Community, Culture, Connection: Central State University hosts survivors’ panel, memorial service for 1974 tornado

By Alissa Paolella, Communications Manager
Posted Apr 05 2024
five panelists including alumni faculty and staff sit around a table discussing the 1974 tornado at central state university

Above: Survivors of the 1974 tornado participated in a panel during Communication Week at Central State University. Pictured are (from left) Dr. Lesa Taylor DeVond, '80, Alma Brown, '81, Dr. Greta Winbush, '76, Victor Davis, '74, and Obie Houston, '74.

As you take a stroll around the Yard at Central State University, keep your senses alive. You might come across an awe-inspiring stone statue outside the Normal E. Ward Sr. Center. This masterpiece, designed by Victor Davis, ’74, represents the essence of being a part of the Marauder community. The statue stands as a symbol of unity, a promise to uphold the Institution's culture, and a link that connects the past to today and into the future.   

stone statue of an african head a gift from tornado survivors in the class of 1974 at Central State University
A stone statue stands as a tribute to the resiliency of Central State University, a gift from the class of 1974. It stands strong outside the Norman E. Ward Sr. Center.

A plate on the statue has a message for today’s Marauders: “We, the senior class of 1974, the year of the tornado, do hereby charge the coming seniors with the responsibility of preserving and respecting this monument. From here on let this monument establish a tradition that will long survive and endure with lasting respect.”  

On April 4, members of the class of 1974 joined Central State faculty and staff for a survivors’ panel, sharing the harrowing experiences of surviving the 1974 tornado that demolished 80% of the Central State University campus and the nearby city of Xenia.  

The panel included Davis and his classmate, Obie Houston, ’74; Alma Brown, ’81, administrative coordinator in the College of Education; Dr. Lesa Taylor DeVond, ’80, director, Central State University-Dayton; and Dr. Greta Winbush, ’76, a professor in the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.  

Before the panel discussion, Ohio Rep. Bill Dean (R-Xenia) read the names of the 32 Greene County residents who died in the tornado, including those from Central State, and a proclamation on behalf of the Ohio House of Representatives, commemorating the tornado’s 50th anniversary. 

Tragically, four people associated with Central State lost their lives that day, including one 19-year-old student, Laura Lee (Baber) Hull. Three staff members also died — groundskeeper Ralph E. Smith, credit union director Evelyn V. (Howard) Rockhold, and postmaster Oscar T. Robinson.  

On April 4, survivors shared memories of seeing glass breaking, cars “jumping,” bark stripped from the trees, and debris from destroyed buildings. They also described feeling buildings rocking and hearing screaming and crying in the moments after the storm passed. 

victor davis class of 1974
Victor Davis, '74

Davis said he and some classmates formed a search-and-rescue team, which eventually found itself at the Wilberforce post office. There, he saw postmaster Robinson gravely injured and assistant coach Norman E. Ward Sr., “begging him to get up,” Davis recounted.  

“‘Get up, Oscar, get up’ became a chant,” he said. “As I rode into campus today, it (the post office) was the first thing I looked at, and I am thankful to be here today.”  

Davis, his classmate Houston, and Winbush were all on campus when the EF-5 tornado hit at approximately 4:40 p.m. on April 3, 1974. Brown and DeVond were high school students at the time, riding out the storm in Xenia.  

Davis was a student teacher at Beavercreek High School during his senior year at Central State. On the day of the tornado, the school day ended, and he climbed into his vehicle to head back to the campus. He noticed the sky was beginning to darken. 

“I was just ready to get back to the Yard,” Davis said.  

As he was driving on U.S. 35, the weather worsened, and he noticed the absence of birds. A family member always told him that if the birds were leaving, he needed to leave, too, as it may be a sign of impending danger.  

Winbush said the anniversary week of the tornado resulted in many memories she now realizes she had suppressed. She said she was friends with Hull, who was the only student she knew to leave campus during the storm. Winbush said Hull was concerned about her parents in Xenia.  

“Now I know, when they say go to the basement, you go to the basement,” Winbush said. “I didn’t think we would come back, but we did in two weeks. You saw the devastation and you just knew it was over. It was a miracle (that the school reopened so quickly).” 

greta winbush holds her diploma after graduating from central state university in 1976
Dr. Greta Winbush, '76, professor in the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

Some students transferred to other schools in Ohio, but Winbush was determined to stay at the HBCU she loved so dearly.  

Houston credits faculty and staff with challenging him to finish his senior year and walk across the stage at Commencement. Faculty held classes at non-traditional times, such as late evenings and weekends, so the students would not fall behind and could graduate on time in June.  

Davis, who served as senior class president, recalled his peers walking around in a zombie-like state after the storm. The administration asked who wanted to stay on campus to help rebuild, and Davis volunteered. 

“I just know how blessed I was to be at school and to graduate on time,” he said, adding he had already put much effort into graduation preparation. Later, Davis became an ordained preacher as his faith grew after surviving the tornado. He has also worked in the mental health field. 

“This school meant so much to me. It gave me opportunities that I didn’t have before. We made it. Every day, I thank God,” he said. 

Today, Davis loves his alma mater, crediting it with opening doors in his life. He said high school teachers did not seem to care about him as a student, but CSU faculty clearly cared. Davis said he is proud to see how much CSU has grown over the years into a premier 1890 Land-Grant Institution, and he is looking forward to seeing what the future brings.  

Interim President Dr. Alex Johnson said Central State and its students and alumni have demonstrated a level of resilience and strength that permeates the culture of the Institution. Reflecting on his own time at HBCUs, Johnson said Central State is unlike any other.  

“The future you talked about, we know we can achieve,” Johnson said.  

Dr. Morakinyo Kuti, vice president of Research and Economic Development and the incoming 10th President of the University, said he wished he could bottle the panel conversation to show all that the University was and what it will become.  

“Our story is timeless,” he said.  

The words inscribed on the class of 1974’s donated statue challenge current and future Marauders to honor and maintain the monument with respect. The statue will be an inspiration for generations to come, a reminder of our shared responsibility to preserve and respect the rich history of our beloved Institution.