The mystery of Joan Gay Croft- the last victim of the Woodward tornado of 1947

In the nightmarish aftermath of the terrible tornado that swept through Woodward, another mystery evolved. This one, like the mystery of the identities of the three little dead children that couldn’t be identified, remains unsolved to this day.

Mystery has never been solved

By J.B. Blosser Bittner
The Daily Oklahoman
Posted April 14, 1998

WOODWARD, Okla. (AP) — Each spring, Marvella Parks places flowers on the graves of three unidentified young victims of a tornado that killed more than 100 people in 1947.

But there’s another tornado victim forever on her mind. More than a half-century after the roaring twister ripped through Woodward on April 9, destroying half the town, folks still ponder the fate of a 4-year-old blond girl whisked away from the local hospital amid the night’s bloody chaos.

The child was Joan Gay Croft, Ms. Parks’ cousin, and Ms. Parks has never given up the search. Since Joan Gay’s story was broadcast in 1993 and is routinely rebroadcast in a television episode of ”Unsolved Mysteries,” Ms. Parks has fielded calls and letters from hundreds of women across the country who believe they could be the missing girl.

One possibility in Arizona seemed so promising television producers paid for a DNA test for her and for Joan Gay’s younger half-brother. Joan Gay’s sister the last relative known to have seen Joan Gay had declined to be part of the test, Ms. Parks said. A half-brother in Texas was the closest blood relative since Joan Gay’s father, Olin Croft, died in 1983. The test was negative and the search continued.

A woman in South Carolina was sure she was the one. An Oklahoma City woman hired an attorney to help her find out if she was Joan Gay. A woman in Missouri thought maybe it was her. An Oklahoma City nurse is said to be gathering photographs to send to Ms. Parks as evidence proving she might be the one.

Calls have come from California and elsewhere as women with troubled childhood memories and scarred legs came forward.

The most promising lead yet, Ms. Parks believes, is a call from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that led her to a blond, blue-eyed woman in Canada. The woman, whose last name Ms. Parks has asked not be made public, was raised with the first and middle names JoAnn Gay.

Was this woman the preschooler spirited away that night 51 years ago? Is Joan Gay even still alive? Ms. Parks doesn’t know.

What she knows is that Joan Gay was alive, with a splinter through her leg, at the Woodward hospital hours after the tornado struck.

Muddy and bloodied bodies of the dead and critically injured filled the small-town hospital to overflowing and spilled out onto the lawn. The luckier ones rushed to help the less fortunate. Power was knocked out, gas-fed fires ignited throughout town.

In neighborhoods where rescuers were shut out by debris in streets, injured men, women and children were loaded into boxcars to make the trek to shelter by railroad. It was a night that, in his log book, the local fire chief compared to hell.

It was the night that Joan Gay Croft lost her mother, a victim of the storm. It became the night that Woodward lost Joan Gay Croft.

Found to have less life-threatening injuries than others seeking care, Joan Gay and her sister were ushered to the hospital basement to wait as more critical injuries were treated.

Her sister, four years older, reported that two men dressed in khaki work clothes came into the basement and carried Joan Gay away.

For a time it was thought perhaps the child was taken elsewhere for medical treatment. Area hospitals were filling up and tornado victims were being routed to Wichita, Kan., and Oklahoma City for emergency care.

But as days passed following the disaster and damage was assessed and residents accounted for, Joan Gay did not surface on hospital lists or with any family members. Joan Gay Croft was gone. Her absence joined the identities of three little girls as the town’s perpetual mystery.

Ms. Parks regularly visits the graves of those three girls, none determined to be Joan Gay.

This year she dotted the plots with colorful plastic Easter eggs as well as bright silk flowers. Ms. Parks has never forgotten her cousin, and she is determined that these three nameless youngsters will not be forgotten, either.

”It’s such a mystery who are these little girls? Where did they come from? Where are their families?” Ms. Parks said. ”They can’t be forgotten.”

Neither, said Ms. Parks, will Joan Gay Croft. Her gut feeling is that Joan Gay could be the woman in Canada. In her heart, Ms. Parks knows she has to keep a healthy skepticism until proof can be found.

There are many intriguing parts of the Canadian woman’s story, she said, including descriptions of photographs and personal belongings said to bear the names of Joan Gay’s parents, Olin and Cleta Croft. But the woman said she no longer has access to the memorabilia, said to be the property of an aunt. She is seeking legal help to claim what she considers evidence of her past.

Among the items, she contends, is a charcoal drawing signed ”O. Croft.”

”He liked to work with his hands,” Olin Croft’s widow wrote Ms. Parks in 1993. ”He also liked to draw.”

Ms. Parks said she had never shared that information with any callers professing to be Joan Gay. There are other side issues and coincidences, enough to spark the curiosity of a junior sleuth. The Canadian woman’s northern family had relatives named Goble that was Joan Gay’s mother’s maiden name. They had neighbors named Croft, the woman contends.

Family history tells of a tornado that swept away the family home. But several holes in that story make it suspect, at least in connection with the deadly twister in Oklahoma.

The Canadian woman’s theory is that the family who raised her lost their home in the tornado, looted Joan Gay’s home and kidnapped her with the help of a hospital worker. However, she has no proof the family was ever in Oklahoma.

Still, Ms. Parks takes the calls, listens to the stories and believes somewhere her little cousin with blond curls and blue eyes is a 55-year-old woman looking for her past.

”I still think she’s out there,” Ms. Parks said. A tear filled her eye as black spring storm clouds rolled in the distance and she bent to place pink flowers on an unknown child’s grave.

”If this was meant to be, it’s going to happen.”

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