Monday, June 23, 2014

A Different Kind of Thrift Store Find...

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.


Robyn Burke said...

Oh Leslie, this is incredible sad and it really touched me... both the story behind the photos and the fact that you went back and bought all the pictures. I often come across old photos in thrift shops and it strikes me as odd that someone's photos end up in there. I'm grateful for your sharing. Bless you.

Holly said...

What a sad and tragic story, but what a blessing that you found these and decided to pursue the history! They are now back in circulation and thought of by others. You're such a dear!
I don't know what you're going to do with them all, but I would love to buy the Santa Pic from you if you have no use for it!

Thanks for sharing~

Ridgely said...

Your "librarian" skills did you proud, good work! I'm so glad you went back and got all the photos, I can't even imagine such heartbreak. Everyone has a "story" don't they, how wonderful that you uncovered theirs and made it a part of online history.

Tami said...

Such a devastating story for a young couple and later for her on her own.
You could be a curator, historian, archivist... good work.
I often think about my 'finds' when thrifting and junking. Who owned them and what was their story.

By grace alone go I. How Rita K. Jepson went on in life is beyond our understanding. Did you find her obituary?

Great post, my friend.

The Kimmels said...

Wow, this totally made me tear up. Thank you for sharing their story.

Coleens Recipes said...

Beautifully written and a wonderful tribute to the McKenzie family. You breathed life into the photos which is the ultimate tribute to the McKenzie family. Well done!!

Trisha Brink Design said...

Leslie this is an amazing story. I happened upon it literally just after my husband told me about today's earthquakes in the Alaskan Islands & tsunami warnings. What a life to have lived; I pray it was better than we may have expected it to be...thanks for sharing.

John Herford said...

I knew Kay since 1994 when I came to Lynden to work in a bank. I was her financial advisor. She had a gift of gab and many stories to tell of just about anything you could imagine. Particularly medical issues as she was a retired registered nurse. The primary topic of our discussions were financial in nature of course however the conversations morphed to many things. She always asked about my kids, as over the years I shared various stories about them growing up.. She never, in all the many conversations we had, mentioned or even hinted of this tragedy, or even that she had a family, except for her divorce. I'm truly shocked by the tragedy that was hers.

LovingLynden said...

This is so amazing! I had heard about a woman who passed away a few months ago who was being cared for in her home by a home care company because she was completely bedridden. She became a bit of a hoarder, mostly purchasing things off QVC and ended out leaving a lot of brand new, unused items when she passed away suddenly. When I read your story I wondered if this could be the same woman as this kind of behavior is typical of someone with a huge loss. Sure enough it is! She once mentioned that she'd had children who had all passed away at a young age but the ladies found the story unbelievable. There is only one living relative, an elderly cousin living out of state. Don't you wish you could have met her and hugged her while she was still alive? I know I sure do!

Anonymous said...

These children and their parents went to our church in Dash Point, WA. The church, was St. Theresa's, a small, quaint and intimate Italian Catholic refuge on a hillside. My older siblings played with these children often. I barely remember them as I was very young. I'll never forget what killed the first little girl. She put a sheet of newspaper over the campfire and it blew back onto her, setting her and her nightgown on fire. Poor little thing. I mostly remember going through the huge earthquake at our house, which we felt in Western Washington...all the way from Alaska that day. Thank you for finding and sharing these photos. They may have likely been lost forever. Life is so fleeting and fragile. The story of this poor young family drives that home.

John said...

Thank you for posting this. I'm currently reading an advance copy of The Great Quake by Henry Fountain (comes out in August) and it mentions the family. The story sounded so tragic I just had to look for more information - which you provided. Truly incredible that you found those photos.

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Needing an outlet for various thoughts rattling in my head, I've created two blogs -- One about my real life ( and one where I can vent. (