- Associated Press - Friday, April 4, 2014

LIGONIER, Ind. (AP) - The deadly tornado outbreak of April 3, 1974, hit hard in western Noble County.

A powerful twister struck Perry Elementary School on the far north side of Ligonier and the Monsanto factory in the city’s industrial park, a couple miles south of the school.

Rick Keim was principal of the elementary school on that fateful day and still remembers the terrifying impact it had on the community.

“I was at home - we were living in Millersburg at the time - and I was working outside and remember seeing the sky getting a real strange color of green,” Keim told The News-Sun (http://bit.ly/1fGeeim ).

“I got a phone call that the school had been hit,” he said. “Our janitor, Jake Mast, was at the school with a bunch of basketball players and had been watching the weather.”

Keim and others credit Mast, who moved away from the area several years ago, with saving lives at the school on that spring day.

“When the winds picked up, Jake got everyone in the locker rooms, which were under the stage. Luckily, that’s where everyone was when the tornado hit the school building,” Keim said.

“When they came out, the roof was gone off the gym and a wall had collapsed. Throughout the building, the force of the winds blew out every single window in the school. The desks were scattered, and in some of the rooms, the force pulled books out of the desks.”

Even though several dozen people were in the gym, no one was injured.

The tornado struck at dusk, and by the time Keim and others gathered at the scene, darkness had started to fall.

“It was quite a shock,” Keim said. “That evening we went out there to check on everything, and the next day, in daylight, we could see just how bad of shape everything was in. The National Guard was dispatched to the school and was on the scene. That was interesting to see these guys walking around with their M-16s.”

The school was a total loss, forcing Keim and others to make decisions on how and where to finish the school year. They got lucky.

“At the time, one wing of the new West Noble High School was finished but not being used,” he recalled. “So there were six rooms out there we could use. We finished the school year out at the high school.”

Students, teachers and others went through the battered Perry school and salvaged as many materials as they could.

Perry Elementary School was rebuilt in time for the following school year.

“The main thing that needed rebuilding, was the gym and they got that back up,” Keim said. “And they had to replace every window in the building.”

After consolidation, Perry School was closed, but the building remains in use as a church. About the only sign of the tornado is a row of bricks at the top of the building that are different from the rest of the structure. That’s where the windows had been.

Basketball players

Dennis Butler was among those at Perry Elementary School for a pickup basketball game when the tornado hit. Butler still lives in Ligonier, where he is a locksmith. At the time, he was 21 and working at a Starcraft RV plant.

Butler also credits Mast with saving lives.

“I don’t know what would have happened if Jake hadn’t been out there,” Butler said. Butler and others who credit Mast for saving lives say he was up in years at the time and probably is now deceased.

The usual round of pickup basketball games was delayed because the gym had been rented that night for a factory basketball league, which meant almost double the number of people as usual were there.

“We were waiting to use the gym as another group had rented the gym,” Butler said. “Jake was the one who got everyone to get under the stage and into the locker rooms ,because they were encased in concrete.”

Martin McDonald, a friend of Butler, was one of the first to spot just how bad the weather was.

“Marty looked out the window and saw someone’s motorcycle fly past,” Butler said.

As the men, women and children in the gym made their way into the locker rooms, it made for a awkward scene as some men were taking showers, unaware of what was happening up above, Butler recalled.

“We heard a noise just like a train and could hear the windows crashing. It took only 20 or 30 seconds for it to go by. When we went upstairs, we saw the gym roof was lying on the floor,” he said.

“Marty McDonald had a Pontiac, and it was flattened. One wall of the gym fell on top of it. The next day we went out there and the dome light was still on,” Butler said.

McDonald still has a framed photograph of his car, smashed by hundreds of bricks that fell on it from the school building.

“It was quite an eventful day,” Butler said.

___

Information from: The News-Sun, http://www.kpcnews.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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