Sunday marks the 46th anniversary of the 1967 Oak Lawn Tornado. Patch reprises one of its most popular stories 'Voice of a Tornado.' Readers' comments, many recounting their own experiences of survival and loss, are left intact as additional documentation of a day that will live in infamy in Oak Lawn's history. Please add your own memories and thoughts.
On April 21, 1967, Robert Kehe, manager of the Coral Theater in Oak Lawn and the father of six children, stepped outside onto 95th Street and Cicero Avenue to record the start of a thunderstorm on his reel-to-reel tape recorder.
Instead he captured the sound of the worst tornado ever to hit the immediate Chicago area, which many believed immune to twisters because of its close proximity to Lake Michigan.
For five terrifying minutes, Kehe recorded the sound and the fury of the Oak Lawn Tornado, as it hurled overhead in an east-northeast direction three blocks north from where he stood in front of the Coral.
Before it was all over, the F4 tornado that hit Oak Lawn would virtually erase the intersection of 95th Street and Southwest Highway, destroy hundreds of homes and businesses, and claim 37 lives before ending in a waterspout over Lake Michigan.
The Oak Lawn Tornado also wiped out Kehe’s own home. Running six blocks through debris-filled streets to check on his family’s well being, Kehe discovered that his entire block had been wiped out. His family had run to the bottom floor of their tri-level home, taking refuge next to the garage door that folded over them in a protective lean-to that shielded them from an avalanche of rubble.
An aspiring radio broadcaster, Kehe was taking a speech course. His assignments were to make simulated radio broadcasts. On a day full of treacherous tornado warnings, Kehe decided to make a simulated broadcast of a tornado watch.
Five tornados hit Illinois and the Chicago area on what would become known as “Black Friday.” An F4 twister had already decimated Belvidere, IL, at 3:30 p.m., that afternoon.
Watch the video, 'Voice of a Tornado.'
In addition to Kehe's eyewitness account, five known photographs exist if the Oak Lawn Tornado: three color shots taken near 87th Street and Cicero Avenue by Oak Lawn-resident Ron Bacon, one which was published in Life magazine. The others were a pair of black-and-white stills shot by community newspaper publisher Elmer C. Johnson, whose black-and-white "Portrait of a Killer," that landed on the front page of the old Chicago's American newspaper, looking south from Harlem Avenue and 88th Street.
Bacon’s and Johnson’s photos, along with Kehe’s harrowing recording in analog, are the only known media footprints of the Oak Lawn Tornado.
Kehe had already gone outside at 5:01 p.m. to record the sounds of rain pounding on the traffic that was backed up at 95th and Cicero before retreating back to his office at the Coral. Recording a “tornado alert” by Jim Hill, from Channel 5, Kehe bemoaned the increasing tornado warnings that would keep the public from venturing out to see the Coral’s double feature, Deadlier Than the Male and Not With My Wife You Don’t. Both movies were billed for “mature audiences” and promised “laffs galore.”
In 1967, weather warnings broadcast over radio and TV were still fairly recent phenomena when there were few emergency systems to warn citizens of tornados or other weather events.
“These emergency warnings can have a very adverse effect on business,” Kehe recited into his reel-to-reel, practicing his dulcet broadcaster tones. “But now they seem to come through with these warnings so quickly, people panic as a consequence.”
In a few minutes, Kehe would forever change his mind about televised tornado warnings.
Sometime between 5:01 p.m. and 5:22 p.m., Kehe noted that the torrential downpour from 20 minutes before had slowed to a drizzle and the sky that was “moving at an extremely fast clip.”
“The sky is a pure green. There is a complete lack of wind, no blowing whatsoever,” Kehe said into his recorder. “The bushes, shrubs and grass are all completely still.”
Seeing three women standing in front of the movie theater, Kehe went out to talk to them, and then all hell broke loose. Ushering the women inside the Coral to safety, Kehe stood outside “like a dang fool” and recorded the Oak Lawn Tornado roaring overhead like a freight train run amok in the sky.
Crawling on his hands and knees back toward the Coral where he took refuge next to the ticket booth, Kehe miraculously kept talking. Within seconds after the tornado left Oak Lawn, the sound of ambulances from Christ Community Hospital screamed down 95th Street, searching for survivors.
The Oak Lawn Library's Local History Room will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, and from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, the 46th Anniversary of the Oak Lawn Tornado. Patrons are invited to stop by and view the library's extensive collection of photographs, documents and historic newspapers of the day, which can also be enjoyed online.
Patch is grateful for the assistance of the library's local history coordinator Kevin Korst.