Oklahoma tornadoes: The 'Big Dog,' the little boy and the hug that triumphs over tragedy

COMMENTARY — The photograph of a man hugging a child in the aftermath of the Moore tornado has become a symbol of Oklahoma's strength. Here's the story behind it all.
by Berry Tramel Published: May 23, 2013

Hezekiah Darbon often will bolt through the front door without knocking and make a beeline for the fridge. Or better yet, the freezer in the garage, since that's where Diana Routon stashes the popsicles and ice cream sandwiches.

Diana Routon gently taught the neighbor boy. “You need to ask,” she told him. “And you really need to knock.”

Hezekiah learned to ask. But he never really learned to knock. Felt too much at home around Big Dog, Hezekiah's nickname for Jim Routon.

“I've told him, you don't have to ring,” Routon said.

And Monday, after another killer tornado roared through Moore and southwest Oklahoma City, and chaos reigned at Briarwood Elementary School, Hezekiah would do no waiting when he spied Big Dog.

The embrace of a 6-year-old first-grader and his 47-year-old neighbor has become the prevailing image of the tragedy. A shining symbol of thankfulness and togetherness.

Our man Paul Hellstern captured a snapshot of the scene. Even if that photograph doesn't win the Pulitzer Prize, it's won the hearts of not just Oklahomans, but sympathizers world wide who through a hug and a click learned a little about the spirit of our state.

“The picture, to me, it represents depending on each other,” Routon said. “I needed that hug as much as that kid did. I needed to touch something tangible that was good coming out of that school.”

Ironically, Hezekiah was at Briarwood on Monday because of another national tragedy. His family was displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, first to Houston and finally to Oklahoma.

About four years ago, the Darbons moved into the Stone Meadows addition, across the street diagonally from the Routons.

Jim Routon's idea of displacement is moving on the other side Pennsylvania Avenue. He's a Southside lifer in OKC, except for years spent at what then was Central State University in Edmond.

Routon grew up hardscrabble at 24th and Agnew, not a lot of material goods but a lot of love.

Sometimes Routon will drive through the old Agnew neighborhood. “Keeps me grounded,” he said.

Routon's father fought in both World War II and the Korean War but counseled his son not to enlist in the military. “I fought two wars,” James Creed Routon Jr. told his son. “One for me and one for you.”

The Routons moved near 72nd and Shields about the time Jim entered Southeast High School, where he wrestled and played linebacker on an 8-2 football team in 1983.

So for the last quarter century, Routon has been working and raising a family and being a good neighbor, especially to the ones who could use a good ice cream sandwich.

Big Dog and Little Dog — Routon reciprocated the nickname — had a bond long before Monday. Hezekiah would come over and play basketball in the Routons' backyard, and they even had a secret handshake. Routon figured that's what cul-de-sacs are for. Building bonds with your neighbors, big or small.

Routon knows almost all of them. When Routon's kids were smaller — the Routons have three, ages 15 through 25, all attended Briarwood — he would send them out to play with instructions to migrate toward the cul-de-sac.

But something about Hezekiah drew Routon.

“He's a remarkable child,” Routon said. “Very respectful. Good manners. Good parents. That's where it starts. Quite a special kid.”

Then came Monday. The Routons and their two daughters were home. Diana Routon ordered her girls to clean out the closets they would be securing themselves in, but then she peeked outside and realized this was a different storm.

A neighbor also was watching. He had a shelter and invited the Routons to join him.

The tornado passed in two or three minutes, and when they emerged, the houses on their street were in decent shape. But they could tell something eerie had happened. The feel, the debris.

Suddenly, the neighbor grew panicked. His children were at Briarwood, and the path of the storm was aimed right at the school a few blocks away.

They jumped in Routon's vehicle and hurried to the school. Routon's voice broke as he described the scene.

The school was destroyed. His daughter, Sheyna, a Southmoore ninth-grader, turned to him with a disbelieving look. Then Sheyna snapped back to reality.

“We've got to get Hezekiah,” she cried. Sheyna sprinted toward the collapsed building.

Kids were spilling out of the rubble, confused and desperate. Most were unharmed, but all were horrified.

Sheyna found Hezekiah first. He asked for his dad. Sheyna told him his dad hadn't arrived, but that Jim was there.

“Where's Jim,” Hezekiah said.

Sheyna pointed.

“JIM!” Hezekiah screamed as he sped to Big Dog.

Routon bent down and Hezekiah didn't break stride. Jumped right into Big Dog's chest.

“He said, ‘I knew you were going to catch me, Big Dog,'” Routon related. “‘That's why I jumped.'”

And the next thing you know, the most famous hug in Oklahoma history was finding its way into newspapers from Hanoi to Dublin.

“I was so happy that I saw him,” Hezekiah told “Good Morning America” on Wednesday. “I didn't know that he was coming. I thought my mom and dad were going to be the first ones.”

And the emotional scenes weren't over. Routon helped teachers organize the kids into grades for easier reunions, even to the point that some media mistook Routon for a school official.

Routon had good experience. He went downtown on April 19, 1995, with his friend, the late Dr. Don Chumley, and was one of the first responders to the Murrah Building bombing. Routon helped Chumley set up a triage unit.

“Increased my threshold of shock,” Routon said. “I was able to stay calm (Monday) in all the chaos and confusion because of Don and how he acted.”

But the emotion was not over. Joe Darbon arrived soon thereafter. His daughter was at a day care facility, also in harm's way but also unscathed, it turned out. Routon describes his friend as a macho guy, but upon seeing his son, Darbon fell to his knees.

Hezekiah ran to his dad, and they embraced. Then the whole group staged a big hug and said a prayer.

And a special relationship between two vastly different people became a symbol of Oklahoma's strength.

Routon has been asked if Hezekiah was an adopted son. How else could so much emotion flow from a 47-year-old white man to a 6-year-old black boy?

“We're Oklahomans,” Routon said. “That Oklahoma spirit, that's what we do. We've been through the Dust Bowl, tornadoes, the bombing. That's what we do. Oklahomans are a different breed of cat.”

Would that it were so. We've got our share of troubles, but a relieved little boy and a man with an open-door policy showed that all things are possible, even in the gravest of times. Particularly in the gravest of times.

[Berry Tramel's blog: More on Big Dog and the hug]

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at btramel@opubco.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.


by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The...
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