Seven foot, three inch Mike McCormick walked up to the Alamo with a smile in his eyes I had never seen before.
He shook his head in disbelief–in wonderment that he was really there. His ballcap came off and he placed his hand on the front wall between the historic door and right window.
“I just want to feel it,” he grinned, before we stepped inside to the hallowed chapel building.
He told me in Waco, the year before, he was going to see it someday. I wanted to make sure anybody who had as much reverence for the Alamo and as much respect for John Wayne as he did, would visit.
Just moments before we walked over from Rivercenter Mall after viewing the 45 minute Imax presentation of “Alamo–The Price of Freedom.” Mike was psyched.
Our tour of the mission grounds was over an hour. Mike didn’t usually talk much, but while we ate Mexican food on the San Antonio River Walk later, he went on non-stop about the visit.
The Productive Giant
I hired Mike in 1984 when he was 19 at Bellmead, Texas, a town and outskirt of Waco. H-E-B Food/Drugs was building a larger replacement store for the older one nearby and I was their Construction Superintendent.
My first thought when he walked up to the site was “Oh man, if this kid is any good, I’m going to save money and hassle from not having to use ladders.”
The productive and quiet giant was not hard to miss among the 60+ carpenters, laborers, electricians, steelworkers, masons, and others.
He stayed busy and helpful.
At the end of his work day, I locked up my blueprints and phone (no cells in those days) in our tool shed and walked to my truck.
Sitting on the tailgate of his own pickup was Mike, eating a sandwich out of a black lunchbox, the size of a Panasonic boombox.
“What you still hanging around here for?” I asked.
“I live in Corsicana, it’s about an hour and I can’t afford the gas to go back and forth. I’m gonna stay here tonight,” he answered, pointing his thumb over his shoulder to the bed of his truck.
It was then I noticed he had a sleeping bag.
“Look, I have an extra bed in my hotel room,” I explained. “It’s not unusual to let someone else use it as I stay in hotels all over Texas.”
The Cement Pond
Appreciatively, Mike followed me to the motel on Valley Mills Drive. I told him I was going to take a quick shower and then go out to eat. He was welcome to go dine with me if he wanted.
When I came out of the bathroom after the shower, Mike wasn’t in the room or at his truck.
A family next to the swimming pool looked puzzled and disgusted about something. Trying to figure out what was wrong I looked out over a sight now permanently etched in my memory bank.
Straight out of a scene from the 1960s television classic series, “The Beverly Hillbillies,” was the real live Mike McCormick portraying the part of the fictional character Jethro Bodine, made famous by Max Baer, Jr.
Mike, clad in shorts, was soaped up and shampooing his hair in that Best Western’s cement pond.
Mike was often teamed up with Gary Athur, a journeyman ironworker AND carpenter from San Antonio who came up for the Waco project. Together they were the ‘A-Team,” a versatile and reliable duo.
Mike told us about a steakhouse down the highway called The Longhorn Tavern. It was perfect for our daily lunches: a bit dark ambience, with a jukebox of George Strait singing:
Pardon me, you left your tears on the jukebox
And I’m afraid they got mixed up with mine
I don’t mean to pry, it’s just that I
Noticed you goin’ out of your mind…
The steaks, burgers, chicken fried steaks and iced tea were awesome.
After a particularly productive workweek, we locked the jobsite up an hour early so the crew could beat a heavy thunderstorm rolling in. Mike left towards Corsicana. Gary and I took off down IH-35 South to San Antonio.
The torrential rain was bad enough but it was the wind and lightning that concerned us. Gary kept his fingers on the radio dial in search of weather alerts while continuously peering out all windows. I kept my eyes on the road and hands firmly on the wheel of the F-250 sky blue Ford.
It was on this trip I learned how nervous Gary was about tornadoes. As he expressed his concerns my grip became tighter. At one point, near Round Rock, we pulled over and tried to wait it out at a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
I never really thought that much about tornadoes the way he did. In 1973 on a Corpus Christi H-E-B site on Weber Street, the crew ran into freezers and coolers while a tornado came over us. It was as loud as the cliche everyone says: “It sounds like a freight train.”
In junior high, my family lived in a trailer while our house was under construction. Under tornado warnings, we grabbed some items and sped over to my Aunt Lydia’s home a couple miles away. It was there I saw my first tornado dropping out of the dark clouds. Fortunately, that one never touched down.
As Gary and I were eating our fried chicken, I remember thinking about the tornado Dorothy encountered in The Wizard of Oz.
After the Waco project finished, I was sent to build a strip center near H-E-B in Flour Bluff, located between Corpus Christi and North Padre Island. There were no doubts Mike would go with us.
He joined what we called, “The Love Crew,” consisting of Gary Arthur, Jim Koenig, Sterling Tools, Richard Martin and Tom Kelly (all, except Richard, had worked with me in Waco. I originally hired Richard and another future H-E-B facilities manager, Ronnie Kaderka, as carpenters for the construction of Flour Bluff H-E-B in 1981). Our mission was to “build the best” and “spread the love all over Texas.”
There was another H-E-B Construction job going on South Staples Street in Corpus and about once a week each site’s crew would compete against the other in friendly games of baseball and basketball.
With tall Mike and Tom Kelly (a basketball wizard from Waco) we easily won basketball. But we also beat them at baseball.
During this time I took Mike and Mark McGaugh (a friend of his from Corsicana who worked with us for a while) to do some small job at a H-E-B there.
At lunchtime we went to a Bonanza Steak House and, following them in, I picked up a large green grasshopper.
Mike took his time at the salad bar providing me an opportunity to place the grasshopper in his iced tea glass. Mark couldn’t believe it, but kept his cool when Mike returned to our booth and sat beside him.
When he took a drink, he didn’t notice. Mark turned red and started laughing which caused me to do the same.
“What’s the matter?” Mike asked. “Did one of you pass gas or something?”
“No. I just mentioned you were building a masterpiece at the salad bar and you come back with the tallest and most perfect salad I’ve ever seen,” I laughed, trying to save our joke.
He’d take another sip and that grasshopper would kick and splash. Mark and I burst out laughing with Mike joining us, thinking we were laughing at his Taj Mahal of a salad.
Mike drank the entire glass with that poor grasshopper flailing around among the ice cubes and tea. We could barely eat, unsuccessfully trying not to explode into hysterics.
It wasn’t until he went up to get a refill that he finally noticed that grasshopper. We could see him shaking his head,”Mmmm Mmmm. What the hell?”
In 1985 my next project was to build a store in the Texas-Mexico border town of Del Rio. The Love Crew, (minus Jim and Richard) came with me.
One day during the project, a couple of unfamiliar men came up and asked about Mike. I remained minimal in my replies, because I didn’t know if he was in some kind of trouble (or even why two strangers would ask about him).
“We just drove by and saw him on that jackhammer,” one said. “We think he’d be good in a movie.”
They explained they were from a motion picture film company in the area preparing for a shoot in Brackettville, Texas. It would feature some famous country singing stars.
It turned out country singer Mel Tillis had developed a knack for writing. But he didn’t know it until he tried to break into the music business.
I had first seen Tillis appearing with Roy Clark at the Frontier Hotel in June 1979. As a university journalism student who had already scored interviews with Elvis Presley, Clint Eastwood, James Earl Jones and Rosalind Russell, I thought I’d try with Tillis and Clark.
(I also tried meeting Tammy Wynette during that same trip to Vegas. I didn’t get an interview but was thrilled to get a kiss on the cheek as she sang her hit, “Stand by Your Man.”)
I did get to speak with Tillis briefly prior to his and Clark’s show. He was especially excited that his daughter, Pam would be introduced and sing for her first ever professional performance that night.
During our talk he called me Jack Denny. Stupid me, I corrected him: “My last name’s Dennis!”
He laughed and told me about a man named Jim Denny.
”When I went out to Nashville the first time, I wasn’t a songwriter at all,” Tellis said. “Jim Denny had started Cedarwood Publishing company and said he wasn’t looking for stuttering singers. He was looking for copyrights. I didn`t even know I was a songwriter– but I had to do something.”
Uphill All the Way
“Well, when I went back home to Florida, I gave it a try. I wrote three songs, and they all turned out to be No. 1 country hits.”
Eventually Tillis would not only write songs, he’d go on to write books and movie scripts.”
Six years later Tillis and Clark paired up again to make a comedy western movie, “Uphill All the Way.” They had already filmed some up in Rusk, home of the Texas State Railroad. The actors and crew would be coming to stay at condos converted from the original living quarters of Fort Clark Springs, about 30 miles from Del Rio.
Because of his height, they were inquiring about Mike being cast in the movie.
Excited for Mike, I told them they were welcome to go talk to him. From a distance, it was fun observing his body language. Mike was startled and relunctant.
We talked about it during lunch. The actors and crew would be filming at Alamo Village, a movie set originally built by James “Happy” Shahan for John Wayne’s 1960 The Alamo.
Other movies filmed there included “Two Rode Together” (1961) with James Stewart, and “Bandolero!” (1968) with Stewart, Dean Martin and Raquel Welch.
Saying No to Hollywood
“Gosh Mike, your job will be waiting for you,” I said. “You should at least go meet with them, and give it a shot.”
The next morning or so he went to Alamo Village. He came back that afternoon shaking his head.
“I told them no,” he said. “Not going to do it. They want me to wear a derby hat, suspenders and frilly white shirt. No way. Because my shoe size is 18, they won’t let me wear my work boots and that’s all I have here.”
“They said something about going up around Lajitas near Big Bend (National Park) and riding in a pink car so my feet don’t show. I’m sure as hell not going to be in a movie dressed like that in a pink car.”
The good natured young man from Corsicana, Texas had said his peace. It was final!
Mike enjoyed being on the western movie lot, seeing their reconstructed Alamo, and walking on the same places John Wayne did. But it was all way out of his comfort zone.
A year or so later, shortly after the Challenger space shuttle explosion, Mike came to my office (I had been promoted and was out of the field) upset about the tragedy.
That weekend we watched the movie at a local theater and were surprised to see Glen Campbell, Burt Reynolds, Burl Ives, Sheb Wooley and TV’s Riddler, Frank Gorshin, from the 1960s Batman show, in it. Mike laughed throughout the film. In all the years I knew him, it was the only time I heard of him going to a movie theater.
Afterwards, he said he felt he would have enjoyed being in it, and revealed more about his visit to Alamo Village.
“They took me over to that old fort across the highway where everyone was staying,” he explained. “I saw where Mel Tillis was staying upstairs in one of those condos and Roy Clark was downstairs. This one guy, who seemed a little too girly, wanted to know if I wanted to go in one with him. I’m not exactly sure what he was asking for but I think he was trying to hit up or make some kind of move on me.”
“That’s when I told them to take me back to that Alamo (Village) place and get the hell out of Dodge,” he confessed and laughed. “And it did look a lot like Dodge City.”
“I’m just glad you didn’t go jump in their pool to shampoo your body in front of all those movie stars,” I teased.
Years later, I became Director of Facilities Management at H-E-B, and Mike worked in our Maintenance Department serving the Waco region. By this time he had married his sweetheart Jana, and started raising a family.
When H-E-B planned to install tortillerias in our stores, I took Mike, Richard Martin and Alex Portales to the Tortilleria manufacturer in Wittier, California near Los Angeles for certification and maintenance training.
When we arrived at John Wayne Airport on a Sunday evening, Mike was mesmerized with the 9 foot statue of “The Duke” in the terminal.
In the evenings we went to Universal Studios and Dodger Stadium. It was fun taking these guys to places they’d never dreamed they’d ever be.
We excelled in the class and earned our certifications a day early, on a Thursday morning. Because our flight back to Texas didn’t leave until Friday evening, I suggested a quick side trip.
“Where?” Richard asked. “Disneyland?”
“No, I’m kind of burned out on amusement parks,” I replied. “I was thinking y’all might want to go out to Death Valley and maybe to the Roy Rogers museum.”
It was unanimous. They all said yes. But I waited until we were well on the way before I announced “the reason I thought you wouldn’t mind coming this way…”
I could see Mike looking at me with curiosity from the rear view mirror.
“…is because it’s on the way to Las Vegas.”
Meeting John Wayne
“Waaaahoooo!,” he yelled. “Are you kidding me? Really?”
“Only on one condition,” I warned seriously. “That Mike doesn’t go jump into any of those Vegas cement ponds and take a bath.”
After we arrived in Vegas and they played awhile, I took them to another surprise: tickets to a Las Vegas show.
I could immediately tell Mike was reluctant. More interested in cranking slot machine handles, he really had no need or desire to go sit in a theater and watch any kind of performance.
I slipped the Maitre d’ a $10 bill (it was in the mid-1990s, so a ten spot would do the job). He sat us down at the center table, up against the stage. Mike’s hesitancy to being there increased. He slumped down as if just wanting to get this over.
The theater was in the Imperial Palace and the show was Legends in Concert. Fairly new back then, it has grown and spread to various venues across the world.
Just as Mike could take no more, Richard and I could see someone approaching him from behind.
Wearing a weathered, leather cowboy hat and matching vest, a blue Western-style shirt and ruddy old blue jeans, John Wayne tapped Mike on the shoulder and pushed his hand towards him.
(Legends is a tribute to world famous entertainers. John Wayne was protrayed by John Wain, whose given name was Lloyd LeBlanc. He legally changed it to Wain in 1978.)
“Hi Pilgrim,” the Duke shook Mike’s hand with the spotlight directly on him. “Stand up and stand straight and erect like you would if you were facing the American flag…”
Mike did as he was commanded and towered above the tall cowboy.
“.. Old Glory. Oh Glory me!”
The audience applauded. Mike McCormick and John Wayne were in the House!!!
“You are a tall one, aren’t Che?,” The Duke continued as the American Flag appeared on two large screens, on both sides of the stage.
“Remember when you see our flag, put your right hand over your heart, like this, and our great flag will salute back by proudly waving in the breeze.”
(Later I learned Wain served in the Marines in the early ’50s. After being honorably discharged he took a swing at a career in professional baseball — while in the Cleveland Indians’ minor-league chain, his roommate was Roger Maris, who broke Babe Ruth’s major-league’s home run record in 1961.)
The crowd roared. The flags waved. It was Mike’s finest hour.
Through the years Mike continued to mature and led all facilities operations in our North Texas stores and properties. Jana and Mike had three boys, Michael, Jerry and Christopher. They bought some acreage outside of Silver City near Corsicana and moved a double-wide mobile home on the property to raise animals and grow a garden.
In early 1998 while in San Antonio for a meeting he told me he was going to go into business on his own. After we talked for awhile, I knew he had thought it out. It was best for his family and he would stay closer to Corsicana more often.
We hugged each other, shook hands and said our good byes.
On Saturday morning, October 17, 1998, the McCormick family was sitting in their living room enjoying cartoons on television.
Mike was keeping an eye on a storm brewing and watched as it grew dark and ominous from the south.
He walked up to the back door and saw it coming through a row of trees on the back of his property. A whirling deep gray monster was coming straight at them.
‘I’ll See You in Heaven’
Mike ran to the bedroom and brought back a large mattress. The grinding noise of destruction screamed louder as he ordered everyone to the floor. Jana grabbed baby Christopher and Jerry.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he told his family as he sheltered them with the mattress. “But if we don’t make it, I’ll see you in Heaven.”
Two men in a pickup driving eastbound on State Highway 31 approaching the junction at Farm Road 55, saw the raging tornado from a distance.
At 10:30 a.m. the McCormick’s home exploded. Jana was lifted through the whirling black force of mangling metal, shredding lumber and thousands of particles of glass, splinters, dirt, and other materials.
Spinning in the exploding storm, she lost Jerry. Somehow through shocking horror, she was able to keep Christopher in her grasping arms.
The men in the pickup could tell by now the mobile home and everything in it was gone. Amazingly, a shed with a goat just 50 feet away were untouched.
Little Michael survived and frantically ran towards the highway. The pickup stopped and saw the bloody boy in terror.
They searched for more survivors as someone called for emergency responders. Kerry was found in mud trying to get out. Jana was injured, not quite sure if her children had survived. Mother and children were rushed to the Columbia Navarro Regional Hospital as searchers looked for Mike.
The F-2 tornado had cut through 12.8 miles of Navarro County. Radar data and the eyewitness accounts of heavy rainfall suggest the tornado was spawned by a high-precipitation supercell…a deadly supercell.
I drove to Austin with Steve Johnson, our One Hour Photo Maintenance Technician, and picked up Richard Martin and we arrived that evening not prepared for the horror.
We tried to get to Richard sooner, but San Antonio experienced over 15 inches of rain. At one point some sections of Interstate 35 near New Braunfels were covered with over 5 feet of water.
Seeing it in person is far more devastating than what I had ever witnessed before.
“I’ll never forget just seeing that slab,” Steve recalls. Everything was splintered, totally.
At this point, for two decades I had participated in rescues, preparations and aftermaths of hurricanes, storms, fires and floods. By 1988, I led the corporate emergency command center operations for such catastrophes.
But never had I seen this much devastation in an area the size of the McCormick’s yard.
I was shown by a sheriff’s deputy the place they saw Mike’s size 18 boots sticking up out of the mud. He was carried over two football field lengths away and his back was broken on impact as his body became covered in the sludge.
“If it hadn’t been for the toes of his boots sticking up, we might still be out there looking for him,” the deputy said.
Storms in Texas that day killed four people. Forced evacuations were made across the state, especially South of Austin and in San Antonio.
The tornado was a bastard. It killed my friend. His funeral was postponed for six days while his wife tried to heal enough to be brought to the services in an ambulance.
25 Nov. 1965 Westminster CA
17 Oct. 1998 Silver City, Navarro Co. Texas
Mr. McCormick was killed when a tornado hit and flattened his mobile home near Silver City on Oct. 17, 1998. Services were held Oct. 23, at Griffin-Roughton Chapel, Corsicana. Burial followed at Hamilton-Beeman Cemetery, Retreat.
“Mike” is survived by his wife, Jana McCormick; sons, Michael, Jerry and Christopher; parents, Michael and Val McCormick, Corsicana; brother and sister-in-law, Danny and Lisa Pownall of Corsicana; two nieces and two nephews. Mike’s wife and three sons suffered severe injuries in the twister but are recuperating.
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