Tragedy and Renewal: Baylor in the 1953 Waco Tornado

Tragedy and Renewal: Baylor in the 1953 Waco Tornado

While the large tornado that tore through Waco 69 years ago this spring did only minor damage to the Baylor University campus, it left four members of the campus community dead in its wake. But despite the loss and destruction, members of the Baylor Family joined together to make sure that at least one cherished dream did not die with the storm.

The collapse of the R.T. Dennis building on May 11, 1953
The collapse of the R.T. Dennis building on May 11, 1953
Unexpected Horror

When local residents opened their copies of the Waco News-Tribune on Monday, May 11, 1953, they saw a brief forecast from the meteorologists: “Partly cloudy with mild temperatures today, tonight and Tuesday.” There was no mention of any trouble ahead, but it soon appeared. 

In Waco around 4 p.m., thunderstorms began sending down hail and heavy rain. Witnesses said it got so dark it seemed as if night had come early. As downtown workers prepared to meet just another spring downpour, a tornado touched down southwest of Waco around 4:30 in a residential area. The tornado — which cut a path nearly one-third of a mile wide with winds up to 260 miles an hour — then headed straight for downtown Waco, where it arrived virtually unseen through the dark sky about 10 minutes later. That’s when Baylor faculty member Keith James and his wife Helen were thrown into the heart of the storm.

Tragic Timing

James, an assistant professor of philosophy in the College of Arts & Sciences, was driving downtown in a car with his wife when the tornado reached the corner of Fifth and Austin — a case of being in exactly the wrong place at precisely the wrong time. The couple stopped for a wildly swinging traffic light at the same intersection, right next to the R.T. Dennis furniture store building.

“The walls [of the Dennis building] just sort of folded up and the roof fell in,” said Eugene Field, an eyewitness. “A second before, there was the Dennis building. The next second it was flat on the ground.”

As all five floors of the Dennis building collapsed, tens of thousand of bricks showered onto the streets below. The James’s car was trapped underneath, killing them both.

Meanwhile, inside the Dennis building at the time the tornado hit were two Baylor Arts & Sciences students — John Porter Neal Jr. and Rev. Cecil Marion Parten — who had been busy working at the furniture store inside. Neal was a Waco resident studying in Baylor’s night school, while Parten, an ordained minister, was pastoring a small church in Lott while he received further ministerial training at Baylor. He worked as a part-time bookkeeper at R.T. Dennis to help support his family and pay for his schooling. 

Neal and Parten were among the 30 people who died in the collapse of the Dennis building — the largest death toll from any of Waco’s buildings hit that day. A number of Baylor alumni in Waco that day were also killed by the tornado around town.

Rapid Response 

As word of these and other deaths came in, Baylor faculty, staff, students and alumni did their best to help in the relief and recovery efforts throughout Waco. Student leaders quickly organized a 250-person student work force that operated heavy equipment used to move debris, while an estimated 750 other students did other work downtown.

Baylor’s ROTC detachment was called into service to prevent looters from ransacking damaged stores, and three Baylor physics professors — including Dr. Robert Packard — offered their services to successfully locate and retrieve a $5,000 sliver of radioactive radium lost in a downtown doctor’s office.

The Final Word: Welcome!
Keith James and Herman Bok
Keith James and Herman Bok

The Jameses, with Neal and Parten, were memorialized in campus services, and the Baylor family tried to put the storm’s horror behind it. But the legacy that Professor James left at the University did not end with his death. In fact, death did not prevent the achievement of a goal James had set to help a young person receive a life-changing education.

James had committed to legally sponsor a 23-year-old Korean man he had met named Bok Mon Her (who used the Americanized name Herman Bok) so Bok could enter the United States and come to Baylor. The young man dreamed of studying education at an American university, then returning to his home country to teach. He’d learned about Baylor from Baptist missionaries in Korea.

When Bok learned that James, his sponsor for a new life in America, had been killed in the tornado, he despaired of ever making it to Waco. However, members of the Friendship Class at Waco’s First Baptist Church — the Sunday school class Professor James belonged to — quickly decided that they would take over Bok’s sponsorship, and Baylor alumnus George Berry Graves of Waco (BA ’32) accepted the responsibility of signing the needed legal papers. 

Despite months of bureaucratic red tape, Bok finally received his approval to leave Korea for America, and on
Sept. 5, 1953, the young man arrived in Waco. After visiting with the members of the Friendship Class at First Baptist Church to thank them for what they had done, Bok enrolled at Baylor and began a new life — fulfilling the dream of Keith James, who no doubt would have been proud. ν