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Kelly: Omahan who was ripped from his mother's arms as an infant during 1913 tornado dies at age 104

Kelly: Omahan who was ripped from his mother's arms as an infant during 1913 tornado dies at age 104

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Ripped out of his mother’s arms as an infant by the Easter 1913 Omaha tornado, Russell Lee Hannibal survived, grew up, worked long and well, enjoyed his extended family and lived a long, extended life.

A lengthy life, indeed. He died at 104.

“Until the last two weeks, he had good health,” son Gary Hannibal said at the funeral Saturday. “He had an incredible run and an incredible life.”

A longtime businessman active in civic affairs, Russ Hannibal was known in his family for warmth and kindness. But he almost didn’t get the chance to enjoy life.

His adult grandchildren smile in recalling that he told of his early survival as if he remembered every minute of it, though he was only 7 months old.

His sister, Marjorie Heath, 95, was born years after the tornado, but she well remembers her mother telling the story of March 23, 2013.

Oliver and Jeannette Hannibal lived at 4820 Pine St., on the west edge of Omaha at the time. Oliver worked for the Union Pacific Railroad and was returning from Wyoming. Jeannette was home with Alice, 2, and baby Russell.

“Mother didn’t have any inkling the storm would be so bad,” Marjorie said Saturday. “She said she was putting socks on Russ, and she had started a fire in a potbelly stove.”

Not only were there no warning sirens in 1913, but people didn’t have radios, either. There was no warning.

Just before 6 p.m., the tornado roared from the southwest into Ralston, passed through Westlawn Cemetery in Omaha and struck the Hannibals’ neighborhood. Perhaps it was a glancing blow on their frame house, which was upended but not blown to smithereens.

Baby Russell was found under an ironing board. He wasn’t seriously hurt, nor was his sister. Marjorie said her mother, also OK, told of her long hair being caught under something and of pulling it free. The stove caused a fire, and the mother and children got out, taken in by neighbors.

The tornado, later judged by modern standards as an EF-4 with winds between 166 mph and 200 mph, caused an estimated 103 deaths in Omaha. A quarter-mile wide and 7 miles on the ground, the twister destroyed 750 homes and damaged about 3,000, as well as schools, churches and a hospital.

Omaha eventually recovered, and life went on. The Hannibals, of Danish heritage, had seven more children. When Russ was 16, his mother told him it was time for him to get a job and help support the family, so he dropped out of the old Technical High School.

He delivered groceries and held other jobs, according to a family account, and at 22, in the midst of the Great Depression, married his wife, Lois. They had three children.

Russ did home repairs, started a painting business and worked for the government during World War II.

In the 1950s, with a brother-in-law, he formed the Marshall-Hannibal homebuilding company. In 1964 Russ and son Gary started Hannibal Construction, building homes and office-warehouses.

Gary Hannibal of Omaha was elected a state senator in 1982 and served for eight years. Russ, too, stayed active in the community, and was recognized for 40 years of perfect attendance by Rotary International.

He and Lois enjoyed square dancing, bowling, camping and boating, with a cabin south of Omaha. They played golf during winters in Fort Myers, Florida.

They were married 76 years until her death. Russ lived his final years at a nursing home, where Gary or another family member would visit each day.

Saturday at Russ’ longtime church, Bethel Lutheran, 1312 S. 45th St., grandchildren in their 30s and 40s told touching and funny stories about their 6-foot-1 “gentle giant” grandpa.

“If I can give somebody a smile,” he would tell them, “my day is worthwhile.”

To the end, he kept a sense of humor. A granddaughter recently asked him, “Grandpa, are you comfortable?” He wryly replied: “I’ve got a few bucks in the bank.”

Bethel Lutheran, in the Morton Meadows neighborhood south of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, was his longtime church, but it wasn’t as old as Russ; this year, it turned 100. In the 1960s, his daughter Jeanne (now deceased) designed the stained-glass windows that are still there.

He also outlived son Jim and a grandson, as well as a brother and five sisters.

Besides sister Marjorie, he is survived by sister Dorothy Buss in California. Also by nine grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.

Last Christmas, at 103, he held his first great-great-grandchild. But his family already had thought of him as a great, great grandfather.

The Rev. Rich Sheridan, co-pastor, quoted Scripture as saying that in eternity, those who live to 100 are still in their youth — so a man of faith like Russ has everything ahead of him.

And then the congregation of more than 125 sang “On Eagle’s Wings.”

More than a century after a terrible tornado tore an infant from his mother’s arms, people sang in hope that the Lord would keep a very old man forever in His grasp:

“He will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun — and hold you in the palm of His hand.”

On a bitter-cold day with subzero wind chills, the remains of Russ Hannibal were interred at Westlawn-Hillcrest, the cemetery that the 1913 tornado passed through.

Just before Christmas, when Christians celebrate the birth of a baby, an Omaha family on Saturday celebrated a life that was somehow saved in infancy — long ago on Easter.

michael.kelly@owh.com, 402-444-1132

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