Kokomo man recalls altruistic response in aftermath of 1965 tornado

From the 1965 Palm Sunday Tornado articles series
  • 2 min to read

Most people head for cover when they hear reports of tornadoes forming. Kent Blacklidge was called out into the storm.

Blacklidge, now a real estate appraiser in Kokomo, was 27 when the 1965 Palm Sunday tornadoes swept through the Midwest. Meteorologists later confirmed that 47 twisters touched down in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa. About 1,200 Hoosiers were injured and 137 were killed.

At the time, Blacklidge only knew that the sky was dark and ominous when he and fellow members of the amateur radio club were called out to help direct emergency personnel responding to injuries. A tornado swept through Russiaville, Alto, the southern edge of Kokomo and Greentown at about 7:30 p.m. on April 11, 1965. Blacklidge was stationed on Indiana 22 waiting out the storm and directing people off the roads so emergency vehicles could get through.

Palm Sunday Tornado (25).jpg

1965 Palm Sunday Tornado - Sunday April 11, 1965 Woolworth and Kroger in Maple Crest Plaza

This April 11, 1965 file photo shows Woolworths and Krogers in Maple Crest Plaza.

“They didn’t know the extent of the damage, they didn’t know how many people were hurt, what rescue efforts were going to be needed or anything else,” Blacklidge said. “It was still raining and blowing like crazy. This went on most of the night.”

The next day, Blacklidge again was sent out to the frontlines of the tornado’s destruction. He worked in the Kokomo Tribune’s dispatch department at the time, supervising the flow of advertising art and copy between the newspaper’s advertising department and composition operation. Blacklidge went on to eventually become publisher of the Kokomo Tribune, holding management positions at the paper for a total of 20 years before pursuing a career in academia.

It was all-hands-on-deck at the Tribune after the Palm Sunday tornado, Blacklidge said.

“Afterward, at the Tribune here, almost everybody was called in,” he said. “There was a lot of talking and getting together and trying to decide who was going to cover what. Reporters and photographers were sent in both directions – to Russiaville and Greentown, primarily.”

Blacklidge helped photograph the wreckage left behind by the tornado for the Tribune’s special section published April 16, 1965. It took three or four days after the tornado for the full magnitude of the destruction to sink in, he said.

He recalled seeing one ambulance going by again and again as he worked the radio the night of the tornado. The next day he heard a car had been picked up and thrown into the basement of a house in Greentown. But more than anything, what stands out in Blacklidge’s memory 50 years later is the response of the community in the face of tragedy.

"The only thing I recall is the attitude of everybody. It’s like ‘What can we do? How can we help?’”

“The only thing I recall is the attitude of everybody,” he said. “It’s like ‘What can we do? How can we help?’”

Blacklidge said he saw that same attitude after the tornado that hit Kokomo in 2013, though the damage from that one was much less severe than the 1965 tornado and no one was killed.

“What I remember is that everybody wanted to help,” Blacklidge said. “In reading about the response to the 2013 [tornado], where people were jumping in and helping their neighbors, that was the same attitude [as in 1965]. People just came together.”

Education reporter Lauren Slagter can be reached at 765-454-8587, by email at lauren.slagter@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @LaurenSlagter.

React to this story: