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The Spirit of Heroes
Unselfish Acts of Countless Citizens Started
Woodward On Its Way Back To Prosperity

     There were many heroes the night of April 9, 1947. Several of them were utility company employees, the most noteworthy of whom was Irwin Walker, who died in the wreckage of the Eighth Street OG&E plant. It was Walker who threw the main switch in the power plant, cutting of electricity to thousands of feet of lines that were either dragging the ground or blowing wildly in the wind.

     Many more people would have lost their lives if Walker hadn't gotten to that switch when he did.

     After his funeral, OG&E and Walker's fellow workers took out a full page ad in the Woodward County Journal to pay tribute to his courageous action. They vowed to see that Woodward would be rebuilt and to participate in that rebuilding.

     Woodward's contingent of telephone workers were among those who came to the aid and comfort of tornado victims. Jim Feese, who worked for the phone company for 35 years, remembers that it was lineman Glenn Cochran who found an open line at the section line corner that is now 22nd and Downs. Cochran climbed the pole, hooked up his magneto tester phone and managed to call Oklahoma City with the first news of the disaster.

     In April 1946 Feese was working for Young Furniture, a job he held before he left for military service. Under the law, Feese was guaranteed the job when he returned and so on April 9, he was delivering a refrigerator to the Mademoiselle Beauty Shop on Sixth Street.

     As he walked through the shop, he spied a young woman, who he said was on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor. Mrs. Sills, the shop owner, told Feese the young woman was Reva Valentine.

     Introducing himself, Feese invited Miss Valentine "to the show" that evening. She told him she was going steady, but he persuaded her, going steady or not, to go out on a date with him.

     The movie they saw was "Rage in Heaven" at the Woodward Theater. The couple sat about four rows from the back. Along about 8:40, said Feese, the sound went off and the audience started stomping its feet, yelling in protest and clapping. He took advantage of the confusion to put his arm around Reva and kiss her.

     As he did, the tornado sturck with full force, plunging the theater into darkness with a roar that drowned out all of the crowd noise.

     "I said to myself, any girl that can kiss like that, I'm going to marry," said Feese.

     It was a story that made the wire services, said Jim and Reva Feese. They will celebrate their 50 years of marriage May 15.

     A few months after, Feese went to work for AT&T's Bell Telephone Co. Ironically one of his co-workers was Marcella Holmes, who was also in the Woodward Theater the night of April 9.

     "I got to the show late and had to sit up in the balcony," said Holmes, now Marcella Ruttman.

     Fifty years ago, it was common for the Woodward Theater to be completely or almost completely sold out of seats, even on a Wednesday night. The most devout members of the community always went to Wednesday night prayer meeting in their respectives churches but everyone else went to the show.

     Ruttman was a telephone operator, one of dozens of mostly young women who said "Number, please," in the Woodward switchboard office.

     In the days before dial phones and dial tones, every number had to be spoken into the receiver and a human being - almost always female - connected your phone to the number you asked for.

     For two days, the Telephone Workers of America were on strike for highter wages or better working conditions; it is not known now what the strike was all about.

     Ruttman was one of the striking employees, who were told not to go to work until the union and Bell Telephone had settled their differences.

     Members of management, including Ruttman's two older sisters, were providing operator service during the strike of the rank and file.

     "When the lights went out, we started to leave the show," said Ruttman. "An usher by the name of Blackie had a flashlight and was shining it so we could get down the stairs. Then someone said we needed to stay inside because of the storm, so I stood on the stairs until it was over."

     Both Ruttman and Feese said by the time they could get outside, the sky and streets were lighted by the great fires that were burning up Sharp Lumber Yard and Big 7 Electirc Co.

     Jim Feese took his date Reva home to the southeast side of town where there was little or no damage. He then went to check on his parents and found them safe. Then he and his brother Hubert drove down the street to the hospital in the 1400 block on Fourth and saw the dead and injured being brought in.

     "I then went back to Main Street." Feese said.

     "I ran into Zip Roberts, who owned a sporting goods store on Main. He and I walked through the broken windows of the C. R. Anthony store and went back to the bedding department, where we carried out all the blankets we could find."

     Feese and Roberts took the "stolen" blankets to the hospital and by then, Feese said, the sight of all the people lying on the porch, on the grass in front, and on the porches of neighborhood houses was incredible.

     Through the night, Feese worked with dozens of others, picking up bodies to take to the mortuaries, or the injured to any place where they could be taken care of.

     "I found one of the little Fiel twins," said Feese. "We took him to Armstrong's (funeral home)"

     Marcella Holmes Ruttman went back to work. Strike or no strike, she knew what her duty was.

     "No one called us back to work," she said. "We just all showed up."

     When we got to the telephone office (on Ninth Street a half block north of Main), we discovered there weren't any lines open but the linemen were putting them back in service as fast as they could. Over time, we had more and more lines. One of the first was run to Young Furniture for the use of the Red Cross."

     In a poignant note, Ruttman told of Russel Story, a telephone company supervisor, who was in charge of the office during the night. When the tornado struck, she said, Story herded all the workers in the building into the middle hallway, where they crouched down and were sheltered from flying debris.

     At the same moment, Story's son and only child, Dean Story, was killed in the band building of Woodward High School, where he was practicing with a brass quartet for the Enid Tri-State Festival competition that was to start the following day.

     In the weeks that followed, the Telephone Workers of America learned that the Woodward local had broken the strike. It cancelled the entire Woodward membership to punish them for not following union orders.

     "Someone said, 'We'll look into it' and never did," said Feese, but nothing the union could do would ever dim the valor displayed by the Woodward telephone operators and linemen when they went back to work after the tornado.

     Between 1947 and 1997, the telephone compnay as it was then has ceased to exist. New laws broke Bell Telephone up into seperate regional companies. Operators like Marcella Ruttman no longer plug lines into switchboards manually. The switchboard office is gone from Woodward, where at one time, 60 women worked four shifts, saying "Number, please."

     Today, communications are completely different in disasters," said Feese. "Not only do we have warning systems and scientific weather forecasting, but the telephone system itself is safer from disaster. Underground cables can't be blown down."

     Both Ruttman and Feese expressed great pride in having been telephone workers.

     "The phone company gave us a lot of incentives," said Ruttman. And even since I've retired, the company has treated me well."

     If House Bill 1850 passes the Oklahoma Legislature, allowing telephone compaines to set rates competitivley, "it's only going to get better," said Feese.

     Ruttman and Feese worked together for over 30 years - they have more stories to tell of other disasters besides the tornado.

     But a bronze plaque says best how they and their coworkers responded on April 9, 1947:

     "To the employees of Southwestern Bell Company at Woodward, Okla., by the national committee of award of the Theodore N. Vail Memorial Fund, in recognition of their skill, courage and devotion to duty in performing acts of public service during the tornado, April 1947."

     The plaque is on the wall in the vestibule of the present Southwestern Bell building on Texas Avenue.

     The building is now closed.

Red Cross Relief

In the days and months after the 1947 tornado, the American Red Cross provided aid that helped tornado victims get back into the "real world." It picked up people, dusted them off, and gave them assistance in starting back to work.

Some of the Red Cross' help was:

--Building contracts. The Red Cross paired homeless families with 'building advisors' to decide how to rebuild a demolished house. The Red Cross paid the reconstructin cost upon completion of the work.

--Household goods. The Red Cross gave $183,029 worth of household goods to 547 families.

--Farmers assistance. The Red Cross replaced implements, tools and livestock. It helped 60 families by donating $19,598 to help with the bills.

--Merchant awards. The Red Cross designated $14,212 to help get small-time businessmen, such as plumbers and carpenters, to get the individuals back to their self-supporting status.

Information compiled by Della Stump of the American Red Cross.
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Extracted Woodward News by staff writer Helen Mossman


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