Fairdale a year after tornado's wrath: 'This is always home'

  • Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner listens to Deena Schell, second from right, give a speech at the groundbreaking for her Habitat for Humanity home in Fairdale Saturday. She is flanked by daughters, Haleigh, 14, on left, and Calli, 12, on right.

    Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner listens to Deena Schell, second from right, give a speech at the groundbreaking for her Habitat for Humanity home in Fairdale Saturday. She is flanked by daughters, Haleigh, 14, on left, and Calli, 12, on right. Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 4/9/2016 8:28 PM

No one has to tell Deena Schell her hometown will never look the same again.

But she doesn't believe for a second it won't be the same again.

 

"This is home. This is always home," said Schell after driving a ceremonial shovel into the ground Saturday with Gov. Bruce Rauner at the spot where her parent's old house once stood and where her new house will soon take form. "I never thought about living anywhere else. All my memories are here. Why wouldn't I want to come back here?"

Schell's home and heart is in Fairdale, a tiny hamlet in rural DeKalb County a few miles southeast of Rockford that's just four blocks deep and two blocks wide off Route 72. A year ago Saturday, most of Fairdale was erased from the landscape by a powerful tornado that killed two best friends and injured dozens of townspeople. But a year later, the town was abuzz again as residents and officials gathered to remember what had happened that day, to honor the two women who died, and to say thank you to those who are helping them put the town and their lives back together.

While the unincorporated town still bears many of its scars from that day, mixed among those telltale signs of unbridled devastation are the unmistakable markers of resiliency and determination.

New homes are constantly popping up between the butternut trees that had their tops sheered off by the nearly 200-mile-per-hour winds of the tornado. A block-sized park filled with brightly colored playground equipment, a basketball court and picnic tables is dedicated to the memory of the two women who were killed by the tornado's fury.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

And while some have left to start new lives in neighboring towns, they return frequently to see their friends, their family or just the progress of Fairdale's rebuilding efforts.

"Some days are good and some days are rough ones. It just depends on the day and what might have happened in the morning," said Clem Schultz, an 85-year-old retiree whose wife, Geri, died in the tornado that also severely injured him. "But I got a new house now a few miles away on five acres and sometimes I get to thinking if Geri had made it, she would love it."

Family and friends leave roses on the park bench memorializing Geri Schultz and Jackie Klosa, who lost their lives in the EF-4 tornado that destroyed the town of Fairdale one year ago. The town hosted a memorial and dedication on Saturday.
Family and friends leave roses on the park bench memorializing Geri Schultz and Jackie Klosa, who lost their lives in the EF-4 tornado that destroyed the town of Fairdale one year ago. The town hosted a memorial and dedication on Saturday. - Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

Geri Schultz's best friend and neighbor, Jackie Klosa, was the tornado's other victim.

Klosa's family laid a small, commemorative sign and yellow roses at the foundation of the house where she was killed Saturday morning.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Despite a full year's passing, it's no easier coming back to Fairdale for Klosa's grandson, Michael Dewispelaere.

"You look around and your heart kind of drops," he said. "We came here all the time. There are so many memories attached to this place. And it's all gone."

The tornado struck quickly. Many longtime residents, like Jay Watson, didn't think the storm would amount to much. He was mesmerized by the color of the sky.

"On one side it was this gorgeous blue, but the other half was midnight black," he said.

His younger brother and mother took shelter in the bathtub when the tornado warning was issued, but Watson was sending videos to his sister joking about the storm.

"Then a neighbor just came running into the house and grabbed me and pulled me into the bathroom, and we huddled down against the wall and said a quick prayer," Watson recalled. "And that's when it hit. The pressure changed and my ears popped. You don't hear or see anything. I was tumbling out of the tornado and something hit me because I blacked out.

"I came to in the middle of the field across the road on top of a bunch of debris. I got up and you know you're in Fairdale, but inside you feel lost because it doesn't look the same as it did."

Tyler Rowan, grandson of the late Geri Schultz, is comforted by his uncle and Geri's oldest son, Jim Poden, of Battlecreek, Michigan, during the park bench dedication to Schultz Saturday in Fairdale.
Tyler Rowan, grandson of the late Geri Schultz, is comforted by his uncle and Geri's oldest son, Jim Poden, of Battlecreek, Michigan, during the park bench dedication to Schultz Saturday in Fairdale. - Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

Neighboring towns rallied around Fairdale in the aftermath of the tornado. Volunteers flooded in and continue to assist residents. A task force was assembled after it was determined that despite the magnitude of destruction, the scope wasn't large enough to warrant federal aid.

Initially led by Bill Nicklas, the DeKalb County Long-Term Recovery Corp. could have been a bureaucratic nightmare that only served to frustrate and infuriate residents. Instead, many Fairdale residents look at Nicklas and the group as the town's savior.

Saturday, they gave Nicklas -- now serving in a reduced role at the nonprofit agency -- a standing ovation and gifts. When Nicklas was introduced to speak about the work of the group over the last year, Klosa's daughter Yvette stopped the proceedings so she could walk to the podium and hug him.

"You have to be absolutely transparent and willing to take criticism, which we were," Nicklas said. "We laid out all of our plans and costs and showed where every penny was being spent."

Instead of handing over checks to residents, the organization made purchases on the town's behalf and paid for various improvements.

Clem Schultz touches the Fairdale historical marker dedicated to his late wife, Geri Schultz, and her friend Jackie Klosa while family, friends, residents and others gather around during the anniversary and memorial events of the EF-4 tornado that demolished the town.
Clem Schultz touches the Fairdale historical marker dedicated to his late wife, Geri Schultz, and her friend Jackie Klosa while family, friends, residents and others gather around during the anniversary and memorial events of the EF-4 tornado that demolished the town. - Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

In addition to all the new home construction, there's now a townwide septic field, road improvements are coming, and residents now have high-speed Internet access that didn't exist a year ago.

"I have heard no complaints and I certainly don't have any with them," Schultz said. "It actually surprised me that they did so much for the people who didn't have enough."

Rauner praised the ingenuity and drive of the recovery corporation during his brief remarks Saturday.

Schell said she probably wouldn't be moving back if it weren't for the work the agency did to attract charities like Habitat For Humanity, which is building her new house.

"At first I was lost," Schell said. "But once I got in touch with my case worker through (the LTRC), everything started going in motion."

Schell and her two daughters were left without most of their personal belongings after the tornado. For weeks, she borrowed her sister's clothes. She didn't know if she'd ever have her own place to live in again, let alone come back to Fairdale.

Schell doesn't care that her hometown won't look the same as it did before the tornado. What's important is who is in that town, she said.

"We're all a family," she said. "You don't have to worry if you've got that."

0 Comments
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.