Man was just 16 when he captured award-winning photo
By SCOTT THOMA
Eric Lantz has accomplished a lot in his life, including being valedictorian of his 1969 senior class at Walnut Grove High School, being a 4.0 student in Biology at Hamline University, and being a radiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for 28 years.
Still, Lantz is best remembered across the state as the person who took the iconic photo of the first-recorded F5 tornado in Minnesota history 54 years ago. The photo landed in newspapers, periodicals, military journals, and even as a thumbnail beside the word “tornado” in Webster’s Dictionary.
Lantz, who now lives in Rochester with his wife Jane, was just 16 years old and working as a “printer’s devil” at the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett, and his father, Charles, when he took the photo.
When Everett heard about the news of the 300-mph tornado approaching nearby Tracy (seven miles west of Walnut Grove) around 7 p.m. on June 13, 1968, he quickly relayed the news to his brother and nephew.
“I had my camera at home, so my dad and I jumped in the car and headed west on Highway 7 towards Tracy,” Lantz recalled. “My dad drove because I wasn’t a very good driver then.”
About a mile out of Walnut Grove, Eric and his father spotted the elephant-trunk tornado, which had already left its mark on Tracy and had passed Highway 14 heading northeast out of town.
“We turned north somewhere around the (Tracy) Country Club and chased after it,” Lantz said. “I was taking some photos out of the window of the car while my dad drove. I just had a cheapie Mamiya Sekor camera with a single lens that I paid $135 for.”
As the two men closed within a mile of the tornado, Charles stopped the car and Eric got out and took the photo that eventually appeared in so many publications.
“I took a lot of photos of the tornado, but that was the one that everyone seemed to like the best,” he told. “We chased after it after that until we got about a half mile from it and I took one final photo of it dissipating. I had seen some smaller tornadoes before but nothing like this one. The crazy thing was that neither my dad or I was ever afraid. We were just doing a job, I guess.”
Eric and his father then proceeded to drive into Tracy to check out the massive damage left in the aftermath. Eric took many more photos of the damage.
“It was a very strange scene,” Lantz said. “A very memorable night.”
Nine people were killed and 150 others injured in the tornado that fateful Thursday night.
The tornado photo earned Lantz a third-place award in the 1969 National Newspaper Association Contest in which he beat out veteran photographers from much larger newspapers who had entered various shots, including Vietnam war photos.
“I still have the plaque around here somewhere in a box, but I’m not quite sure which one it’s in,” Lantz said with a laugh.
As a member of 4-H, Lantz also won a ribbon at the county fair for the photo.
After graduating from Walnut Grove, Lantz attended Hamline University in St. Paul for Biology and then decided to enter medical school. He was accepted by numerous medical schools because of his exceptional grades at Hamline, and settled on the Mayo Clinic’s Medical School, where he stayed for his internship and then landed a job as a radiologist in the Level-1 Trauma Center there.
“One of the things they want their radiologists to do is give lectures about traumatic things like car accidents,” said Lantz. “I would use the tornado experience in some of my talks.”
With Lantz’s permission, the photo appears on the cover of this reporter’s book about the tornado called Out of the Blue.
“I have the photo hanging on a wall in my home,” he said. “I’m not obsessed with it, but I think about that night every now and again.”