Former Topeka resident recounts tornado memories

Survivor: Marsha Thompson telling her story of the 1966 Topeka tornado. Thompson was a resident of Topeka at the time of the disaster.

Ryan Thompson

50 years ago this month, a destructive EF5 tornado hit Topeka on June 8, 1966.

Marsha Thompson, a 15-year-old resident of Topeka at the time of the disaster, remembers the event well.

According to Thompson, there was at least one unusual occurrence before the tornado touched down. Lady, her pet brittany spaniel, spent the day pacing in her pen, something the dog never did previously. A couple of hours before the tornado hit, Lady began pushing straw blankets up against the door to her doghouse.

When the sirens went off, Thompson went out to look, ignoring the warnings of her mother, while Leo Burroughs, her father, carried the pregnant dog from outside to the the basement. Thompson heard that other pets in the city were behaving strangely as well.

Knowing that tornadoes generally move in a northeastern direction, Thompson and Burroughs went out to their front porch to watch the tornado after it passed through Washburn and College Hill.

“The cloud, by then, was almost white,” said Thompson. “I heard it was probably from all the debris, but the edge was still black and you could see the rotation.”

Because of Burroughs’ occupation as an electrician, Thompson was able to see much of the destruction.

“We got to go into a lot of the really bad areas, areas we probably shouldn’t have been in,” said Thompson. “I remember we drove over live power lines, which terrified my mother.”

She was awestruck by the aftermath.

“I had no concept,” said Thompson. “I grew up around hurricanes, but with a hurricane it’s over a broader area. With this it was just a path where everything was leveled. I can’t say I’m glad to see anything like that, but it’s very interesting for sure.”

The tornado tore through Washburn University in its eight-mile path through Topeka. Although Washburn was devastated, only 15 people present on campus at the time were seriously injured.

“There was not anything [at Washburn] that wasn’t messed up,” explained Thompson. “Stoffer had just about every window broken out.”

However, not everything hit by the tornado was destroyed. Some of the surviving objects surprised Thompson.

“There were papers all over everything,” said Thompson. “Some were found in Missouri. A lot of people called and told people they had their birth certificates and the deeds to their houses. These pieces of paper were still relatively intact and weren’t ruined and yet houses were torn apart.”

Thompson recounts that the day after the tornado hit, soldiers from Forbes Field helped maintain order and set up barriers across a number of streets. She remembers the Salvation Army providing food and coffee free of charge, while the Red Cross ran food trucks throughout the city.

Relief did not come only from charitable organizations, but from individuals as well.

“A guy my dad had worked for planned to get rich doubling his prices,” said Thompson. “My dad didn’t raise his prices at all. There were several people who were older and they didn’t have insurance. He knew they didn’t have any money, so he did the work and bought the supplies for nothing.”

To this day, Thompson is still proud of how the citizens of Topeka handled the disaster.

“The whole community really did pull together,” said Thompson. “In any natural disaster, people either show their worst side or they show their best side. Thankfully, more people showed their good side.”