ENCORE: 'Voice of a Tornado'

Oak Lawn Patch reprises its story of a little known recording of the actual 1967 Oak Lawn Tornado.

Rare actual recording of EF-4 tornado blowing over Oak Lawn, IL on April 21, 1967, the deadliest tornado to ever hit the Chicago region.
Rare actual recording of EF-4 tornado blowing over Oak Lawn, IL on April 21, 1967, the deadliest tornado to ever hit the Chicago region.

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.

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.

Read more 1967 tornado stories on Oak Lawn Patch.

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 in the crawl space 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 practice broadcasting a tornado watch.

Five tornados hit Illinois and the Chicago area on what would become known as “Black Friday.” An EF-4 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,"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 analog recording, 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 Hospital screamed down 95th Street, searching for survivors.

Patch is grateful for the assistance of the Oak Lawn Library's local history coordinator Kevin Korst.

tommy d. April 27, 2013 at 07:55 PM
hey ron,,,,,this was the werners,,,,,we chatted about,,,,lucky hit huh.....
Ron Stufflebeam April 27, 2013 at 09:43 PM
Yep, thanks Tom! Hey Jean, let Fred know that Terry & Gary Burks live in Phoenix when he gets ready to retire which must be coming soon. I retired last Aug & am enjoying it. Terry has lived there for 20 years or so & loves it, he is in the banking business & living in the Scottsdale area. Should you or Fred talk to Jim, Rich or Manny tell them hello & good luck on your move out west.
Lorraine Swanson January 07, 2014 at 11:49 PM
Ron, thanks so much for sharing these AMAZING photographs. I've moved them over the Patch's Oak Lawn Tornado 1967 blog. http://oaklawn.patch.com/groups/oak-lawn-tornado-1967/p/ron-stufflebeams-snapshots-of-aftermath-of-oak-lawn-tornado
Daniel Smith January 09, 2014 at 08:44 PM
I was 8 yrs. old in '67. I still live on the corner of 103rd.& Central Ave. Never forget that afternoon. My father,brother and I were looking at the tornadoes, I remember seeing three of them in the N.W. sky.2 smaller ones and a big one. I remember the terrible dark green sky and the sound of the winds. When the tornadoes were getting closer,right over Oak Lawn H.S. at S.W.Highway and 95th st. the sky went dark and not a tree leaf was shaking. That's when my dad made us all go down under the house in the crawl space. The damage on 95thstreet,the barn.bus station,O.L.H.S. cars tossed ,even buses demolished.Don't forget that winter we had the big snow, that shut down the C.T.A.
Brianne Corbett April 21, 2014 at 01:39 PM
I didn't know this existed until today. I remember the tornado very well. I was a dummy just like the theatre manager out trying to see it and I was trying to take pictures 5 blocks north of it as it hit Hometown. Once it passed Hometown I headed out down Southwest Highway towards Fairway Foods. I worked for Fairway Foods on Pulaski south of 83rd St. So I wanted to go and see if everything was OK at the second store at 95th and SW Highway. We were jumping over sizzling power lines and climbing over debris. The devastation was incredible. When we got to the High School the new swimming pool building was half way sheared off. I was speechless. Then I looked south. Sherwood Restaurant and Fairway Foods were wiped out. I mean that was almost nothing left standing. Part of a wall. It was blown away. By this time they were searching for bodies and we could not come on the site. I was thinking that nobody could have survived in there. Some did. But it was gut wrenching. And 47 years later it still tears at my insides. What a horrible day that was. I pray it is never repeated.


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