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Survivors gather to mark anniversary of tornado of 36
32 stood for a picture
A group of survivors of the Tornado of 1936 gather at a reception in their honor Wednesday at the Northeast Georgia History Center. - photo by Tom Reed

Remembering the tornado of '36

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

Family Day with hands-on activities about the 1936 tornado and the science of weather
When: 1-4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Northeast Georgia History Center

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


The memories shared carried a heavy weight, but Wednesday was not a day of sorrow.

As survivors of the Gainesville tornado of 1936 gathered on the day's 75th anniversary, the overwhelming emotion was one of gratitude.

"It brings back the memory, the good that's in people," said Charles Morrow, 87, who cleaned brick for a penny a piece as the town rebuilt. "You can see the good in people because after that tornado, Gainesville was as close a community as any place I've ever been in my life."

The survivor reception was held Wednesday night at the Northeast Georgia History Center, the cap on a day that started with a memorial dedication on the downtown square.

Felicia Burns said she hasn't thought of the tornado often in the years since it happened. But Wednesday morning, the memories all came back.

"I couldn't get over the fact that we had survived 75 years and that Gainesville was rebuilt as well as it is," she said.

Her husband, John Burns, also survived the tornado.

His father owned the Downey Hospital and barely slept in the days after the storm. His wife's father was the incoming chairman of the Red Cross, and he, too, worked tirelessly to tend to the wounded.

The two have been married for 51 years.

At 95 years old, Garland Smith was one of the oldest survivors in attendance. In 1936, the then 20-year-old started each morning with an 8:30 bus from the downtown Dixie Hunt Hotel to the Chicopee Mill. On the morning of April 6, he was waiting for his food to arrive at Ms. Phillip's boarding house, but the cook was running late.

He decided to skip breakfast and catch an early bus.

"Smitty, here comes your breakfast now," one man yelled as he stepped out the door.

But Smith kept going. He was already at work when the tornado decimated the downtown at 8:27 a.m.

"To this day I don't know why I took that early bus," he said Wednesday, surrounded by others who were the lucky ones that morning.

As the gathering came to a close, the survivors were asked to come together for a group photograph. Not many who were in Gainesville that day are still living, but as the family photographers tried to snap a picture, more and more from the crowd came forward to join the group.

When all together, 32 people stood for a picture to remember the reception. That moment, said Glen Kyle, managing director of the history center, was an important point in Gainesville's history.

"I think that we as people and we as communities need these anniversaries to help us realize where we've been and where we're at and hopefully where we're going to go," Kyle said. "I think the things like we've had today make all the difference in who we are. This is how we know who we are."