Storm mixes goodwill and Tonica for Amy Jacobson

Today’s column from the Kankakee Daily Journal and The (Ottawa, Ill.) Times

Storm mixes goodwill and Tonica for Amy Jacobson


June 12, 2010

Living in Chicago, I’m reminded on a fairly regular basis how many city dwellers – and plenty of suburban ones – seem to often think there’s no life after 80.

Interstate 80, that is.

And, as a guy who spent the first 29 years of his life residing exclusively south of the I-80 corridor, I just as often feel compelled to remind them that there is.

Lots of it.

This past weekend, a big storm, some even bigger hearts and a dash of Windy City celebrity – all mixed with a little Tonica – only served to prove that once again.

Last Saturday night, as tornadoes carved a swath across Illinois, wreaking havoc in Streator, Dwight, St. Anne, Elmwood and other small towns, one well-known Chicago media personality had a front-row seat to the storm thanks to her rearview mirror.

“I was driving back to Chicago, and there was just this blob of black behind me,” said former WMAQ-Ch. 5 TV reporter and current WIND-560 AM radio host Amy Jacobson, who spent Saturday in the Peoria area covering the police search for Stacy Peterson’s remains. “I was down there (around Peoria) later than most media, because that’s when I get my best work done, after everyone else has left.

“So, I was heading back around 8:15 or 8:20 when it started hailing. I heard on the radio that there was a tornado in Elmwood, and that it was up coming up I-39 … Well, I was coming up I-39.”

Concerned for her safety, Jacobson called friends at the NBC Weather Center in Chicago for advice.

“I told them what exit number I was by and they told me, ‘Amy, you have to get out of there,’ ” she said. “In my rearview mirror, I couldn’t tell where the storm ended and the sky began. It was that big. The hair on my arms was standing up.”

Jacobson said she drove beneath an overpass, but there was no room to pull off. Drivers had already crowded beneath it to take refuge. Ahead of her, she then spotted the Exit 48 ramp for Tonica, located about 19 miles northwest of Streator, and immediately took it.

“I thought maybe I could find a ditch to get down in,” Jacobson said. “But then I saw a farmhouse, and I drove straight up the gravel road and ran out of my car with something covering my head. I yelled out, ‘I’m harmless! There’s a tornado coming, can you let me in?’ ”

At the Keef home, the family’s 21-year-old daughter, Ashley, answered the door and sized up the unexpected visitor.

“She yelled back in the house, ‘She’s cute, Mom. She can stay,’ ” Jacobson said with a laugh.

For two hours, Jacobson took refuge with Roger and Carolyn Keef’s clan, as they fielded phone calls from relatives and friends about the tornado destruction in Streator. After knowing his own family was safe, Roger jumped into action, grabbing his chainsaw and heading to Streator with friends Steve and Jenny Coon help Steve’s brother, Dan, whose home’s roof had been crushed by a fallen tree.

“My wife was pretty upset that I was going to Streator,” Roger said. “But if I can help people, I’m going to help them.”

For Roger – someone who 25 years ago gave his right kidney to his brother and this week said, “I was asked one time, what would I do if I had $100 million. Everyone had answers like, buy a second home, things like that. I just said that I’d help other people” – such a decision was simply second nature.

Roger said the police wouldn’t allow him to help with cleanup on Saturday night because of safety concerns. But he returned to Streator the next morning and spent all day Sunday chopping up trees and just “helping neighbors help neighbors.”

“It brought a tear to my eye,” Jacobson said about Roger’s actions on Saturday night. “He knew his family was OK, so he made the decision to go help others. That’s what I love about small farming communities. They take care of each other. And, really, that’s what America is all about. It’s what Illinois is all about.”

And, as it turns out, what the Keefs are all about.

“They were so gracious and wonderful,” Jacobson said. “The next day, I was at an event with Oprah (Winfrey) and Stedman (Graham) in Chicago. And, you know what, I enjoyed the time I spent with the Keef family more. They were great.”

Amy Jacobson
Amy Jacobson