Charles Thompson's mother remembers the days when she fell to her knees and prayed for strength.
She found it in angels.
Willie Jean Yarbrough amassed an enormous collection of angel figurines, many of which she named for her six children, 27 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Yarbrough looks to her angels for peace. She talks to them and prays with them. When a child or grandchild gets into trouble, Yarbrough finds it therapeutic to scold his or her angel.
More than 24 years ago, when her son and former University of Oklahoma quarterback fought through the personal and public demons that brought down his career and a football program, his angel provided resolve and serenity for Yarbrough.
But the latest of her trials and tribulations stole much of that collection from her.
An EF5 tornado destroyed Yarbrough's southwest Oklahoma City home May 20. A few days later, another storm ripped off the roof of the storage units containing what few possessions remained. The two disasters shattered more than half of her 300 precious angels.
Her faith, though? Stronger than ever.
“God has brought me through some terrible times,” said Yarbrough, 68. “But I'm still alive, so God saved me for a purpose.”
‘It went flying past me'
In the early afternoon on May 20, Yarbrough left her home near SW 149 and S Santa Fe Avenue to pick up two of her grandchildren from school — 9-year-old Makynzie and 7-year-old Kade.
The light rain pelting her car turned into small hail, then giant, softball-size hail. Yarbrough put on a brave face for the youngsters but was terrified while frantically searching for an alternate, less-congested route home.
“I didn't want the kids to see that I was scared,” she said.
She finally arrived at her home and triggered the garage-door opener.
“Get out; get out,” she told her grandchildren. “Get in the house.”
About that time, a neighbor yelled at Yarbrough from across the street, “Get in the house right now and get in the bathroom, because here comes a tornado, and it's gonna be a big one.”
Kade and Mackenzie joined their 6-month-old sister, Kambria, and their aunt — Yarbrough's daughter Yolanda McCrary, who also lived there — in the bathroom near the middle of the house.
Yarbrough came in through the garage and didn't hear the normal ruckus she associates with tornadoes. So she walked to the back of her house to look outside.
“When I opened the patio door, I could see the tornado coming right at me,” she said.
As large debris flew past Yarbrough, she sprinted toward the bathroom.
“I had time to slam the door and try to get over to the bathroom,” she remembered. “Glass started breaking. I had a big-screen TV; it went flying past me. I barely made it into the bathroom and shut the door.”
Yarbrough, McCrary and the children hunkered down, listening for several minutes as the tornado destroyed everything around them.
When it finally quieted down, the family tried forcing open the bathroom door, which was blocked by piles of debris.
“We were hollering, ‘Help, help, help,'” Yarbrough said. “We hollered for probably about 15 or 20 minutes. We finally heard somebody say, ‘We're coming. We're coming.'
“They were at the front door and they were trying to bust it down.”
When help finally arrived, they emerged from the bathroom and were stunned by the damage.
Charles Thompson, whose nearby home wasn't affected, briefly made contact with his mother on the phone and only heard screaming.
“I was trying to ask if they were OK, and the phone just went dead,” Thompson said. “I really got scared because I thought I may not see my mother again.”
Police blocked off the area and phone coverage remained sporadic, so Thompson didn't know his family's status until nearly midnight.
Another family member, though — Yarbrough's 24-year-old granddaughter, Tasheila Harris — refused to wait. She was working at the Salvation Army near SW 5 Street and Telephone Road in Moore and sprinted nearly three miles toward her grandmother's home once she realized it was in the tornado's path.
As Yarbrough stood amid the rubble, she heard Harris screaming, “Where's my grandma? Where's my grandma?”
A little while later, Harris noticed that several of the angels and a six-shelf curio cabinet holding part of the collection stood upright and safe in the middle of Yarbrough's destroyed living room.
“She said, ‘Grandma, you know those angels protected you,'” Yarbrough said.
Second wave of destruction
Thompson and several other family members packed up Yarbrough's few remaining possessions after the storm and placed them in two storage units near Moore.
But only a few days later, another storm ripped through the area and tore off the roof of her storage building, soaking and destroying most of what was inside.
Still, somehow, about half of her angel collection survived.
Each one that didn't, though, is painful for Yarbrough — like the angel named for Charles Thompson that became so important to her after his February 1989 arrest for selling cocaine and the 17-month incarceration that ruined his promising OU football career and nearly his life.
“I really talked and prayed with the angel and I prayed with God that they would bring Charles through those times,” Yarbrough said. “Charles completely made a U-turn. He asked me to forgive him. He's still trying to make up for it now.”
The angel named for Thompson's son Kendal, a sophomore quarterback at OU who is still battling for the starting position next season, didn't make it through the storms.
Yarbrough recently began to settle into a new home in southwest Oklahoma City; much of what's inside has come from the generosity of others.
“I've gotta start all over again,” she said.
A precious few items remain from Yarbrough's destroyed home. Last week, she excitedly showed off a giant collage of her family — created more than 10 years ago — that hung on the wall in her old home and was discovered a few days after the tornado.
Also found in the rubble was the memorial American flag she received during her late husband's 1979 military funeral.
She doesn't recall exactly when her angel collecting began but said she can't see one in a store without buying it.
Charles Thompson doesn't really remember his mother not having them.
“I've moved her I don't know how many times, and she's always had them,” he said. “They've always been in the same spot.”
Many of the angels remain unpacked, but a bookcase filled with figurines sits prominently in Yarbrough's new living room.
One surviving angel she proudly displays — a Polyresin figurine with gold bows in its hair and a violin in its hands — is named for Harris, the granddaughter who ran through dangerous weather to check on Yarbrough.
The angels represent the one constant, powerful force that has sustained Yarbrough through the challenges of her life — a tremendous, unshakable faith in her God.
“God rewards you when you're faithful, and God has rewarded me a lot,” she said. “Sometimes when I get weak, I go back in my room. I sit in my closet and pray. When I come out, I feel all right.”