Baylor Faculty, Alums Recall 'Deadliest Tornado In Texas History'

  • News Photo 1331
    The May 11, 1953, tornado destroyed numerous buildings in downtown Waco.
    Photo courtesy of The Texas Collection, Baylor University.
  • News Photo 1332
    The aftermath of the tornado forced the removal of the spires of Old Main and Burleson Hall on the Baylor campus.
    Photo courtesy of The Texas Collection, Baylor University.
May 8, 2003

by Randy Fiedler

See excerpts from "Remembering the Waco Tornado" on by clicking here. The documentary is a joint project between KWBU-TV and the Waco Tribune-Herald.

To listen to a preview of KWBU-FM's "Voices of the Waco Tornado," click here.

Fifty years ago on May 11, 1953, Baylor students were finishing up their last round of classes before dinner. The dread that some students felt for the upcoming final exams was surpassed only by dark rain clouds that had chased away sunny skies. No one knew that a devastating tornado was about to strike Waco, bringing death and destruction to the city that Monday afternoon.

The tornado demolished much of Waco's central business district and killed 114 people, including a Baylor faculty couple and two students. It remains tied with a 1902 twister in Goliad for the dubious distinction of being the deadliest tornado in Texas history.

Dr. Robert G. Packard, professor emeritus of physics and Master Teacher, remembers the irony of his class listening to a guest speaker talk about using weather balloons to predict storms when the tornado hit. Power in Carroll Science and other campus buildings went off, but Dr. Packard didn't realize a tornado had hit until he made his way downtown soon after class.

"Waco looked like a city that had been bombed. Debris was everywhere," Packard said. "If the tornado had hit about 30 minutes later, it probably would have killed a great number of Baylor students who would have gone downtown to eat."

Tommy Turner, who would later become assistant to Baylor President Abner V. McCall, was a reporter covering Waco for "The Dallas Morning News" when the tornado hit. That day, Turner had his wife and two children pick him up at his downtown office about 4:30 p.m. because it was evident that a bad storm was about to break.

"The rain hit about that time and it got dark as pitch," Turner said. "Waiting for the traffic light at Fifth and Austin to change, I well remember the light was almost horizontal, the wind was blowing so hard."

Turner left downtown less than 10 minutes before the tornado hit the spot where he had been picked up, which ended up being the area hardest hit by the storm. He returned a short time later and saw the deadly aftermath.

"It almost overwhelmed me," he said. "You couldn't get within about four blocks of the middle of town. The entire R.T. Dennis Co. Building had shifted and slid into the street, and the bricks next to the curb were between five to 20 feet deep. There were cars mashed two feet flat with people in them. Electric lines were hanging down and popping and water on the streets was six inches deep because it had just rained, so I don't know why we didn't all get electrocuted. Gas lines had broken, and if anybody had lit a cigarette we'd have all gone up."

Turner later visited his office in a nearby building left standing by the tornado.

"[My office] was on the corner of the fifth floor with big glass windows that were blown to hell," he said. "Huge shards of glass like straws, 6 inches long and sharp, were in embedded in the stucco walls. They looked like a porcupine. Had I been in there, I'd have looked like a pincushion."

Baylor casualties

The collapse of the Dennis building was the single largest cause of deaths in the tornado. Two Baylor students employed there died when it fell - The Rev. Cecil Parten, a ministerial student from Sweeny who worked as a Dennis Co. bookkeeper, and James Neal Jr., a Waco night school student.

Outside the Dennis building, Keith James, a Baylor philosophy professor, and his wife, Helen, were in their car stopped at a traffic light.

"They had been at First Baptist Church at a Sunday School meeting when the clouds darkened," Packard said. "They got ready to leave and were asked to wait until the storm was over. But they said 'no, our children are at home and they'll be frightened.' As they stopped for the light near the R.T. Dennis building, it got hit by the tornado, fell into the street and crushed them in their car."

The 32-year-old James had been completing work on a doctoral degree from Duke University while teaching at Baylor. During a May 20 campus memorial service, he was remembered, along with his wife and students Parten and Neal, by speakers including Baylor President W.R. White. The faculty adopted a resolution of tribute to the Jameses, calling the late professor "an industrious, conscientious and effective teacher...a loyal Christian who gave evidence of his profound religious experience through his classroom teaching and his daily life."

Other faculty members injured in the tornado eventually recovered in local hospitals. They included business professor Leslie Rasner, who was injured with his wife when a wall fell on their car near the downtown Cotton Belt freight depot, and Gladys Stinson, a professor of piano who suffered back injuries. A number of Baylor students received minor injuries.

Rescue efforts

Within minutes of the tornado's departure, Baylor students, staff and faculty began volunteering for relief efforts. Student body president Will Davis and former student body president Glen Walker quickly organized a group of about 250 students to work with heavy equipment being brought in to help clear debris.

"The students want to do all they can to help and heeded the call for volunteers in the true Baylor spirit," Walker said.

W.C. Perry, Baylor's dean of men, estimated that the number of students working downtown eventually totaled more than 1,000, including shifts of 75 men each directing traffic through the affected areas. The students joined campus maintenance workers, who had been given permission to use university trucks and heavy equipment in rescue efforts.

Johnny Burress, a Baylor student from Tyler, was one of many rescuers who worked downtown through the night of May 11 looking for survivors. In one of the demolished Austin Avenue buildings, he and his fellow rescuers uncovered the dead body of Ed Berry, a popular Waco school board member.

"I guess he must have been in his office," Burress said. "There were typewriters all around."

Soon after the discovery of the body, a relief worker was able to get the shaken and exhausted Burress to lie down on a blanket in a nearby building.

"I won't sleep," he told a reporter on the scene. "I keep thinking about all those poor people and their relatives."

Across town, three Baylor track athletes - Burney Tackett, James Guimarin and Pasco Parker - heard faint cries for help coming from a demolished brick building on South Fifth Street. The students dug feverishly for hours, and eventually uncovered two adults and a child, all alive. Tackett would later collapse from heat exhaustion in another rescue attempt and was treated at Providence Hospital.

Baylor's ROTC detachment was called into service soon after the tornado struck. Cadets such as Dr. William D. Hillis, The Cornelia Marschall Smith Distinguished Professor of Biology, were asked to take up posts downtown and prevent looters from ransacking damaged stores.

"It was just chaos. People were coming into town, and the roads were blocked off to keep (them) from being curiosity seekers," he said. "There were people trying to drive into back roads and sneak through the alleys to get into the buildings."

Hillis said his wife and other Baylor women, including students from the Baylor School of Nursing, contributed to rescue efforts by making sandwiches and coffee for rescue workers, tending the wounded and helping organizations such as the Salvation Army and Red Cross.

Needle in a basement

Packard and two other physics professors, department chair Herbert Schwetman and Arthur W. Smith, were asked to help with a somewhat dangerous rescue mission themselves - the retrieval of a $5,000 sliver of radium lost from a doctor's office in the demolished Padgitt Building.

"It was about the length of a pencil, and about as big around as a coat hanger wire," Packard said.

The radioactive sliver belonged to Dr. E.A. Johnson, who used it to treat cancer of the nose and throat. It was kept in a lead case when not in use, but on the afternoon of May 11, it was out of the case.

"[The doctor] had a patient in the chair and was treating them," Packard said. "When the tornado hit, the building collapsed and they were buried under the rubble."

The doctor was seriously injured and was rushed to Providence Hospital.

"When he regained partial consciousness, he began to murmur, 'the radium needle, where is the needle?'" Packard said. "They called [Baylor], knowing that our physics department taught atomic physics and would have a Geiger counter."

By this time, much of the downtown building debris had already been scooped up by bulldozers and cranes and transported to a huge crevice at Fourth and Colcord streets. The professors spent two days searching the dumpsite without finding the radium, and then headed downtown.

"We got the Geiger counter and went to where the building had been, and it was just a deep basement," Packard said. "At one end where [the doctor's] office had been was a small pile of dust and debris which had been filtered through the shovels. Before we could even climb down the needle on the Geiger counter went off the dial. I walked over to [the] pile, picked up a piece of string and the [radium] was on the other end. Fortunately we weren't down there long enough to [be exposed to] a lot of radiation."

A busy campus

Although the tornado's path missed the Baylor campus, some trees were uprooted and power lines were knocked down. Catherine (Osborne) Davenport, the editor of the "Baylor Lariat" newspaper, was working on the next day's issue when the storm hit. "We were in the printing office when it got real dark and the lights went out," she said. "We lit a candle and sat and played cards for awhile, then someone came in and told us about the tornado. When I went back to the dormitory (Burleson Hall), they wouldn't let us in our rooms...they were afraid as an aftermath the glass in the windows might break. They made us sit in the hall for an hour or two before we got back in."

University classes were canceled May 12 to allow students to help in rescue and relief operations. Baylor's administration and a number of campus organizations began efforts to collect money and supplies needed to support those efforts.

Baylor donated at least 100 sets of bedroom furniture recently removed during a dormitory renovation to the Salvation Army for use by needy families. At the same time, faculty, staff and students cleaned out closets and pantries to find items to donate, and President White's office reported receiving a large amount of cash donations to be given to service organizations. The university also opened Rena Marrs McLean Gymnasium as a shelter and used Baylor Stadium to house servicemen from Fort Hood, who were in town to help with storm cleanup.

A number of Baylor events were canceled or postponed in the tornado's wake. The Bears baseball team was scheduled to play TCU May 12 at Waco's Katy Park, but the destruction of the stadium forced a postponement. Baylor Theatre continued with plans to present the play, "The Beautiful People," but donated the box office receipts to relief efforts.

While the tornado did minor damage on campus, it left a physical legacy nevertheless. The spires of Old Main and Burleson Hall were weakened by high winds and removed.

"There is a continuing danger that in case of other high winds the tall spires might collapse, falling either through the building roofs or across the campus walks," President White said at the time. "We do not dare take that chance."

Hillis said he and most of his fellow students didn't lament the loss of the spires.

"They were about to fall apart, anyway," Hillis said. "There were pieces of them falling off during every major rain storm. So I don't think anybody felt deeply saddened by [their removal]. We thought that was going to be the end of those old buildings. We hadn't gotten quite as attached to them, I guess, as later generations did."

The spires were rebuilt and replaced during renovations of the two buildings in 1975.

Baylor's heroic mayor

Waco's mayor at the time the tornado struck was no stranger to tragedy. Ralph Wolf was a former coach of the Baylor men's basketball team, and had survived the team's fatal "Immortal Ten" bus crash in 1927. He earned overwhelming praise for his handling of relief efforts in the tornado's wake, including this mention in a May 18 "Waco Times-Herald" editorial:

"It's time to bow deeply and sincerely to Mayor Ralph Wolf. Among all those who helped shoulder the unthinkable burdens of the Waco tornado aftermath, he carried the biggest load...[He] took his rightful place at the head of the disaster work with extra energy and zeal from his own rugged personality. It was a most fortunate meeting of man and destiny."

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