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The Blizzard of 1978 took his life 40 years ago; not much is known about him

By Tim Botos • Jan 28, 2018 at 2:00 PM

So much of Leslie Kuhley's life and death remains a mystery — even 40 years after National Guard members found his body in the median of U.S. Route 30, west of Massillon.

Of the 51 Ohioans who died in the Blizzard of 1978, he was the only one from Stark County. Kuhley, who lived in a group home at 1724 Third Street NE, in Canton, froze to death.

The storm pounded the region and the Canton area for three days, from Jan. 25 to 27. It was perhaps the most fierce winter weather event to strike Ohio.

First, the already rain-soaked ground and roads became icy. Temperatures plummeted. Winds whirled. Wind-chill factors in some areas sank to minus 60 degrees. Snow drifts covered cars, trucks and even houses. Trees and power lines fell. Businesses closed.

Gov. James A. Rhodes called in 5,000 National Guard troops. President Jimmy Carter declared the state a federal disaster area. A post-blizzard report from the Ohio Adjutant General said effects of the storm were similar "to a nuclear attack from an immobilization standpoint."

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The life of Leslie Kuhley was not a well-documented one.

He was originally from the Youngstown area. By 1940, at age 20, he was an "inmate" at the former Massillon State Hospital, according to the 1940 federal census.

His brother and parents had died by 1978, when Kuhley was living in the Canton group home, owned by Mary Jester. Kuhley had no known relatives, according to his death report prepared by then-Wayne County Coroner J.T. Questel. Jester's aunt, Ella Matthews, was named as Kuhley's friend on one report.

His death was scantly documented, as well.

The Canton Repository included only a single sentence about it in a story that week in 1978 — and he was wrongly identified as 'Wesley' Kuhley, age 68. Actually, he was 57. No obituary for Kuhley appeared in the newspaper that year.

* * *

There is some indication Kuhley was walking to a doctor's appointment on the morning of Jan. 26, a Thursday, when temperatures dropped 33 degrees in three hours. What's not clear is why or how he made it to that Wayne County section of Route 30, near Dalton — 20 miles from his home.

The 5-foot-3, 135-pound Kuhley was wearing thin pants, three light shirts and a denim-lined jacket. In 1978, the area of highway where Kuhley died was about one mile east of Shady Lawn Nursing Home. That section of road has since been converted to four lanes, part of a $42 million project completed in 2006.

The coroner's report described Kuhley as "mentally retarded." It also noted abrasions on his face, hands, ears, nose and knees, likely caused by crawling through frozen snow, prior to his death.

"I would not wish that upon anyone," said Dr. Randy Johnson, a current emergency room physician at Aultman Hospital, who has treated patients for hypothermia, low body temperature.

* * *

As a person's body temperature decreases, it can wreak havoc on the mind and organs.

"Everything is slowing down and not working right," Johnson said.

The short version of freezing to death is this:

Blood flow to extremities decreases; your heart beats faster; the body shivers; cold muscles become more difficult to move; confusion sets in; some people even begin to hallucinate; a feeling of extreme warmth can then surge through your body causing you to actually shed clothes; some people will try to burrow, as if to hibernate; you lose consciousness; and finally your organs stop working.

Freelance writer Peter Stark wrote about the process in detail in his 1997 "Frozen Alive" piece for Outside Magazine.

In it, he wrote: "There is no precise core temperature at which the human body perishes from cold ... for all scientists and statisticians now know of freezing and its physiology, no one can yet predict exactly how quickly and in whom hypothermia will strike — and whether it will kill when it does. The cold remains a mystery, more prone to fell men than women, more lethal to the thin and well muscled than to those with avoirdupois, and least forgiving to the arrogant and the unaware."

* * *

Kuhley's lifeless body was found shortly after 7 a.m. At that point, the outside temperature was 9 degrees, with a wind-chill factor of minus 11, according to National Weather Service statistics from the Akron-Canton Airport.

A Dalton emergency squad arrived at Dunlap Memorial Hospital in Orrville at 7:40 a.m. A hospital report noted he was dead on arrival, with a diagnosis of "frozen."

With no known next of kin, Kuhley's body was cremated in Akron. The fees for transporting his body, phone calls, his cremation and filing his death certificate totaled $257.15.

The bill was paid from the $293.37 in cash and coins Kuhley had on him when he died.


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