In 1979, 68-year-old businessman-philanthropist Chuck Crews lived through “Terrible Tuesday,” which is one of the worst weather disasters in American history. Just three weeks after he had arrived to Wichita Falls, Texas, with his family, an angry F4 tornado came barreling through town. It left behind piles of cars, neighborhoods checkered with empty concrete slabs where family homes once stood, and mile after mile of trees stripped of their leaves, now laced with jagged strips of sheet metal. As the storm roared overhead, Crews was hunkered down in a cement block storage room in the mall where he owned a Flowerama kiosk, a business he had opened only 10 days before the storm hit.
“It sounded like I was sitting right next to a railroad track,” he recalls. “Rumble, rumble, rumble.” From his safe place in the mall, he couldn’t tell much of what was happening on the outside until he saw insulation dangling from the ceiling and beams of light streaming in where the roof had cracked open. The storm only lasted a few minutes, but left hundreds of cars upside down in the parking lot. “The people who worked at the bank across the street went into the vault,” Crews remembers. “The only thing left was the vault.”
Rebuilding After The Tornado
The mile-wide tornado behaved like some kind of spiraling monster and was so massive that some of those who saw it didn’t even recognize it as a tornado. Neighborhoods in the town of more than 90,000 looked like war zones leveled by bombs. Some areas were so unrecognizable that street names were stenciled on curbs just so people could find their way around.
After emerging unscathed from the storm shelter, he was offered a ride by a stranger whose car was not upside down, and from half a block away, he spotted his wife with their infant son in their front yard. She had crouched under the kitchen table with the baby until the storm passed over. The car in their driveway was demolished and homes less than a hundred yards away were gone. Their house only suffered shattered windows and a portion of the roof was missing, but that was enough for their insurance company to declare it “totaled.” Twenty thousand people were left homeless, one-fifth of Wichita Falls’ population. Forty-five people died in Wichita Falls that day, but no one in the Crews family was injured.
Crews vividly remembers walking away from the rubble in his front yard with his wife, infant son, and “a box of Pampers,” headed to the home of friends he’d met not long after moving to town. “I somehow knew where those people lived even though I didn’t know if their house was still there or if they had electricity.”
Between friends’ homes and motels, the Crews family had somewhere to live until their home was rebuilt. His Flowerama kiosk in the mall reopened just two months after the storm. “The insurance company replaced everything with new stuff and it was actually good for our business,” he said. They stayed in Texas for three more years before moving to Tulsa, Okla., to open some gift shops there. They lived in Tulsa for 10 years “until the 80s when the oil economy fell apart and people didn’t want to spend money,” at least not at his gift shops.
Moving To Columbia
The Crews family decided to move to Columbia where he opened a gift shop in the mall, while his wife taught school. He eventually landed a job at Midway Arms (now Midway USA) as vice president of Marketing and managed the company’s International Division. That’s when he fell in love with outdoor life – hunting and fishing and going after everything from deer and elk, to wild turkey and black bear. He once went on a manufacturer-sponsored hunting expedition with a group that shot 15 black bears. They skinned them and gave the meat to the Native Americans.
Eighteen years ago, he bought two Cost Cutters Salons and today he owns a string of 13 salons scattered across Columbia and mid-Missouri. His sons Adam and Aaron Crews are now co-owners of the business, allowing their dad to ease into retirement and spend time doing what he loves most: hunting, fishing, sports and helping people. He especially loves coaching his Special Olympics basketball team.
Volunteering In The Community
“He was very patient and calm and extremely generous and went beyond just coaching on the court,” remembers Jodi Cook. She got to know Crews during the nine years she was the recreational specialist who ran Columbia’s Special Olympics program and Crews was helping with the golf and basketball programs. “He definitely had a great admiration for the athletes and what they are capable of. He’d go beyond what was happening on the court and made sure the athletes had all kinds of other opportunities.”
Forty-nine-year-old Special Olympian Duke Simmons can never forget some of those “other opportunities” he’s enjoyed with his basketball coach, Chuck Crews. “I went to his house for a Super Bowl party – the first one I’d ever been to,” Simmons remembers. “We go to girls’ basketball games and volleyball games together – just me and Chuck. Chuck is one of my best friends.”
“When I’m not able to get him to the meetings or practices, Chuck comes to the house to make sure he gets to where he needs to be,” says Duke’s father, Paul Simmons Sr. “They have a great relationship.”
While others find it easy to talk about Chuck Crews’ kindness and generosity, you’ll hardly, if ever, hear these boasts from his mouth.
“He’s the last person to want to step forward and get recognition,” adds his son, Aaron. “There’s something deeper driving him because he does not want the fame or to be in the spotlight. My dad’s about getting the wheels turning, getting his hands dirty,” he explains. “He knows we live in a broken world and he wants to get practical with the gifts he has and not just sit back and sound off. It’s a desire to push back darkness with the gifts he’s been given and bring a little bit of light.”
“I’ve never been anybody’s best volunteer ever!” is the closest you’ll ever get to hearing Chuck Crews brag, though there are dozens of organizations and individuals that have benefited from his generosity. He’s been involved with everything from helping kids with Cancer, cooking and serving the fish he caught to the homeless, to the annual Tigers on the Prowl fundraiser that he launched in 2013. To date, the life-sized tigers painted by local artists and auctioned off at a gala have raised several hundred thousand dollars benefitting dozens of local non-profit organizations.
Putting Family First
“He has a passion to see others conquer challenges, whether mental or physical. He takes great joy in that whether he’s a part of it or not,” says his son. “Throughout the day, he’s trying to find a way to heal this broken world.” And for the past 11 years, that broken world has included Evy, his wife of 41 years who has been battling a rare and mysterious autoimmune disease. “She comes home from the hospital and is good for a while and then she relapses… sometimes for days, sometimes for months,” he shares. “Knowing what’s wrong and what’s around the corner would make it easier. Not knowing what tomorrow will bring is the hardest part.” He refuses to give up, though, and confesses, “It’s the hope of some good days that keeps me going.”
Actually, he’s also spurred on in life by the help and encouragement of friends and having some fun now and then! He sometimes sneaks out to eat at Culvers and plays full-court basketball twice a week with guys half his age. “I still get to do most of the things we (he and Evy) used to do together: canoeing, camping out, seeing moose in the wild.” And for Crews, giving is fun. “Everybody should get out and do something for somebody because there’s a big payback: making friends with those you wouldn’t normally meet. It stretches you.”
G. K. Chesterton once said, “Among the rich you will never find a really generous man, even by accident. They may give their money away, but they will never give themselves away.” Chuck Crews does both!