By Jerry L. Wallace


School year 1949-50 began well enough on September 5, 1949. True, at 550, Southwestern's enrollment was down from the previous year, but quite high compared to the recent War years. Since then, the school had grown steadily, adding faculty and courses, along with new buildings. About the campus, there was an air of vitality and a sense of its future direction.

Dr. Raymond E. Dewey was acting president. Shortly, Dr. Alvin W. Murray, a 1924 Builder graduate, would become president, assuming his duties in mid October 1949. Dr. Murray was a successful minister, then serving at the Trinity Methodist Church in Hutchinson. He was familiar with Southwestern and had a particular interest in educational matters pertaining to church schools. From 1934 to 1940, while pastor at Grace Methodist Church, he had taught philosophy and acted as a counselor at the college. His presidency of 3 years, 8 ½ months would be an active and difficult one, dominated by crises and challenges. He would meet them boldly and aggressively, keeping Southwestern alive, rebuilding its campus, and preparing it for a new day.

Students found a college plant consisting of 13 buildings on or near the campus and the downtown studios of the school of fine arts. The principal buildings included North Hall, Richardson Hall, Stewart Gymnasium, Sonner Stadium, and the President's House. There were also a Music Hall, Student Union, and four women's and one men's dormitories, plus apartments for married students. With the exception of the women's dormitories, all these latter structures were new to the campus, having been constructed from military barracks acquired after the War. The library was housed on the first floor of Stewart Gymnasium. Plans and partial funds existed for constructing a new science hall and memorial library, the latter being a project undertaken by the citizens of Cowley county to honor its war dead.

In the space of 10 months, from September 1949 through June 1950, Southwestern College would face three crises. The first two involved the unexpected and concurrent loss of the school's two principal buildings, leaving it practically without classrooms or administrative offices. This loss, in turn, gave rise to the third crisis, an attempt to eliminate Southwestern by merging it out of existence. What follows is an account of these crises and how the Builder spirit rose to meet and overcome them. For Southwestern and its many supporters, it was "their finest hour."


Early in September 1949, the State Fire Marshal visited the campus. He found old North Hall, the original college building, opened in 1887, to be unsafe and condemned it. Fortunately, the building did not have to be vacated immediately and continued in use until Christmas break. At that time, the science and art departments moved into refurbished quarters in Richardson Hall. The home economics classes did not relocate to Richardson but to Virginia Hall, where they could use the food laboratories of Newton Memorial Hospital. The rooms were ready when classes resumed on January 2, 1950. The work of razing North Hall began on April 10, 1950, and by mid July, under the pounding of the wrecking ball, the old structure would be rubble. Only the date stone and stone nameplate were to be salvaged.

The loss of old North Hall, with its numerous classrooms and labs, was a crisis—coming as it did without warning and at the beginning of the school year—but a manageable one, given that almost 4 months existed to relocate. While posing no imminent threat to the college, short term, it was disruptive, causing some inconvenience for faculty and students, but adjustments were made and class work continued. Long term, the impact of the loss was lessened by the existence of plans for a new facility. As far back as 1945, the trustees had approved a plan to convert North Hall into a new science facility. Fund raising had gathered $65,000 towards the project, when the Central Kansas Conference halted it. With condemnation, however, the Conference approved a new campaign to raise an additional $115,000 to be added to the original amount. A new science hall was to be erected and named in honor of President Frank E. Mossman. The condemnation had turned to the college’s favor—or, so it appeared at that moment. The renewed campaign for funds was underway as 1950 began.


As Saturday turned into Sunday, April 16, 1950, in the basement of Richardson hall, in a small custodian closet, located in a recess, where stands today soda and snack machines, combustibles burst into flame. The fire spread rapidly down wooden corridors and through wooden doors and walls of plaster. Soon it was on the first floor working its way up the rotunda walls, toward the dome above.

This was not the first time fire had threatened the building. In April 1910, there had been a fire incident that could have resulted in the building’s destruction. There were undoubtedly other narrow escapes. A few years back, North Hall had been severely damaged--indeed almost destroyed--by a fire. In the September 29, 1949, issue of the Collegian, appeared an article entitled "FIRE!" in which the author envisioned this headline: "RICHARDSON HALL BURNS TO GROUND, TRUSTEES, FACULTY MOURN LOSS." School officials understood the risk. Both Richardson Hall and North Hall were well insured.

Two college boys discovered the fire and immediately reported it. Their efforts to douse it were to no avail. The alarm was received at the Winfield firehouse at 12:19am. Firemen and equipment were soon on site. By then, however, the fire had worked its way up and soon broke through the wooden structure of the dome. The rotunda and the dome were transformed this night into a huge flue. It pulled the roaring flames upward and through the building's insides in a matter of minutes, a phenomenon predicted only a few days before during a fire inspection. The firemen, now assisted by colleagues from Arkansas City and Wellington, could do little but attempt to bring the fire under control and keep it from spreading to other nearby structures. They also focused their streams of water on the vaults, located in the northeast corner, where were housed the Registrar’s vital records.

In the mild April weather, with only a slight southeast breeze blowing, a large crowd of onlookers soon gathered about the base of the 77 steps, watching in disbelief as the centerpiece of the Southwestern campus was devoured by smoke and fire. Some would later remember especially the sickening feeling they felt at the moment the dome came crashing down amid a shower of sparks and flames. There were also the greenish-blue flames and pungent odor given off by the Kibbe organ as it was consumed. For onlookers, the sense of disaster was heightened as the fire light revealed the exposed rafters of North Hall, which, only six days before, workmen had started to raze.

By 1:30am, the fire was at its height and could be seen for 25 to 30 miles about the countryside. Firefighters finally subdued the fire around 5:00am--after pouring approximately 300,000 gallons of water upon the fire--and began packing up their equipment. As dawn broke, all that remained of Richardson Hall was its 16-inch thick walls and four massive columns. Its insides were a shell full of rubble and still smoldering ashes. Looking up toward the sky, one saw, wrapped around a beam, a candelabra belonging to Helen Graham of the expression and dramatics department.

The fire spread with such speed and intensity that there was no opportunity to rescue Richardson's contents, except for a few odds-and-ends items pulled from the flames. The action of firefighters in wetting down the vaults preserved their irreplaceable contents of scholastic records, past and present, as well as documents essential to doing business. For most students, their principal concern was the fate of their official records. It was with a sigh of relief that they learned that they had escaped the fire's destruction. Their loss would have devastated students and alumni morale.

Still, the loss was overwhelming. The building contained the accumulated treasures of the college's 64 years of existence. Now, they were gone and could never be replaced. First, other than for the vault files, the college's current and past records were destroyed, taking with them much of the school's memory of its early days. There was, of course, memorabilia of all sorts; pictures and paintings, trophies and banners, etc., all intended to remind future students of past triumphs and of those in whose footsteps they followed. Historic items went up in smoke as well, such as Peter Cartwright’s Bible on display in the rotunda. The list of losses could go on and on. But, the most pressing loss that would be felt next day by students and teachers alike, was Richardson’s many classrooms with their furnishings and equipment, everything from 45 German microscopes secured after the Great War to the Kibbe organ. Perhaps, the greatest loss was sustained by Miss Graham’s drama department, with its rich collections of props, costumes, plays, and equipment, painstakingly acquired over many years. The only disciplines escaping major losses were the food classes of home economics being held at Newton Hospital; the music department, with its own building and facilities downtown; and athletics and the library, both located in Stewart. With a few lucky exceptions, faculty members lost their class records, along with personal items of varying value and importance. Few had insurance.

The building and contents were insured. The college collected $298,000—but mere dollars could never replace what had been lost. Richardson Hall was more than brick and mortar. What it stood for could not be purchased or recreated. Since its erection in 1909, the building, with its silver dome and imposing rotunda, had become the symbol of the college and a familiar landmark. Now Richardson and its irreplaceable contents were ashes, and that venerable symbol of College, Old North Hall, would soon be rubble. With them passed the old order: the school put in place by Frank E. Mossman and Albert E. Kirk and romanticized by Dean Leroy Allen, Margaret Hill McCarter, and others. What would follow would be different: a new school for the atomic age. This was well understood at the time and welcomed.

Sunday afternoon, with the fire was still smoldering, Dr. Alvin W. Murray and his staff met to lay plans for carrying on the immediate work of the school for the 35 days remaining until graduation and to begin its reconstruction. Earlier, there had been a call from an important trustee, Sam Wallingford, who said simply: "We'll rebuild." It was decided that classes at Southwestern would continue and resume on Tuesday, April 18, as scheduled. Later, it would become a boast of the school that only one-half day of class was lost due to the fire. The only classrooms that remained on campus were in the Music Hall. It was decided to make use of them and all other suitable rooms on campus, plus space in Grace Methodist Church and private homes. After the meeting, Dr. Murray met with the press. His tone was positive and forward-looking. He made these points: 1) The school would be rebuilt bigger and better than ever; 2) no student records, past or present, had been lost; and 3) school would resume on Tuesday morning, and there would be no major change in the academic schedule, including plans for summer school. School would go on.

Early Tuesday morning, an all school assembly was held in Stewart. Dr. Murray reassured the students, telling them of plans to rebuild, centering on a new science hall with the latest equipment, a new library, and the reconstruction of Richardson Hall. Speaking of the fire, he said, "I know now it was not a midnight experience, but rather the dawn of a new day." Students were given their classroom assignments. School resumed. Only a half-day lost.

Dr. Murray immediately sought out support from all sources. His objectives were to secure funds for rebuilding and approval of the rebuilding program from the Central Kansas Conference. Alumni and friends were contacted. In coming days, donations, big and small, would flow in from around the country. By far, the most important outpouring of support for Southwestern came from Winfield. Self-interest was a motivating factor, for the college meant much financially to the community--but, beyond that, there was a genuine and widespread concern for its future, based on understanding of what Southwestern meant culturally and educationally to Winfield. Four days after the fire, on April 20, the Winfield Chamber of Commerce authorized a campaign to raise $300,000 for rebuilding Southwestern. This effort, headed by Hobart L. Barbour, proved crucial to the survival of the school, not only in providing essential funds but also in demonstrating concretely to all the importance of the school to the city and its affection for the college. The city was determined to see Southwestern survive. On April 25, Dr. Murray spoke to the Conference’s education board, which gave him and the school a reassuring vote of support. A check for $10,000 was also received from the Methodist General Board of Education in Nashville.

In the meantime, school continued, the students adjusting quickly to the new regimen. Their loyalty and cooperation were exceptional. Finally, came May and commencement week. Graduation events took place as usual. The graduating class numbered 130; there had been only three larger classes.

In one respect, Southwestern was blessed: Development and expansion plans, extensive in their scope, had been under consideration since 1944, when former President Charles E. Schofield had presented such a plan to the Conference. Most importantly, however, general plans not only existed for a new science hall and library facility—but cash and pledges were in hand towards their construction, raised by the college and citizens of Cowley county. Dr. Murray directed the architect to hurry his plans to completion, the science hall having first priority. As for the new administration building, a decision was made to rebuild using Richardson’s walls, once their soundness was determined. In this instance, construction could not be begun until the rubble had been cleared and plans developed. (When completed, the plans did not include a rotunda. This was to be expected after the role it played in the fire, but totally unexpected was the absence of the familiar silver dome. It was eliminated because it would have added $30,000 to the cost.) Dr. Murray packaged the construction plans into "The Million Dollar Building Program," which was to receive considerable publicity. To pay for it, $805,000 had been or was being raised, leaving a need for additional $195,000. By commencement, Dr. Murray and the trustees had in place a realistic, doable program for funding and building a new campus. It would do much to restore confidence in Southwestern’s future. Given the magnitude of the undertaking, on April 25, the board of trustees asked Bishop Dana Dawson to call a special session of the Central Kansas Conference to confirm actions taken and approve the development program.


Since 1939, a cloud had hung over Southwestern that would not go away. In that year, the old Southwest Conference, which had established Southwestern in 1885 as its college, had merged with the Northwest Conference to create the Central Kansas Conference. The new conference found itself with two colleges: Southwestern and Kansas Wesleyan. Doubts were soon expressed as to the wisdom of the Conference supporting two institutions of higher learning. Would it not be wiser to combine the two, making for a more financially secure and higher quality institution? In 1944, the National Board of Education of the Methodist Church surveyed the situation and concluded that one would be better than two. Questions were raised about the adequacy of the report, and the Central Kansas Conference voted to continue with two institutions--but no definitive decision was made. The loss of North Hall and Richardson forced the issue, since Southwestern could not go forward with its funding and building program without the Conference's blessing. Dr. Murray called on all Builders and friends of the school to rally to its support. Failure to obtain Conference approval, he warned, "would deal a crushing blow to Southwestern."

The Special Session of the Central Kansas Conference met at 10:00am, on Tuesday, June 29, 1950, at Hutchinson. As members gathered, they were troubled not only by the immediate question before them, but also by events half a world away. On Sunday, June 25, the morning headlines had brought accounts of the North Korean invasion of the South. President Truman, vacationing in Independence, Missouri, had returned to the Capital. The situation worsened steadily throughout the week. There was talk of U.S. involvement. The delegates were aware of what war would mean for Southwestern, especially for male enrollment. On June 26, Dr. Murray addressed the Winfield Chamber of Commerce, stating bluntly: "The future of Southwestern college to a large extent will be determined at the Methodist conference…." On Tuesday, June 27, the Chamber’s Southwestern College Development Fund Drive officially began with a big kick-off. On June 29, as the contending forces gathered at Hutchinson, the Courier carried an architect's rendering of what the Southwestern campus would look like after rebuilding.

Dr. Murray had as his objective at Hutchinson the approval of the "Million Dollar Building Program." Not just its approval, however, but immediate approval--no delays for further study, as some would propose--so that all concerned with Southwestern's fate would know its future. The cry was "On Southwestern!" To his surprise, Dr. Murray had to fend off a proposal to merge Southwestern and Kansas Wesleyan, effectively destroying both to create a new entity. Forces from Hutchinson, where he had previously served as pastor, pushed the idea. They anticipated that the new college would be located in their home community. In a dramatic presentation, Dr. Murray, assisted by Raymond Dewey, confronted the proponents of merger. Dr. Murray, an outstanding debater and public speaker, spoke for 40 minutes on the development program and current status of the college. Dr. Dewey followed with a most effective speech attacking the merger concept. Dr. Murray concluded with final arguments. The vote was taken. The motion to merge was defeated handily 241 (71%) to 98 (29%). The motion for the Million Dollar Building Program was then approved by a substantial vote of 267 (83%) to 54 (17%). The "On Southwestern!" forces were triumphant. The future of Southwestern College was settled, the cloud lifted! The galleries broke out in cheers. Dr. Lester Hankins of Wellington declared the historic session as "Alvin Murray Day." The A Cappella choir sang "Great and Glorious is the Name of the Lord" and after the benediction, the "Alma Mater." The following day Southwestern and Winfield celebrated, while in Washington, President Truman ordered U.S. ground troops to the aid of South Korea. The Korean Conflict had begun.


After the victory, Dr. Murray moves forward aggressively to raise funds and carry out the building program. As one person put it, "he made the dirt fly!" Construction details follow.

Mossman Memorial Library Adm. Building
Plans Finalized: 7-28-50 8-22-50 ca 11-50
Contracts Let: 8-31-50 9-16-50 2-2-51
Cornerstone Laying: 11-21-50 11-21-50 N/A
Opened: 9-25-51 11-28-51 7-18-52
Months from the Fire: 17 mos. 19 mos. 27 mos.
Dedicated: 3-22-52 5-17-53 3-13-56

In September 1953, with the beginning of the new school year--3 years and 4 months after the fire--all the new buildings are in place and in use. More funds and work, however, will be required to complete the structures in all aspects, as well as to furnish and equip them fully. For instance, the Administration Building's first floor remains unfinished with a floor of dirt and its auditorium lacks air-conditioning. Moreover, a clear need also exists for additional dormitory and classroom facilities. These challenges, however, must await Dr. Murray's successor.

In late June 1953, Dr. Alvin W. Murray resigned, effective July 1. There had been disagreements with certain trustees. Dr. Murray had been an effective leader--demonstrating his Builder spirit--at a crucial moment in Southwestern's history. He could look back with satisfaction on having saved his Alma Mater and overseen its rebirth. His work was now done. While challenges remained, he left Southwestern positioned for a future of significant growth and development. The gratitude of the college, then and now, was his. Finis Coronat Opus: The End Crowns the Work.

Many individuals and groups played significant roles in helping Southwestern survive its mid century crises. Perhaps, the most remarkable aspect of this story is Southwestern's many, many friends who rallied to its support in its hour of need. The college's 64-years of service to the Methodists of Kansas and its home community of Winfield was remembered and well repaid. Finally, let us remember: those students, who stood loyally by their school, enduring hardship and inconvenience without complaint…..the alumni, who gave their Alma Mater their full and faithful support…. the faculty, whose professionalism and dedication to their students never failed them….the board of trustees, who never lost faith and provided crucial vision and support during this period….the citizens of Winfield, who were determined to save Southwestern, giving freely of their dollars and encouragement….those members of the Central Kansas Conference, who recognized Southwestern's value to Christian education in Kansas and, when the question was put, chose to preserve it for the future.

o o o O o o o

For more information contact:
Kaydee Riggs-Johnson
Southwestern College Office of Communications
100 College Street, Winfield, KS 67156
(620) 229-6343

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