One of Tulsa’s most tragic stories of the Vietnam War will never be forgotten by the children of Lilburn and Norma Stow.
But the compassion and spirit of community among Tulsans helped write a much more joyful ending for five children.
“When you are a child and you lose your parents, you are still a child,” said Vickie Stow Dodson, now 63. “You just move on. There’s nothing you can do.”
It has been 48 years since the five children of Air Force Maj. Lilburn B. Stow got the awful news: Their father had been killed in action while piloting a C-130 aircraft over Vietnam.
“I was upstairs with my two younger sisters and I saw the Air Force officer and our pastor walk up to the front door,” said Keela Stow Humphrey, now 59. “Then, I heard my mother crying. I knew what had happened.”
Two years later, their mother, who was terrorized by anonymous threatening anti-war phone calls after the death of her husband, died during surgery for a rare disease.
Five children, ages 7 to 18, were left orphaned.
It was a huge national and international story, the subject of dozens of published and televised media stories in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Their story since has been one of perseverance, kindness and joy.
“We were kids,” said Skip Stow, now 64. “We didn’t know what we were supposed to do.
“All we knew was we wanted to stay together and we wanted to stay in Tulsa.”
Nearly a half-century later, all have lived life well.
They all graduated from Tulsa Public Schools (two from Hale High School and three from East Central) and college (Oklahoma State University).
They’ve raised children (12) and spoiled grandchildren (14). They’ve had fulfilling careers.
In many ways, in the nearly 50 years since tragic events left them orphaned, they have lived pretty normal and joyous lives.
But they can never forget the loss of both parents at such a young age.
“No question, I think about it,” said Skip, who recently moved back to Tulsa to work for Griffin Communications. “My father was 38 when he died. My mother was 38 when she died.
“I remember when I turned 38 years old. I realized just how young that was and how much of life they missed.”
“Oh, I still have some sad days, I think we all do,” Keela said. “I was only 13 when my dad died, but it is all still pretty vivid in my memory.
“I don’t dwell on it. However, at big events like weddings or the birth of your children or grandchildren, I think about it, and it can make you sad.”
Yet, through the kindness of friends and neighbors, Eastwood Baptist Church, the Freeman family and people around the world who sent money and emotional support, the Stow children flourished.
They know they were lucky and are thankful for the love and warmth of folks that gave them a fair shot at life.
“There’s no question I am thankful for so much and especially my family,” Vickie said. “I have a deep appreciation for the loss we all suffered. I missed our mom and dad, but I was so thankful for my siblings.
“Through it all, we learned that no matter how bad or good the day was to keep moving forward. We learned you just keep doing what you are doing. There’s nothing we could do about our circumstances.”
Keela remembers getting a job “cleaning houses when I was 14. I never felt bad about it. It was just something we did.”
The five Stow children — Skip, Vickie, Keela, Kimberly and Kola — had each other, and that seemed to be the one positive pull on their lives.
“None of us were thinking about wanting pity from anyone,” Skip said. “I think we just wanted to stick together as a family and to be able to stay in Tulsa where we all had friends.”
Vickie, the oldest daughter, even got a few unique offers from people around the world who wanted to help.
“I actually got a couple of marriage proposals,” Vickie said. “They said they would marry me and raise my younger siblings as a family.
“It was amazing how many notes of sympathy and encouragement we got from around the world. People had heard our story, of the five children left as orphans in Tulsa. Members of the Air Force Officers Wives Clubs around the world sort of adopted us. They would send us all sorts of things to help us.”
Locally, a family friend from Eastwood Baptist stepped up.
R.C. “Dick” Freeman, a salesman for Tulsair and later a Republican candidate for Congress, became the guardian for the children. Eventually, all five Stow children were adopted to go with the Freemans’ five children.
“When we moved in with the Freemans there were 10 kids and one bathroom,” Skip said. “We had a plan. It went oldest to youngest for 10 minutes each every morning. The good news for me is that I was the oldest and got to go first. The bad news is that I had the bathroom at 5:15 a.m.”
Members at Eastwood Baptist pulled together to help provide support — and eventually an addition of a large dormitory-type bedroom to the Freeman home — for care of the Stow children.
A story in the Feb. 17, 1970, Tulsa Tribune on the death of Norma Stow quoted police sources who were searching for the anonymous caller who spent nearly a year threatening to kill her and her children. The anonymous caller said it was in retaliation against her and her children for the bombing raids on North Vietnam.
During that time, the Stow home was broken into and trashed, including a picture of their father and his medals.
The siblings have never been to Vietnam, and the remains of their father have never been located. Their family DNA is on file as the search continues for Americans who were classified as KIA (killed in action) and BNF (body not found).
They are considering a visit to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., on the 50th anniversary of their father’s death in 2018.
“We learned that compassion for other people in real life. We lived it. We hope to pass it on,” Skip said.