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Tornado tales

How one Austin man survived a 1922 storm by hanging on to a tree trunk

Michael Barnes
The 1915 Austin High Maroons football team, which won the unofficial state championship title. Mary Anne Connolly's godfather, Francis "Mike" Connolly, is on the middle row, second from the right. Her grandfather John Connolly is on the front row on the right end. [Contributed]

Reader Mary Anne Connolly wanted to track down the details of an intriguing family tale about her great-grandfather, Michael John “Big Mike” Connolly, who was related to seven generations of Irish-Americans in Austin.

The story wasn’t hard to find in online newspaper archives.

Previously, we had published details of the May 4, 1922, twin tornadoes that left 13 dead, 44 injured and caused $725,000 in property damage, or $11 million in today’s money. The more easterly of the twisters bounced from East Austin to Travis Heights, St. Edward’s University, Penn Field, St. Elmo and Manchaca.

The story of Mike Connolly took place in Travis Heights.

According to an article published on May 5, 1922, under the headline “Grabs Trunk of Tree; Tree Uprooted; But Connolly Escapes Hurt,” bricklayer Mike Connolly was working on a chimney in Travis Heights when the weather turned dramatically worse. Having been in Kansas, he knew a twister when saw one. He got down from the roof and headed toward his Ford car, which was parked in the home's yard, to anchor himself.

“The storm beat him to the car, however, and seeing that he could not reach the Ford, he lay on the ground and threw his arms around the trunk of a big tree," the story reads. "The tree was uprooted and swung around several times and when it finally landed on the earth, Connolly found himself on top uninjured. The twister whirled his Ford around several times and then set it back on the ground undamaged except for several broken ribs in the top and a broken windshield.”


We wondered, of course, about the address of the house in Travis Heights, which was growing quickly during that decade, but have found nothing so far.

Another harrowing tale with a happy ending from that same day had escaped my attention during earlier research: Mr. and Mrs. F.W. Woodman, along with Mrs. Woodman’s sister, Mrs. C.L. Patrick, visiting from San Antonio, and seven Woodman children, ages 2 to 19, were at the Woodward Manufacturing Plant near Penn Field (and Woodward Street) in South Austin when the same twister touched down again.

Some of the family headed for the shelter of a gravel pit below the main force of the winds.

“Mrs. Woodman at first hesitated, then fled for safety to the gravel pit,” reads the article in the afternoon paper. “Shorty after passing out the door, the wind picked her up and rolled her for about 100 yards when she was hit by flying timbers. One of the timbers struck her in the jaw and passed down her throat some three or four inches.”

Incredibly, Mrs. Woodman survived and was resting easy at Seton Infirmary the next morning. Flying timber also injured two of her children, Helen, 18, and Daisy, 9. The parents and the elder children, including Helen and her brother Vernon, 19, shielded the younger ones with their bodies.

Back to the Connolly clan: Big Mike fathered nine children, eight boys and one girl, Catherine, who never married.

“They say because she grew up with so many men to raise and live with,” Mary Anne writes. “Mike’s son, my grandfather, was John Michael. He was the eldest. My father, John Michael Jr., was also known as ‘Mike.’ He was born Feb. 6, 1922, and died May 31, 2012. There are probably close to 50 — or 75 — descendants by now, all from John Dudley Connolly, who came from Ireland in 1851. That would be my great-great-grandfather.”

So Mary Anne’s father, Mike, was born less than three months before the tornadic activity.

I might be going out on a limb here, but given such large families in multiple generations, there are likely more than 75 descendants of John Dudley. Many members of the Connolly family still live in the Austin and Round Rock areas, while others are scattered across the state.

In her most recent email, Mary Anne, a former journalist who founded MACMedia, sent just a few of the many photos that had been shared earlier on a family Facebook page.

“This is the photo of my dad being held by 'Big Mike' in 1922,” Mary Anne writes. “I'd have to check, but since my dad was the first and oldest son of my grandfather, who was the oldest of 9, my daddy may have been the first grandchild of many more. Also here’s a photo taken that same day with my grandparents. John Michael looked a bit like Cary Grant, they say, here with Kate and Katherine.”

At the time, the Connolly family lived at 1115 East 12th St., an Eastlake-style cottage now known as the Connolly-Yerwood House. It was built by bricklayer and tornado survivor “Big Mike” Connolly in 1904. Renovated by the Alpha Kappa Alpha civic group, it bears an Austin historic marker.

The other surname that graces the house, Yerwood, belongs to the family of Dr. Connie Yerwood, a medical pioneer, the first African American physician hired by the Texas Public Health Service and subject of a recent Austin Found column.

One more thing.

“Both John Michael, my grandfather, and Francis, my godfather and his brother, were on the Austin High 1915 state champion football team,” Mary Anne says about the unofficial state champion Maroons, who beat Fort Worth North Side for the honor during a six-year cooling-off period for the University Interscholastic League, which has overseen Texas high school competitions since 1910. The interruption in official playoff games was necessitated by the fact that Fort Worth High (not North Side) had repeatedly used ineligible players. “My grandfather played baseball and skipped out on a Yankees contract to marry my grandmother."


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