It’s been a little more than five years since Denae McGaha has heard her father’s voice. But his presence is never far.
From a wall in the living room of Lisa McGaha’s Oak Harbor home, Ronnie McGaha watches over his family.
He’s depicted in a portrait painted by Denae’s brother, Devon, which rests above a table where a shadow box displays honors from his 20-year U.S. Navy career.
The painting is a fitting tribute to a father who risked his life while serving his country, then gave it while protecting his family.
Ronnie McGaha lost his life in 2011 when a tornado struck their two-story home in Harvest, Ala. But quick action to get his family in the safest location of the house before it caved in on top of them was credited with keeping his wife, daughter and son from serious harm.
Out of the tragedy, the family moved back to Oak Harbor a month later to try to reassemble the pieces of their lives and continue to build on a foundation provided by a loved one they sorely miss.
“I’ve heard people say it’s a good place to grow up,” said Denae, a 2012 graduate of Oak Harbor High School. “It’s a pretty good place to restart your life, too.”
Through the rebuilding process, Denae, 21, has remained focused and strong, honoring her father and family with one academic milestone after another.
Last month, she graduated Magna Cum Laude from Pacific Lutheran University after graduating with high honors from Oak Harbor High School four years earlier.
Lisa McGaha said her husband was always “quietly bursting with pride” over the accomplishments of his sons Aaron and Devon and baby daughter Denae.
“He would have embarrassed her to death with how proud he was,” she said.
The similarities between father and daughter are uncanny, Lisa said. When her daughter sings, she hears her late husband’s voice. Their senses of humor were almost identical.
“They loved to tease each other,” Lisa said. “They would hide from each other. They were ridiculous.”
It was after Ronnie McGaha retired as a sonar technician at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island that the family opted to leave Oak Harbor and move to his home state of Alabama.
They bought a Colonial-style house in Harvest, a suburb of Huntsville, and had it remodeled to add a shop so Lisa could work as a hairdresser.
They had only lived in their new home a couple of years when tornadoes ripped through Harvest with alarming force and little warning.
Their home took a direct hit, knocking if off the foundation and collapsing the walls.
Denae was 16 at the time. She remembers school being dismissed early and warning sirens and a “weird kind of greenish color” in the sky and “electricity in the air.” But they’d heard the sirens before and nothing happened, Denae said.
Ronnie McGaha could see from a window in the home that this was going to be different, Denae said.
He hurried his family to the safest spot in the house in a hallway where they held on to each other.
“The walls started shaking,” Denae said. “I remember thinking, ‘Is this going to stop?’ The walls were trembling like paper. Then there weren’t any walls anymore.”
Lisa McGaha said she could feel her feet pulled out from under her and she was suddenly laying on her back, watching the house come down.
Everyone was trapped underneath the rubble and Lisa was the only one able to free herself.
She said that her husband had placed his body over his daughter to protect her.
“Somehow he bore all of the weight,” Lisa said, trying to hold back tears, “and she came out unharmed. He gave his all for his family. To his very last breath, his last act was to keep us safe.”
Denae came out with only scratches. Her brother Aaron suffered two broken bones.
It’s taken much longer to heal their broken hearts.
“He was such a good father,” Denae said. “I know if he could have chosen how that day would play out, and if somebody had to go, he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. He was such a good protector.”
Denae believes there was a purpose behind the natural disaster.
“It seemed so utterly random to be hit by a tornado,” she said. “It seemed like it had to be purposeful. That comforts me with my whole train of thought. I feel that God has a plan.
“That just meant it was my dad’s time to go. So it’s easier to be at peace about it. For some reason, I’m still here. For me, that means I have to keep going with a purpose.”
That purpose for now means a lot of travel.
Denae recently won a national travel contest that is allowing her to chart her own course this summer with no cost for travel or lodging.
She will be visiting nine new countries on four continents, starting with a departure to Tokyo, Japan next week.
The contest was a creation of the student travel booking company, StudentUniverse, in partnership with Flypside and Homestay apps. It is intended to promote the “gap year” travel more commonly explored by students in other parts of the world.
McGaha, who studied communications at PLU with a concentration on video production, made her case for the award by submitting a video that combined both her musical talents and humor.
“The plan and future — here are my thoughts on those matters,” McGaha said before breaking out her guitar on the video.
“I have no idea,” she sang.
There’s no doubt in the mind of her mother, Lisa, that new acquaintances are in for a treat. She calls her daughter a remarkable girl who loves life and embraces opportunities.
She knows through life experiences, her daughter carries an inner strength and wisdom beyond her years.
“What always seems to be impossible for her isn’t impossible,” Lisa McGaha said. “She doesn’t understand impossible.”
A concert fundraiser will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday, June 18, at the Dugualla Bay Community Clubhouse in Oak Harbor to help Denae McGaha raise money for living expenses while on her travels. Anyone may attend. McGaha will be performing.