Riding it out on campus: Professor Philip Bryant
English Professor Philip Bryant will be discussing his experiences in chapel on Monday, March 17. He weathered the storm in Confer-Vickner with an exchange professor from China who was also in the building. When she told him her plans to walk home, he encouraged her to waituntil the storm had passed. Because of her limited English skills he had to explain what a tornado was. While he was checking the radar she called for him from the hallway’s window.
She was looking out the window and she said, “Is that a tornado?” It looked like a snow whiteout.
In that gray I saw pieces of houses 600 to 700 feet in the air.
I said, “Yup, that’s it.” So we went downstairs while all hell broke loose. For a minute, I thought we were about dead.
There is a little crawl space near the elevator. The pressure gradient was so great that the dry wall on the interior was being pushed out. I thought it was going to implode.
Debris, dust, and stones, were blowing at about 200 miles an hour. I thought, “It’s too bad she’s going to die this far from home.”
[I remember the smell after the storm]. It was like when you go up north and into the national forest. It was the smell of pine and fur. It basically was the lumber being torn to hell. When it started to abate it was like Christmas.
Finding the Flame: Chaplain Brian Johnson
Chaplain Brian Johnson was working at Gustavus when the tornado swept through campus. His home was destroyed and, months later, pictures that had been swept up in the storm were returned to him from Eden Prairie. During the tornado, the cross from atop the steeple was torn off. Later, it was returned to the school. In the commemorative service on Monday, March 17, the original cross will be hung in the chapel.
When I walked over to the chapel I could already see that the glass was blown out. It had snowed a bit, so that by the time I walked into the chapel I could hear dripping. Hearing this dripping and the wind whistling through the windows was really unnerving. Rain was pouring into the keyboard and there was water all over the floor.
As I walked down the central aisle and looked through the pews I could see that glass and stones were embedded in the pews.
I could hear this kind of creaking, and it was the eternal flame. I looked up at the flame and saw that it was somehow still burning through all that.
I think it was the juxtaposition of the steeple torn down with the flame burning within that was really important as a symbolic reminder at the time. People saw devastation and destruction.
I heard one reporter say, “The college is closed. It is never going to open again. It is destroyed.” Then they showed a picture of the steeple. I think the flame is [still] a hopeful image.
As I look back, one of the important framing experiences of that disaster that it happened during Holy Week.
The events of death and resurrection were naturally surrounding us on the cycle of the church year. On Good Friday we sang a hymn. The first line was “Tree of life and awesome mystery. In your death we are reborn.”
I think we all have events that are indelibly imprinted in our memory- where we can claim a before and an after, and for me this would be one of those events.
Representing a Community Torn Apart: Ruth Johnson
A resident of St. Peter, Ruth Johnson currently works as a Dean of Students for Gustavus. In 1998, Johnson represented St. Peter in the House of Representatives. On March 29 Johnson was in St. Paul working.
I came back to my room [in St. Paul] to find the phone blinking. I turned on the TV to catch the live coverage of Minnesota Avenue being cleared with snowplows.
At the crack of dawn, I left for St. Peter. I met with Governor Arnie Carlson. We drove around St. Peter and Gustavus so that he could see with his own eyes the extent of the devastation in our town.
[Driving through the neighborhoods], we saw a friend of mine [whose home was reduced to the frame]. With Governor Carlson standing there, my friend said, “Welcome, Governor! We’re having an open house.”
I will never forget the press conference [announcing the relief bill.] As we were leaving the office, Carlson caught my arm and said, “Ruth, we know that GAC plays a unique role in the cultural life of Southwestern Minnesota.” $800,000 were included in the bill for Gustavus.
People came by the thousands to help, picking up the debris. Busloads of volunteers would pull up in school buses and jump out with rakes and say, “We’re here to rake your lawn.” I probably had my lawn raked three times.
The overwhelming thing for me was how well units of government were willing to work together with [the community].
The tornado was so widely devastating in the community that everyone realized we were all in this together. We couldn’t wait for people to come help; we just had to pull together. We became more like a single community, as opposed to St. Peter with Gustavus on the hill.
A Student Returns to Campus: Professor Matt Rasmussen
Currently, Rasmussen is a professor of English at Gustavus. In 1998, he was on a spring break trip as a senior at Gustavus. Until he saw the news, he didn’t believe that word of the tornado was true.
When we returned to St. Peter, it looked like a bombed-out village. Ironically, the one thing you could see before the tornado, the spire atop Christ Chapel, had fallen over like a felled tree. The damage around town seemed random. You could somewhat trace the path of the tornado, but I remember some areas… where buildings and homes were totally destroyed on one side of the street while the other side of the street seemed relatively unharmed.
Many of my friends’ houses didn’t hold up as well as ours did. [A Swedish friend and I] snuck back into his old house, after it was condemned because it had shifted off its foundation over a foot. I won’t soon forget the smell of the house. There was mud and grass and dirt thrown everywhere and the refrigerator… was open. A sour, rotten, earthy odor filled the house. I also won’t forget walking into the second floor room, which didn’t have a ceiling. It is an odd sensation to walk into a room you have walked into a hundred times before, only to find it is now open to the sky.