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Lubbock Memorial Civic Center
The Lubbock Memorial Civic Center, center, was one of the positive things that came about during the rebuilding of Lubbock following the May 11, 1970, tornado. Also built in the tornado’s aftermath was the Mahon Library, to the left of the Civic Center.

From out of the rubble
Some good things followed '70 tornado

For the Avalanche-Journal

Dr. Heenan Johnson Jr. remembers the 1970 tornado for many things, but he particularly recalls those challenging days as the time when Lubbock put the word unity in community.

Dr. Heenan Johnson Jr.

“The community pulled together, really for the first time, in all parts of town,” Johnson recalled recently. “Everyone got together and said, ‘Let’s do this.’ They brought in food, water, clothing. Anything that was needed, people came and gave it.”

Lubbock Mayor Jim Granberry receives the lion’s share of the credit for helping Lubbock rebuild, and he was able to accomplish so much primarily because he involved so many.

One of his first acts, Johnson said, was to create a Mayor’s Recovery Commission, which was made up of some of the city’s most prominent citizens. Charles Verner, president of First National Bank, chaired the group. Other members, according to City Council records, included Bob Nash, Ray Chapman, Bettye Anderson, Arnold Maeker, Bob Messerschmidt, Frank Carrillo, Robert Lugo, J.R. Blumrosen, Dr. Jack Steele, Raymond Taylor and Johnson.

“The group was formed in the week after the tornado, and we were charged with taking care of certain obligations,” Johnson said. “We were assigned to different sections of the city where the storm did the most damage. We would report what was said and what could be done. I had Fourth Street, and the tornado went all up and down that street.”

Johnson, who moved to Lubbock in 1959, said three significant reminders emerged from the tornado’s destruction: the Memorial Civic Center, what is now known as the Mahon Library, and the completion of the Canyon Lakes Project.

“They were the main things that came out of all that destruction, the good parts,” he said.

Johnson said commission members spent a number of long hours assisting in recovery efforts. Like many, he could not believe the storm’s damage.

“Several of us went up in a helicopter to see exactly what the track of the storm looked like,” he said. “It hit the Great Plains Building and basically just twisted it. It seemed like when the storm hit that building, it must have split with one going to the left and one going to the right. The one that went to the left hit the Guadalupe neighborhood and the country club. There was a lot more damage from that one.

“When I looked out of that helicopter, the thing I thought was, ‘What a wind it must have been.’ ”

Much of the efforts to rebuild focused on the downtown area. The Civic Center was the showpiece of the ambitious “Metro Square” development plan aimed at revitalizing the decimated area, but the idea was not without its detractors.

“People were against the Civic Center,” Johnson recalled. “Amarillo had one, and it was failing at that time. Abilene had one that was successful and productive the way people thought one should be. It was bringing in people from outside the city and serving for local events. We took a bus to Abilene and walked all through that place. It was beautiful. We reported a civic center could succeed.”

The Civic Center needed a supporting cast, though. That opportunity opened the door for the Urban Renewal Agency to assist.

“My primary role was I was brought in to sell the commercial property around the Civic Center,” said Robert Stack, who worked as the agency’s deputy director in the years just after the tornado struck. “It took 10 years to sell all of the property and get it in full development, and the Housing and Urban Development people said it should have taken 20 years.”

Stack said the land would have sold even quicker, but with federal money involved in the recovery efforts, certain laws had to be followed.

“According to federal law, commercial property could not be sold for less than its appraisal value,” he said. “That put us in a bind because we received a number of offers for the property, but they were all below the appraisal value.”

Other troubles were on the horizon as well. Voters approved the Civic Center in a bond election, but Stack said when the bids came in for the project, the approved funding wasn’t enough to cover the costs.

“That meant we needed to have another bond election and ask for more money,” he said. “I’ve never seen a city come together before that or since then and support something the way they supported the Civic Center.”

Ultimately, several portions of the project had to be sacrificed, Stack said, such as an amphitheatre and a child development center, but the library survived, and voters approved more funding, thanks to the efforts of an awareness committee chaired by Dirk West, who would later become the city’s mayor.

Once that took place, Stack began the job of finding commercial tenants for the area. Each deal presented its own unique challenges.

For instance, Stack said, Chanco Medical Industries, which owned West Texas Hospital, wanted to build a new facility. Before a deal could be signed, the company merged with American Medical International. The merger created an issue for federal authorities.

Likewise, Stack worked out a deal with the company that would become La Quinta, which became a public company about the time the contract was signed. That created federal scrutiny as well because of the company’s transfer of ownership into the public sector.

“It seemed like everything we did caused a problem for HUD,” Stack said.

The city purchased a lot at the corner of Ninth Street and Avenue K to use for parking, and then the city and the Urban Renewal Agency worked out an agreement with the state for a new Department of Public Safety regional facility. However, the deal had to be approved by a certain date or the money for the project would disappear.

“I remember we put together a contract and took it to Austin, where it was approved,” he said. “I think we barely made it under the deadline.”

Other entities, such as IBM, also signed on, and the city had a showpiece area anchored by the Civic Center.

“It was great, and I am glad that I was part of it,” Stack said. “At the time, I didn’t know if I was glad to be part of it. It was nice, and it was fun. But it was a lot of work.”

It was the same story for Johnson and his fellow commission members.

“This town was 100 percent unified,” Johnson said. “Sometimes it takes tragedy to bring out the good in people. People lacked for nothing because a lot of others gave of themselves and what they had to help those who had nothing.”

Johnson said the group stayed together for some time before disbanding as Lubbock completed its long journey back to normalcy.

“We had a reunion about 10 years after the tornado,” he said. “We met at the First National Bank building and talked about our experience. We mixed and we mingled. We haven’t met since. I guess the next one will be in heaven.”


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The A-J Remembers The Most Important People in Lubbock's History

SPECIAL SECTIONS: 1909-1933 / 1934-1958 / 1959-1983 / 1984-PRESENT | PRINT VERSION