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Johnny Vardeman: Storm victims cemetery marker in need of repair
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The enscription is fading on the monument to victims of the 1936 Gainesville tornado at Alta Vista Cemetery.

More than 200 people died in the April 6, 1936, tornado that blew through the heart of Gainesville.

Some of those remain unidentified to this day, and some were officially listed as “missing.”

Three weeks after the tornado, a memorial service was held for the unknown and missing at First Methodist Church. The pastor, the Rev. Robert L. Russell, presided, but ministers from most Gainesville churches participated.

As a symbol of those missing and/or unknown, an unidentified boy and girl were buried in a plot donated by the city in Alta Vista Cemetery. A marker on NW 1st Street at Shallowford Road in the cemetery reads, “Unknown Dead Killed in Tornado Apr. 6, 1936. Erected by City of Gainesville.”

The city several months ago erected a historical marker at the corner of Maple and Broad streets in Gainesville in memory of those who died in the Cooper Pants Factory fire caused by the 1936 tornado.

John W. Roberts, a native Gainesvillian who now lives in Texas, believes the community can do better to honor the memory of those who died, especially those who were never officially identified.

On a recent visit to the cemetery, he noticed the deteriorating condition of the present marker and is interested in helping restore it or perhaps erect a more suitable memorial. The marker shows its 80-plus years of age.

“It is in pretty sad shape and is only going to get worse,” he wrote. “I thought something should be done to protect the historical nature of the monument and better recognize those whom it commemorates.” Roberts said he would be willing to contribute financially to any fund that might be established to provide a better monument.

While he was not yet born when the tornado came, he feels fortunate that none of his relatives were victims. His grandparents were Anne and J.C. Butts and Katherine and William Allen Roberts. His parents were Anne and Bill Roberts. Katherine Roberts owned The Book Shop in the middle of the block on Washington Street on the square. After the storm, it became Roberts Books and Gifts in another Washington Street location.

Johnny Roberts’ idea for an improved memorial in Alta Vista sounds like a project for local historians in connection with the city. April 6 will be the 81st anniversary of the storm.

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Three weeks after the tornado, the American Red Cross listed 15 people still missing. They were Mrs. W.H. Burnett, Tommy Cagle, Robert Campbell, Churchill boy, age 9; Miss Gazer, Roach Kochs, Ella Mae Wright, Rufus McMahan, Tommie Smith, George Teal, Mr. and Mrs. W.H. Grinter, Fred Wright, George Wright and Ola Mae Wright.

Some of those might have turned up later, or their bodies might have been found in later recovery efforts.

Pleasant Hill Baptist Church on Brown’s Bridge Road provided a monument for one of the missing, Tommy Cagle. It reads, “T.J. Cagle, Oct. 21, 1920, April 6, 1936. Lost in Tornado 1936.”

He was last seen riding his bicycle in downtown Gainesville the morning of the storm. There was speculation that his body was buried in an unmarked grave in Alta Vista Cemetery. But relatives didn’t identify it as Tommy.

The official death toll was 212. Hundreds were injured, and 415 buildings damaged.

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The symposium on the works of author C.S. Lewis and his wife, Joy Davidman, held last week at Brenau University and Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville called attention to the collection in the college library. Warren Jones, a New Holland native and professor emeritus at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, sponsored the development of the collection in honor of his wife, Bobbie, a Brenau alumna. Bobbie was the first recipient of a full scholarship to Brenau awarded by New Holland’s Pacolet mill in 1960.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.

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