Charles City honors lives lost in ‘68 tornado


By Kelly Terpstra,

As 13 names were called out in Central Park on a gorgeous sunny Tuesday in Charles City, friends and family took to the microphone. It was a day of remembrance and also a lesson to never forget.

“We’re here to remember what happened 50 years ago,” said Pastor Mike Downey.

May 15, 1968, was just like any other late spring day in northeast Iowa — until an F5 tornado ripped through Floyd County, destroying anything in its path.

Thirteen lives were lost in Charles City alone, one of the most devastating tornadoes the state of Iowa has ever seen. A similar monster F5 twister would also terrorize nearby Oelwein on the same day. Five people perished from the damage caused by that tornado.

But Charles City persevered. That strength was on display as Charles City honored those who perished by congregating downtown, alongside many uniformed police officers and community leaders.

“We all face storms of life. It’s not if, it’s just when it will happen,” said Paul Phillips, a pastor at the Gospel Lighthouse Church in Floyd, who was the featured speaker. “Storms are able to teach us things that we probably, normally, would not learn — we would not understand.”

Phillips, who moved back to the area in 1981, relayed a message of hope during dark times.

“It might not always turn out like we want it to, but God has a better plan. We can trust him and believe in him,” said Phillips.

He recalled just how devastating a tornado can be, even decades later.

“That was a terrible afternoon. My wife went through that storm in a basement. She’ll never forget it,” Phillips said.

If the tragedy of ’68 teaches community members and residents of Charles City anything, it’s that there’s more common ground than most people think, regardless of the circumstance or situation, speakers said.

“People in the worst of situations and conditions — it brings people together,” said Phillips. “No longer are we Democrats or Republicans. No longer are we Catholic, or Baptist or Methodist or Assembly of God, but we’re one. We’re united to help each other. We reach out to our neighbors and our family and friends.”

Charles City Mayor Dean Andrews talked about what was a defining moment for the town, not just because of loss, but because of the togetherness of each resident to pull through tough times.

“The days following the tornado, there was a lot of families helping families and lot of friends helping friends — a lot of strangers helping strangers,” said Andrews. “That’s kind of what we do here in Charles City; we help each other out.”

The recognition of members of law enforcement in their efforts to save lives and to steady a town that was rocked by devastation was also noted.

“It’s the recovery that I want to emphasize. Our law enforcement was there when we needed them,” said Andrews. “They helped us recover. We’ve moved forward.”

Many members of the Charles City Police Department were on hand. Police Chief Hugh Anderson talked about people having each other’s backs, through thick and thin.

“I know our community has always pulled together, not just law enforcement,” said Anderson. “In any disaster, whether it be lives lost or property damage, you’ll see neighbors coming to your rescue very quickly,”

But Phillips was also quick to point out that life is fleeting and to cherish the time that is given.  

“Storms remind us that nothing in life is forever — even the best of buildings go through destruction,” said Phillips. “None of us are promised tomorrow.”

Rachel Connerly announced the names of the tornado’s victims. Downey, a pastor at The Evangelical Free Church in Charles City, opened the ceremony with a statement and prayer. Pastor Joe Low, also of the Evangelical Free Church, read Scripture from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Kristina Zimmerman and Taylor Walters sang two songs in remembrance — “God Bless the USA” and “God Bless America.”

The ceremony took place in front of a flag pole, adorned by a plaque with the names of the 13 lives lost: Sadie Chambers, Ruth Dawson, Harry Hall, Marie Greenless, May Gault, Arthur Jacobs, Minnie Kneisel, John Kneisel, Florine Leach, Murray Loomer, August Merten, Robert Stotts and Lela Wolff.