South Milwaukee, Oak Creek, WI tornado, Jul 1981

By Marilyn Gardner
The Journal Staff

Ervn and Lillian McClay of 6524 S. Crane Dr., Oak Creek, were on their way home Monday afternoon after attending to some business in Cudahy when they saw the trouble.

"We were about a mile away when I saw the tornado," Ervin McClay said. "I knew right away what it was - I used to live in Minnesota and we had lots of them."

They arrived home to find the roof of their garage caved in, all of the garage windows blown out and many trees in their yard uprooted, he said.

The McClay's home was one of about 15 in Oak Creek that were damaged when the tornado touched down there Monday at about 4 p. m.

Lawrence Prochnow, captain and director of emergency government for the Oak Creek Police Department, said:

"We spent four or vive hours out there last night. There's not much you can do at the time. You just try to help the people."

The home of Thomas and Karen Wuethrich, 6544 S. Crane Dr., also was damaged. Roof shingles and siding on the house were blown off.

Tom Zajdel, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service at Mitchell Field, said, "We had a squall line develop around the Fond du Lac County area early in the afternoon. It moved into the Milwaukee area betwen 3 p. m. and 4 p. m. One of the thunderstorms in the line intensified very rapidly over the Oak Creek area."

Elroy Jagler, meteorologist in charge, went to the area, Zajdel said, "and from what he saw and from the people he talked to he's sure it was a tornado."

Ervin McClay's mother, Georgia, 85, lives with them and was home at the time. "She was really shook up," he said. "But it was very quick. It was over just like that."

His sister-in-law, Janet McClay, lives nearby at 6516 S. Crane Dr. When the tornado struck, she went to Ervin's house. "I ran right over," she said. "I wanted to be with her."

The tornado also caused a lot of damage to her home and yard, Janet McClay said. "I lost most of my trees. We had a yard like a park. A great big elm came down and at least five more were rooted up, broken and blown down. The yard's full of wood."

Wall Pushed In

The south wall of her garage was pushed in, she said, and the roof was damaged.

At both homes, insurance company workers put heavy plastic over the damaged roofs. Both families were able to stay in their homes Monday night.

McClay said one of the trees that damaged Ervin McClay's garage was a silver maple that he had given to a neighborhood boy as a seedling.

The boy, Kurt Bielski, now 19, planted the seedling when he was 5 or 6, his mother, Lorraine Bielski, said Tuesday. "All the kids went to the McClay home. He's like a neighborly grandpa type."

Kurt planted the tiny tree in their back yard, "right next to the vent from my dryer," she said. It had constant warm breezes winter and summer. You need it. It grew very fast in that tropical climate."

About three years later, Kurt transplanted the tree into the yard and it grew to reach the second story of their home.

The tornado "split the tree right down the middle and twisted the top right off," Kurt's mother said. "It threw it right back into Erv's garage."

A close Call for 2

The Milwaukee Journal, 20 July 1981

By Rick Romell
Community News Editor

Oak Creek - More than a dozen years ago, Ervin McClay gave a tiny maple seeding to a friendly neighbor boy.

Monday, McClay got it back.

The tornado that ripped off a sizable piece of McClay's roof also blew part of the no-longer-tiny maple into his garage.

The storm lifted McClay's garage roof into his back yard at 6524 S. Crane Dr., but didn't move about 20 pieces of lumber that had been stacked in the rafters.

McClay, 67, had enough composure Monday to appreciate the ironies of the situation, although his house was by far the most seriously damaged in the neighborhood.

He had been driving home when the storm hit and saw the destruction when he turned onto S. Crane Dr.

But McClay didn't even get out of his car. He saw that his mother and sister-in-law were all right - they were waving to him from inside the house - and drove straight to his insurance agent's office.

As a work crew sent by the insurance company waterproofed his damaged roof, McClay surveyed the maple branches that covered most of his garage floor.

They were from the tree he had given to Kurt Bielski shortly after moving into the neighborhood nearly 13 years ago. Bielski was a small boy who liked to come over and talk with McClay, and the tree was just inches high, the smallest of several saplings and seedlings McClay had.

Bielski is now 19, and the maple - at least until Monday - was as tall as a two-story house.

Bielski first had planted the sapling next to a dryer vent, where it flourished in the warm air. When it grew larger, he moved it farther into his parents' yard at 6503 S. Crane Dr.

The tornado moved the tree farther still, snapping it apart and blowing part of it into McClay's garage about 150 feet to the southeast.

"I was so proud of it because I planted it and took care of it," Bielski said. "Now, I have to get the ax out tomorrow and hop down my favorite tree. What a drag."

The Milwaukee Sentinel, Milwaukee, WI 20 July 1981