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.

John Wooding July 09, 2011 at 04:24 AM
Jim...We were your next-door neighbors, and I'm so happy you talked about your dad, who was one of the nicest people we've ever met. Bill was always helping people, and so devout-I well remember him being at daily Mass at St. Catherine's. We often think of that terrible day, and how nobody knew what had happened to your dad until two neighbors identified him the next morning. Nobody who experiences the effects of a tornado can ever forget it. We did not know of your mom's passing..may she rest in peace, Ann was always so friendly and talked with my wife, Rosemary (Gleeson) about all sorts of things. Bill and Jack Gleeson, Rosemary's brother, were both carpenters, and they'd worked together on some jobs. We are now retired, living in Las Vegas NV the past 12 years. Where do you live? Do you have a family? It'd be real good to hear from you.. Best Wishes, John Wooding
Perry Neuroth August 14, 2011 at 02:44 PM
I was 10 years old and lived in Bridgeview at 9237 Pemboke Lane. From our front yard I watched the twister go down 95th street towards the Coral theater and then proceed towards SW highway. I was home alone as my Dad worked the 3:00 pm to 12:00 am shift for GM at the Fischer body plant in LaGrange. My Mom left earlier to pick up my sister from OLCHS because she wasn't feeling well. Call it luck or what have you but my Mom, Dad, and sister finally made it home hours later. I was never really scared during the twister but so glad we were all in one piece. I now live in Florida so I'm always prepared for hurricanes. You can't say that about twisters. Perry Neuroth
Jim Welser April 22, 2012 at 03:38 PM
Jill, Hope you and your family are doing well! Jim Welser
Sharon Barta May 20, 2012 at 11:55 PM
Unforgettable ! We watched the tornando barrel into town from our 97th and Parkside home. Everything just two blocks away was gone. Although I was only seven, the memory is like yesterday. My school, St. Gerald's, was destroyed. My heart goes out to the families who lost loved ones. Never does an April 21st go by that I don't remember the Oak Lawn tornado.
Ed Christopher July 01, 2012 at 08:35 PM
Don--Seeing McDonald's in the photos and hearing your account prompted me to comment. I was in eight grade at the time of the tornado and in McDonald's when it hit. I was at the counter when people started running in saying there was a tornado. From there everyone started hitting the floor and piling against the counter. I was fortunate to be at the bottom of the pile. I believe that someone actually tossed me to the floor. After the noise of breaking glass stopped and roar subsided I remember getting up and seeing that a guy who was on top of me was cut pretty bad. Hearing your account makes me wonder if it was you. After the tornado went through I remember the staff having us jump over the counter and going into the basement. I didn't stay as I had to get home. My bike was lost to the storm and my path home was the exact path the tornado took through hometown. Fortunately, our house had minimal damage. On my way home I do remember stopping at the roller rink to help people lift beams off people. I only stayed about 10 or 15 minutes and left as the emergency people and real help was starting to get there.
fred martinek August 12, 2012 at 07:04 AM
It was a terrible storm !! The warnings put out that day were very good for the technology in 1967. The big problem was the Chicago area was never hit by a tornado that strong and traveled 15 miles ending at rainbow beach. It was hard to believe a tornado can do so much damage to people and everything in it's path. A couple of weeks after the tornado the song "windy" by the associations came out, so it just reminded me of that day every time i heard it. Fred M
lvent August 12, 2012 at 07:11 AM
Tornadoes do sometimes appear and they don't even see them coming. Watch for the signs.
virginia August 26, 2012 at 09:39 PM
u must be the same age as me i remember this too but, i lived in chgo, doing a paper route when it was raining crazy my best friends h s richard's h s was a little bit damaged i remember i saw the school after the tornado cause we had to take my friend home! i'll be 55 next july!
virginia August 26, 2012 at 09:43 PM
u must be the same age as i am i remember this too my family and i were delivering news paper and it started to rain crazy i lived in chgo at that time and it was a crazy day my friend lived in oak lawn i don't know where! but to this day when we wanna move to a better neighborhood it doesn't work like that anymore so my friend's hs richard's h s was damaged we seen it after months to take her home she was scared i think they lived on new england somewhere i love her so much i've known her when i was in diapers!
Lorraine Swanson (Editor) August 26, 2012 at 10:16 PM
The tornado in Belvidere a few hours before the Oak Lawn struck was rain-wrapped, as well as the 1990 Plainfield tornado. It's like a big dirty black snowball coming at you.
John Cappas October 18, 2012 at 04:23 AM
Great story Lorraine!!
Andy March 10, 2013 at 03:10 PM
Does anyone know which Life Magazine of April of 1967 has the picture of the tornado?
TOM March 10, 2013 at 06:49 PM
Andy, It's in the May 5th, 1967 issue of Life with Mia Farrow on the cover.
Ron Stufflebeam March 23, 2013 at 06:08 PM
Ron Stufflebeam - Well, I've had this in my favorite folder for a few years now & never commented on it. After reading some of the comments & seeing one entered by Perry Neuroth who I didn't know at the time, but came to know later in the mid 70's from dating his Sister Shirley I figured it was about time (C;' On this horrific day I was sitting on the front porch of my best friends house. Terry Burks who lived at 95th & Natoma. Him, his Dad & I were sitting out there just discussing the weather not knowing what was heading our way when the sky started turning all different colors & then we saw it. We were like it shock when his Dad (Harold) grabbed us by the arms, we went inside & he yelled get on the floor, guess he didn't know about taking shelter in a bathroom & they didn't have a basement. Well, we laid there hearing all this noise as told about in the recording & after we had realized it had passed us we got up & went to the kitchen window & watched it bounce down 95th street. Later we got in his Dad's car & the 3 of us went down by the High School & was taken with awe at the damage, we were fortunate & didn't see any injured people. At 17 it is not something I would have wanted to see. I took a OneStep Polaroid black & white camera I had with & have almost a dozen photo's of the area around 95th & Southwest Highway by the school. A day I will not ever forget & felt so terrible for all the families & friends affected by this that day.
Bill Schrieffer March 29, 2013 at 12:58 AM
Thanks for sharing your story, Ron. You were very lucky to have escaped injury, as you were quite near the path of the funnel...just a couple of blocks north and west, I believe. Do ou still have the photos you took of the aftermath at 95th St and SW Highway? if so, would you mind sharing them?
Ron Stufflebeam April 16, 2013 at 02:47 PM
Yes Bill, was only a few blocks from it path & I will try to download the photos to share. Remember, they are old black & whites, but you can still make things out I believe.
tommy d. April 20, 2013 at 04:12 AM
I have a newspaper clipping to this day-it was shot from across the street of the old ''korvetts store on 87th/cicero--shows the huge funnel cloud rolling in,I have always saved this,cause,when you look at it,its in the area of 95th/southwest hwy.its from april 21st 1967-still in good shape,the size of the cloud is amazing....just black and huge....I was also living on 88th natoma during this....ugliest green sky,I will never forget.lorraine,that one in plainfield in 90-was in my rear view mirror,and your right,''a black snowball---somehow I made it to lemont......but that black snowball,,didn't scare me as much as the ugliest,darkest green,of,which,I never want to see again...........and pray,no-one ever gets to see as well...........
Ron Stufflebeam April 21, 2013 at 11:02 AM
Tommy D, is there any way you can post the newspaper clipping? Also, did you know Terry or Gary Burks who lived right off 95th on Natoma, or a Rich Ross, Fred Werner, Tom Burns, Jim Gaskel or Manny B who also lived in & around that area?
tommy d. April 21, 2013 at 01:26 PM
ron,I know mrs.werner to this day,if its freds mom,also,if you have access of meeting me,and can re-print this to color,or whatever it takes to bring it back,I would be happy to share it with you or the library,,whatever it takes,I am close by....and,as far as the other names,maybe,not sure,better with faces,I am old you know,,,lol...talk soon...
Ron Stufflebeam April 21, 2013 at 01:36 PM
Hey Tom, not sure if we are talking about the same Werner, I didn't know his Mom, but I know she had a big family, 2 maybe 4 Sons & a Daughter or more? Fred's real first name was Rick I believe, don't know why we called him Fred, but if you should talk with her & she has a Son that goes by that please tell her to tell Fred/Rick Ron Stufflebeam says "Howdy!" Well, if you share your newspaper clipping with the Library maybe they will post it & then we can see it, but as for me I am no longer close, living in Hudson, Florida, but I appreciate that Tom, thanks.
tommy d. April 21, 2013 at 02:02 PM
ron,they lived roughly in between 95th-96th,if yes,thats them,there was a few of them,and I will share with the library soon...she was my librarian in school by the way,I just happen to still know her,oh,well,anyway,if you don't mind sharing an address,I will send you a copy....
Tinamarie April 26, 2013 at 09:11 PM
I'm Mrs. Werner's daughter, Tina, and I will be sure to give my brother, Rick, a "howdy" from Ron Stufflebeam (there are 7 kids - six sons and me). Although this recording brought back bad memories (it was a horrific experience to go through, especially at the age I was), but it's fun to hear mention of Rick's old friends - except to us - it was "Jimmy" Gaskell, "Richie" Ross, "Tommy" Burns. My mom saw Manny a while back (although it's probably longer than I'm remembering) and she still keeps involved with Oak Lawn - and we all remember "the" tornado like it was yesterday.
Lou Brancaccio April 26, 2013 at 09:40 PM
Hey Dennis. I worked at Dominick's as well at that time. In the produce department. Just part time. I was still a junior at OLCHS. I was scheduled to work that night and planned to go in but someone told me "don't bother."
Ron Stufflebeam April 26, 2013 at 11:59 PM
Hi Tina, I remember your name from hanging with your Brother Rick & am glad you wrote. Yes, it was a horrific act of nature. As I wrote above I was at Terry & Gary Burks house & did see it coming & then going as it bounced down 95th Street. That's how I met your Brother, Rich, Jim, Tom & Manny by knowing Terry. A bounce of good guys who we shared some good times together. I remember Rick always having a car in the drive he was working on. I keep in touch with Terry & have seen him over the years, he now & has lived in Phoenix for going on 20 years now & Gary also lives out there as I live in Florida. It's been many years since I saw Manny once, we bumped into each other at a bar in Oak Lawn, maybe 30 years ago. I appreciate you telling Rick I said hello & hope all is well & if he should ever talk to any of the other guys to pass my well wishes along as they go to you also. Terry & I talked about the Tornado the other day & like you we both remember it clearly.
tommy d. April 27, 2013 at 01:22 AM
glad to see you all hooking back up......
Jean Werner April 27, 2013 at 02:24 PM
Just talked to my son Fred and he was excited to hear about all of you and would love to get to talk to some of you. He is an over the road truck driver for Roadway and lives in Morocco, Ind. Waiting to retire and travel to Phoenix as we have relatives that lives there. I plan on visiting with my sisters soon.
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 (Editor) 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.


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