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The 1953 Waco Tornado – An Oral History by Karen Gerhardt Fort, Part 1

May 1, 2013

StormWatch LogoOver 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.

Photo, TF, K's family photo 1952; 3.21.13In 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.

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