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This day in history: 50th anniversary of the Olivet tornado

Posted: Apr 17, 2013

Tornado 1963 - Bus and smokestack

An overturned bus in front of what was then Miller Dining Hall (today Miller Business Center). Approximately 85 feet of the heating plant chimney, dubbed Ol’ Smokey, crumbled to the ground.

Tornado 1963 - Funnel

Photo of the funnel, taken by an Illinois State Trooper from Momence, Ill.

Tornado 1963 - Trailerville

“Our trailer was on top of the one next door to us, and both of them were on top of the car, now smashed, that Judy and I would have been in if she had had her keys.” – Miriam Hall, “Trailerville” resident who lived to share her story about being picked up in the funnel.

Tornado 1963 - Burke Porch

Front staircase of Burke Administration Building. The top floor of Burke was so badly damaged that it was later removed, and the insurance settlement for that building alone was set at approximately $520,000 (approximately $3.9 million in today’s dollars).

Tornado 1963 - Surveying damage

Though stunned by the destruction, everyone was amazed at God’s protection for the students, faculty and staff on Olivet’s campus. Surveying the damage, a local fire chief declared to Professor James Stewart, “You must have a friend upstairs.”

The morning of April 17, 1963, began like any other for those studying, working and living on the campus of Olivet Nazarene College. By late afternoon, however, it was clear that day would go down as one of the most significant moments in Olivet’s history. Shortly after 4p.m, a dark funnel cloud descended on the Bourbonnais campus, leaving behind a path of havoc and destruction.

Miraculously, there were no fatalities among Olivet’s students, faculty or staff.

In a detailed timeline of the events from that day, former professor Dr. Vernon T. Groves wrote in 1963, “It is scarcely possible to describe a tornado in all its fantastic aspects. … The most remarkable thing about the whole affair was the fact of no deaths among college personnel and relatively few injuries, with so many deliverances from injury or death. We hear so many accounts of how someone was called from an office, delayed here or left there, just in time to be away from destruction. Perhaps as remarkable as the escapes from danger were the preservations in the midst of destruction.”

What follows are excerpts from Dr. Leslie Parrott’s book, “The Olivet Story.”

From those who were there

Mrs. Esther Strickler was scheduled to be picked up by automobile at 4:15. The car was on time. Three minutes later, the house was destroyed. She was bounced around by the tornado, which sounded like a roaring freight train and looked like a house that was on fire. The roof of their house, carried more than a city block by the tornado, was dropped down by Dean Brady’s office in Goodwin Hall.”


Allen Campbell lay down for an afternoon nap in his trailer when a delivery man rang the doorbell by mistake, intending to go to the neighbor’s. The day was hot and sticky. Mr. Campbell went back to bed, but was not yet asleep when the tornado hit at 4:21. It seemed to blow mildly outside, then became as still as death. He heard a big sound outside, but it was too late to run. He was deposited into an adjoining field, and his trailer was nowhere to be seen.

“He started helping Mrs. Kermit Dancy out through the window of her trailer. The children, running about in panic, were as black as coal from the wind and oil.

"Suddenly, reports came over the radio about an approaching tornado. He and other Trailerville* residents thought a second tornado was approaching. People began to cry out. They panicked. However, it was actually a belated warning on the first one, which had already passed.”

*Editor’s note: “Trailerville” was the widely used nickname for a group of mobile homes, primarily occupied by married students, on the southeast end of Olivet’s campus. Trailerville was completely leveled by the tornado.


Dr. Clyde Ridall was in his study on the landing of Burke between the second and third floors when the tornado hit. There was a great darkness and a considerable wind. Then it grew very still, and he felt as though the end had come. He looked out the window and saw trees being picked up like matchsticks and debris falling from the top story of Burke.

“He rushed down to the veranda of Burke, found an injured student named Kendall Blanchard** and stayed with him until the medics arrived. Kendall had come from Flierman Hall to get into the basement of Burke, where he thought it would be safe. Other students tried to leave with him, but were turned back by the strong wind. Kendall was hit on the approach to the south step.”

**Editor’s note: Today, Kendall Blanchard is president at Georgia Southwestern State University.


Professor James Stewart listened to a warning over the radio, but paid little attention, since there were many at this time of year. Suddenly, it struck, and he knew the report was not a joke. It sounded like the roar of many freight trains. He watched as the smoke stack fell over.

“[Later], students came to his house to use his telephone to call home concerning the news of the tragedy. Not one student called long distance without calling collect (this without being asked), and over one hundred calls were made. When the fire chief arrived at Burke and saw the damage, he said to Professor Stewart, ‘You must have a friend upstairs.’”


Coach C. W. Ward was in Birchard Gymnasium overseeing students who were moving tables in from the Wagon Wheel, so that the space could be used for something else in the evening. At the same time, Mrs. Lora Donoho was conducting a girls’ physical education class. When a student ran into the gym yelling, ‘Tornado!’ no one really responded.

“When the unmistakable high winds signaled a severe storm, Coach Ward yelled at the girls to get under the ping pong table. He could not find a space, was thrown against a wall in the gym, and received a concussion with a temporary loss of memory.”


Finally, an incredible first-hand account from Miriam J. Hall:

“I had graduated from Olivet and was waiting for my husband’s graduation in May 1963. Meanwhile, I was teaching fourth grade at Robert Frost Elementary School in Bourbonnais.

“As the students and I were working, we noticed the sky was turning very dark and the clouds were moving rapidly. I walked the children to their homes and headed back across campus toward Trailerville. … [After arriving home, my friend Judy and I] decided it was time to go to College Church for protection. While Judy went to get the key, I tried to get in the car, but the door was locked.

“As I looked toward campus, I realized it was too late to go anywhere. What looked like a giant broom was sweeping toward me. I saw the ONC smokestack collapse. Screaming at Judy, I started running toward the ditch that separated Trailerville from an adjoining farm.

“Suddenly, I realized that my feet were no longer on the ground. I was in the funnel of the tornado. The noise, the dirt and the flying objects were terrifying. I cried out, ‘Lord, take me,’ for I believed death was imminent.

“The next thing I remember, I was lying on the ground almost under Calbin Bean’s trailer. A piece of plywood was hanging in a tree just inches from my eyes. A 100-pound gas tank was across my back. My shoes, glasses and watch were gone.

Dr. Forrest Nash, pastor of College Church, suddenly appeared and asked, ‘Are you alive, Miriam?’ I responded, ‘I don’t know.’ It was difficult to believe I was.

“Our trailer was on top of the one next door to us, and both of them were on top of the car, now smashed, that Judy and I would have been in if she had had her keys.

“My hair was standing on end with several areas of hair missing. Flying glass had cut it off. My ears were filled with little pebbles and rocks. I was covered with grass stains. Twigs were sticking in my clothes. But I was alive! …

“One final note. I was very upset over the loss of the watch. It was a recent anniversary gift from my husband. Two weeks later, he was searching through the farmer’s field adjacent to Trailerville. He saw a stack of canned food and lifted it up. There was my watch! It has a special place in my memory box.

“When we celebrated our 40th anniversary, the display showed our muddy, torn marriage license that someone found and sent back to us. It is a symbol of God’s grace and mercy to us.”


Average ACT composite score of last year's incoming freshmen