Remembering the Oak Lawn tornado, page by page
BY STEVE METSCH firstname.lastname@example.org January 22, 2014 9:19AM
Updated: January 23, 2014 1:11PM
Many an author would say it’s difficult to put a book together.
Now imagine publishing a book on a topic about which the target audience pretty much already knows every little detail. And the task is to make it fresh, interesting and informative.
It’s a big task, but Kevin Korst was up for it with “Images of America: Oak Lawn Tornado of 1967” (Arcadia Publishing).
The photo-heavy book tells the story of the biggest event in the village’s history: the tornado that swept through Oak Lawn on April 21, 1967, claiming 33 lives and causing millions of dollars in damage.
Korst, who has a master’s degree in American history from Eastern Illinois University, is the local history coordinator at the Oak Lawn Public Library, a job he’s held for six years.
“Not a day goes by where someone doesn’t ask me about it, reminisces about it. I talked to hundreds of people over the last six years who related their experiences or what they recall about the time, even if they weren’t living in the village. It was quite the deal,” Korst said.
Putting the book together had him sifting through about 500 photographs. It was difficult picking which photos to use and which to not use. About 180 made the final cut.
“It’s very difficult to narrow down the photos you think are the best, to try and incorporate as many stories as you can, to do the research over and over again to make sure your facts are as correct as they can possibly be. I do enjoy writing books ... this is my second, but they are a lot of work,” he said.
“This was a project started a year and a half ago and it’s something I’ve wanted to do since I started here. It’s an amazing event in the village’s history. People still talk about it today. The greatest devastation was here, but it affected many communities,” Korst said.
As a historian, writing the book became a learning experience for him.
“The biggest thing I took from it was people’s personal experiences. If you talk to 100 people about this event, each person will give you something slightly different. Each person remembers exactly what they were doing and who they were with,” he said.
One story of the many that stood out for him is of a man who was in a restaurant on Cicero Avenue when the tornado quickly approached.
“He was lying on the floor and he remembers looking up and there was no roof above him any more. It’s those kind of personal experiences that stand out,” Korst said.
At the Airway Mobile Home Park, still there at 91st Street and Cicero Avenue, one trailer would be ripped apart by the winds while another 30 feet away sat untouched, he said.
“It’s those kind of stories that stay with you,” he said.
The book has been selling well at the library.
“This is a topic that transcends generations and community. I had a guy from Seattle who called me last week and said he wants to buy a book,” Korst said. “He knew somebody who used to live in Oak Lawn. It’s a well-known topic, for sure.”
While putting the book together, he often asked volunteers and staff at the library for their opinions. He probably edited the book “four or five times on my own,” he said, and still asked others to look it over to catch errors he may have missed.
There’s a photo in the book of the clock at Oak Lawn Community High School, its hands frozen just before 5:30 p.m. when the tornado hit on a Friday “which is why casualties were higher. You had people out shopping, people at restaurants. One reason it was so bad was it hit at a terrible time,” he said, nothing that had it been two hours earlier, it could have killed numerous high school students.
“Ultimately, the topic is tragic, bottom line. The hardest part of researching the book was reading about children who were killed, about families in the wrong place at the wrong time, and people waiting in their cars at 95th Street and Southwest Highway. A second later, they were gone,” he said.
Korst knows all about tornados. He was 8 when he and his family lived through the Plainfield tornado of 1990.
“My parents’ neighborhood was pretty much leveled. Their home had some damage but if you looked west, it was all gone,” said Korst, who now lives in Romeoville. “I can’t help but compare my memories to people’s stories.”
Oak Lawn needed about a year or so to rebuild the community, he said.
Emotional scars remain.
“The local officials and people involved at the time really did an excellent job. The aftermath is pretty amazing. The biggest positive I take out of this — and we saw this with Katrina and the tsunami in Japan — is as bad as things get, people seem to come together and focus on a common goal,” he said. “You saw that in Oak Lawn. No matter what walk of life they came from, they were there to do search and rescue, there to clean up, there to collect food for people who lost their homes. They were there to do the things that needed to be done to get the community back on its feet.”
Korst “did a great job,” said co-worker Kathy O’Leary, a reference librarian in Oak Lawn. She was living in Chicago at 113th Street and Millard Avenue when the tornado hit.
“I remember that day. We weren’t affected that much — all we got was pouring rain — but I remember how bad it was (in Oak Lawn),” she said.
The book is for sale at the Oak Lawn Public Library for $21.99 and via online book retailers. Prices online vary.
Korst will discuss the book at the Worth Park District Historical Museum, located in the Terrace Centre, 11500 S. Beloit Ave., at 7 p.m. Jan. 29; and at the Oak Lawn Public Library, 9427 S. Raymond Ave., at 7 p.m. March 24.