By Randy Fiedler
The tornado that tore through Waco, Texas, on Monday, May 11, 1953, killed 114 people –– giving it the distinction of being tied for the deadliest tornado to ever hit the Lone Star State, and making it the 11th deadliest tornado in U.S. history. While the powerful F5 twister did only minor damage to the Baylor University campus, it left four members of the Baylor community –– Professor Keith James, his wife, Helen, and students Cecil Parten and John Porter Neal Jr. –– dead in its wake. This is their story.
Few saw it coming
Waco was perhaps less prepared for a tornado on May 11, 1953, than it might have been. For one thing, an old legend said that the original residents of the area, the Waco Indians, had chosen a site along the Brazos River for their village because it was considered tornado-proof. The Indians supposedly believed that the ring of hills around Waco would act as a buffer against any damaging winds, and a number of Wacoans had taken up that same belief.
Science also seemed to offer little warning. When residents opened their copies of the Waco News-Tribune on May 11, they saw a brief forecast from the meteorologists: “Partly cloudy with mild temperatures today, tonight and Tuesday.” Another local newspaper predicted: “Partly cloudy today and Tuesday; a few thunderstorms along the [Gulf] coast.” There was no mention of any trouble ahead.
But trouble soon appeared. On the morning of May 11, as an unstable air mass moved across Texas toward the Gulf of Mexico, the Weather Bureau in New Orleans issued a tornado warning for west and central Texas, and the skies across the state grew more ominous as each hour passed. By mid-afternoon some 200 miles west of Waco, residents of San Angelo were shocked when an F4 tornado tore through the city, killing 13 and injuring more than 150 people. It would prove to be just one of 33 tornadoes that would hit 10 different states between May 9 and 11, spanning from Minnesota to Texas.
In Waco around 4 p.m., thunderstorms began sending down hail and heavy rain. Witnesses said it got so dark it seemed as if night had come early. As downtown workers prepared to meet another spring downpour, a tornado touched down southwest of Waco around 4:30 in a residential area. The tornado –– which cut a path nearly one-third of a mile wide with winds up to 260 miles an hour –– then headed straight for downtown Waco, where it arrived virtually unseen through the dark sky 10 minutes later. That’s when Baylor philosophy professor Keith James and his wife drove right into the heart of the storm.
Professor James had a distinguished career before coming to Baylor. Born in North Carolina in 1920, he graduated summa cum laude with a BA in philosophy in 1942 from Wake Forest University, where he was president of the International Relations Club. In December of that same year, James joined the war effort as a private in the U.S. Army Air Corps and served three years as a classification specialist, mostly in the South Pacific.
After World War II ended, James returned home and taught high school in North Carolina for awhile. He enrolled at Duke University, where he earned an MA in philosophy in 1949 and served as president of Duke’s philosophy club. He stayed at Duke to begin work on a PhD in philosophy.
The busy doctoral student taught classes in Christian ethics at Duke, but paused in his studies long enough to take Mary Helen Culbreth as his wife in July 1950. James had completed all of his required PhD courses at Duke and was working to finish his dissertation when he joined the Baylor University faculty in the fall of 1950. He served as an assistant professor in a three-person philosophy department chaired by Dr. Leonard Duce and including Dr. Jack Kilgore.
In the fall of 1951, when the director of the freshmen men’s dormitory Kokernot Hall left Baylor on a study leave, James was appointed as interim dorm director for a year with his teaching load greatly reduced. He returned to full-time faculty status in the 1952-1953 academic year, teaching courses in both philosophy and English.
Keith and Helen James, like many Baylor faculty couples at the time, were faithful members of Waco’s First Baptist Church. The late Dr. Robert Packard, a Baylor physics professor who was friends with the Jameses, remembered what they were doing on the increasingly stormy afternoon of May 11.
“They were at First Baptist Church at a Sunday school meeting when the clouds darkened. They got ready to leave, and (church members) asked them to wait until the storm was over, but they said no,” Packard said in an interview 50 years after the event. Other accounts of what the couple was doing that fateful afternoon vary, however. Some newspapers reported that the two were actually headed toward the church at the time, while John Edward Weems in his book on the Waco tornado wrote that the Jameses had been out visiting with friends and were headed to their home on North 20th Street.
In any event, the couple got in their car and drove through the rain on a route that took them along Fifth Street into the heart of downtown, toward the R.T. Dennis and Co. building at Fifth and Austin. Inside the building, two Baylor students –– John Porter Neal Jr. and Rev. Cecil Marion Parten –– were busy working.
The historical record has left us little information on John Neal, other than the fact that the Waco resident was a student in Baylor’s night school. But the tornado story of Rev. Parten –– also a Baylor night school student –– is better known, and began the morning of May 11 with a bad dream.
Rev. Cecil Parten
Cecil Parten lived with his wife Beth and two-year-old son Ross in Lott, a small town about 25 miles southeast of Waco, where he served as pastor of Lott’s Lone Star Baptist Church. Parten, who grew up in Sweeney, Texas, had come to the ministry a bit later in life than some. The 29-year-old World War II veteran spent six years in the U.S. Navy –– three of those years studying at Columbia University in New York City, where he gained a reputation as a “mathematical genius.” But he felt the call to preach, and came back to his native state to study Bible in Houston.
After being ordained in January 1951, Parten moved his family to Lott to begin serving as Lone Star’s pastor, and enrolled in Baylor University in the fall of 1951 to receive further ministerial training. To help support his family and pay for his schooling, the math whiz took a job in Waco as a bookkeeper for R.T. Dennis and Co., a store that sold furniture and home furnishings.
As Parten slept during the early morning hours of May 11, his wife Beth was wrestling with a nightmare that was both frightening and prophetic. In her dream she desperately tried to reach her husband, but the two were separated by a large black cloud.
“I seldom dream,” Beth said later. “But I called so loud when I was hunting him in the dream that it woke us both up.”
After the abrupt awakening, Beth wanted to tell her husband about the troubling dream that had caused her to shout out, but he was in a hurry to get to work, and she decided to not say anything. Cecil got ready and drove to Waco as usual, where he assumed his bookkeeping duties at the busy furniture store.
The R.T. Dennis and Co. building –– with five stories aboveground and a basement –– was directly across Austin Avenue from the 22-story ALICO building (Waco’s tallest), but the buildings differed in more than just height. The ALICO building was reinforced throughout with a strong frame of steel, while the Dennis building had been built without steel.
“(The Dennis building) had the classic old brick construction –– no inner bracing, just brick walls which will hold a lot of weight, but they will not take any movement or stress,” said Tommy Turner, a reporter covering Waco at the time for the Dallas Morning News.
That contrast –– steel versus brick –– would soon prove fatal.
Death in an instant
It’s obvious that, for Keith and Helen James, the afternoon of May 11 was a case of being in exactly the wrong place at precisely the wrong time. As the couple drove their car through the heavy rain up a darkened Fifth Street, they stopped for the traffic light at the Austin Avenue intersection, placing them right next to the R.T. Dennis building. At that very moment, the F5 tornado hit. While its winds would only cause the steel-reinforced ALICO building across the street to sway a little, the tornado’s fury quickly destroyed the vulnerable Dennis building.
“That big water tank on the Dennis roof just rolled off the two steel rafters that were holding it up and fell right through the roof. The walls just sort of folded up and the roof fell in,” said Eugene Field, an eyewitness. “A second before, there was the Dennis building. The next second it was flat on the ground.”
As the five floors of the Dennis building collapsed, tens of thousand of bricks showered onto the streets below.
“That building slid into the street right where [the Jameses] had been sitting waiting for the light. It slid all the way over into the bar on the next corner,” Turner said. “The bricks next to the curb there were 20 feet deep on over to about five feet deep, so we really didn’t know how many people were under there.”
There were at least two persons underneath –– Keith and Helen James, whose car had been covered by tons of falling brick. When rescue workers were finally able to locate the car and dig it out from the rain-soaked rubble days later, they found that it had been flattened to a height of only two feet. Inside the car, they discovered the bodies of the Jameses, still locked in each other’s arms.
(Amazingly, another Baylor couple who were faced with the same kind of horror as the Jameses that day managed to escape death. Leslie Rasner, a professor in Baylor’s business school, was with his wife Ernestine in their car near the Cotton Belt freight depot downtown when the wall of a building fell on them. Rasner saved his wife from serious injury by throwing his body across hers, but he suffered cuts and bruises serious enough to require hospitalization.)
The Dennis building’s collapse was even more murderous for those caught inside the furniture store than it was for people on the streets outside. Thirty people inside the store died –– the largest death toll from any of Waco’s buildings hit that day. Among them were the two Baylor night students, John Neal and Cecil Parten.
When Rev. Parten didn’t arrive at home that Monday night at his usual hour, his wife Beth at first thought he might have been delayed by picking up some laundry. But when a neighbor in Lott told her about the tornado, she headed for Waco and the Dennis building, but was unable to get through the barricades that had been put up by rescue workers downtown.
Beth spent a number of sleepless nights in Waco, waiting at the Red Cross headquarters or Compton Funeral Home for news on her husband. A photo published May 25, 1953, in LIFE magazine’s coverage of the Waco tornado shows her in obvious distress as she awaits word. The caption reads in part, “She alternated between listening to reports coming in by portable radio in store and keeping watch in car parked outside the Red Cross headquarters.” Finally, on May 14, three days after the tornado hit and after two long nights of waiting, Beth was informed that Cecil’s body had been recovered from the remains of the Dennis building. The news came just two weeks shy of the Partens’ fifth wedding anniversary.
“My husband knew the Lord,” Beth said later. “If he hadn’t, I would have been terribly sorry and terribly disturbed.”
Pitching in, and saying goodbye
A number of Baylor alumni who worked in or visited downtown Waco that day were also killed in the tornado. While news of the deaths continued to make its way to campus, Baylor faculty, staff, students and alumni were busy helping with relief and recovery efforts throughout Waco. Student leaders had quickly organized a 250-person student work force that operated heavy equipment used to move debris, while an estimated 750 additional students did other work downtown.
Baylor’s ROTC detachment was called into service to prevent looters from ransacking damaged stores, and three Baylor physics professors –– including Dr. Packard –– used a Geiger counter to successfully locate and retrieve a $5,000 sliver of radioactive radium lost in a downtown doctor’s office.
In the midst of the cleanup efforts, Baylor University officially paused to pay tribute to its tornado victims. On Wednesday, May 20 –– ironically, during the period before final exams known on campus as “Dead Week” –– members of the Baylor family gathered in Waco Hall to remember the lives of Keith and Helen James, Cecil Parten and John Neal Jr.
It was announced during the memorial service that on the previous day, Baylor faculty members in a special meeting had adopted a resolution of tribute to Keith and Helen James. The resolution called Professor James “an industrious, conscientious and effective teacher…sincerely devoted to the pursuit of the truth. He was a loyal Christian and gave evidence of his profound religious experience through his classroom teaching and his daily life.”
But the final word was … “Welcome!”
The legacy Keith James gave to Baylor University did not end with his death. In fact, death could not prevent the achievement of a goal James had set to help someone halfway across the world receive an education.
More than a year before his death in the Waco tornado, James had learned from a social worker about a 23-year-old Korean man named Bok Mon Her, who was employed at the Servicemen’s Center in Pusan, (South) Korea. The young man had worked at the Center since graduating from high school in 1950, and there he met several missionaries who led him to a faith in Christ and baptism in the Korean Baptist Church.
Bok Mon Her dreamed of one day studying education at an American university, then returning to his home country to teach.
“The missionaries helped me with religion and got me interested in Baylor,” he said. “Before then, I had heard of Baylor, but it was mostly football.”
After learning of the young man’s background and desire for a college education, Professor James soon began corresponding with him by mail. As they exchanged letters, James felt led to bring Bok Mon Her –– who used the Americanized name of Herman Bok –– to Baylor University to receive his education. James agreed to legally sponsor Bok, and began a lengthy bureaucratic process to bring the Korean man to Waco.
Just before he lost his life in the fall of the Dennis building, James had completed the paperwork that was needed to bring Bok to Baylor. Imagine Bok’s heartbreak and concern as he learned that his sponsor for a new life was now dead.
“When I got the news all I could do was pray and cry,” Bok said. “I had read earlier in the [military newspaper] Stars and Stripes about the tornado, but I didn’t realize my friends were killed.”
Bok feared that the death of the Jameses meant the end of his dream of coming to Baylor. However, members of the Friendship Class at Waco’s First Baptist Church –– the Sunday school class Professor James had been a member of –– quickly decided to pay tribute to James by completing the process he had begun. The class voted to take over Bok’s sponsorship, and Baylor alumnus George Berry Graves of Waco (BA ’32) accepted the responsibility of signing the required legal papers. The class would also pay Bok’s way through Baylor.
“I jumped up and down with joy when I heard the news,” Bok said. “Mr. Graves and the others were so good to me. I just cried and prayed.”
Baylor officials gave Bok more good news — if his application was approved in time, he could enter Baylor during the summer 1953 session.
But cutting through international red tape and getting everything approved was not an easy process. On the first application, Bok’s papers were rejected and returned to Graves because they had not been properly signed. And later, after Korean officials received the revised papers, they delayed in approving them, causing Bok to miss the summer session at Baylor. He remained in Korea and continued to work at the Servicemen’s Center, improving his English by speaking with the American soldiers there.
Finally, Bok got his approval, and on Sept. 5, 1953, the young man arrived in Waco. One of his first appointments was to visit with the members of the Friendship Class at First Baptist Church to thank them for all they had done.
And that fall, Herman Bok enrolled as a freshman education major at Baylor University and began his new life –– fulfilling the dream of Keith James, who no doubt would have been thankful that a great blessing could emerge out of such a tragedy.
–Photos of Keith James and Herman Bok, taken from Baylor RoundUps: Baylor Electronic Communications
–Photos of downtown Waco tornado damage: The Texas Collection at Baylor University
–Photo of Beth Parten: John Dominis, Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images