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Ten Years
A little white lie...

Now it can be told: Islander lied to the president about broken arm

By Michael Hooper
Independent Staff Writer

Pat Cross of Grand Island is ready to confess: She lied to the president of the United States. When former President Jimmy Carter asked Cross if she broke her right arm in the 1980 Grand Island tornadoes, she replied yes, even though she broke it while playing with a Frisbee a month earlier.

Cross still feels guilty about lying to Carter, who came to Grand Island to survey the damage.

''It wouldn't have bothered me a bit if it had been Nixon, but Jimmy Carter was probably the most honest president we ever had,'' Cross said. ''Maybe I'll send him a copy of this story with my apologies.''

The media photographed Cross with Carter, and some people from as far away as New York saw her standing with the president amid tornado damage. Carter autographed the cast on her arm, and today Cross still has the piece of the cast he signed.

Ten years ago, Cross lived in her family's three-bedroom ranch-style house at 922 E. Oklahoma Ave. near Meves Bowl. She was lying on the couch when she saw tornado warnings on television on June 3, 1980.

She stood up and looked outside and saw that the sky was dark. She and her mother, Faye Willis of Grand Island, went down to the basement and remained there for about three hours.

Cross got cold, so she went upstairs to get a robe. She also went outside to check on an apple tree that had lost a branch. While outside at that time, the silence was incredible.

''It was just like a tomb,'' Cross recalled. ''I should have known better because when it gets calm like that, you'd better batten down the hatches.''

In her bedroom she was just about ready to put some shoes on when the lights went out. By the time she walked 5 feet to the end of the hall, a tornado was smashing the house.

''There was stuff flying around the living room,'' Cross said.

Cross knew she couldn't make it to the basement, where her mother remained, so she went to an interior bathroom, slammed the door, got in the bathtub and laid face down. She had her elbows and knees wedged against the tub, hanging on for dear life.

The pressure in the house was violently strong.

''It felt like everything was going to explode,'' Cross said. She heard the roof go off and said to herself, ''This is it kid, you have about 20 seconds.

''The noise was deafening. The lightning was constant. There was sheetrock still over my head and I could see the nails were sucked out of it. I could see the lightning through the nail holes where rain poured in,'' she said.

Cross got up and looked down the hallway at a foot of debris on the floor. She knew she couldn't get to her mom, so she went back to the bathroom and shut the door and locked it.

She yelled through the drain pipe in the bathtub in a futile attempt to talk to her mother in the basement. Then Cross realized she had locked the bathroom door.

''Who do you think you're keeping out? The bogey man? The tornado?'' Cross said she thought. ''I laid there and laughed at myself. 'You idiot. You locked the door.'''

Cross stayed there for three hours and then about 7 a.m. the neighbors found her in the rubble and carried her out. She told the neighbors to look for her mother, who feared Cross might have died.

In a touching moment, mother and daughter were reunited at a neighbor's house. Cross had quit smoking for five months but started again that night. The stress on her and everybody else was high.

''I looked like a refugee from a concentration camp,'' Cross said.

About 90 percent of her heirlooms were gone, including cut glass, lead crystal and china.

The next several days Cross went through debris and stayed with friends and family.

Her brother, Tom Willis of Minot, N.D., came to Grand Island and suggested taking pictures of Cross with the president. Cross had not yet let anyone sign her cast because she was waiting for someone important to sign it. The night before Carter arrived, she joked with friends that she'd let Carter sign the cast.

On June 10, 1980, Carter's motorcade rolled down Bismark Road and Carter stopped and gave a pep talk to about 60 or 70 tornado victims. Cross, meanwhile, positioned herself so that Carter would have to walk by her on the way back to his car.

''Mr. President,'' she said to him. ''Would you sign my cast?''

Carter kind of grinned and said, ''I'm not supposed to do this but we won't tell anybody.''

As his pen was poised over her cast, he said, ''This did happen during the storm, didn't it?''

''I said, 'yes.' Of course I lied,'' Cross now admits.

Photographers took pictures and Cross became famous for about 15 minutes.

''It's something when you're standing face to face with a president and you just lied to him. My knees were knocking. He put his hand on my head. This will be for the schmaltzy people: He said, 'Well, I guess God took care of you.'''

Later, when the doctor cut off the cast, the doctor said, ''I'll bet this is the only time I'll have to cut around a president's signature.''

Cross moved as far away from Oklahoma Avenue as possible but still within the city limits of Grand Island. The flood of 1967 had destroyed a lot of valuables in the basement of her family's house on Oklahoma Avenue.