hand-painted sign read: "WITH THE HELP OF THE LORD, GOOD FRIENDS AND HARD WORK, WE SHALL RETURN. The Wards, 814 Tomahawk."

Sign erected by Duteil Ward after the 1974 tornado leveled his family's home at 814 Tomahawk Trail.
Courtesy Greene County Historical Society
Sign erected by Duteil Ward after the 1974 tornado leveled his family's home at 814 Tomahawk Trail.

His father's resolve to rebuild was rooted in his father's deep faith in God, Ward says. Duteil, who worked at National Cash Register in Dayton, was born in South America to American missionaries. He beat polio to walk without special equipment, and then survived a head-on crash with a drunk driver which took him a year learning to walk again.

"Looking back, the experience was really about trusting God no matter what. As a 9-year-old, I didn't always understand what we were going through. I just knew Mom and Dad always showed us that God is in control, this is for a season, and we will all be better through it all," Ward says. "Dad had already conquered two significant physical challenges in his life based on his faith. This was just another opportunity to see what God would do if we continued to trust Him through it."

The homes that weren't obliterated lost walls, roofs or windows. Trees were sheared off. Utility poles were snapped in half or toppled like match sticks. Strips of aluminum siding were wrapped around tree limbs like Christmas tree tinsel.

"For years there was still part of a mattress in a tree," says Wilson, whose family moved in with relatives in Beavercreek for five months at the time. "The fabric was gone, but you could see the springs were still up in the tree."

Ten churches were ravaged by the twister, including St. Brigid's Catholic Church, which only had one corner left standing. The storm also tore off the second floor of the historic 1799 Galloway log house in downtown Xenia, adjacent to the Greene County Ohio Historical Society at 74 W. Church St.

An aerial photo of Main and Detroit Streets in the heart of downtown Xenia, with the Greene County Courthouse at bottom right.
Courtesy Green County Ohio Historical Society
An aerial photo of Main and Detroit streets in the heart of downtown Xenia, with the Greene County Courthouse at bottom right.

The historical society's collection includes the wooden clock hands from the Greene County courthouse in the center of town; an Air Force aerial photo of the ravaged city; a six-pack of canned water produced by the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Columbus for Xenia residents; a tattered U.S. flag; two bumper stickers (XENIA LIVES and XENIA, OHIO Where the Spirit has just begun); a golf club snapped in half; and a quarter stuck in a board.

Next to the April 4 edition of the Xenia Daily Gazette ("Xenia digging out from day of horror") is the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism for General Local Reporting presented by Columbia University to the newspaper staff. The Middletown Journal, a sister paper in the regional Chew Newspaper chain, printed the paper and trucked it 36 miles to Xenia.

There's also a courthouse roof tile which was presented to comedian Bob Hope when he came to Xenia with Reds catcher Johnny Bench and singer Maureen McGovern to raise funds for rebuilding Xenia High School. The auditorium at the new high school was named for him.

The 50th anniversary will be observed at 4:40 p.m. Wednesday, April 3, with a wreath presentation at the memorial plaque at East Market and North Detroit streets, in front of the Justice Department (formerly city hall). A program by the historical society, city, county and National Weather Service follows at 5:30 p.m. at the Xenia Adult Recreation and Services Center, 338 S. Progress Drive.

Recovery continues to this day

For the 40th anniversary, the city of Xenia website posted tornado experiences written by first grade students taught by Marsha Bayless at Tecumseh Elementary School in 1974. Bayless, who was in her first year teaching, kept the papers for 40 years, then tracked down former students. Bayless worked 35 years as a teacher, school counselor and principal, then was elected Xenia mayor after retiring in 2010.

Two weeks after the tornado, President Richard Nixon toured the devastation by helicopter and motorcade with Gov. John Gilligan and U.S. Rep. Clarence "Bud" Brown on April 18. Nixon, who would resign the presidency five months later due to the Watergate scandal, offered words of encouragement, according to Associated Press video of the visit.

"In a matter of two or three years, you're going to find Xenia back on its feet, better than ever," Nixon said. "I think you'll have newer and better schools and housing, and also good jobs. And that will happen mainly because of the thing you mentioned: The morale of the people of Xenia couldn't be higher."

The spirit was strong, but the recovery was slow. Several blocks downtown are vacant today.

"It has taken a while to build our community again," says Bayless, the former mayor. "Many moved away and did not return. It is gaining in popularity due to our bike trails and other developments. I am happy with what's going on and the influx of businesses recently. We have so much to offer for families seeking country living or the taste of a small city. We're in a prime location for travel to bigger cities and other states."

Ward, the Air Force veteran, returned to Xenia to raise him family when assigned to Wright-Patterson in 2003. His children and grandchildren still live in Xenia.

"Xenia has changed in many ways since April 1974. Xenia residents had the resolve to not give up," Ward says.

"For me, that became a lifelong adventure: No matter the odds, don't quit. It doesn't matter how bad it looks. Like Dad wrote so many years ago: 'With the help of the Lord, good friends, and hard work, we shall return. The Wards.' "

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.