TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) – John Meinholdt may not be a household name, but his role in the warning of Topeka back in 1966 cannot be overlooked. Meinholdt was part of VEST, the Volunteer Emergency Services Team, back in 1966. When a Tornado Watch was issued for eastern Kansas on June 8, 1966, he was deployed to go to the top of Burnett’s Mound and radio in what he was seeing.
He spotted the tornado forming shortly before 7:00pm and radioed back and relayed messages to the Weather Bureau. Several attempts were made by him to get the word out that a tornado was coming.
“The vortex started hanging down. Radioed we have the formation of a tornado at about 245 degrees. No confirmation,” Meinholdt said. “We watched it and then shortly the vortex, the funnel formed and grew and I said, we have a tornado on the ground. And a few moments went by and headquarters cam back and said the weather bureau has confirmed a tornado. At that time tornado sirens were sounded.”
Finally, his message was confirmed and the tornado warning was issued several minutes before most of the city was hit. This led to the sirens being sounded — something that was not a common practice at the time — to alert residents of the impending danger.
Meinholdt’s role was behind-the-scenes, but critical in the warning message. Undoubtedly, lives were saved by the work of Meinholdt, VEST, the Weather Bureau and countless others who had a critical role in getting the word out that disaster was about to strike. Although he was referred to as the Paul Revere of Topeka, Meinholdt did not know the gravity of the message he was bringing at the time.
“We did not realize the importance and the impact that we would have 50 years ago,” Meinholdt said. “Again, the legend of Burnett’s Mound, well we’re not too worried. Ok. That changed everything.”
The tornado tore through the city, but fifty years later, the memory will never fade for those who endured one of Topeka’s darkest days. Topeka has rebuilt and scars have faded.
“Progress. City’s grow, people moved in people move out,” Meinholdt said. “Topeka’s a tremendous place to live. I love Topeka.”
– KSNT Storm Track Chief Meteorologist Matt Miller