Workers survey fence damage after the April 19, 2023 tornado on the OBU campus
Features Spring 2024

Recover. Restore. Renew.

Pink insulation dangled like ribbons from splintered oaks. Red bricks were flung about as easily as if they were empty shoeboxes. Large red tiles from the roof of Raley Chapel lay shattered on the ground.

Dr. Heath A. Thomas, an alumnus of Oklahoma Baptist University and now her 16th president, slowly walked the campus Oval during the dark, early morning hours of April 20.

Images entered Thomas’ eyes but quickly swirled to his heart.

He had rushed to campus following the EF2 tornado to check on students, faculty, staff, family and friends, who by God’s grace and protection, were unharmed. This was the first of many “hallelujah moments” Thomas would experience in the coming hours.

The same did not hold true for the structures on Bison Hill. Nearly every building had been damaged and showed it.

On many days throughout OBU’s 113-year history, the presence of God had been felt and celebrated in this same location on Bison Hill under blue skies. Now, the only luminance came in sharp flashes of lightning as the clock on Thomas’ phone chewed up the early hours of a new day.

Debris is scattered on the ground outside Shawnee Hall

A Plan Well-Followed

At 4:54 p.m., on April 19, 2023, an OBU alert went out to students and employees telling them a tornado watch had been issued for Pottawatomie County and to stay alert to weather conditions. For Oklahomans this is a regular occurrence during the spring months as tornado watches come and go frequently. However, this night would be different.

Just about four hours later at 8:51 p.m., a second OBU alert announced a tornado warning for the county along with instructions for students and employees to move to shelters. Thankfully, students, led by residence directors and assistants, had time to get to designated shelters in the residence centers prior to the tornado’s arrival. Many also sheltered in the basement of Raley Chapel while the tornado rumbled overhead.

The National Weather Service, Norman Forecast Office reports show the EF2 tornado that made its way through the OBU campus traveled 15.5 miles between 9:39 and 10:16 p.m. with maximum wind speeds of 130 to 135 mph and a maximum path width of 2,300 yards, or 1.3 miles.


The Wreckage

Downed powerlines resulted in power outages throughout campus and most of Shawnee, creating a dark, surreal scene as people emerged from shelters. Huge, uprooted trees lay haphazardly across lawns, parking lots and roofs; glass from shattered windows, random bricks from walls lining walkways, and shards of lumber ripped from buildings made walking across campus difficult.

OBU’s Recreation and Wellness Center, the only campus building with a fixed generator, quickly became the hub of activity where employees, students, emergency workers and volunteers gathered and would continue to assemble for the next few days.

Soon after arriving at the RAWC after a hasty and unexpected early return trip from Texas, Thomas located an erasable marker and went to the glass wall of a nearby racquetball court. Listing priorities, he began with plans to ensure the safety and ongoing care of the University’s students and employees.

After a contingent of Oklahoma Highway Patrol Troopers and other search and rescue personnel gave the all-clear, Thomas turned to Randy Smith, executive vice president for business and administrative services, and said, “I want to see the campus.”

For Thomas, that was the same as saying I want to check on my friend. This friendship formed long before he became the 16th president of the University on January 1, 2020, and even before he joined the OBU faculty in 2015. Thomas came as a student, graduating in 1998, with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and a religion minor.

It’s evident that he not only talks about OBU equipping Future Shapers – he’s proof. He is living all of life, all for Jesus.

A section of Raley Chapel's roof is peeled back

The Renewal

While the National Weather Service provided the start and finish times of the tornado’s track, it did not report the exact time it struck OBU. But it’s evident that almost as soon as the wreckage ended and everyone was believed safe, the renewal took hold as emergency workers, employees, volunteers and friends of the university began clean-up and plans for restoration. And within the days to follow, about 800 construction personnel and volunteers would converge on Bison Hill to join in the renewal.

Before the sun of April 20 sunk into the western horizon, Thomas was standing on a bench in front of students, employees and volunteers in the Recreation and Wellness Center, which had become the command post, a temporary residence center and a dining hall.

It doesn’t take much time to realize that in situations like this, Thomas doesn’t speak from prepared statements. He’s communicating through a mix of his memories and experiences along with dreams for the future – memories from when he was a student on Bison Hill, and dreams of the future for those walking the campus now, as well as those who will follow, each one a Future Shaper.

He pointed out that there had been no deaths, no injuries, “and where I come from that is considered Hallelujah Territory!”

“The reality is, this is a huge opportunity for us, and this is what we do as Oklahomans, right? We take tragedy and turn it into a triumph. And that’s what we’re trying to do – all across the city.”

Help Needed

Within the following days, Thomas would don many hats – not just the green safety helmet. He wasn’t only bearing the massive responsibility of university president, he was a pastor, a construction liaison, a media spokesperson and most of all, a sincere friend to those around him: students, faculty, staff, alumni, workers, volunteers, the monks at St. Gregory’s Abbey/Monastery on the Green Campus, the City of Shawnee and many others.

The 47-year-old leader of his alma mater may not have been quoting Psalm 121:1 aloud, but he was certainly living it: “My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

He knew he would need help recovering from the worst natural disaster in OBU’s 113-year history. That was evident when the oldest and largest classroom building, Shawnee Hall, takes a tornadic gut punch; or when the inside Bailey Business Center’s second floor is seen clearly through a gaping hole in the brick wall; or when a metal shipping crate holding band instruments gets tossed like a toy for 250 yards until it wraps around a light pole.

He knew he would need help when he realized the roof of the beloved and historic Raley Chapel had been peeled back like the top of a microwavable meal.

That’s why goals weren’t just something verbalized in situation update meetings or written on boards. They were taken to prayer and then carried into action.

A section of wall of Bailey Business Center lies on the ground

First Things First

There were only two days in which classes were not held – April 20 and 21. Students met with faculty via virtual learning the week of April 24-28.

Thomas had made it clear that he wanted to bring students back on campus for in-person learning by May 1. University leadership agreed it was important for students to have the opportunity to finish out their semesters and for seniors to finish out their degrees in person. Thanks to OBU employees, volunteers and construction personnel working night and day, that goal was achieved.

So, although commencement couldn’t be held in Raley Chapel that May, students were able to participate in the beloved tradition of The Walk on campus on the evening of May 18. The Nursing Pinning and Lamp Lighting Ceremony celebrating the completion of nursing graduates was graciously hosted at Immanuel Baptist Church in Shawnee on May 19. And First Southern Baptist Church, Del City, hosted commencement on the scheduled date, May 20, and with the scheduled speaker, Dr. Alan Noble.

During his commencement comments, Dr. Thomas told graduates, “Your time at OBU is done, but the choices ahead lay before you. God’s mercies and opportunities await you.”

Thomas, and all those around him, knew the same was true for OBU as the University moved forward with renewal.

Six Months Later

The feeling that opportunity was upon OBU, only grew stronger as campus grounds and structures were studied thoroughly in the months following the storm.

As the six-month anniversary of the tornado coincided with the opening day of The Weekend, Thomas stood in front of alumni, friends, students and parents to address those gathered.

“We stand at the forefront of one of the greatest opportunities in OBU history,” he said. “We have seen significant clean up over the past six months thanks to the help and support of our partners, alumni, donors and prayer warriors. We have moved from the wreckage of that moment to a renewal and indeed to a revival of OBU’s campus. Although some of our most significant buildings are out of commission due to the destruction, our students are back on campus and thriving. And so, renewal to me, to the students, to the staff, to the faculty, to you and especially to us together, represents the greatest opportunity in the 113-year history of OBU.”

Why is this a great opportunity? Because no one was hurt, OBU was protected, and now the University is poised to renew. This renewal is not just about rebuilding and updating campus buildings and damaged grounds and structures, it’s about having the opportunity to emerge out of this disaster prepared to transform lives, communities and the world.

It’s about Shaping the Future.