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Out of the blue: Book about 1968 tornado includes connections to Worthington

Author Scott Thoma is shown with former WCCO news anchor Don Shelby during a promotional event for "Out of the Blue."1 / 2
(submitted photo) Destruction in the aftermath of the 1968 tornado that struck the community of Tracy.2 / 2

TRACY -- June 13, 1968. It's a date that has both haunted and fascinated Scott Thoma for most of his life.

Thoma was 9 years old that day when the first recorded F5 tornado in Minnesota history tore through his hometown of Tracy, killing nine people, injuring 125 others and destroying nearly one-fourth of the town's structures.

"Our house got turned off the foundation," described Thoma. "They had to tear it down. It twisted the beams. We had to crawl out of the basement. We saw the tornado going out of town. Our yard was three feet high with everything -- a lot of the stuff from the school across the street, globes and desks and books ended up in our yard."

The sights that greeted the Thoma family as they emerged from the tornado's aftermath were paralyzing, and yet they quickly mobilized into action.

"My dad was going to go help the neighbors, and he took me with. Somebody called out that two people were missing, so he went to help look for them and sat me on the corner of the block and told me not to run around, to stay put. I watched him uncover two dead bodies. It was the first dead body I'd ever seen," recalled Thoma about what he witnessed that day. "That always stuck with me, just to see that. Then an old lady came running by wearing a blue print dress. I can remember so many details like that. But the dress was completely blood in the front, completely soaked, but she didn't have a scratch on her when they took her to the hospital. The blood had been sucked through her pores."

Forty-five years have now passed, but Thoma can still envision the scene clearly. After graduating from Tracy High School, Thoma's career path took him into journalism, and he worked as a sports reporter and editor at a daily newspaper for more than 30 years. Living in Willmar, he eventually focused his writing talents into a book -- a historical account about the Tracy tornado, "Out of the Blue," which was published last year.

"I lived through it and always wanted to write something about it, but it seemed like every story had already been told," explained Thoma. "Then I came across this story of two sisters. I always heard that they had been blown out of their house during the tornado, but there had not been a lot written."

Thoma resolved to write his book about the Tracy tornado from their perspective, but first he had to get the two women to open up about it. While they survived the experience, a 2-year-old child in their care did not.

Their story, Thoma discovered, actually began in Worthington, where the older sister, Linda, went to work at Campbell Soup Co. There, she met and married a co-worker, Clifford. She also became friends with another co-worker, Susan, who had a baby out of wedlock.

"They became friends, hung out a lot together, and Linda would watch this little girl so Susan could go out once in a while," Thoma explained. "Linda got really close to this little girl."

The child's father had been killed while working on his automobile, and Susan just wasn't ready for motherhood. When Linda and Clifford got married, they asked to adopt the girl, named Nancy, and Susan agreed. In the meantime, Clifford was called up to serve in the Vietnam War, and Linda moved back with Nancy to Tracy to be closer to family.

"Back then, they had to be married for one full year before they could adopt a child," noted Thoma.

Linda, then 20 years old, her younger sister, Pam, 8, and 2-year-old Nancy were at Linda's rented house when the tornado struck.

"Pam was a year younger than I was in school, so I knew her," said Thoma about how broached the research for his book. "I remembered hearing they literally blew out of the house, so I called Pam up, wanted to know what it was like. She was excited to talk about it, but she did say, 'I don't think Linda is going to want to do a book.' She was reluctant to talk about that, because she felt guilty because they hadn't gotten to the basement soon enough."

In 1968, the emergency signal system in Tracy was a whistle -- different tones used to indicate the type of emergency.

"She thought it was a fire instead of a tornado," continued Thoma. "With the wind and the hail and everything, and you're inside the house, she could hear it was a whistle, but it was hard to hear. So Linda heard the siren blowing, but assumed because of all the lightning that somebody got hit by that and it started a fire. So she didn't get in the basement quick enough. They were just heading down to the basement when the back door blew off the hinges, then blew them outside."

It's estimated the Tracy tornado has winds exceeding 300 mph. Once the tornado sucked them out of the house, Linda was unable to hang on to Nancy. Her small body was found a block away.

"Susan was still working at Campbell Soup when she heard about the tornado," Thoma related. "She took off work and drove to Tracy to make sure everyone was OK. Linda had already been brought to the hospital, and they wouldn't let them see her. That's when she found out her daughter had been killed. She identified the body and called the funeral director to pick up the body."

Nancy Vlahos was buried in the Worthington Cemetery, one of two victims laid to rest there, according to Thoma.

In all the ensuing years, Linda and Susan never spoke -- until Thoma's research connected them again.

"It took a lot of phone calls to track down Susan," he said. "There were name changes, because she'd been married and divorced twice, moved to Arizona, and now she's in Hampton, Iowa. I talked to her for over an hour. I gave her Linda's phone number, and they talked. ... I know that she did tell (Linda), 'I don't hold you responsible,' and they were able to talk more about it. Linda now lives three hours north of Worthington, and Susan's three hours south of Worthington. Their plan is to meet at the little girl's gravesite sometime."

While "Out of the Blue" is focused on an overwhelming tragedy, Thoma is gratified that some good has come out of it. He also found writing it all down was personally beneficial.

"My dad and I, until he died a few years ago, were incredibly close -- best friends," Thoma explained. "So to tell the story about him in there was therapeutic in a way, to get it out. It was for Linda, too, and Pam. It was therapeutic for them to talk about it and have another person ask them questions about it. I can tell Linda is much more open about it now, feels the weight of the world lifted from her after the biological mother told her, 'I don't blame you.'"

"Out of the Blue" is now in its third printing, and Thoma markets it through a website and public appearances.

"I donate part of the money I make from selling it," said Thoma, detailing funds set up for the family of a storm chaser from Luverne who was killed, for the victims of a house fire in Tracy, the tornado in Moore, Okla., and the school shooting in Sandy Hook, N.J. Most recently, the proceeds have been going to help erect a monument to the tornado victims in Tracy, set for dedication during the city's Box Car Days festival over Labor Day weekend.

Because of the story's connection to Worthington, Thoma has some local upcoming appearances scheduled for July 9: Noon, Nobles County Historical Society, 407 12th St.; 2 p.m., The Meadows, 1801 College Way; 3:30 p.m., Golden Horizons; and 6:30 p.m., Adrian Branch Library, Adrian. Thoma will have copies of the book available for purchase.

For more information about "Out of the Blue" or to order a copy, go to thomabooks.com.

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  

(507) 376-7327
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