I was a pupil in Miss Henley’s sixth-grade class in the Gorham Elementary School when history touched me. Gorham is and was a village located on the Missouri Pacific Railroad about fifty miles northwest of Cairo, Illinois. A substantial share of its five hundred residents were employees of that railroad.
The place hasn’t changed much since March 18, 1925—the day the most lethal tornado in recorded history came roaring across the Mississippi River from Missouri and devastated Gorham, the first town it hit in Illinois.
The school was a two-story brick building. A wide hall separated the grade school from the high school. We were into the afternoon schedule when, between two and three o’clock, the wind started blowing and Miss Henley asked me and some other boys to close the windows. As I looked out I saw the backboards tearing off the posts of an outdoor basketball court and the outside toilets tossing about. Most of the children ran out the door at the back of the room into a side hall where coats and hats were hung on a partition. The partition blew against the wall and became a partial shelter for some of them.
Along with some of the larger boys, I ran out the side door into the wide hall that separated us from the high school. I remember seeing the high school wall crumble, the plaster turning to dust, before I was knocked unconscious. When I came to, I was a patient in the Catholic hospital in Cairo.
The wife and daughter of Mr. Brown, the principal, were killed, yet he, realizing that he could do nothing for them, went with his injured students to the hospital. The railroad donated a passenger train that was in the area to take the injured and their families there. There were hospitals closer by in Murphysboro and Carbondale, but those cities were in the tornado’s path and had to take care of their own injured.
Eight or nine of my fellow pupils and upward of forty townspeople were killed. My skull and jawbone were fractured. Two of my classmates were dug out from the same area of debris. One, whose last name was Murray (I forget his first name) was dead, and the other, Lee Casey, was crippled for life.