Yesterday morning, as I was answering an email at my desk in the NACADA EO, I heard the tornado siren wail for the first time this Spring. Over the wall of my cubicle, I heard my colleague Jennifer say, “That is just a test, right?” It’s Jennifer’s first Spring in the EO, so although she has lived in other parts of the Midwest and has had plenty of experience with tornado sirens, it was her first time hearing one in Kansas.
This is my family’s 29th Kansas Spring, so when a siren goes off at 10:30 on a sunny morning, I barely notice it as something of concern. Instead, the sound inevitably brings to mind thoughts of my great-grandparents – and the reminder that, were it not for the horrendous death and destruction caused by one particular tornado, I would never have been born.
I spent the first decade of my life in upstate New York, at a time when tornadoes simply did not occur in that part of the country. For most of my childhood friends, “twisters” were the stuff of fantasy – something that happened in far-far-away Kansas and that we knew of only from our annual viewings of “The Wizard of Oz.”
I grew up hearing another tornado story – one that happened in an equally far-off place, but one that happened to real people – my ancestors.
My great-grandparents, Hermon Kirk Sherburne, Sr. and Mary Anna Burbank Sherburne, were both born and bred Vermonters. He was born in 1855 and she in 1866 – just as the American Civil War was beginning – but although they had mutual acquaintances, they did not meet until 1898, when they became classmates in the study of Osteopathy at the Osteopathic College in Kirksville, Missouri. The stories of how they each came to enter into the study of this new field are fascinating and almost unimaginable to those of us who take the ‘miracles of modern medicine’ for granted, but we will save those tales for another day.
Mary Anna had not yet married, but Hermon had come to Kirksville with his wife, Ada, following the tragic death of their only child, 5-year-old Theodore, from membranous croup. In April of 1899, while Mary Anna still had another year of study ahead of her to complete the program, Hermon was just six weeks away from graduation, and he and Ada were making their plans to return to Vermont.
Mary Anna left us a detailed account, so let us hear in some of her own words what happened that April 27th.
It was a peculiar day in that it was excessively hot ‑ little breeze, then lifeless ‑ not even a bird cheeped ‑ a few short showers. Supper was over, and Ada was clearing dishes. Back of the house was a barn, and all of a sudden the wind blew and Hermon heard a noise and went to front door and closed it. There he heard a roaring and rumbling and figured a freight train was coming to town. He got to the living room where Ada ran to him and said ‘the barn’s blowing down.’ They ran to the door, and Hermon could see clouds and timbers and then had a whirling sensation and a compression in his chest. Then he was in the air and a brick hit him. He remembers trying to get up and calling Ada, and he could see a woman pushing two boys ahead of her and here and there a fire burning ‑- everything flat and he was on top of a pile of lumber. He was northwest of the house 200 feet. All was quiet.
Mary Anna was the first to find Hermon; he was injured, but not severely. He spoke to her, asking about Ada, but then fainted when he tried to get up. Mary Anna hailed some classmates, who found a door upon which they carried Hermon to one of the few houses left standing. Mary Anna then went on searching, and eventually she noticed a piece of Ada’s dress sticking out from under some barn timbers. When the timbers were lifted, Ada at first appeared uninjured, but her skull had been fractured and she was dead. Under her arm lay a chicken, from which all feathers had been stripped by the terrible winds.
A New York Times article from April 28th says that more than 100 were killed and over 1000 injured in the terrible storm. Kirksville lay in ruins. Ada’s body was shipped back to Vermont for burial by her little Theo.
It was an almost unimaginable tragedy, but these were courageous and resilient people who were no strangers to trials and loss. Classes resumed, and Hermon graduated before returning to Vermont to begin his medical practice. A year later, Mary Anna also returned to Vermont to begin her practice. And in 1903, these two survivors joined their practices – and their lives. My grandfather, Hermon Kirk Sherburne, Jr – their only child – was born in June 1904. Many years later, he, too, would travel, with my grandmother, to Kirksville to attend the Osteopathic College and become an osteopathic physician, eventually taking over the practice that his parents built in Rutland, Vermont.
Out of the tragedy and ruins of the tornado, a new life was built – and from that new life, a half century later, I would be born. Throughout my formative years, my grandmother told me the story many times – always seated by this photograph of little Theo, which had miraculously been saved from the tornado ruins and which hung in a place of honor. Grandma always ended the tale with, “My darling, in our family, we are like the buckwheat. Not like the wheat, which when a storm comes is flattened and destroyed. But like the buckwheat, we can bend with the winds. We might lie down for a while when the storms are fierce, but always, in time, we arise and resume our growth. We are survivors. We go on. We build again. And we live.”
Resiliency and life are the lessons my great-grandparents passed on to the generations. Like the phoenix – like the buckwheat – when the storms come, we can choose to arise from the ruins and build new lives to inspire the generations to come.