washburn university devastation and recovery


Nightfall of June 8, 1966, started as a typical Kansas summer evening. The campus of Washburn University was relatively quiet. Commencement ceremonies had originally been scheduled for this evening, but has been rescheduled and taken place two days earlier in Topeka Municipal Auditorium. Had graduation taken place when originally planned, five hundred graduates, family, faculty and friends would have been assembled and trapped in Moore Bowl, Washburn’s football stadium, when the killer tornado struck.

Washburn University Campus before tornado

The storm began as a gentle summer rain, but quickly increased in intensity. Tornado funnels were spotted and reported: one from the west riding high in the clouds, a second on the ground south of Dover. Approximately 7:00 p.m., a giant funnel formed in the southwest. At 7:15 p.m. the twister came over Burnett’s Mound and proceeded in a general northeasterly direction. The Washburn campus lay directly in its path. Within minutes, the tornado had cut a four-block wide and eight-mile long swath of destruction through Kansas’ capital city. In the tornado’s wake, a historic and magnificent college campus was practically destroyed, sixteen people were killed and five hundred injured.

Aerial view of WU campus destruction 1966

The Washburn campus was almost totally wiped out. Miraculously, out of approximately 400 people on campus, only 15 were seriously hurt. Aerial photographs indicated the twister had passed directly through the grounds. More than 400 trees were uprooted. Nearly 150 automobiles were piled on top of each other or laying on their sides or roofs. One car had been picked up and sailed over the ROTC building and landed on the 50-yard line of the football stadium. Buildings were scattered as if built of cardboard instead of stone. Over 124,000 square feet of classroom space was gone. Those buildings not structurally damaged were drenched in a fine powdery dust of glass, dirt and mud.

Tragedy sometimes brings out the best in people and the Topeka tornado is a prime example. The cleanup began immediately and almost everyone was willing to help.

Photo of WU campus from car window, 1966

For academic life at Washburn, the most immediate problem was how to handle summer school, scheduled to start June 11, just three days after the tornado hit. There was never any question with the faculty that summer school would begin as scheduled. Arrangements were made to hold some classes at Topeka West High School even though the high school was not air-conditioned. The Shawnee County Courthouse along with other places were also pressed into service for a few classes.

Students going to class in trailers on WU campus

By August, contractors began work to prepare the sites for the trailer units that would replace lost classroom buildings.

When September rolled around, the Washburn campus looked in many ways like a crazy quilt pattern. Enrolling students mingled with hard-hat construction men working frantically to finish those buildings that could be restored. Forty-one portable units had been obtained to replace classrooms and offices, which had been destroyed. After their use on campus, some of these units were moved out to the hill at Wanamaker and 6th and ended up housing KTWU-TV offices for years until a television station was built on campus in 1994.

In his classic work The Idea of University, John Henry Cardinal writes that a university is so much more than a collection of buildings, books and equipment. A university is a spirit, a community of knowledge, ideas and vision that exist independently of mortar and bricks. Only the outer façade of Washburn was destroyed. That was replaced relatively quickly. The essence of Washburn, the vitality, could never be destroyed by man-made or natural disaster. The espirit of the University not only survived, but also was strengthened and enhanced by the big blow of ’66.

"Despite the ravages of the tornado, much of Washburn's early architecture has been recreated and is visible in places like the reconstructed CarnegieHall...and the Living Learning Center
clock tower."

Old Carnegie Hall that was destroyed by tornado

Current photo of Carnegie Hall

Old clock tower building

Current photo of Living Learning Center clock tower

There are hundreds of stories from Washburn surrounding the night of the tornado. Harold Holden was the bookstore manager who slept in the store to prevent looting. Art Johnson was staff architect who designed the bell tower to use the bells from destroyed Thomas Gym. Many have fascinating first person accounts to tell. Here now are some of the Topeka Tornado stories from Washburn students, alumni, faculty and staff.

“I was listening to the bulletins on the car radio and could hear the sirens. I thought that the basement of Carnegie would be the best place to take shelter and headed to the Law School. I remember the air turning very dark and watching objects fly through the air. I just reached the campus in time to watch the bell tower on the girl’s gymnasium crumble. That was enough for me. I stopped the car and hit the floor. When it seemed that the tornado had passed, I looked around and the campus was gone” –Paul Arabia, Class of 1966

“My office was in the east wing of the ground floor in Morgan Hall. A brick was blown through the window of my office without shattering the glass, and it hit against the wall and fell on the desk of my Secretary. Had she been at her desk it, would have hit her in the back of the head. I still have the brick. When I went to Washburn the next day, and although I had been a professor there for 17 years, it was very difficult for me to know where I was on the campus. The landmarks (building and trees) were gone. Strange as it may seem, there was a slight good resulting from the tornado. It destroyed a number of old buildings that were replaced with new and more up-to-date ones.” --Don Wright,

“As I remember, I had just finished my freshman year, and my family was coming back from Estes Park where we had been vacationing.  We followed 3 tornados home to Kansas City that day.  The first one we watched from I-70 above Burnett's Mound as it rumbled through Topeka and Washburn's campus.  Indian legend spoke of the big wind that would destroy Topeka if anyone ever built on the sacred burial ground that was Burnett's Mound.  I guess the legend came to pass.  The damage didn't look too bad from our vantage point on the highway, but it proved to be a total wipeout by Mother Nature.  I remember having so many tornado drills that spring that it became a joke to us.  Every time the sirens went off, we would gather up our books and our cards for bridge and meet in the bathtub on the 3rd floor of the Theta house.  Ironically, that was about the only thing left of the house when I crawled through it the next week.  I have never taken a tornado siren lightly since. The years of rebuilding that followed proved to be real character building experiences. But I think that those who stuck it out would agree that the gain far outweighed the pain.  The traditions and the camaraderie that I have always appreciated about Washburn were just intensified, as we all banded together, not just to survive, but to thrive.  I think that we proved that Washburn was much more than just beautiful ivy covered buildings.  It was a community of thoughtful, sturdy, and determined individuals.  Washburn was rebuilt better than ever!” -- Prudence (Prudy Percell) Schnoebelen, WU Class of 1969, Kappa Alpha Theta

“I was in the basement of Carnegie attending the bar review class when the sirens went off. About 15 or 20 of us went outside for a look-see. I remember that it was incredibly still, which was surprising since it had been storming so hard. Suddenly somebody yelled and pointed and we could see this huge black funnel. It looked like it was some distance away. Then it seemed to change direction and head straight for us. I could see lots of paper and boxes floating on the edge of it. I guess I was mesmerized by the majesty and power of it. Everyone else went to the basement, but I stayed on the law school steps and watched it come closer.

Old Carnegie Hall that was destroyed by tornado

The funnel must have hit a gas pump or something, because there was an explosion in the cloud. I could see roofs and other debris flying around. Mostly I remember the noise; it sounded like 10,000 freight trains. The funnel was almost on me when I came to my senses and ran back into the basement. Just as I got to the bottom of the stairs, the funnel hit the building. A heavy Coke machine was simply picked up and carried off. Windows were sucked in and glass flew everywhere and some fragments hit me in the back and legs. I grabbed hold of the first solid thing I could find and held on firmly.

The whole thing was over in a matter of seconds. It got real quiet except for the tinkling of glass. I can still remember choking and spluttering from the huge clouds of dust from the broken masonry. Several of us climbed out of a basement window and the extent of the damage was breathtaking. Trees were uprooted and electric lines had broken loose and were popping. In the parking area just north of Crane Observatory, cars had been picked up and piled together. About 30 yards away from this pile was my old ’58 Plymouth in splendid isolation. It was completely intact, no broken windows. Sitting in the driver’s seat was a brick from the smokestack that got demolished.” – Leon Taylor, Class of 1966

“On June 8, 1966 I had just returned home from my tour of duty as a police officer with the Topeka Police Department.  I resided in the 1100 block of Woodward Avenue and both heard and witnessed the tornado traversing the city.  Afterwards, I reported back to the Police Department for special assignment. 

I arrived at the Department to find no patrol cars available, except for several Harley-Davidson Motorcycles and one experimental Moped scooter. Being innovative I took the unlicensed Moped and assumed patrol duties in and around  Washburn University having been a student familiar with the campus layout.

The devastation was unbelievable. A beloved campus was in ruins.  Loss of life was minimized by the fact the tornado passed through the campus after 5:00 p.m. and it was summer.  I spent one month assisting with traffic control, campus security and debris removal wanting to do my part bringing the University back to life.” -- John F. Holford, Class of 1973, Regional Director of Security, Levi Strauss & Co.

Rice Hall that was destroyed by tornado

“I was attending a conference for high school newsletter editors in Manhattan.  The storms hit there also and we spent some time in the basement of one of the dormitories.  After the storm hit, those participants in the conference who were from Topeka heard the bad news and were called home to deal with the devastating effects.

My brother, Gary Jarchow, entered the law school the following fall. His classes were held in mobile classrooms.” – Susan Jarchow, WU information Systems and Services Department

“It was the summer before my freshman year at WU and I had gotten a job as a clerk in the Crane Observatory. For some reason  everyone left early that day and one of the professors came up to me and handed me the key to the building. He asked me to turn off the lights and lock up at 5 o'clock.  I did as instructed, got in my car and headed for my sisters trailer house (we did not call them mobile homes in those days).  My parents were in California, on vacation, and I was staying with her and her family.

As we sat down to eat we heard tornado sirens, she then grabbed her two sons and my brother-in-law drove us to the North Topeka fire station (to take cover) where he was a fireman.   As soon as we got to the station we turned on the TV and watched the tornado hit WU.  I actually watched the building I had just locked up get hit by the tornado! We continued watching as the cameras showed the campus in complete destruction and the beautiful old trees that had fallen on buildings and cars.  It looked like a war zone.

My parent’s house was hit, so I spent the next two weeks repairing and cleaning up before they were able to get home.  It was about that time that I heard from my professor that I could return to work.  Our offices had been moved into a classroom in Morgan Hall.  I have to admit, we did not get much work done that summer.  We were continually entertained by the wrecking balls, large dump trucks, construction crews and the news media.

By the end of July they were pouring footings for the trailers (classrooms). They sat the trailers around the edge of the campus so they could continue to work in the center where the buildings were hit.  School started on time and we all proudly wore our new sweatshirts that said "Trailer Tech"!

FOOTNOTE:  I gave a "Wake Up Washburn" speech a few years ago and told this story.  At the end of the story I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out an old key.  I told Dr. Farley that I had been carrying it around for 38 years and thought it was time to return it.  Dr. Farley replied, " thanks for the key but, what did you do with the building"!” – Dee Bisel, Owner, Minuteman Press, Lawrence, Kansas

“I was at Washburn University and was taking summer school classes and remember we had to switch to Topeka West High School.” – Robert O. Duff, Class of 1968, Senior Vice President, San Diego Community Bank

“I was a member of the Law School faculty when the tornado struck on June 8, 1966. My family and I were almost at the center of the tornado that evening. We lived on West 23rd Street, just south of the campus. Our memories of that event are a vivid today as then.” – William F. Harvey, Emeritus Dean and Carl M. Gray Emeritus Professor of Law, Indiana University School of Law

“My dad had helped me fix up my room at the Kappa Sig house and I had put wood paneling on the walls and a carpet on the floor. When I reached my room I couldn’t believe my eyes. Every inch of the wood paneling was studded with grass, and fragments of debris and glass. The velocity of the wind had driven hundreds of grass blades several inches into the paneling. It was quite a sight to behold.” –Charles Andrews, Class of 1969

Washburn University President John Henderson was in Iowa when he learned of the tornado disaster. Prior to leaving the day before, he put John Howe, Dean of the Washburn Law School, in charge of the university. Dean Howe said, “I told him, okay John, I’ll take care of it. You’ll never know this place when you return. He didn’t.

Portions of this website are taken from the WU Archives including an article in the Washburn School of Law publication, The Circuit Rider, written by Brian J. Moline, Class of 1966.