50 years after the tornado: Don and Pat Dunstan’s Xenia survival story

By Alan Brads

Today Don and Pat Dunstan can’t agree on the morning weather of April 3, 1974. What happened that evening 50 years ago obscures it from memory.

“It was a beautiful, beautiful morning, just gorgeous,” Don said, as chipper and optimistic as he always is. “That morning I walked down to the shoe store, and it looked like a picture-perfect day.”

“Well,” Pat interjected, “but it was so windy that day.” 

Her annotation should not be taken as pessimism or melodramaticism, but rather a wholehearted passion for retelling the story exactly how she recalls it.

“That afternoon some gusts of wind scared the kids I was teaching at Xenia Christian,” Pat said. “I told them, ‘We don’t need to worry, we can trust God. This is a nice strong building.’” 

In 1974 the couple lived at 35 ½ W. Market St. – a section of road that would soon no longer exist. Today, where stood a historic section of Xenia, exists a vast but nearly vacant parking lot for an equally sparse line of stores.

They’d lived there for eight years. They hoped to buy a house but kept waiting around because they liked their upstairs apartment above an old storefront well enough for $65 a month of rent.

“We hadn’t bought a house for seven years because we could save so much money living there,” Pat said. “I always say God had to blow us out of there.”

It was just right for the two of them, their 4-year-old daughter, Sandy, and black poodle, Tasha.

The Dunstan family: Pat, Sandy, Don  and Tasha.
Pat, Sandy and Don Dunstan … and Tasha.

They were getting ready to go to a prayer meeting. Don took a bath while Pat prepared shepherd’s pie.

In an era before cell phones or tornado sirens, signs of trouble reached Pat’s ears first. The back door rattled in the wind so vigorously that Pat went to latch it, only to find it already latched.

Don got out of the bathtub, and before he could dry off, the roof flew off the building, and a manhole-sized chunk of ceiling flew with it, opening up the house to water, wind and all the black grime the wind brought with it. The black stuff stuck to everthing: Don’s wet body, the walls, the dishes and even pages of their family Bible that are still there today.

They went into emergency mode.

Pat’s instincts from bomb drills back in the ’50s told her to get under something solid. She pushed Sandy under their bed and followed behind her. The sides of Pat’s head were sore later from squeezing into such a tight space.

Don got down on the floor in the hallway outside the bathroom. The super outbreak would popularize tornado safety that would’ve told Don the bathroom would’ve been the safest place in the house. Glass, both from their smashed windows and from nearby structures, sliced up Don’s knees as it whipped around the floor.

Every window in the house shattered except the bedroom window that would’ve sent glass careening around the room Sandy and Pat sheltered in.

Stories afterward told of small children being ripped out of their parents’ arms by the wind. But the relative safety of the bed spared the 30-pound Sandy. Hiding under the bed works sometimes.

“It sounded like a freight train,” Pat said. “If you’ve ever sat next to a railroad track while a freight train is going through, you know it shakes your car. That’s what it was like with our house. I really expected it to collapse.”

She was almost right. Light streamed through cracks between the walls and floor where the whole apartment had shifted off its base.

While other apartments in the area toppled, 35 ½ W. Market St. survived. Shattered windows on opposite sides of the apartment created a tunnel for the wind to swirl through, rather than smashing bluntly up against the building.

As the storm moved east, Don abandoned his shelter to look out the front window. The couple agrees perfectly on his next words.

“You’re not gonna believe what’s out there,” Don said to Pat, surveying West Market Street through the empty panes.

“Looking down our street, it looked like a war zone,” Pat said, recalling the carnage.

After rubbernecking at the damage out front they inspected their own house to find many objects missing, some as big as lamps. What was left was sopping wet and covered in the same black grime that coated Don, who was equally wet.

To his dismay, one item that remained without having budged an inch was a stack of papers ready for Don, a high school English teacher, to grade.

“Why couldn’t they blow away?” Don said. “They were right in the middle of things. They were right there!”

Sandy looked on from a rocking chair where her mother plopped her and cried her displeasure about the state of her sopping and filthy teddy bear.

Bizarrely, Pat’s shepherd’s pie had been blown off the stove, but the wind dropped it unharmed some feet away on the table.

A huge sheet of metal blew into Sandy’s room.

“We assessed pretty quickly we weren’t gonna be able to live there anymore,” Pat said. “That was one of the first assessments we made.”

But after that, they were at a loss.

“What do I do? Where do I go? Who do I see?” Don said. “You just don’t know.”

He made up his mind to drive to south Xenia in his now windowless car to rendezvous with Sandy’s babysitters, Bud and Louise Rose, hoping they could offer shelter.

“I’ll tell ya, that was a trip, too,” Don said. “Just getting around the streets was awful.”

While he trekked south, another tornado threat approached, and the police marched through the streets calling out on a bullhorn for citizens to take shelter.

Pat and Sandy crossed Detroit Street to the police station, as they had little shelter of their own left. They waited out the warning which would eventually prove benign, but as they were released, Pat realized Tasha, the poodle, was missing. 

She spotted Tasha at the intersection of Market and Detroit streets and called to her, while a man in a white truck assisted in wrangling the poodle. What Pat didn’t realize in her ongoing state of shock, was the identity of the man was none other than her husband driving Bud Rose’s truck.

“We were telling the story to somebody else three days later,” Pat said. “And Don said ‘That was me in the white truck!’ I didn’t even recognize him. When you’re in shock that’s just what it’s like.”

Bud Rose came with plastic sheets to the Dunstans’ apartment to cover everything from all the elements pouring into their roofless and holey-ceilinged apartment.

Evening set in, and without power or shelter the Dunstans found asylum in the Roses’ home, where they stayed for two days. Even in the improved conditions, the ongoing rainstorms took their toll.

“They had flooding in their basement,” Pat said. “Sandy was sleeping on the floor beside me, and the flooding kept getting higher and higher.”

The next morning Don tapped into his resources as Greenon’s athletic director and baseball coach the prior year. He got permission for the baseball team to skip school to come help relocate their belongings.

Storage unit prices skyrocketed in wake of the disaster, so the Dunstans took advantage of garage space of friends, and friends of friends.

“Honestly, we didn’t know where some of our stuff was, we had no idea,” Don said.

Their belongings would never return to West Market Street, nor would Don and Pat, as the old houses were bulldozed in favor of the shopping plaza.

Though they never returned home, the Dunstans never lived away from Xenia either. Today they reside on King Street near the middle of town, which is home to some of Xenia’s oldest and most beautiful homes that survived the tornado. Despite escaping the half-mile-wide funnel cloud, their King Street home still shows signs of post-tornado remodeling, a commonality shared by hundreds of Xenia homes.

Xenia lived up to its Native Shawnee name, “The Place of the Devil Wind,” and the city was forever changed.

“There was extra fear,” Don said. “There still is.”

Mandated tornado drills in schools in Ohio kicked in, and run at least six times per year in every school in Ohio to this day. Years down the line students started slacking off and didn’t take them seriously, but the Dunstans cracked down on any silliness in their classrooms.

“I hated those tornado drills,” Don said. “I mean you’ve got to have them, but the kids would horse around and I said ‘No, you don’t horse around at this. This is serious.’”

“I wasn’t patient with kids goofing around with drills either,” Pat said. “I knew they had a purpose to give us an automatic response because I only got under the bed with Sandy because of bomb drills.”

A storm in May 1974 rattled Xenia Christian, the same building Pat told her students not to worry about just two months before because the building was sturdy. But now after the super outbreak, she sympathized with the kids.

“I was just terrified the building was gonna cave,” Pat said. “I was praying and praying it wouldn’t fall down. After an event like that you lose faith in buildings and wonder if it’s secure. You don’t even think about those things before.”

To this day Pat won’t watch much news coverage of natural disasters.

“It just bothers me,” she said. “There’s only so much I can take.”

That effect never leaves.

Before and after looked different for the Dunstans, and for Xenia. From monthly tornado siren tests to multiple landmarks around town, to the testimony of survivors, it’s hard to miss the impact over the last 50 years of April 3, 1974.

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