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Mourning for My Hometown

My credentials as a newspaper reporter lapsed long ago.

So my wife, Melinda, and I, retired in Arlington, Ky., her hometown, are heeding pleas of local officials and staying away from tornado-ravaged Mayfield, Ky., the town where I was born, where we lived almost all of our married lives and where we reared our son.

“We, of the town of Bardwell, had never even contemplated the idea that we might some day be visited by one of these frightful, ghastly storms,” local historian Ran Graves wrote of the 1917 twister that left the Carlisle County seat in shambles. (Arlington is in Carlisle County.)

Doubtless most Mayfield residents were thinking likewise Friday night when a rare December tornado ripped apart most of the Graves County seat. Multiple deaths seem likely, according to officials.

Evidently the storm spared our old neighborhood in south Mayfield. But apparently almost everything north of Broadway, the main street, is gone. So are other parts of the town.

Small tornadoes visited Mayfield when we lived there. They did some damage. The great ice storm of 2019 hit Mayfield hard; we lost power and several trees. But the photos and videos we are now seeing of Mayfield look like images from Berlin in 1945.

Evidently the storm spared our old neighborhood in south Mayfield. But apparently almost everything north of Broadway, the main street, is gone. So are other parts of the town.

The 1880s-vintage red brick Graves County courthouse was heavily damaged; the historic cupola and clock have disappeared. So has most of the second floor. Destruction around the court square and its environs is massive.

On the Sunday night before the tornado, First Christian, First Methodist and First Presbyterian held a joint “Advent Walk” in which the congregations traveled from church to church in a special service.

The Christian and Methodist churches are wrecked; First Presbyterian, the church of my youth, was virtually destroyed. It is uncertain when, or where, the three congregations will meet again.

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“Mayfield More than a Memory” says a mural on the side of a downtown building that still stands. Memories are all many in Mayfield, population 10,000, have left.

I remember the big Resurrection window in the Presbyterian church. On Easter Sunday, the whole congregation would turn around, face the magnificent panes of lead-bound stained glass and sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”

I was christened in the church. So was our son, Berry IV, my mother and two uncles.

Stained glass memorial windows decorated the back and both sides of the sanctuary. When we were kids, my brother, Tim, and I wondered about the names on them.

“Jno” looked like the first name of a guy named Stark. We’d never heard of anybody named “Jno,” not knowing it was short for “Jonathan.”

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A window on the west side memorialized James W. Hocker. We thought that was an unusual last name.

In 1978, I married his great-niece, Melinda Anne Hocker, in whose late 19th-century family homeplace we live.

Melinda was reared Southern Baptist in Arlington but returned to her Presbyterian roots in Mayfield. She joined First Presbyterian and remains an active member.

My parents, Sue Vest and Berry Craig Jr., were married in the church on Sept. 20, 1947. We treasure photos of them walking down the front steps as brand-new husband-and-wife.

We had their funerals in the church. We carried the caskets down the same steps.

“After the tornado the town of Bardwell recovered rapidly and completely,” Graves also wrote in his Carlisle County history book. I suspect “rapidly” and “completely” meant relatively.

"Most of the people collected their insurance and rebuilt,” he added. Mayfield is in for months of rebuilding.

Insurance pays only for the loss of a structure and its contents. It cannot replace the loss of the irreplaceable.

Gov. Andy Beshear has announced a "Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund" to help survivors of lethal tornadoes that devastated parts of Kentucky overnight Friday. CLICK HERE TO DONATE

“We have a wonderful collection of archived materials from our church’s history,” says First Methodist’s homepage. “The Archives can be found in room #105. There are also two printed histories of the church that can be perused.”

It’s unclear how much of that survived.

Uncertain, too, is the fate of First Presbyterian's framed “roll of honor” that lists all the church members who went off to World War II, including my two uncles. Somewhere in the sanctuary debris is the old wooden baptismal font and communion table.

"We have suffered a major loss in this disaster; there is so much damage to our facilities," the Rev. Joey Reed of First Methodist posted on the church's webpage. He and his wife, Laurinda, were in the church when the tornado hit but are safe.

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The congregation, he added, has lost a building, but "WE are the church. You. Your family. Your friends and your neighbors who call Mayfield First 'home.'"

Doubtless the sentiment is the same at the other churches and all across my hometown. Mayfield has lost many buildings. But the town is the family, friends and neighbors who call Mayfield "home."

Berry Craig