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Three Families Rise from the Rubble of Xenia

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In Xenia, Ohio the tornado came a few minutes before 5 o’clock on an April evening, just as the men were starting to come home from work. It dipped into the center of town and savaged everything in its half-mile wide path: 32 dead, more than a thousand injured, hundreds of homes shattered. The residential intersection above was typical—a pleasant neighborhood reduced to rubble. Now, two months later, the town of Xenia (population 25,000) is slowly starting to stir again. New foundations are being poured; frames are being erected over devastated home-sites; wrecked shops are being restored. Citizens have banded together into a “Spirit of ’74” committee, and the liveliest argument in town is not whether to rebuild Xenia but how to rebuild it better. Because destruction was so widespread, many citizens view this as a unique opportunity to change zoning patterns, e.g., to stop commercial buildings from moving into residential neighborhoods. Despite the tragedy, the view is toward the future—as the efforts of the three families on these pages demonstrate. If a stranger has any doubts, the town’s most popular bumper sticker proclaims the simple news: “Xenia Lives.”

The Rogerses

The sound, Mabel Rogers remembers, “was like a thousand jet planes.” Then there was a terrible silence, and suddenly the one-story frame house simply lifted off its foundation. “I could see the roses outside through the gap between the floor and walls,” her husband Audra Rogers recalls. Then, just as suddenly, the house collapsed around Rogers, his wife and their 15-year-old daughter Joanna. Miraculously, they suffered no injuries. Today, working on the old foundation, the Rogerses have begun to rebuild their home. While work goes on despite a light rain, Mrs. Rogers (above) expectantly paces off where the living room used to be—and will be again. “You can’t tell,” she says, “but the good Lord looked over us.” Most of the other homes in the Rogers neighborhood were similarly ruined, and some of the residents have decided to move rather than rebuild. “This is home, that’s all I can tell people,” she says firmly. She points to some bushes that survived the storm. “Look,” she says, “the roses are going to bloom.”

The McCallisters

As she bent to pick up a curtain blown down by the wind, Mary-Louise McCallister looked out a window to see one of her neighbor’s trees picked up by the tornado’s funnel, roots and all. “Marcus,” she told her husband calmly, “I think it’s time to go to the basement.” They survived uninjured, but their century-old landmark home was badly battered. “Of course the cheapest thing would have been to start over somewhere else,” she says now, “just push this lovely old home down with a bulldozer.” Instead, Mrs. McCallister, 63, and her attorney husband, who just turned 70, are overseeing its painstaking restoration. Because they insist that each detail be perfect, the job may take a year and a half. Meanwhile, they are living in an apartment. “Just think of it,” Mrs. McCallister tells a visitor, “fresh paint, bright new wallpaper, everything so clean and pretty. You come for Christmas dinner in 1975—we’ll be in by then.”

The Kennedys

For the three generations of Kennedys, their first concern when the tornado hit was one another’s safety. Eighty-five-year-old Joe Kennedy and his wife were sitting in their living room when their granddaughter-in-law Gayle called to warn them of the twister. Moments later a huge timber fell where they had been sitting. Young Jim, 26, was working in the family supermarket and yelled to his father Jack, upstairs in the second-floor office, to “get the hell downstairs.” The market was wrecked, but the two men were unhurt. As soon as the funnel had passed, Jim ran three miles to his home and found his pregnant wife Gayle in the shambles of their home but otherwise all right. Later the family took stock: “We’re wiped out,” Jack summarized, “but we’re all okay.” Since Joe’s home and Jim’s were destroyed, both families moved in with Jack and his wife Gert, whose home survived. The grandfather’s house was too badly damaged to be repaired, and the elder Kennedys will buy another closer to their son. Young Jim and his wife will rebuild.

But home restoration will have to come second to the rebuilding of the family business, which had grown from a small store to a virtual shopping center over the past 57 years. It encompassed more than two city blocks and included a gas station, beauty parlor, drugstore and post office, as well as the supermarket. The family called it “Kennedy Corners.” Right now the business is operating out of a mobile home and 10’x60′ van which contain the post office and a tiny but busy grocery.

“Think of this,” says Jack, 54, with a smile, “as a fresh start on things—welcome to Kennedy’s open-air market.” Reconstruction of the shopping complex will start this month with the supermarket.

The housing needs of Jim and Gayle can’t be postponed long since they are expecting a baby in August. Their two-year-old, $32,000 home will cost about $50,000 to rebuild. Like many, they will qualify for a five percent federal “disaster area” loan. Furnishings will have to be bought from scratch. “There aren’t any hand-me-downs anymore,” Jim jokes. His mother Gert worries most about the senior Kennedys. “They’ve lost all the habits of a lifetime,” she says, “knowing where everything was in the kitchen, eating off the same drop-leaf table for 50 years. It’s so much harder for them. They were so set.”