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Oklahoma woman finds purpose in double-dose of disaster

WOODWARD, Okla. — Her voice choked with emotion, Avis Duncan shut her eyes tightly, trying to keep a storm of tears from raging.
The Fifth Street Church of Christ member was talking about the green ceramic squirrel that lives on her living-room table.
A smile on its face, the squirrel stands not 3 inches tall.
It cost only a quarter.
Yet, it tells the story of this 72-year-old Woodward native’s life.
“It’s OK if you cry,” said her son, David, 33. He joked, “It’ll make it a better story.”
The dime-store trinket, bought in Enid in August 1946 as Raymond and Avis Duncan celebrated their honeymoon, conjures so many memories. So many laughs. So many tears.
Tornado, Part I
Avis Duncan, one of 10 children born to Clint and Blanche Brittain, grew up dirt poor on a farm 12 miles southeast of Woodward.
Less than a year after she and Raymond married, the deadliest tornado in state history ravaged this western Oklahoma town, killing 104 people. The two-mile-wide monster storm sucked the bobby pins out of Avis Duncan’s hair and ripped the buttons off her dress. The April 9, 1947, twister destroyed the new furniture that Avis bought the day before and blew the couple’s duplex across the prairie.
“It’s just so vivid, and it’s 50 years ago,” the gray-haired grandmother said as she recounted that night. “You lose all your possessions, all your photos – just everything.”
Well, almost everything.
Amid the debris, she found what became a priceless treasure: that green ceramic squirrel.
Tornado, Part II
The Duncans rebuilt but eventually moved to Udall, Kan., where Raymond took a job with Boeing, working on the electrical systems of B-52 bombers.
By that time, Avis had given birth to two daughters. Debby was 4 1/2 years old and Dana 6 months when the wind howled harshly May 25, 1955. At that time, there were no tornado sirens – and no elaborate technology to predict a storm’s path.
“Daddy tried to convince me it was the airplanes at Boeing,” Avis recalled, referring to Raymond.
But as the noise became more ferocious, they realized that was not the case. Avis squeezed Dana against her chest as Raymond carried Debby outside to their car.
Suddenly, the tornado lifted mother and baby off the front porch.
“All I could think was she (Dana) was going to go flying out of my arms,” Avis said.
They landed safely in a neighbor’s yard.
Eight years after surviving Oklahoma’s deadliest tornado, the Duncans had experienced the worst to hit Kansas. Beneath the rubble of Udall and nearby farmhouses, 80 people died.
Again, Raymond and Avis Duncan escaped with their lives.
Again, they lost almost everything.
A yellowed, black-and-white photograph shows what remained of their home: smashed concrete blocks, splintered wood, a couple of glass milk jugs that somehow didn’t break.
Raymond wore wet pants and no shirt – Avis only a housecoat – when they walked into a store the next day to buy shoes. It was all they had left.
Oh, there was something else.
That green ceramic squirrel flew four or five blocks and ended up – safe and sound – inside a neighbor’s stove. At some point in the chaos, the appliance’s door must have opened and closed, providing shelter for the memento.
But this story doesn’t end there.
After the tornadoes
Skip ahead 11 years to 1966.
That was the year that Raymond and Avis Duncan accepted Jesus Christ as their savior and were baptized for the forgiveness of sins.
It was then, Avis said, that they realized why God had spared them. Twice.
“We weren’t Christians, and God had a purpose for us,” Avis said.
After his conversion, Raymond felt God’s call to become a full-time minister. He completed an Elk City preaching school and worked 12 years as a minister before he died in 1980.
At the time of his death, Raymond preached at the Church of Christ in Canadian, Texas. Avis lived in Canadian, about 25 miles west of the Oklahoma border, for 27 years before moving home to Woodward in February.
Twelve years before Raymond’s death, God answered one of his most fervent prayers.
“Raymond wanted a son so bad, but we assumed we couldn’t have any more children,” Avis said.
Months after the baptisms, a doctor diagnosed Avis, then 38, with a potentially cancerous tumor. They cut her open to remove it.
It was then that they discovered the growth wasn’t a tumor – it was a baby.
A son’s destiny
Once again, Avis Duncan believes, God had a plan. From the beginning, her son was destined for a certain career, she said.
No, not meteorology.
David Duncan earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Bible from Oklahoma Christian University, then spent seven years as a missionary in Brazil. For the last two years, he has served as the outreach minister at the Edmond Church of Christ.
As for Avis, time hasn’t dulled the fear that gray clouds inspire.
“I respect tornado warnings,” she said.
David and his sister Debby laughed.
“Let’s just say, we used to go to the cellar before the clouds came,” David joked. “I’m surprised we didn’t all meet in the cellar today.”
What really matters
The tornadoes taught Avis Duncan that material things don’t matter. She’s the opposite of a pack rat.
Her small home is comfortable but not cluttered. Photographs of her family – her children, their spouses, her nine grandchildren – decorate the white walls.
A plate with the inscription “Happy memories brighten quiet hours” hangs by the front door. Raymond gave it to her just before he died.
“Material things and money are not important to me at all,” Avis said. “I want enough where I can have food and shelter and not have to worry about paying bills. But to go out and have big, fancy things, that’s not for me.”
Nope, Avis Duncan isn’t fancy.
She does allow herself one indulgence: Squirrels.
Actually, her family and friends haven’t given her a choice.
Over the years, they’ve showered her with squirrel pictures to hang on the walls. They’ve made sure that glass squirrels, plastic squirrels, fuzzy squirrels – in all shapes and sizes – adorn her entertainment center and dressers.
One squirrel in particular, though, occupies a special place of honor. In her home and in her heart.
It’s a green ceramic one, not 3 inches tall, and she wouldn’t sell it for all the money in the world.
Copyright, 2001 Oklahoma Publishing Company, From The Daily & Sunday Oklahoman.

Filed under: National Staff Reports

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