What the day was REALLY like in DeSoto, Saturday, March 24!!

March 28th, 2012 @ // One Comment

DESOTO, Ill.—This was a day that I was both looking forward to, but was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of  rocking chairs, for almost two months—book signing and presentation in DeSoto, Illinois!

The reasons why were very simple: DeSoto was, literally, where I stopped on my way to Missouri in July 1999 on the first research trip for the book, being about the midway point for me, full of self-doubts and wondering if I were on the right track with trying to find survivors who would talk to me about the storm. I figured if I were on the wrong track, I was two and a half hours away from home instead of five, and it would take less time to get back from DeSoto than it would to get back from Ellington, Missouri….which was my destination that night.

I stopped at the DeSoto Community Center because I saw activity there and figured there might be some people of the community who could give me a sounding of what I might find during my inquiries. I was right: there, I found the beautiful and gracious Lola Jones, employee at Old National Bank in DeSoto and a community organizer. She and other ladies of the community were readying the center for a wedding reception the next day. She assured me that I was indeed on the right track, and that there would be plenty of people in town who would speak to me about the tornado. Reassured, I traveled on to Ellington, and began the 14-month-long journey of interviews that would lead to the book Death Rides the Sky.

As well, one of the reasons I was so nervous about DeSoto is that in the history of presentations of this book, dating all the way back to 1999-2000, I have never been able to tell about the DeSoto chapter (Chapter 7) without tearing up, and without my voice shaking. The tale that Lillian  “Lala” Bullar Bridges related to me was one of the most devastating in the book….and she told it as if it had occurred to her the day I sat down with her, not 74 years before. I won’t give away more if you’ve not read the book….but for those of you who have, you’ll know to what I’m referring. One of the most-asked questions I get at presentations, upon hearing how deeply it affected me, is, “How were you able to write the DeSoto chapter?” The answer is: s-l-o-w-l-y. It actually took weeks to write it, as I would frequently have to get up from the computer, listen to music, drink coffee, clear my head, then go back to it…little by little until it was all done. It is a sorrowful chapter, because DeSoto in the Tri-State Tornado was a sorrowful place: 69 percent of the town’s deaths were children at the relatively-new (15 year old) schoolhouse, which was destroyed in the twister. The mourning in DeSoto on March 18 of every year continues even today…which was one of the reasons organizers chose the Saturday after the anniversary INSTEAD of the anniversary date to hold the book signing.

The signing itself was overlooked by mainstream media, but instead of quoting Mahatmas Gandhi at this juncture, I’m just going to bring you scenes from one of the most successful events held yet this year…and what REALLY occurred there, which was wonderful, commemorative, heart-tugging and shows the true community spirit of DeSoto, something so many towns in Illinois would do well to emulate.

This was an early line for book purchases/signings; it got hectic quickly!!

The lines continue....That's my daughter Jade sitting there with me; she was one of the "cute little kids" who traveled with me in 1999-2000 to do the research, and was with me when I stopped at the DeSoto community center in July 1999 and talked to Lola Jones.

A shot from the entrance of the gym of the grade school, toward the stage. In the background is a screen that was showing photos from the book in a powerpoint presentation, developed by my son, Jesse, who was also one of the "cute little kids" I had along with me during my research. Lola had brought in photos of the town's disaster, which are on display regularly at ONB in DeSoto; they have been featured in TV documentaries about the Tri-State Tornado, including "The Wrath of God" by the History Channel.


Our Master of Ceremonies, Larry Dietz, is a wonderful guy and DeSoto native now an administrator at University of Illinois, Champaign.

Our beautiful DeSoto tornado survivors, who had a place of honor in the front row. I was fine during my presentation with making eye contact with them, right there in the front, until I started talking about Lala's experience...then I did indeed get weepy, and could not look at their dear faces, as it made it so real for me...and difficult to continue.

That's me along with WSIL weatherman Jim Rasor, waiting to take our places on stage. WSIL actually had a live shot of this!

The crowd was huge...many more than the 100 WSIL reported. In this shot, the audience is having a moment of silence for those who lost their lives in the storm.


Another shot of the crowd from a different angle, showing how big the event was.


This is the action in an absolutely BRILLIANT skit performed in front of the grade school choir singing "You Raise Me Up," the Josh Groban tune that always brings tears to my eyes anyway...but this skit was even more poignant.

The skit was particularly poignant because it portrayed a town that had been blown to pieces by a tornado....and the actors in the skit were picking up the pieces after the storm, finding objects of memorabilia....and more.

...and this is the "more"...a survivor, found in the rubble, whom the others "lifted up," and she was "strong when I am on your shoulder," just like in the song. It was almost too much, and certainly there wasn't a dry eye in the gym, at this point.

The choir continued to sing, and the little survivor had a solo at the end...It was BEAUTIFUL, and the choir was THE BEST!

Jim Rasor gave a fantastic presentation on the meteorological aspects of not only the Tri-State Tornado, but also of the recent Harrisburg tornado; it was very informative!

Jim is a gifted speaker as well as weatherman; the audience loved it.

And then I was up, opening the presentation with a few bars of "Over the Rainbow" as I do.

Off to the side is the long-track map of the tornado, developed by Dr. Stan Changnon in the 60s and considered the standard presentment of where and how the tornado struck.

When I got down from the stage, I was thrilled to learn that one of the dear survivors seated in the front row was none other than "Baby Ruby," the three-month-old baby sister of Lala Bullar Bridges, whom Lala was clutching in her arms when the winds came and pulled them both through the front windows of the neighbor's house where they were when the tornado struck. I had never met Ruby, only had spoken to her big sister. I was ECSTATIC to get to meet her, and very honored!


Then Ruby showed me a photo taken of her shortly after the Bullar family had reunited after the tornado, and was back on their feet.


This is the photo Ruby brought to the event to show me; it's of baby Ruby and her dad, no doubt after Mr. Lasiter attempted to buy baby Ruby from her father, after Ruby's mom died from serious injuries sustained in the storm and the Bullar family was left without a mom. If you look closely, you can see the bandages on Ruby's head, from her own injuries sustained when the winds blew her and Lala above the treetops in the middle of DeSoto.


Ruby also brought a photo of her parents, showing the mother she never knew.

From the stage area I went on back to the signing table, where Jade & I stayed for almost another hour, selling and signing books. This was also the event for which we baked about 400 cookies; they were evidently a hit, as we got home with exactly 20!

We are very grateful to have had the opportunity to meet again with the people of DeSoto, help them acquire their signed books, and bring full circle what began almost 13 years ago. The book, according to my publisher, is doing very,VERY well. As I told the wonderful people of DeSoto, it’s due in large part to their help. The tornado that attempted to wipe them from the map has now put them back ON the map, and the more books we move, the more that readers from all over the country, and the world, learn about the Tri-State Tornado in DeSoto!

One Comment → “What the day was REALLY like in DeSoto, Saturday, March 24!!”

  1. […] Illinois, 541 people were killed, including 234 at Murphysboro, 148 at West Frankfort, and 60 at De Soto.  An overview of this tornado disaster can be found at the Paducah NWS’s Tri-State […]

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