Reliving the wild ride of the Oak Lawn tornado was the Oak Lawn Public Library on the tornado’s 56th anniversary with a program called, The 1967 Tornado: Share Your Stories on July 8 at the library, 9427 Raymond Ave. (Photos by Kelly White)
Oak Lawn Library reflects on the 1967 tornado
By Kelly White
Last week, a dozen tornadoes were reported in the Chicago area. One left a path of destruction from Burr Ridge to Stickney.
Just a few days earlier, witnesses to another tornado outbreak five decades earlier had gathered to discuss the 1967 tornado that hit Oak Lawn.
The 1967 outbreak was one of the biggest tornado outbreaks on record.
There were at least 10 tornadoes on the ground throughout the outbreak on April 21, 1967, and three of them had a hefty F4 rating on the Fujita scale with winds ranging anywhere between 207 and 260 mph.
The most destructive twister that day was the infamous Oak Lawn tornado and Barbara Krueger survived its wrath.
“My husband and I were just sitting down to eat dinner; it was raining,” Krueger, of Oak Lawn, said. “Then, he told me to get in the bathroom and sit in the bathtub.”
Krueger defined the tornado as deafening, a sound she will never forget.
“There are so many people who are alive today that say how life-changing the tornado was for them, especially as it was the deadliest ever recorded in the Chicago area, so naturally, many people still want and need to talk about it,” Kaye Jansen, Local History Librarian at the Oak Lawn Public Library, said. “It is important to remember how devastating this natural disaster really was.”
At its widest point, the Oak Lawn tornado was estimated to be three-quarters to one city block wide. In just 15 minutes, it traveled over 16 miles, leveling well-constructed homes and businesses in its path.
Reliving the wild ride of that horrendous day was the Oak Lawn Public Library on the tornado’s 56th anniversary with a program called, The 1967 Tornado: Share Your Stories on July 8 at the library, 9427 Raymond Ave.
During the discussion, led with factual data about the twister from Jansen, survivors were able to reminisce and share their stories.
“This event was for survivors or their family members to share their experiences with each other, and for residents wanting to learn more about the tornado of 1967,” Jansen said.
And, survivors did just that, including Pat Tenuto, who was a 21-year-old volunteer firefighter for Melrose Park at the time.
“It was my first time in Oak Lawn,” Tenuto, now of Oak Lawn, said. “Our department was called in to a residential area to look for survivors. You see tornados in movies, but it doesn’t do it justice. When I came out and actually saw the destruction, it was like, ‘Wow!’. It gave me an entirely new perspective and a whole new outlook on Mother Nature and what she can do.”
Saturday morning at the library was relaxed and was not so much a traditional presentation but more a round-table discussion as patrons, like Tenuto, were able to share stories in groups at their tables over pastries and to the crowd by using a microphone.
“The sense of community that’s fostered by remembering this hugely impactful event in Oak Lawn’s history will be very beneficial,” Jansen said. “There’s catharsis in talking about an experience that left a big impact on your life, even if it was so many years ago. Having that sense of solidarity, and relating to people who lived through the same event just adds to a sense of feeling validated. It’s not only educational, but it can be therapeutic as well.”
The library’s former Local History Librarian, Kevin Korst, wrote a book for the “Images of America” series on the Oak Lawn Tornado. These books are available to check out in the library’s collection, and there are more copies in the local history office. There is also a lot of content about the tornado available on Oak Lawn Public Library’s Local History page, as well, including photos and audio recordings.
The library currently has a Voices in the Wind exhibit on display about the 1967 tornado, specific to its path in the Oak Lawn area.
“I have had many patrons come to tell me about their memories of the tornado, and before the Voices in the Wind exhibit was installed again this year, I had several people tell me how much they missed the original 2017 exhibit when it was first hosted,” Jansen said. “The comeback of this exhibit has been so popular and well-received that when I was considering an event led by a presenter, I realized that we have so many patrons who want to talk about their experiences themselves. Why bring in an outside presenter when our patrons have so much profound firsthand experience to share?”.
Mary Alstrom, of Oak Lawn, was just one of the many patrons who attended. She graciously shared the story of her husband, Kenneth Alstrom, who survived the Oak Lawn tornado.
Kenneth was just 15-years-old at the time.
“His mother had sent him to Dominick’s on 87th and Cicero to get food for the family and that was when the tornado struck,” Mary Alstrom said. “Thankfully, the tornado turned and he was able to safely return home.”
However, Kenneth did not stay home. He climbed on his bicycle and rode around Oak Lawn taking countless photos of the destruction that Mary generously donated to the Oak Lawn Public Library after his passing in 2010.
“We were married for 36 years and all I ever heard about was the tornado,” Mary said. “It was such a huge part of not only Oak Lawn’s history, but our own.”
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