“It is essential to stay near a shelter while I’m ogling the clouds as they boil and bounce up and down.”
Each year, the date inevitably arises again. The heat is transitioning from dry to downright sticky. The pools are open. People are spending more time wrangling their lawns and gardens into shape in the evenings, when dusk settles slowly, first filtering golden through the ample leaves of Topeka’s big, old trees.
Every June 8, the sky roils and curdles, however, in the minds of those who found themselves the unlucky residents of Topeka when the infamous “Topeka Tornado” descended, rending lives apart and changing the city’s future irrevocably. Some of those neighborhoods knifed apart by the F-5 suffered, faltered and recovered. Some didn’t quite make it back to the way they used to be.
It’s worthwhile to take pause each year on June 8 to recognize that our city’s confrontation with that disaster altered its course of history. The city’s forward trajectory was sidetracked from its path that day when a new path was carved by the tornado.
This year is the 50th anniversary. It may be more important now to dwell on the impact of that day because those who remember it with all clarity have lived 50 years on with a sense of the before and the after. Their memories and impressions are invaluable.
As one of our community’s most trusted archivists, the library holds our city’s history safely in our collections.
For the remainder of June, visitors to the library will see a display in the rotunda that shows some of the objects and artifacts from that day and its aftermath. But to grasp the full impact of the ’66 Tornado, visit the Topeka Room this year. Take in pictures of a ruthless black mass barreling down Burnett’s Mound. See the fear in the eyes of the injured. Imagine the sirens barely audible above the roar. Study the bright red scar that slashes across a map of Topeka. Understand more about your surroundings. Embrace your place.
You can also visit the Capital-Journal’s online archive to explore some materials from the Topeka Room collection.