1967 was a tragic year in Illinois: Tornadoes Hit Illinois 50 Years ago, Belvidere and Oak Lawn
Published in the SW Newspaper Group Feb. 9, 2017
By Ray Hanania
This year is the Golden Anniversary of one of the most tragic years in the lives of many Baby Boomers who still remember that far back to 1967, when Oak Lawn was slammed by tornadoes.
It was kind of a wake-up call for many of us as we climbed out of mental nuclear bomb shelters made of wooden elementary school desks and realized that Sputnik was just a steel ball with antennas.
1967 started out with many momentous anniversaries, like the one that just passed January 26-27, when 23 inches of snow slammed Chicagoland and buried us forever in memories. A second major snow storm hit Chicago 12 years later in 1979, changing Chicago politics forever, although I am surprised that today, many young people don’t know of Jane Byrne, an icon of women’s achievement as Chicago’s first woman mayor.
The blizzard blurred, at least for Chicagoans, the other big news of Jan. 27 that shook the country. During a pre-launch test of Apollo 1 at Cape Kennedy (Cape Canaveral) in Florida, the interior command module of NASA’s Apollo spacecraft exploded in fire killing astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. Grissom was the first of the Mercury Seven astronauts to die.
That disaster never made it to Hollywood. Tom Hanks played Astronaut Jim Lovell who survived in the failed Apollo 13 as it approached a Moon landing in April 1970.
But those weren’t the only big events of 1967, 50 years ago.
Fifty years ago, the Vietnam War was raging and LBJ, President Johnson, began a major escalation in troops that eventually surpassed 500,000 American soldiers. It was at about that time that the mainstream news media started to really cover the war with TV blasting shocking images not only Americans being killed but Americans also killing innocent Vietnamese civilians.
LBJ had screamed at the head of CBS when Morley Safer broadcast the burning down of a small Vietnamese village months earlier, but that was just the beginning.
Locally, it turned out to be a terrible year, too.
April 21 started out as a beautiful, clear beginning to Spring, but by late in the afternoon it quickly changed as tornadoes slammed into two regions of Illinois.
One of the tornadoes hit Belvidere in Boone County near the Wisconsin border. Only four minutes on the ground, it took the lives of 23 people including 13 children. More than 500 people were injured in the devastation that nearly destroyed the small town and it’s school.
Right about the same time, tornadoes started appearing northeast of Joliet and at around 4:45 pm, one slammed into Oak Lawn digging a trench of destruction 16 miles long that damaged Hometown and Evergreen Park as the storm wound down near Rainbow Beach along Chicago’s Lake Michigan banks.
The tornado racing through the suburbs at 600 MPH took the lives of 33 people and injured more than 1,000 people. It destroyed 152 homes and damaged 900 more all the way to the Lake.
The south end and the east wall of Oak Lawn High school had been destroyed and the clocks in the school stopped at 5:26 pm. The tornado threw cars stopped at a red light on Southwest Highway at 95th Street like toys, killing 16 people at that location.
Many report that the tornado first touched down atop the single-screen Starlite Drive-In Theater at 6400 West 95th Street. The drive-in theater was devastated and although it was repaired, it ended up closing in 1979.
There were a lot of drive-ins at the time, including the Double Drive-In, 2800 West Columbus Ave., the Bel-Aire Drive-In at 31st and Cicero Ave., and the Sheridan Drive-In at 78th and Harlem Ave. There was something fun about a Drive-In movie.
I’m thinking there’s still time to organize a memorial or commemoration. If you have memories of the 1967 tornado devastation, please share it by emailing me and I will try to run some of the letters.
A few days later on April 25, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., led a protest against the Vietnam War, drawing criticism from many civil rights leaders who claimed his war opposition was drawing attention away from the Civil Rights movement.
A year later, King was murdered. Many believe his anti-war activities fueled his assassin. King’s death sparked an increase in racial tensions. Realtors exploited those tensions by encouraging White Flight from the city. I lived on the Southeast Side of Chicago during that flight and you can read about that story in an online book I authored called “Midnight Flight” at www.TheDailyHookah.com.
(Ray Hanania is an award winning political columnist and author and former Chicago City Hall reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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