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50 years ago Tuesday
50 years later, remembering the Charles City tornado (with photos)

CHARLES CITY — Fifty years after a tornado devastated Charles City, images of the storm serve as reminders of the destructive power of Mother Nature.

Dozens of damaged cars littered nearby fields. Cranes picked up debris too heavy to move by hand. Some lost everything. Citizens sifted through debris containing their belongings, their neighbors’ belongings. The hellscape left behind in the storm’s wake was a testimonial to the F5 tornado’s terrifying power.

Two events Tuesday will mark the 50th anniversary of the carnage.

  • At noon, a ceremony will be held by the flagpole in Central Park.
  • From 4 to 8 p.m., the Floyd County Historical Museum will unveil an exhibit — “50th Anniversary of the May 15, 1968, F5 Tornado” — dedicated to the storm. It will include local history, weather prevention and rebuilding efforts.

The deadly storm swept through Floyd County shortly before 5 p.m. May 15, 1968. In minutes, the tornado, rated a high-intensity twister, destroyed neighborhoods and devastated a good portion of downtown.

It left 450 people injured and 13 dead.

Monumental damage

Historical records indicate the tornado destroyed 350 homes and damaged another 850. Its harsh winds wrecked 58 businesses and damaged more than 200. The carnage included churches, schools and vehicles. But it missed the hospital and spared some of the town’s largest employers and the city’s wastewater and water plant. The Courier and other area newspapers captured the devastation in hundreds of pictures.

The atmospheric conditions that day produced two F5 tornadoes in Iowa. One descended on Fayette County, damaging 1,000 homes in Oelwein, knocking out power and causing $21 million in damage, according to the National Weather Service. The other F5 formed in Butler and Franklin counties, plowed through Charles City, then moved to Elma before dissipating near the Minnesota border.

Weaker tornadoes also touched down near Cresco and in Chickasaw County. Other states experienced severe weather as well on May 15, 1968. Tornadoes stretched from Arkansas to Ohio to Minnesota, officials said at the time.

The Charles City tornado reportedly formed out of two twisters and traveled 65 miles on the ground. Experts consider the scope, scale and intensity of the larger twisters remarkable.

After the storm, locals told stories of some odd sights, according to Courier archives. Half-empty bottles of Coke with the lids in place. Glass inside bedsheets. Straw rammed into a fence post. Mattresses wedged in hotel windows.

The storm scattered seed from a large grain elevator, and that summer, corn grew out of cracks in sidewalks, tree bark and along streets all over Charles City, one witness recalled.

Friendly neighbors in Minnesota mailed items and documents that dropped from the sky.

The aftermath

Luckily, The tornado missed Floyd County Memorial Hospital. Medical personnel relied on bottled water and generators in the initial days after the storm. The worst of the injured were sent to larger facilities.

Navigating streets and neighborhoods without recognizable landmarks confused resident.

Cleanup crews from around Northeast Iowa and beyond converged on the city. Insurance agents and good Samaritans stayed for weeks. Activities came to a halt. School ended for the year.

Survivors say in many ways the storm brought out the best in people. The community rallied to help those in need. Churches offered shelter and allowed displaced congregations to share religious services.

The storm ushered in a new phase of development. A controversial urban renewal project was now a necessity. In many the ways Charles City would eventually emerge as a better, stronger and spiritually renewed community.


The destruction of a tornado in Charles City May 13, 1968.

Amid tight budget, UNI finds money for retreat

CEDAR FALLS — Amid tight higher education budgets and rising tuition, the University of Northern Iowa has devoted tens of thousands of dollars to a “provost leadership academy.

It’s based on principles of the Quaker faith and culminates in a retreat to a century-old Minnesota farm that says its mission is to rejuvenate people and the planet.

For a third year, UNI is spending about $25,000 on the program guided by a “courage and renewal facilitator” using “clearness committees” and a “circle of trust” approach to develop leadership skills.

UNI Provost Jim Wohlpart launched the academy in fall 2016 while serving as interim UNI president and a finalist for it permanently.

Former chancellor of Montana State University-Billings Mark Nook was chosen instead for that job, but Wohlpart remained — and so did the “provost’s strategic innovation account.”

That account, which rolls over from year to year, currently has a balance of about $380,000, according to UNI spokesman Scott Ketelsen. In addition to costs associated with the out-of-state academy, the account pays for things such as institutional membership fees, faculty stipends, equipment and renovation.

Neither the University of Iowa nor Iowa State University has such an account. Both offer some form of leadership training, but those programs differ from UNI’s in that they’re facilitated by faculty and staff and charge participants a fee — often covered by the department or work unit.

Nook did not respond to requests last week for comment on the program.

For UNI’s academy, Chris Johnson — who calls himself a “courage and renewal facilitator, thinking partner, traveling teacher and deep listener” — comes to Cedar Falls from Minnesota four times a year to participate in dinners and lead daylong sessions. He opens them by chiming a type of gavel on a bowl-shaped instrument.

Johnson, co-founder of the Milkweed Group and Prairie Oaks Institute, both of Minnesota, follows principles of the “Circle of Trust” approach, which is based in the Quaker faith and meant to “create a process of shared exploration — in retreats, programs and other settings — where people can find safe space to nurture personal and professional integrity and the courage to act on it.”

Johnson told The Gazette that UNI is the first and only school for which he’s offering this type of academy. But others have inquired.

Several past UNI academy participants told The Gazette how much they’ve gained from the experience, noting it has awakened them to their strengths, aligned their actions with their life priorities and fostered campus connections.

Others, though, have asked whether the training methods produce measurable results and make financial sense at a time when UNI — like Iowa’s other public universities — is cash-strapped, forcing tuition increases and unfilled jobs.

“A common concern was that faculty who participated in this with the understanding they would develop leadership skills … said they found very little about the content of the program that was related to leadership,” said Joe Gorton, a UNI professor and outgoing president of the faculty union.

He reported talking to several faculty who participated and thought administrators would be hard-pressed to show “how spending tens of thousands of dollars on this has brought any added value to the university or anything else.”

“I might not be concerned if the university was in a strong fiscal position,” Gorton said. “But quite the opposite. The university is in a very weak fiscal position.”

Budget cuts

State appropriations for Board of Regents universities have plummeted compared with the overall cost of operating the growing institutions — accounting for 33 percent of general education funds today compared with more than 77 percent in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, tuition accounts for much more — nearly 63 percent today from 21 percent in 1981.

In addition, the board has absorbed midyear funding takebacks for two straight years — though in the latest one, UNI was held harmless.

All three campuses are increasing tuition this fall, with UNI proposing a 2.8 percent increase for resident undergraduates.

Lawmakers this year increased general fund appropriations for the universities a total of $8.3 million, less than the $12 million requested.

UNI has said it would spend new revenue on enrollment management, increasing student retention and investing in faculty and staff “in ways that recognize and reward excellence and offer opportunities for continued professional development.” Wohlpart’s leadership academy has been billed as addressing that last goal.

‘A new space’

Most of the about $25,000 UNI spends on the academy annually goes to Johnson’s Milkweed group, which offers workshops, retreats and individual “clearness consultations.”

Johnson and his wife, Kim Devine-Johnson, also co-founded Prairie Oaks Institute, the nonprofit education, retreat and sustainable-living center on a farm in Belle Plaine, Minn., that hosts UNI’s capstone retreat.

Johnson told The Gazette he and Wohlpart met years ago at a retreat he was leading, and soon began collaborating on the idea of UNI training. A contract they signed pays Milkweed $20,000 per academy, not including mileage, meals and lodging for Johnson.

The closing retreat at Prairie Oaks costs $3,275, not including travel.

A total for the first retreat reached about $26,000 with expenses. Costs for the second still are in process, and Johnson said he’s developing an assessment tool to measure the benefits.

Employees must apply to participate. The application notes participants “will explore the intersection of their personal and professional lives, with insights from the work of scholars, poets, artists, naturalists, musicians, filmmakers, scientists and various wisdom traditions.”

The first and second academies saw about 50 applicants each, according to UNI spokesman Ketelsen. Applications are reviewed by Wohlpart and Johnson, who confer on final selection.

About 15 are chosen, and UNI is accepting applications for its third round now, with applications due by June 4.

Johnson said a final three-day retreat at an off-site location is an important part of the work as it helps participants put ideas into practice.

“It provides a new kind of space, a time-away opportunity, for them to engage physically with the content that we’ve been working on,” Johnson said. “It takes us outside the walls of the classroom, so to speak, and lets them connect what they’ve had in their head throughout the year in new ways.”

‘My own leader’

Kristin Moser, director of institutional research and effectiveness at UNI, participated in the first round. She echoed Johnson’s sentiments about the retreat bringing together a yearlong exploration of the “deep care you feel for people and for the planet and for your work.”

“For me, it was a little difficult to name what I actually gained from it,” Moser said. “A lot of it didn’t come to me until we had that full-circle meeting at the very end when we were in Minnesota and thinking about the community we had built together and thinking about everything we had talked about. … It was giving myself the permission to be my own leader and not having to follow the path that everyone has followed.”

The retreat itself she described as a “summer camp environment” with four to five people bunking in a room.

Days were intensive, Moser said, with early mornings and late nights. “We created all the meals together,” she said. “We had a lot of discussion. Nights were spent by the campfire with the guitar, and we did a lot of singing. It was a really neat way to end the year that we’d spent together.”

Readings and discussions throughout the year focused on being a patient leader, a servant leader and the intersection between spirituality and leadership, Moser said. It has made a difference for her on campus.

“The culture before Jim came was so different at UNI,” she said. “Knowing that someone at such a high level appreciates you for who you are. For me, it just made me want to work that much harder, just to give back.”

Leslie Prideaux, director of UNI alumni relations, was in Moser’s group and said the academy connected them on campus collaborations they wouldn’t have contemplated previously.

“The whole experience was transformational,” she said, noting the academy started with the assignment to bring an “artifact” to a dinner at Wohlpart’s home symbolizing “who you were and who you wanted to be or how you thought of yourself.”

“That really set the stage of getting to know these people on a very different level,” said Prideaux, who brought a pair of eye glasses to represent her unique way of thinking.

UNI associate professor Kelli Snyder, also in the first group, acknowledged spiritual underpinnings in the training’s curriculum — with on-campus sessions starting with several minutes of silence for centering and introspection.

“I definitely could see some faculty and others being turned off from an experience like this — it’s super touchy-feely, and I’m OK with touchy-feeliness,” Snyder said. “But I do wish that people who tend to not gravitate toward experiences that are rather touchy-feely in nature and where you talk a lot about emotions — and there is a lot of emotion that is emitted during these sessions — being open to let themselves be vulnerable to those experiences and having those conversations.”

It prompts growth, she said.

“I won’t come out of this experience saying, ‘Oh this experience changed me,’ ” she said. “I don’t think it changed me at all. But it allowed me to experience and acknowledge the skills that I’ve had all along.”

Global manufacturer buys CAPS students' stool design

CEDAR FALLS — Kabeer Bhatia experienced the difficulties of designing a product when he was a student in the Center for Advanced Professional Studies’ engineering strand.

But the 2017 Cedar Falls High School graduate is glad he and another student, Graham Carter, saw the project through, especially since the product — a step stool — is now being sold internationally.

A year ago, the pair worked with Kryton Engineered Metals in the Cedar Falls Industrial Park to redesign the step stool for a client of the company, Georgia-based Chart Industries.

“This customer, they build cryogenic tanks,” said Kevin Harberts, Kryton’s president and chief executive officer. Chart is a global manufacturer of equipment for the industrial gas, energy, and biomedical industries, according to its web site. The company finalized a deal with Kryton this spring to buy the stool, which is sold with the cryogenic machines.

Bhatia will highlight the accomplishment on his resume as he moves on to Iowa State University’s engineering program this fall and later when he begins seeking a job in the field of mechanical engineering.

“It’s probably one of the biggest achievements I’ve done in high school, so it will definitely be there,” said Bhatia, who attended Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo for his freshman year. “It turned out well. I loved the experience.”

He and Carter were among 13 who enrolled in Cedar Falls’ inaugural Center for Advanced Professional Studies class, which started in January 2017. Carter, who took the semester-long class as a junior, recently moved out of the state with his family.

Last fall, CAPS added strands in communication design and education. It will expand to include a medical strand next fall, when close to 150 Cedar Falls and Waterloo Community Schools’ students are expected to be enrolled in the four areas. Each strand is based in the community rather than at the high school with engineering at Viking Pump, communication design at Mill Race Co-working, education at the University of Northern Iowa and medical at Allen College.

A major component of CAPS is working with professionals from a company or organization to complete a project for them. Bhatia and Carter worked with Bret Clikeman, Kryton’s lead engineer.

“We were looking for a project for these kids to do,” recalled Harberts, when Clikeman suggested they work on the step stool redesign. “We were losing money making it, and it wasn’t the best of designs.”

Ethan Wiechmann, CAPS lead instructor, initially wasn’t sure about the project. “Who’s going to want to work on a step stool, that was my first impression,” he said.

“It was our ideal project, in retrospect,” noted Wiechmann. The company needed to complete the project but it wasn’t their highest priority. The students got a “real-life experience” honing skills from problem solving to communication.

“We want to provide value to that company,” he added. “They got something out of it, we got a really good experience. It’s that win-win we’re looking for.”

Kryton officials are happy with the partnership.

“We’ve worked now with three different groups of CAPS kids, every time it’s a little different experience,” said Clikeman. “Each bring different skills to the table.”

He talks through the steps to do the job with the students and discusses what can be manufactured as they work on the design phase. But there’s still a lot they need to learn by doing.

“We allowed them to make some mistakes,” Clikeman said, of Bhatia and Carter.

“The process was pretty complicated at first,” said Bhatia. At most of their meetings with Clikeman, he told them of small changes that needed to be made to the scope of the project.

“Those little adjustments would cause us to almost start from scratch,” said Bhatia. “It was pretty frustrating, but it was challenging as well, which I like.”

Such difficulties meant getting an extension on the project, which was supposed to take two months. But Kryton officials were pleased with the end product.

For example, the original stool included tubes that had to be bent and made by another vendor.

“We can build it in-house today,” said Clikeman. “Their delivery time was dropped from a month-and-a-half to a week.”

“It’s a huge difference,” Harberts added. “They made it look better, sturdier, easier to manufacture. So, we’re saving money. I’m just thrilled with how it ended up.”

Once the students thought they were done, they learned of a new opportunity since a Chart Industries official had plans to come to the area.

“They said that we could be done if we just wanted to turn in the blueprints,” said Bhatia. Or the students could wait until the company official was in town and pitch the product to him.

“After we thought about it, we thought it would be cool to put on our resume,” said Bhatia of their decision to go ahead with the presentation. Still, “it was very nerve-wracking, just thinking about presenting” to the company.

Bhatia knew he wanted to study engineering in college. Through CAPS, he learned about the range of careers in the field and was able to pinpoint his interest in mechanical engineering.

While he and Carter’s experience was obviously a success, Wiechmann noted a similar outcome is not necessary for a student to gain what they need from the course. “Our minimum is we want to give them the skill set so that when they find out what they want to do they’re ready to go,” he said.

Putting students in those real career settings and connecting them to experienced professionals is a good way to accomplish that, suggested Harberts.

“From my perspective as the owner of the company, getting these kids who are still in high school — these are the future kids that I’m going to hire at some point,” he noted. “We are making a difference in kids’ lives and helping them get going on their career paths.”

He added: “You can’t put a price on that, it’s huge.”