The Saturday night square dance had been great fun, and now the two couples, one living in Elyria, Ohio and the other near LaGrange, a few miles south, had gotten together for a Sunday drive. Mother Nature had provided a Palm Sunday afternoon that was ideal. After a couple hours enjoying the serene countryside, they returned to their homes for a quiet evening. Neither they nor anyone else in northern Ohio on this April 11, 1965 was ready for what the next several hours would bring.
Rusty and Hazel Speak and my wife Rose and I were avid square dancers. Rusty worked at Western Automatic in Elyria and I was News Editor and Copydesk Chief at the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram, the local daily newspaper. The four of us took a Palm Sunday afternoon drive, mostly along country roads south of Elryia. Rusty did the driving and Rose and I brought along our 16-month-old daughter, Karyl. Rusty had invited me a number of times to accompany him coon hunting. I had only been along as a spectator, but I was intrigued by how Rusty and his dog worked as a team and by the signals the bark of his hound sent through the woods and across the dark night.
As this Sunday afternoon crept toward evening, Rusty and Hazel returned to their home on State Road 301 about two miles north of the small town of LaGrange, and Rose and I to our place at 491 Whitman Boulevard on the north side of Elyria, a city of just over 50,000. By late evening, it had been raining for some time, lately accompanied by a good bit of wind. By bedtime it had not stopped. There was still a steady drizzle about 5 a.m. when I got up to go to into the office.
A little after 6, as I entered the Chronicle-Telegram parking lot on Second Street in downtown Elyria, it was still coming down. As I hurried to the building I could see lights on already in the news room on the second floor. Through the side door and up the stairs I went. There, in an otherwise empty news room, was Don Miller, senior reporter and jack-of-all-news and-editing trades. Miller and I each had been at the Chronicle-Telegram about a decade. That had been long enough for me to decide that there weren’t many newsmen like Miller. A few years back, when I was Sports Editor at the C-T, as the Chronicle-Telegram was known locally, Miller, as a good friend, would fill in for me when I was on vacation. He would write a column in my absence, and typical of his sense of humor, would entitle it “Under Protest,” alluding to that oft-used expression of dissatisfaction over an umpire’s ruling that affected the outcome of a game.
Miller had played hard at the game of life.
He was a veteran of World War II. Although he didn’t talk about it, word on the news staff was that he had been a member of the “Black Devils,” an outfit recruited from American army misfits and Canadian soldiers closer to spit and polish. Called commandos. they painted their faces black and performed heroic service in Italy at the battle for Anzio. Miller had mentioned being at Anzio.
The feats of “The Black Devils” later were chronicled in the Hollywood movie “The Devils Brigade.”
In civilian life, Miller’s personality leaned just a bit toward the Black Devils profile. In the early 1950s, while on the reporting staff of the Lorain (Ohio) Journal, a stiff competitor of The Chronicle-Telegram, he’d had a barroom confrontation with his city editor. Miller, the word went, knocked the man cold, and was summarily fired by the Journal. Charlie Bennett, Managing Editor of the Chronicle-Telegram at the time, seized the opportunity to hire a very good reporter and brought Miller on board.
During the ‘50s, the trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard, accused of murdering his wife in their Bay Village, Ohio home, consistently made big headlines, and Miller covered the story for the Chronicle-Telegram. The case wore on into the ‘60s, and early in 1964 the paper published a story that prompted the famed F. Lee Bailey, then an attorney for Sheppard, to bring suit against the C-T, against Miller, and against myself, who was responsible for editing the story.
Bailey never won the suit.
Now, on this dark rainy morning in Elyria, Miller, was at his desk, pounding out a story with his high-speed hunt-and-peck system. As I entered the news room, he looked up, and said “Hey, Ketch! We’ve had a tornado; 18 dead. Here’s the list,” as he handed it to me. As my eyes moved down the names, I came to… Leon Speak….!…Lord! That’s Rusty! . . . But what of Hazel? Miller had been up most of the night, gathering what he could about the twister from law enforcement from across Lorain County. After trying to absorb what had happened to Rusty, I contemplated whether it was too early to wake Rose. I didn’t know yet about Hazel. I decided to wait a bit.
Next: did we have a large enough news hole in today’s paper to tell this story?
Most of the reporters would be in by 7 a.m. Miller would decide the kind of help he’d need right away and would write the main story and most likely a couple of sidebars. Charlie Hostetter, Joe Cowden and Ed Wilson, the Wire Editor, would pitch in. I think I would have enough folks on the copy desk.
The Chronicle-Telegram also had a cadre of part-time correspondents scattered through nearly every middle village and town across Lorain County. Most of these people were housewives like Cora Shepherd in Wellington and Neysa Stroup in Spencer, who kept a sharp eye on everything from government to gossip in their communities. They would likely phone in if they learned of anything about this disaster.
As the newsroom began to fill with staff, details of the devastation took shape.
The tornado had barreled across Route 301 just north of LaGrange, leveling Rusty and Hazel’s house to the foundation, with only the chimney standing and the basement exposed. First-responder reports said Rusty had been thrown into the front yard and smashed against a tree. He lived long enough to tell rescuers that Hazel was in the basement, and that rising water there might drown her.
Later that morning, we learned Hazel had been rescued and taken to Elyria Memorial Hospital where she was in critical condition. It would be months before she could be released.
As wire reports arrived in the news room, a three-state pattern of devastation emerged; 37 twisters had hammered flatland portions of three states, plowing across eastern Indiana, southern Michigan and northern Ohio. The death toll would exceed 250. The twister that savaged Lorain County touched down about 11 p.m. southwest o Oberlin. It blasted through the crossroads community of Pittsfield at the intersection Ohio Routes 58 and 303, wiping out the entire town, killing nine people. Four children in one family were blown out of their home and into trees, but found alive. The tornado had churned eastward, creating havoc in Grafton, southeast of Elyria. It continued east through Columbia Station before turning its wrath on Cuyahoga County and hitting the city of Strongsville there.
A few days after the twister, fiends of Rusty and Hazel gathered at a field on the east side of Route 301, across from where the couple’s house had stood. They were there to salvage any belongings the twister might have left. Perhaps the most surprising find was a water bill from the city of Lima, Ohio, which was more than 80 miles to the southwest. The tornado reportedly had killed 18 people there.
News coverage by the Chronicle-Telegram had been challenged mightily just over 15 months previously when, on Nov. 23, 1965, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated only a few hours after 63 patients were killed in a nursing home fire in Fitchville, Ohio, just across the county line in Huron County. On that day, a Friday, I was nowhere near the Chronicle-Telegram newsroom. Rose and I were en route to East Lansing, Michigan for a decisive Big Ten football game between Michigan State and Illinois.
Accompanying us was A.N. Smith, a Big Ten Official and Commissioner of the Ohio Conference of collegiate athletics. Smith was to umpire the game. Like many other events across the nation, it did not take place as scheduled on that Saturday. The decision to postpone it was made as the hot dogs were being prepared at the stadium. The game was played a week later, and Illinois won.
Within months following the Palm Sunday tornado, the hierarchy of the Chronicle-Telegram newsroom would change markedly. Cowden and Wilson, who had been seen as vying for the vacant managing editor job, would be off to other pursuits and I would be named managing editor. In 1967 I would undertake larger challenges on a bigger paper. Don Miller would be at the Chronicle-Telegram for several years to come, playing an extremely valuable role as father figure and newsman par excellence in the success of a quality newspaper.