Carl Woerner, Island Lake water tower star maker, tornado survivor, dies at 89

Carl Woerner, pictured in 2015, was a longtime, prominent Island Lake resident who survived the 1965 tornado that devastated the area. He was among the group of people who helped install a star atop a local water tower as a morale booster after the storm. He died June 7.
Shaw Media

For nearly 60 years and thanks to a group of village business owners, Island Lake has lit the star on top of its water tower each November.

This week, the star again is lit in honor of the man who created it, Carl Woerner, who died Friday, June 7. He was 89.

While the star’s lighting ceremony kicks off the winter holiday season in Island Lake, it’s not the original reason for the piece. It initially was placed “to boost morale” following the April 11, 1965, Palm Sunday tornado that devastated the town, Village Clerk Georgine Cooper said.

Woerner was then 31 years old, a member of the Island Lake Business Men’s Association, a volunteer firefighter and was running for village trustee when the tornado ripped through the village. As described by the National Weather Service, the twister occurred during a half-day-long storm event “that stretched from Cedar County, Iowa, eastward 450 miles to Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and from Kent County, Michigan, southward two hundred miles to Montgomery County, Indiana.”

In total, six states and nearly 50 counties — including McHenry — saw tornadoes touch down in a 12-hour period. In Island Lake, a five-year-old boy was killed in the swath of destruction that leveled homes and carved a ditch at the bottom of the lake. The storm also ripped through Crystal Lake, killing five people and destroying homes and businesses.

Woerner “was one of the gentlemen that got the idea to put a star on top of the water tower and light it,” his daughter, Karla Ayala, said. He also fabricated the star and helped mount it on the tower.

The star on top of the Island Lake water tower was placed there to boost morale after a tornado devastated the town in 1965. The man who helped put the star atop the tower, Carl Woerner, died June 7.
Claire O’Brien/Shaw Media

According to news stories at the time, the five-point, 12-by-12-foot, 150-pound star is made of silver-painted galvanized steel and back iron. The Frank Schiro Electric Shop wired the star for power, and iron worker Earl Porten oversaw its placement on top of the tower.

Taken down and restored in 2018, the star has a plaque at the base of the water tower at 120 E. State Road (Route 176) that honors Woerner, Schiro, Porten, Bill McMahon and Ray Baird for bringing the “Christmas Star” to the village.

Before the star was reinstalled, Woerner signed it in permanent marker, daughter Lisa McCord said.

“I remember every moment of the tornado,” added McCord, who was 5 when the storm hit.

On that day, Woerner told the Northwest Herald in 2015, he and others had been going door to door, canvassing voters for the spring municipal elections, when it started raining. The group stopped campaigning and went to Bruno’s Pub for a beer before the power went out. Through the bar’s window, Woerner said he saw a roof go flying by.

Once the tornado passed, he checked on his family before heading to village hall, where a Wauconda firetruck was housed. He had to remove fallen concrete blocks to get the fire truck out and remembered helping clean up damage from the tornado, Woerner told the paper.

“What I have always been told is that after the tornado in 1965 … my dad decided he wanted to make the star as a symbol of hope, that we are going to get through this thing,” Ayala said.

She’s been in Island Lake for a year from her home in Texas, helping to care for her father and clean out the family home after his health began to fail. While sorting through photos and photo frames, she found the evidence of his community involvement.

“Behind every picture was an award” for his work, Ayala said.

Her father never really talked about what he did for the community, or seek attention for it, she said.

“He always taught us kids … leave a place better than you find it,” she said.

Although the last of the business owners’ club is gone, Island Lake will continue to light the star and remember why it was put up, said Connie Mascillino, president of the Historical Society of Island Lake.

“With the star that is so visible and the ceremony each year … it introduces the younger generations to what the star and Island Lake is about,” Mascillino said.

After Woerner’s death, Mascillino was among those who reached out to Island Lake Public Works, asking for the star to remain lighted until after the funeral.

Services are set for 11 a.m. Saturday at Kisselburg-Wauconda Funeral Home, 235 N. Main St., Wauconda, with visitation from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday.

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