The other day, I stopped at the Thrift Store for some entertainment and noticed this stack of old portraits. They caught my eye because the sepia tones, and clothing of the subjects, reminded me of photos my mom had of myself and my sister. These kids must have been from my era…I wondered if they were any one I knew.
Closer examination yielded an interesting bit of information.
This particular photo was a copy of the professional portrait. It bore crop marks and notation from the Tacoma News Tribune…And the brief note “Victims of the Tidal Wave”. The professional portrait that matched this copy was dated 1964.
My interested was piqued. Could these kids be victims of the big Alaskan earthquake?
I bought the newspaper copy photo and headed home to my computer.
It didn’t take too much searching to find some answers.
Plugging into search engines the term “fatalities Alaska earthquake” eventually led me to Coleen Mielke’s* research on those who perished in the earthquake, and the resulting tidal waves, or tsunamis, as we now know them.
These are the McKenzie children: Louis – 8, Bobby – 7, Ricky – 6, and Tammy – 3. This picture must have been taken at Christmas 1963, a little over 3 months after the first tragedy struck their family. An older daughter, Suzanne – 9, died of burns she suffered when lighting a campfire the previous August.
There was greater tragedy to come.
On March 27, the McKenzie family, dad, Monte, mom Rita, and the four kids, were camping at Beverly Beach State Park, near Newport, Oregon. The family had built a driftwood shelter in which they spent the night. They were all still sleeping when the first tidal wave engulfed their shelter, leaving only a pocket of air in which they managed to survive. As the wave receded, they scrambled out of the shelter and gathered together to run to safety. The next wave overtook them. Logs and debris tumbling in the waves knocked Rita unconscious, and swept the children from her hands. Monte was similarly dazed, though not as severely injured as Rita.
The four children, and the family dog, were all swept out to sea.
Searches began immediately, and continued for 3 days, but only Ricky’s body was ever found.
I can’t imagine the devastation for this young couple – only 29 years of age at the time of these tragedies…
In an effort to heal, they filed papers to adopt a family of 4 children, but the stress of their losses overcame their desire to adopt, and eventually ended their marriage.
Somewhat ironically, Rita K. McKenzie – now known as Kay Jepson – passed away just before the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Earthquake, and her children’s deaths. She had been living in Lynden, and had no next of kin here. In fact, it seems that there is possibly only one relative, in another state, to survive her. She was all alone.
And thus, the pictures of her most precious ones were left in a thrift store, as her belongings were dispersed…mute mementos of a story that is unbelievably tragic. I wonder how many of her acquaintances even knew…
I went back and bought all the pictures…It seems like someone should remember those cute little kids, and, as importantly, a mom and dad who lost so much, and suffered ever after.
I hate to think that Rita K. McKenzie Jepson went through her life and no one knew the burden she carried…But it’s entirely likely. It’s entirely reasonable that these experiences had a profound effect on making her a different person than she was in the early, happier days. I know nothing about that person, and how she handled her loss – but I know that she lived on, and she kept, perhaps, a drawerful of memories that had to pain her heart every time she looked at them.
I admire her bravery. And I think others should know of it…and now you do.
Indeed, we do not know what battles those around us are waging as they live the everyday. How many other stories of courage would we find could we only know the history behind the mute mementos we collect!
I will always be glad that I was curious about these pictures.
*My thanks to Coleen Mielke, who allowed me to use her research to tell the story of the McKenzie family.
**Ms. Mielke’s research allowed a Whatcom County Support Officer to direct that Kay Jepson’s remains be interred in a Lakewood Cemetery where her children’s graves and memorial stones are located.