Up on the twelfth floor of the Amicable Building, Dad must have seen, heard, and felt the tornado as it slammed into downtown. I don’t know if he left early or waited until five o’clock. Nor do I know if others remained in the office with him. I do know, however, that when he left for the day, he did not take the elevator down to the first floor. I’ve read that the building didn’t lose power because it had an emergency generator, and so the elevator must have been working. I think it’s likely that when the elevator stopped at his floor, it was full of people. Rather than squeeze inside and wait for stops on the remaining eleven floors, he chose to take the stairs because he considered them a faster way down.
The stairwell of the Amicable Building was quite beautiful. I recall sitting on the marble steps, aware of the indentations in the marble from many footsteps; the smooth, graceful metal handrails; and the Art Nouveau light fixtures on the walls. Dad later described his descent as being in the dark. But the lights, or emergency lights, must have been on, and he would have had his cigarette lighter with him. Mother said that he helped “a hysterical woman” down the stairs. Perhaps their shadows made the stairwell seem especially dark. But I don’t think it was pitch black. Even so, it must have seemed like a very long way down.
On the ground floor, the woman ran out of the building, and Dad lost sight of her in the rain. He would have seen the buildings fallen into the street and felt a cold, hard fear that we were crushed beneath the rubble. Yet he remained calm. Perhaps he reverted to his military training. Although he later said he’d wanted to stay and help rescue people trapped beneath the bricks, his first responsibility was to us.
He expected to find Mother parked on 4th Street, so he made his way down the sidewalk along Austin Avenue to 4th. Blinded by the rain, he couldn’t see our car. If we weren’t buried under layers of brick on Austin, then we had to be somewhere along 4th. Since he had no way to know where we were, he re-traced the route he knew Mother would take, walking uphill all the way to Waco Drive. When he saw our car beneath the canopy, he must have felt enormous relief.
To Mother, it probably seemed like forever had come and gone. I can only imagine her joy when she saw Dad hurrying across Waco Drive toward us. I remember that his clothes and shoes were drenched, and he pulled out his brown leather wallet to show us that it was wet all the way through.
In 1993, when I returned to Waco, after a long hiatus, to attend Baylor, I drove the distance from 4th Street at Austin Avenue to Waco Drive and found that it was one-half mile. It probably seemed much farther to us, afraid but dry in the rain-pelted car, but probably not nearly as far as it did to my father, just recovering from polio, caught in a dangerous storm, soaked to the skin, refusing to fear the worst.
Mother never got over her terror of storms. In 1955, after the birth of my brother Dana, we moved to a house on North 27th Street near the intersection with Park Lake Drive. The house sat low on the descending creek terrace, surrounded by huge oak trees, and perhaps she felt safer at the bottom of that hill than up on the high ground of North 32nd Street. But any time the sky grew dark and threatening, we slid beneath our beds to wait for the impending storm to pass.
I don’t recall when Dad returned to work, but it must have been fairly soon after the storm. He told me once that the building had been designed to withstand 12 degrees of sway and had in fact tilted to 11 degrees. When we drove downtown after that, I would look up to see if I could see the building move, but of course, I couldn’t.
Mother didn’t return to work. Higginbotham Hardware Co., located in an old brick building on the original town square, had been destroyed by the tornado. Just before it struck, the employees were rushed into a large walk-in vault for safety and they survived. Mother, however, suffered from claustrophobia. Had Chip not burrowed into the garage and refused to come out for the housekeeper, and had Mother not gone home, she would have sought shelter from the tornado by ducking into the knee space beneath her desk. The collapsing store splintered her desk. And that is why I say my three-year-old brother saved our mother’s life. I can’t say that it was intentional, but I can say that angels were surely busy that day.
I’m afraid I don’t recall much about our housekeeper. I know that she got home safely, but I don’t know how much longer she worked for us. Perhaps she was glad to escape us.
Since May 11, 1953, I’ve learned to have a healthy respect for storms, but at unexpected times, I can dive under the bed (emotionally, anyway) with the greatest of ease. One night in 1993, when I had been home for a few weeks, I heard the Civil Defense warning siren blast forth, felt my blood pressure speed up, and started toward the shelter of the bathroom before realizing that the test siren was a normal occurrence. For several anxious minutes, though, I feared the approach of a tornado and wondered if I would survive it. Again.
After the passage of so many years, what do I remember most vividly? The sickening yellow-green sky. Dad’s wet wallet. The musty smell of a car seat. My parents’ courage.
Tom Brokaw got it right.
Berry M. Gerhardt died on November 11 (Veterans Day), 1963, at home. Evelyn R. Gerhardt lived until February 18, 1982. They are buried together at Waco Memorial Park. My brothers and I, and our families, carry on.
On May 11, 1953, I went to school as usual, and Chip stayed at home with our housekeeper. (I’m sorry I can’t recall the lady’s name.) Dad was an inside salesman for Universal Atlas Cement Company, which had a large office on the twelfth floor of the Amicable Life Insurance Company Building. Mother worked as a bookkeeper for Higginbotham Hardware Company a few blocks away. We had only one car. Every morning, Mother dropped Dad off at the Amicable Building (as we called it at home) and picked him up at the end of the workday. Commuting to work was not only practical, it gave them some quiet time together.
If it didn’t sound so overly dramatic, I would subtitle this article “The Day My Three-Year-Old Brother Saved Our Mother’s Life.” But he did. I can prove it.
We lived out on North 32nd Street in a house my parents had hired an architect to design and a contractor to build about two years before. On the afternoon of May 11, Chip, who was inordinately curious, found a low spot in the gravel driveway, burrowed under the garage door, and crawled into the dark garage. Chip had a history of taking clocks apart (but not putting them back together), sampling paint with a high lead content, swallowing the rubber wheels of his small metal cars, and playing with matches. One time he set fire to a bandanna he was wearing around his neck, and the courageous housekeeper had put out the fire with her bare hands. On May 11, when she realized he was missing, she hunted for him all over the house and yard and finally found him in the garage. However, the garage door was locked, and she didn’t have the key. She must have pleaded with him and offered him treats to get him to come out voluntarily, but whether he couldn’t figure out how to wiggle out beneath the door or was too busy exploring, he wouldn’t leave. Desperate, with good reason, our housekeeper telephoned Mother to come and get Chip out of the garage. I have no doubt that Mother left Higginbotham in a hurry and sped across town. When she unlocked the garage door, she found Chip dusty, but neither hurt nor in apparent danger.
By then, it was after four o’clock, too late in the day for Mother to return to work. Black clouds darkened the sky toward downtown. There was no reason for our housekeeper to remain, and with the storm approaching, Mother offered to drive her to her home in East Waco, but she declined, accepting only a ride to her bus stop. (I remember this clearly.) Mother plopped Chip and me in the back seat, and our housekeeper rode up front with Mother.
During the early Fifties, at different times, we had a black Chevrolet and a maroon Plymouth, neither of them new. I remember the Plymouth more clearly than the Chevrolet, but I can’t say with certainty which car Mother was driving on May 11.
At the intersection of Herring Avenue and 5th Street, Mother turned right (eastbound) onto 5th. Ahead of us, huge black clouds roiled above the buildings downtown, while an ugly yellow-green curtain hovered just beneath those clouds. It hadn’t been raining in our suburban part of the city, but as Mother drove downhill on 5th, droplets spattered the roof and hood of the car. Suddenly, wind buffeted and shook the car, and then we heard a whistling noise as rain blew past in horizontal sheets. Hardly able to see where she was going, Mother would have driven slowly toward Austin Avenue. Frightened of storms since very early childhood, she must have been fighting a panic attack, too.
At the intersection of 5th Street and Austin Avenue, Mother turned left onto Austin (northbound). Much later, she told me that, in the rearview mirror, she saw Chris’s Café and other brick buildings begin collapsing into the street. (I was too small to see anything behind the car.) At that moment, she must have been terrified for all of us.
Succumbing to panic and freezing with fear were not options. Flying debris, falling bricks, torrential rain, and the possibility of imminent injury or death required distance. She turned left again, onto 4th Street, but instead of parking along the sidewalk as she normally did, she kept driving uphill. At the top, she crossed Waco Drive and stopped under the canopy of a service station. There we waited in safety, while rain gusted around us, and watched for Dad.
Over the next weeks, we will be featuring different aspects of the 1953 Waco Tornado on our blog as part of StormWatch 2013, our commemoration of the 60th anniversary of that devestating event. We will be starting this new series with an oral history from Karen Gerhardt Fort.
A sixth generation Texan, Karen Gerhardt Fort was born and raised in Waco with her two brothers. She is a graduate of Richfield High School, the University of Houston (BA), and Baylor University (MA). Since her graduation from Baylor, she has lived in the lower Rio Grande Valley, where she has been a museum director. Today she remains active in the museum field as a museum consultant. She married Tom Fort, a museum professional with 35 years of experience, in 2003. They plan to return to Central Texas when he retires.
During the 1970s, she began her writing career with book reviews for the Houston Chronicle. Today she is the award winning author of six books, many articles and short stories, and numerous poems. Karen’s essay about the tornado of 1953 is based upon her memories of that remarkable event. Below you will find part 1 of her story.
Tom Brokaw called our parents “the greatest generation.” He was right. I can prove it.
My story begins on Christmas Eve of 1952. I was six and a half years old, a first grader at Lake Waco Elementary School. My brother, Berry M. Gerhardt II, whom we called “Chip,” was three and a half. School was closed for the holidays, and Chip and I had been visiting our maternal grandparents, retired teachers, who lived at Mexia, 40 miles east of Waco. Late on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, they brought us home so that early tomorrow morning we could discover the surprises left by Santa Claus.
My grandfather, J. O. Robinson, was driving. I sat on the front seat between him and my grandmother, Elsie Lane Robinson, who was holding Chip in her lap. At a four-way stop on 25th Street, another driver ignored the stop sign and plowed into my grandparents’ car on the driver’s side. Although made of steel in those days, cars had no seat belts, and Chip and I were thrown to the floor.
Since we were close to Hillcrest Baptist Hospital, we drove there to see about injuries and have x-rays. My grandmother wrenched her back, and while my grandfather suffered some whiplash, he was otherwise unhurt. Chip had some minor injuries, and my collar bone was fractured. I knew my father was in the hospital and I wanted to go upstairs and see him, but Chip and I were spirited home, where we discovered to our shock that our dachshund had pulled the Christmas tree over onto the floor furnace, breaking most of the ornaments. The tree was scorched and had to be taken out of the house, but fortunately, there was no fire. By then it was well after dark. While my grandmother cooked supper for us, my mother, Evelyn Robinson Gerhardt, left the house, probably with my grandfather. I have no idea how long they were gone. It seemed like hours at the time. But they returned with a new Christmas tree and some ornaments. Goodness knows where they found either so late on Christmas Eve. The next morning, Chip and I were thrilled to find that Santa Claus had not passed us by.
In the photograph, I am sitting on the hospital bed with Dad (Berry M.Gerhardt), holding my new Toni doll, and Chip is showing off his new cowboy outfit. Mother had cautioned me not to say anything about the wreck, but when Dad asked me about the scrape on my face, clearly visible in the photo, I told him. He was relieved to know we were all right, but it must have troubled him greatly to be “stuck” in the hospital when he was surely needed at home.
I don’t recall when Dad entered the hospital, but I know that he had been diagnosed with polio in both legs. During World War II, he had commanded a tank destroyer in the 2nd Armored Division in Europe, sustaining a head injury when his tank rolled over. As soon as he recovered enough to be discharged from the hospital in England, he returned to the front and took part in the Battle of the Bulge. Both of his feet froze from walking in front of the tank as he searched for land mines. After another hospital stay, he was assigned to an army “rest camp” in Belgium, where he bought produce from local farmers for the soldiers’ mess until the war ended. Now, in 1952, he was back in the hospital with polio. Hillcrest was a fine hospital, but he must have been weary of medical facilities.
Sometime in the early spring, he came home. Mrs. Snyder, a physical therapist, worked with him once or twice a week until he was literally back on his feet. I don’t remember exactly when he returned to work, but he was there, downtown, when the tornado struck.
This week the Museum staff is installing our next temporary exhibition, StormWatch 2013 about the powerful F5 tornado that tore a path of destruction through the heart of Waco, Texas on May 11, 1953. One hundred and fourteen people died in the storm. Hundreds more were injured in Waco’s downtown area. The damage to Waco’s economy and downtown infrastructure were catastrophic.
As the 60th anniversary approaches, the Dr Pepper Museum is partnering with the City of Waco, KCEN-HD, the Waco Tribune-Herald Museum, the Waco History Project, The Texas Collection, Waco’s First Presbyterian Church, the Red Men Museum and Library, and Waco ISD to provide the citizens of McLennan County with a commemoration of those events.
StormWatch 2013 will debut on Saturday, April 20, 2013. The Dr Pepper Museum will host this temporary exhibition commemorating the 60th anniversary of the 1953 Waco Tornado. A series of large scale black and white photographs of the storm’s devastation will be featured and several oral histories documenting the storm’s fury and destruction will be included.
Using the resources of the Texas Collection at Baylor University, the Red Men Museum and Library, and Waco’s First Presbyterian Church Archives, and the Dr Pepper Museum Archives, the exhibition will provide a visible reminder of the tragedy and the spirit of the community that rebuilt itself after this disaster. Artifacts from the aftermath of the storm, archival newspapers, and a map of the storm’s path will add additional background to the exhibition story. Storm Watch 2013 will provide an opportunity to see the devastation caused by the Waco Tornado, discover how the community was changed forever by the May 11, 1953 disaster, reflect upon the personal stories associated with this event, and learn how the downtown area has evolved since that fateful day.
Thanks to our generous sponsors: Community Bank and Trust, the Fentress Foundation, Jim Hardwick, Janet McCarty, Jennie and Ben Sheppard, and Katie Wolfe.
Howdy again everyone. You may remember me (Charlie) from another blog post, but since that was a year and a half ago I will not hold it against anyone if you’ve forgotten. Since then I have gotten the chance to start working on some of our exhibits like The Cooler Crowd and The Well Dressed Pepper featuring dresses and other fashion statements, but I still spend most of my time in the temperature controlled domain of collections. The Dr Pepper Museum collection is home to much more than just bottles or cans and includes many brands of soft drink memorabilia. These drinks range from sodas made decades ago that enjoyed a brief flash of fame and glory along with those that are extremely popular in regional areas of the country.
For this collections blog post, it is only appropriate that we pick an object that has defined collections and been our mascot since before I worked here. Now you might be thinking that it could be a Dr Pepper Lion or perhaps a David Naughton poster from his classic “I’m a Pepper” commercials. Actually you would be wrong if you guessed Dr Pepper at all. A unique group needed a unique symbol, and for us, there is Moxie Lady. Now at this point you are probably asking yourself “what’s a Moxie Lady?” I will explain this in two parts covering what Moxie Lady is, what Moxie is, and I am going to count on everyone to already know what a lady is.
Moxie Lady is the term we have given a paper mache sculpture of a woman’s head with “Moxie 5¢” above her head. The face is a plastic doll’s head with the hair being formed from the paper mache. She was created and donated to the Museum by Joe Cline, a member of the Baylor University Moxie fan club. Moxie Lady is based off of several women who appeared as the Moxie Girl mascot on advertisements like posters, fans, and change trays in the 1910s and 20s. The most famous woman to don the persona of a Moxie Girl was Muriel Ostriche who at 17 posed for pictures to be used on Moxie fans. She went on to star in numerous silent films.
Moxie itself is a soft drink that was created in Lowell, Massachusetts. Like several soft drinks, (our favorite, Dr Pepper, included) Moxie was originally created by a pharmacist. By 1885 it was simply sold as a soft drink in both bottles and syrup for soda fountains. Moxie’s popularity hit its peak in the 1920s when Red Sox player Ted Williams and President Calvin Coolidge were drinkers of the product. Since then the drink has declined in popularity and is mainly popular in the northeast United States. Today the New England Moxie Congress serves as the number one group of Moxie drinkers and fans.
Moxie Lady is just one of many treasures that have been donated through the years and it is our goal to ensure that these pieces of history are preserved for all to see. Sure we like to have fun too, but that only comes after the meticulous organization and ensuring everything is covered in bubble warp. Lots and lots of bubble wrap.
Hello! My name is Jennifer Fischer and I am Visitor Services Manager here at the Dr Pepper Museum and Free Enterprise Institute. Once or twice a week I get to spend the day working with our programs here at the Museum. That means I work booking and giving tours. I wanted to tell you about my favorite program at the Museum – Create a Soft Drink. The program is always an entertaining 2 hours and builds upon free enterprise education. We start out with a tour of the museum then head over to the class room where the kids, and sometimes adults, split into teams to become scientists, then marketing executives of sorts. The kids get so excited about this part.
The students work together in the teams to create 3 soft drinks made from flavor syrups and carbonated water. Probably one of the most entertaining parts, hilarious usually, is the tasting of the creations if you dare. Each drink has three flavors. The participants create, then taste one at a time the three test drinks. I always laugh at the expressions on everyone’s face. It’s hilarious. Sometimes I get asked to try the drinks. Some are pretty good. While others, well, I’ll let you use your imagination. The students come up with some pretty interesting combinations. When I’ve done this program with adults, the adults aren’t nearly as creative with their flavor mixtures as the kids.
After each team has created their three drinks, they then vote on their favorite of the three. The science part ends and then the marketing begins. They choose a name, then a slogan and logo. The artistic side of some of the kids always amazes me. Once all of that has been done, then the other entertaining phase happens. The participants create and present a skit, or mini commercial to try to sell their final product to the rest of the class. More often than not, we are all laughing as we leave to go enjoy our Dr Pepper floats from our old fashioned soda fountain.
The Create a Soft Drink program is always a great, fun filled two hours of learning and team building. If you are interested in, check our website for more information about it.
A funny thing happened one bright hot sunny day this past summer. A man came into the Museum. Now that in itself is not that unusual. People come and go every day. But it was this man’s voice that made him interesting. It was a voice that our Admission’s desk personnel hear many times a day. It was the same voice as Dr. Alderton, the Museum’s animatronic that has worked tirelessly for us for 20 years. Wow! What a surreal moment. The man was Gene Poor. It was his company, LifeFormations, which produced Dr. Alderton 20 years ago. Gene’s voice fit so well with what we originally envisioned for Dr. Alderton, however, Gene was hesitant about not using a voice actor. Thankfully, after a little arm-twisting, Gene loaned his voice to Doc and truly brought him to life.
So back to this past summer…Gene walked in our door. He thought he was coming for a short visit while moving his son and daughter-in-law down to Waco to work at Baylor University. Unknowingly he brought with him a lot of answers to some questions we’ve had for awhile.
Gene was excited to see that Dr. Alderton was still up and running. Since he was one of the first pieces LifeFormations produced, Dr. Alderton is a testament to the quality of their work. In order to keep him that way, Gene offered to do some long-overdue maintenance work on him.
This past October, Doc embarked on his first vacation since coming to work at the Museum. He was packed up in a crate along with his computer and sent to Bowling Green, Ohio where he has been in excellent hands getting a tune-up, new electronic operating system, and even a new suit!
So in the meantime, we’ve had no Doc at the Museum. Visitors were still able to view Dr. Alderton and learn about his invention through a QR code they could scan that linked them to a You Tube video of his chat.
Knowing how hard Dr. Alderton has worked over the past 20 years (with only holidays off), we also gave Doc a digital vacation over the past few months. If you follow us on Twitter, you’ve seen his explorations across the country under the hashtag #DocTravels.
So after 4 months, Dr. Alderton is back with us and already hard at work in the Old Corner Drugstore exhibit. Come by sometime and hear that iconic Dr. Alderton voice now that you know the story behind it.
We do want to thank LifeFormations for their hard work, especially Gene Poor who personally saw Doc through this process. Every so often, everyone, animatronic or otherwise, needs a Lift for Life!