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Memorial, memories highlight tornados 75th anniversary
Stories are now history
Rosemary Dodd listens to speakers Wednesday during a dedication ceremony for a memorial plaque of the 75th anniversary of the 1936 tornado on the square in Gainesville. Dodd is a survivor of the 1936 tornado. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Ruin & Rebirth: Read stories from The Times' coverage of the 75th anniversary of the 1936 tornado and watch a special documentary that features stories from people who survived that day.

 Remembering the 1936 tornado

Exhibit featuring the events of April 6 and the aftermath
: Through April 30
Where: Northeast Georgia History Center, 322 Academy St., Gainesville
How much: Free

Moment of silence, walking tour, plaque dedication
8:15-8:30 a.m. today
Where: Gainesville's downtown square
How much: Free
Walking tour: Download a walking tour brochure

Survivors' reception
5-6:30 p.m. today
Where: Northeast Georgia History Center
How much: Free

Family Day on the history of the 1936 tornado and the science of weather
1-4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Northeast Georgia History Center
How much: Free

Documentary showing and forum with tornado survivors
7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Northeast Georgia History Center
How much: $3 for nonmembers

As the anniversary of Gainesville's darkest moment passed, a small group gathered in silent memorial.

A crisp blue sky stood in stark contrast to the day 75 years ago, April 6, 1936, when the clouds sat low above Gainesville and the air pressed in thick and heavy. On that morning more than 200 lost their lives in the fifth deadliest tornado in U.S. history.

"I never realized or thought I'd be here this long," said Ed Parks, a 79-year-old survivor of the storm and a man who often speaks of the harrowing experience with a reserved composure. On Wednesday, tears rested in the corners of his eyes.

"After that day, it's such a great feeling to know that God let you stay here this long on earth."

At 8:27 a.m., the moment the first of three tornadoes hit, the group of about a hundred folded arms or clasped hands or simply closed their eyes.

After that silence, the town unveiled a memorial that none could deny was long overdue.

"If we don't do it now, we're going to lose the chance to let them know how much we appreciate what they went through and how much we care about them and how much they did to rebuild the town," Mayor Ruth Bruner said.

Until Wednesday morning, no public memorial honored the lives lost and the community that moved forward to rebuild the shattered town.

"It would have been so easy to simply give up and walk away," said Glen Kyle, managing director of the Northeast Georgia History Center, which along with Main Street Gainesville created the memorial plaque.

"So much death, so much fear and uncertainty. But they did not. They did not. That is the success of today. That is why we're here 75 years later."

Many in the crowd Wednesday morning had heard the stories of Gainesville's great storm told by parents and friends. Scattered throughout the group, though, were some who remember the day firsthand.

It wasn't a scheduled part of the morning's events, but several decided to share their recollections.

"In Pruitt-Barrett Hardware was the fire and everything else was torn down," said John Jacobs, pointing across the square with memories of the devastation he saw at age 13. "It's a sight I've lived with through the years, and every time a dark cloud comes up through Gainesville, I run the other way."

Some stories of the tornado have been shared so many times throughout the 75 years that they are now a part of the town's collective history. But still, one man came to the podium on Wednesday's anniversary and shared a memory few had heard before.

Phil Gilstrap told the group his father Pierce Gilstrap was 27 and weathered the storm in the Jackson Building. Forty-seven years later, as the two talked one Sunday morning before church, the father reminded his son that it was the anniversary of the '36 tornado.

"My dad was not a religious guy but he was a very godly man," Gilstrap said. "And he said ‘Wasn't God good to me?' He said ‘I would have never met your mom and I would have never had you kids and the grandkids.'"

They spoke for a few more minutes. And then the old man suffered a heart attack and "slipped out into eternity," his son said.

"I'm so thankful to God that he did let him survive that because just a few minutes after he was giving God thanks for that he got to meet his maker face to face and thank him personally for that," he said.

"And that's a memory that I will hold onto forever."