Not too many months before it happened, my husband and I had opened a small accessory and brief case store on South Street in downtown Kalamazoo. He worked a job selling dictation equipment while I ran the store. The store was long and narrow, with scarves and jewelry at the front, near the plate-glass window and glass door, the goods “hardening” to brief cases and attaché cases at the back of the store. This rental space included a full, remodeled basement where I kept my desk.
On May 13, 1980, I was at the store with another woman who I will call Helen, for privacy’s sake. When I heard on the radio that a tornado was traveling toward us along the old highway my first thought was for my husband who was driving back along that road from a call to customers located in South Haven.
Then the siren sounded. I had lived through numerous tornado watches and warnings in my life. Making the trip to the basement several times a year in the spring and summer was common enough. Nevertheless, since I was right downtown, the siren from the National Armory sounded much closer, more threatening, than at home. The winds outside had picked up to a roar.
Helen and I ran downstairs; as we took the steps two at a time, I heard the glass door banging alarmingly and because I didn’t want it to shatter and ruin my window display, I darted back up to lock the front door, while Helen screamed at me to get back downstairs.
Our store was just down the block from Bronson Park. The park was built in the old-fashioned town square style. Every outdoor event of consequence was held there. I had attended art fairs, concerts, peace rallies, lectures, and art classes under its oak trees. As we walked through the park on Christmas eves, the lights reflected off the icy outlines of the trees, forming a magical canopy.
I heard the sound of the tornado slamming the park as I ran back downstairs.
The wind and noise abated quickly. Helen and I gingerly climbed the stairs and looked around. Other than a crack in the glass, and a broken sign, we had no damage. I think I was in shock because I remember being drawn to walk to the park, more than considering much else. I still didn’t know that my husband was all right.
I walked alone to the park and stood at the corner of South and Rose staring across the street at the park. Centuries old oak trees were leaning every which way like so many pickup sticks. A few of them looked like macabre divining rods.
I can’t say the destruction of those trees truly entered the back recesses of my brain until weeks later, when most of the downtown cleanup had been accomplished and I saw the park denuded of its beauty. Twenty-six oak trees had been downed or crippled. One of those trees had sheltered Abraham Lincoln during an anti-slavery speech in 1856.
The tornado effectively bombed Kalamazoo that day. As you can see from the photo above, the entire back wall of Gilmore’s department store ripped off, leaving an effect like a five story doll house, as if you could put your hand in back and set up the shoppers and merchandise in miniature. But the trees, as I see them in my memory, are the most lasting image for me.