Palm Sunday tornado project became so much more than archival record

Dan Cherry is a Lenawee County historian.

I've written a number of Lenawee County area history books over the years. Each have come and gone in their time and I moved on, except for one.

I had no idea a conversation I had after church Dec. 26, 1999, would remain with me 23 years later.

It was that day I asked a parishioner why the Palm Sunday tornado of 1965 was seldom talked about. Palm Sunday at our church had undertones of sorrow and distress on what was, in religious beliefs, was to be a day of joy and preparation. Learning exactly how much of an impact the night of April 11, 1965, had on the greater Lenawee County area, I became curious about the stories of my neighbors, friends and relatives.

Understanding after my conversation with Chet how sensitive that tragedy was, I honestly expected my research would result in a small book, and that my wanting to preserve the memories of tornado survivors would result in more "no, thank you" responses than "yes."

The opposite became true. Within two years, I had a 263-page manuscript and elevated interest in it being more than a library or museum archival record. In 2004, the first of many print runs, to benefit the Lenawee County Historical Society Museum in Adrian, rolled off the press, and additional printings continued through 2017. Museums, genealogy researchers, organizations and others kept contacting me to come talk to their group, and the requested topic was always about the tornado. Somewhere along the way for me, the Palm Sunday tornado became a language.

The 50th anniversary year, 2015, was the busiest for me. I received calls and emails requesting interviews on television, radio and in print media. The museum and I worked out a 50th anniversary book, which has since sold out.

After the museum and I had failed to read the book printers' "fine print" that a fee was required to retain my digital files, everything was deleted. The requests still came, often three, four or more a week, looking for copies of "Night of the Wind." I decided I would add the 13 more years of survivor memories and photos I had gathered to archive. During the pandemic, this expanded further, as more than 100 additional images were entrusted to the project. I started over, rebuilding the project, adding new chapters and more pages.

My goal was to end up with a 350-page reissued book, but again, I underestimated the topic.

This week, I "put to bed" the second edition of "Night of the Wind," a 419-page rededication to the lives affected that night more than 57 years ago. While the book still focuses on Lenawee County, it now contains an expansive look at Tipton, as well as coverage into Hillsdale and Branch counties through which the same tornadoes wrought deadly paths.

As a tribute to all the lives lost that weekend and beyond as a result of the storms, I was able to track down and identify 263 of the 266 known victims from six states. This was no small feat. Only about half the victims can be found somewhat easily. Many period accounts spelled names phonetically and estimated ages. In short time, individually naming victims was traded for simply issuing numbers. It took many late nights sifting through news and public record databases to find 263 fatalities, some who died months later. I did my best, but the other three for now will have to remain anonymous.

After the first of the year, I will move forward with issuing the book in full color as I find workarounds through ongoing supply-chain shortages and high paper prices to meet the now some-dozen requests weekly for the book. Thank you to everyone who made this project possible, and for continued interest nearly a quarter-century on.

Dan Cherry is a Lenawee County historian.

This article originally appeared on The Daily Telegram: Palm Sunday tornado project became so much more than archival record