In the wake of the coronavirus, Texas Tech has canceled in-person commencement ceremonies for only the second time in its history. The first was exactly 50 years ago.
Dwayne Cox was looking forward to graduating from Texas Tech University. He had gotten married. He had taken a job in business where he could use the knowledge he gained over the last four years. His life was spreading out before him, full of promise and possibility, and that ceremony was going to be the icing on the cake.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
Sound familiar? For many of the 4,390 Texas Tech University students scheduled to graduate this spring, it might. But Dwayne Cox is not one of them.
He was a member of the graduating class of 1970. Rather than a pandemic that canceled his graduation ceremony, it was the massive tornado that hit Lubbock on May 11, 1970 – 50 years ago today.
Unlike many of this semester's graduates – indeed, unlike many of his classmates at the time – Dwayne barely even registered the cancellation of the ceremony he'd been so excited about.
You see, the tornado that stole that moment also took from him something he cared infinitely more about: his older brother, Steve.
Coming to Lubbock
The boys grew up in what Dwayne called the "Mayberry"-like town of Marlin, Texas, about 25 miles south of Waco. When Dwayne was about 8 years old, their parents divorced, and their father essentially vanished from their lives. Living in a small family and a small town, the brothers couldn't help being close.
Because their maternal grandparents and some other relatives lived near Shallowater, the family just assumed the boys would one day attend what was then Texas Technological College. So, when Steve graduated from high school, that's what he did. Three years later, so did Dwayne.
"Since my father was estranged, Steve was always kind of the head of the household," Dwayne recalled. "I just kind of followed in his footsteps. We didn't room together, we weren't those kind of brothers, but he helped me a lot and gave me a lot of guidance."
They both studied business. They both joined the Sigma Nu fraternity.
But the outside world was creeping in.
It was 1967, and the Vietnam War was heating up. For Steve, graduation meant bad news.
"At that time, you lost your college deferment if you got your bachelor's degree or if you dropped out of school, so when he got his bachelor's degree, he was faced with either being drafted or joining the military, as all college students were," Dwayne explained. "He loved flying. In fact, he had a private pilot's license. The Army was the only one that would guarantee him that, if he would join the Army, they would send him to flight officer candidate school (OCS) and he would be able to fly helicopters. So, he joined the Army."
Nearly everyone in the military had to serve at least one tour in Vietnam, Dwayne said, so Steve knew he was headed overseas. Just before shipping out, he married his college sweetheart, Glenna. But after basic training, Steve was assigned to infantry OCS instead of the flight program he'd been promised. When he objected, he was told the flight program was full, and that was that.
"Once they have you in there, you just have to do what you're told," Dwayne said. "But after that, he just lost interest in becoming a military officer; he just wanted to get in and out in about the minimum amount of time he could."
After a year in Vietnam, Steve returned to Lubbock in November 1969.
In the meantime, Dwayne had progressed through college. His class was to be the first to graduate from Texas Tech University after its renaming became official on Sept. 1, 1969. He finished his courses in December, but at that time graduation ceremonies were held only in May and August, so Dwayne bought his cap and gown and marked down his upcoming graduation date: May 16, 1970.
Assuming he, too, would have to go into the military upon his graduation, Dwayne had already been to the Naval Air Station in Grand Prairie to take his physical exam and a written test, intending to go into naval flight school. But at just about that time, President Richard Nixon introduced a new method of selecting draftees: a lottery, which assigned a number to each person eligible for the draft.
"If you got a high number, the chances of you getting drafted were pretty slim," Dwayne said. "If you got a low number, you were for sure going to be drafted. I got lucky and got a high number, so then it became an option to me to either go into the service or not.
"Steve advised me to avoid that experience at all costs. War's war and people die and get killed, but there are some that are really brutal and ugly, and that was one of them. It was just brutal, so I chose not to go."
Instead, Dwayne got married, with Steve as his best man, in December 1969, then followed his wife to Dallas. She was a high school teacher in Richardson; he started his career in the business world, working for an office equipment company.
May 11, 1970
The spring of 1970 was a time of national unrest. Universities across the country saw student demonstrations against the war, such as the one at Kent State University in early May. In a clash between protestors and National Guardsmen, four students were fatally shot.
In Lubbock, life continued as usual. At Texas Tech, the spring semester wound down and finals got underway. Then, on the night before the last day of finals, the city changed forever.
It was May 11, 1970. At 9:35 p.m., a tornado with 200-plus-mile-per-hour winds touched down near the southeast corner of the Texas Tech campus and cut an 8.5-mile-long path of destruction through the city to the Lubbock Municipal Airport.
"My cousin, who lived outside of Shallowater, called me at about 3:30 in the morning to tell me that my brother, Steve, had been killed in a tornado and his wife was seriously injured," Dwayne remembered.
Steve and Glenna had spent that afternoon at the cousin's farm and were driving home to their apartment in Lubbock.
"Apparently they drove right into the tornado," Dwayne said. "My brother saw it and pulled up close to a building. They got out of the car and tried to try to run inside the building, and when they did, it blew them down three times. My sister-in-law said the third time, he crawled on top of her and then a pole of some kind of fell on top of him and killed him."
Back to Lubbock
In the morning, Dwayne drove to Marlin to tell his mother the news face to face. Together, they drove to Dallas to tell his grandparents. And then they got on an airplane and flew to Lubbock.
"We didn't know how we were going to get into town, how we were going to get around or where we were going to stay," Dwayne remembered. "We just knew we had to get to Lubbock to try to make arrangements for the funeral.
"When we landed at the airport, the electricity was off. I remember walking into the terminal and looking at the clock and it was stopped at 10:03, when the tornado went through there."
A man with the Red Cross provided them transportation into Lubbock and lodging at a hotel near downtown.
"Going from the airport into town, I saw all the destruction," Dwayne remembered. "It was massive. It was horrendous."
Airplanes were strewn along the runways. The Country Club North subdivision was nearly flattened. The city's water mains and thousands of homes were damaged.
Including Steve, 26 people were killed.
Texas Tech students sprang into action to help friends, neighbors and total strangers alike, directing traffic, guarding damaged businesses against looters, volunteering for cleanup efforts. The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal praised them in a May 15 editorial, contrasting them with the students protesting the Vietnam War in other parts of the country:
"These, it should be noted and remembered, are of the majority of the younger generation on whom the spotlight rarely shines," the editorial said. "Call them, perhaps, the 'silent majority of youth,' the ones who don't march, throw rocks or riot. It may be said by some, 'Well, why shouldn't the young people, like the older ones, swing in to help after a tragedy?' They should, of course, but as they did and as they continue to do, their generous service should be recognized and commended."
Texas Tech, likewise, stepped in to help the Lubbock community. For those left homeless by the storm, Texas Tech threw open the doors of the Lubbock Municipal Coliseum as a temporary shelter. The residence halls, so recently vacated by students heading home for the summer, were opened to the relief workers and service personnel flooding into Lubbock.
The programs for the 8 p.m. May 16 commencement ceremony in the coliseum were already printed and waiting to honor the 3,790 people who'd finished their degrees in fall 1969 and spring 1970.
But because the coliseum was housing refugees, it could hardly host a commencement ceremony. And the city whose infrastructure had been so badly damaged certainly didn't need to try to support the graduates' incoming friends and family members on top of everything else. So, Texas Tech President Grover E. Murray announced on May 13 the cancellation of the spring commencement ceremonies, noting that graduates would receive their diplomas by mail.
The May 15 Avalanche-Journal editorial expressed its hope that all class of 1970 graduates would be back in August to participate in special ceremonies being planned for them as a substitute.
What happened to those plans, no one now remembers.
'Most traumatic thing'
Dwayne remembers the next few days like a bad dream he couldn't wake up from.
"Those next few days, I was just kind of in a fog – it was just a brutal situation and experience for me," he said. "That was, without question, the most traumatic thing that ever happened in my life. I'd never experienced the death of a family member, not even a grandparent, so I was just shocked for months and months, just kind of dazed, I think. We were close and I really looked up to him, and he was kind of the head of the household, if you could call it that, even though we were all living separately."
For Dwayne, the canceled commencement ceremony was barely even a blip on the radar.
"Honestly, missing that graduation ceremony was just really not significant," he said. "The death of my brother was just so overwhelming, the last thing on my mind was whether or not there was going to be a graduation ceremony."
He was haunted by all the things that never happened and, now, never would.
"Honestly, when he got back, our lives were whirlwind times for both of us," Dwayne said. "I was involved in graduating, myself, and in getting married, and he was involved in reestablishing a home with his wife, so we really didn't have an opportunity to sit down and talk about, 'What was it like over there?' and 'What did you do back home while I was gone?' We just never got that opportunity, and I hated that.
"That was something we were going to do, and before we could do it, before we could catch our breath and sit down and have conversations like that, one day he was just gone."
Dwayne and his mother planned Steve's funeral. He was laid to rest at Resthaven Memorial Park on May 15.
"My mother bought two plots because she wanted to be buried there with him," Dwayne said. Nineteen years later, she was.
Glenna, whom Steve had shielded at the expense of his own life, remained in the hospital for about a month after the tornado, recovering from her injuries and the requisite surgeries.
"She did not even get to go to the funeral," Dwayne said.
But Glenna eventually recovered. She later remarried and had two sons, and she and Dwayne now stay in contact through Facebook.
Righting a wrong
For nearly three decades, that's where the story ended.
Dwayne went back to work, transferred from Dallas to Tyler to be closer to his wife's family, and eventually decided he no longer wanted to be in the business world. After battling addiction, he got his master's degree and became a chemical dependency counselor. When Tyler Junior College opened an addiction sciences department in the 1990s, Dwayne was the first adjunct professor hired, and he's been teaching there ever since in addition to maintaining his private practice.
In March 2000, Army Maj. Gen. Robert Clark, a fellow 1970 Texas Tech graduate, was on campus to address the university's Reserve Officer Training Corps and, during the event, mentioned that his class never formally graduated. Among campus administrators, the realization that in the university's nearly 80-year history, only the class of 1970 had been denied a graduation ceremony, set the wheels in motion.
The university reached out to as many of those 3,790 people as it could find, inviting them back to participate in the August commencement ceremony they never had.
"We thought, why not close the loop and allow those people to come back and have a ceremony?" then-Texas Tech Vice Provost James Brink told the Associated Press. "They missed a ceremony, and if it's a ceremony they want, that's what they're going to get."
'A little gift'
Given the reason the original ceremony was canceled, Dwayne wasn't certain he wanted to attend, but ultimately, he decided to. And looking back, he's glad he did.
On Aug. 12, 2000, about 250 members of the class of 1970 followed the 1,074 members of Texas Tech's summer class of 2000 across the stage. The class of 2000 graduates wore the traditional black caps and gowns, while the class of 1970 was distinguished by bright red robes and mortarboards.
"It was somewhat emotional in a way, but overall, it was just a real treat," he said. "In no way did it make up for the loss of my brother, but it was like a little gift at a point in time, 30 years later. I will always be appreciative to the Alumni Association, or whoever put that together and arranged it, mailed out the invitations and arranged for the robes and the whole thing. It was really special."
As an extra surprise, Dwayne received his diploma from one of his Sigma Nu fraternity brothers, then-university President David Schmidly.
"This graduation today combines a little bit of where we have been and where we are going," said then-Chancellor John Montford. "It is a graduation that represents the never-ending change that this university reflects – a work forever in progress."
Now 50 years removed from the Lubbock tornado, and 20 years after the class of 1970 finally got to walk the stage, the class of 2020 faces a world that may feel remarkably like that of their Vietnam War-era peers. The world is once again at war, this time with a new threat, the coronavirus. Once again, more than 58,000 Americans have died.
And Texas Tech is once again doing what it can to help, which means canceling its in-person graduation ceremony.
Of course, the technology of 2020 offers opportunities that weren't available in 1970.
Instead of the in-person ceremonies on May 15 and 16, this spring's graduates have the chance to participate in a virtual ceremony on May 23 as well as an in-person ceremony in August. The virtual ceremony will feature individual recognition of all graduates, personal messages from the graduates to the people who have supported them along the way and congratulatory words from campus leaders.
As someone who's gone back for a delayed ceremony, himself, Dwayne encouraged the graduates to go back and participate, because it's never too late.
"To the students that are missing it, I hate that – it's sad," Dwayne acknowledged. "Who would have thought a tornado or a pandemic would do that? But if you have to miss, let it be known that you still want to go through the ceremony, and there's no reason why you can't. It's a very special experience."