Dropped into an Old North Dayton yard by a Memorial Day tornado, a decades-old diary carries clues to its writer. But it remains a mystery who last kept the weathered volume and where it began its journey aloft.
“We have absolutely no idea where it came from,” said Linda Porter, whose son-in-law retrieved it from her front yard on Leo Street across from Kiser School. “It was a small object, so it could have been carried for miles.”
The leather-bound diary, no more than four inches wide by five tall, was soaked through, but intact. Porter gently dried the diary over days.
“I just stuck it in a room near where the air conditioner vent was,” she said. “Then every day I would flip a few more pages and eventually it dried out. I was afraid to mess with it in the very beginning too much … I was afraid the whole thing would come apart.”
Porter did peer behind the cover and found an inscription. The diarist’s name was Lena O’Mara. The woman wrote that the diary was a Christmas gift from her mother in 1980.
After the pages dried, Porter handed the diary over to Matt Tepper, hoping the Old North Dayton Neighborhood Association president would have better luck reuniting the journal with its keeper.
“She took the time to preserve it,” Tepper said. “It would mean a lot to her, it would mean a lot to me, too, to find the rightful owner if they’re out there … That would be something special.”
Tepper said it was not unusual following the storm to find debris that traveled a great distance. He recalled how another neighbor found a menu from a Miller Lane restaurant deposited by a different tornado that night.
A record-setting 16 tornadoes swept across the western part of Ohio on Memorial Day night, including the EF4 twister that passed through Old North Dayton carrying with it — presumably — O’Mara’s diary.
“These storms do amazing things,” Tepper said. “Sometimes it’s mind boggling.”
Lena O’Mara dutifully wrote in the diary, often noting the weather.
“Beautiful, sunny day,” O’Mara began many entries in her compact cursive written with a ballpoint pen.
One day, she got up at 4:30 a.m. to catch a train to Columbus. Another day she remembered a woman named Betty borrowed a pot and never returned it. One evening, she took a boat ride with Butch. On Sundays, O’Mara recalled worshipping, often naming the church’s minister.
A year and two months into the diary — Feb. 26, 1982 — O’Mara wrote that the weather was “cloudy & cold” and observed the air temperature at 9:30 a.m. and at 11 a.m. She did the same at 1 p.m. by which time it rose to 37 degrees. An hour later: “Mother passed away at 2:00 p.m. Rev. Koerselmen was with me.”
Folded into the diary was her mother’s obituary, printed the next day, likely in a newspaper at Portsmouth. The death notice shows Rev. Les Koerselman officiated the service. The obituary and other clues in the diary indicate the mother and her daughter had lived together there at 1209 Ninth St. The address today is the site of a softball field across from Portsmouth High School, about 110 miles southeast of Dayton.
On what would have been her mother’s 96th birthday on July 27, 1982, O’Mara struggled with the loss: “Oh how lonesome.” Similar feelings reemerged at Christmas that year: “Oh how I miss my mother!”
O’Mara’s final entry in the five-year diary appears Dec. 31, 1985, a “dark, cloudy & cold” Tuesday.
The diary was not in the hands of its writer during the 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes, that much is certain. O’Mara, who was born in 1915, died in 2003 at age 87.
A background check conducted by the Dayton Daily News also shows that O’Mara, who died in Scioto County, had no living descendants. Her mother’s 1982 obituary, though, indicates O’Mara likely had several cousins.
O’Mara mentions people by name in the diary, but it’s unclear if Butch, Lynn, Bootsie and others are friends or relatives.
Both O’Mara and her mother, Margarete Evaletha (Hagins) O’Mara, are buried in the Old Wheelersburg Cemetery, east of Portsmouth, according to the Find A Grave database.
Tepper currently has O’Mara’s diary in safekeeping at Evans Bakery, a few blocks from where it was discovered. He can be reached there at 937-228-4151 with any clues to the diary’s more recent whereabouts.
“It’s sort of touching whether she is alive or not,” Tepper said. “It would be something I would hold onto if it was a family heirloom … Those small things provide comfort in such a tragedy like this.”
Thank you for reading the Dayton Daily News and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.
Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Dayton Daily News. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.