MADISON COUNTY, Ala. – Maybe Ronnie McGaha’s defining moment in life occurred as it ended, a selfless act to preserve not just any life, but his daughter’s life.
“Anybody who risks his life for another person is definitely a hero in my eyes. I mean, there is no doubt about it,” said his brother, Maurice McGaha. “For you to selflessly risk yourself and throw yourself in harm’s way. The chimney, the backside, fell over on top of him and when the firefighters came, they said they had to get a carjack to jack it up just to slide my niece out from under him.”
Denae McGaha is Ronnie’s only daughter. He threw himself on top of the then-16-year-old as the hell of April 27, 2011, in the form of an EF-5 tornado, descended on their Wilbanks Lane home in Harvest.
“We were stuck because of the rubble,” said Denae. “None of us could move, except for my mother. And as we were waiting, it was one of those weird, stretchy times where it could have been an hour, it could have been five minutes, type thing. And I just remember, I went into shock. I couldn’t comprehend, really, that our house was in pieces and my father was in bad shape.”
Ten years after that chilling day, Denae now lives in Budapest, Hungary. She teaches English as a foreign language, initially to Kindergarteners, but now to adults. She also provides marketing for a tourism company. In her free time, she sings jazz, explores Europe and writes an expat life blog.
She credits her father for helping to provide the spark to live the life she’s living now.
“The last Christmas that we were all together in Alabama, my dad had given me a travel guidebook of Europe,” she said. “And it meant so much because he was so protective. But he knew I always wanted to visit Europe and that was the first sign that he was willing to support me and that dream and it meant so much because I knew it was so hard for him to let go. Maybe that fueled me coming over here.”
Ronnie was no stranger to travel, either, though. After graduating from Muscle Shoals High School, he enlisted in the Navy.
Throughout his 20-year Naval career, Ronnie toured the globe earning dozens of awards and ribbons, including the Combat Action Ribbon and the Global War on Terrorism Medal.
His time serving also allowed his younger brother, Maurice, along with their parents, the opportunity to see the country.
“That is what made summer vacations great,” said Maurice. “We went to Hawaii, we went to California, we went to Washington. It was always great.”
It wasn’t until Ronnie retired from the Navy and settled in Alabama, though, that the two brothers, separated by 13 years, truly got a chance to connect.
“That was pretty nice,” said Maurice, “because it was like we were equals.”
However, that time was cut short.
“Everybody has their time and his time came,” Maurice said. “It was a big shocker.”
Ronnie McGaha was 42 years old.
“There is still a void there,” said Maurice.
Ten years later, Ronnie is still dearly missed.
“It’s something that never, ever leaves me,” said Denae. “The pain has lessened, which is good, but never the gratefulness for the community that really rallied around not just us, but rallied around the entire community. That kind of kindness and compassion really has such ripple effects and can carry someone through life.”
Those small acts of service, like picking through storm debris and raising a Naval flag in front of a demolished home, still resonate with the family a decade later.
“I feel like I never really got the chance to fully thank everybody who helped us,” she said. “I hope they’re able to see this and know that they donated their time and their money and they didn’t know what would become of it. And I hope they can know that we’re okay and living and a lot better off because of them.”
The tempo of life has taken Denae across the Atlantic Ocean, but every measure of support she has received over the years will never fade.
“It really was people supporting us in that time where we were able to build instead of collapse, which I think went a long way in helping us because we had the ability to look forward,” she said. “You know, it’s all about the family behind you and beside you and above you.”