The Fire that Refueled Us

Half a century has passed, but the memory still burns in the minds of those who were in Winfield during the spring of 1950. It was April 16, 1950, and Richardson Hall was on fire.

This majestic four-columned structure, far more than simply an office or class building, was the stones-and-mortar heart of Southwestern College. And as they watched the accumulated memories of the college's first half century flamboyantly crumbling to ash, those students, faculty, staff, and townspeople gathered on the 77 steps must have had a single thought in their minds:

Could Southwestern survive?

Although by far the most spectacular, the Richardson fire was only one of three crises during a 10-month span from September 1949 to June 1950. 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.

But during the next three years, the college's alumni, leadership, and friends rallied under the strong leadership of an exceptional president, Alvin Murray. The Richardson Fire, like the burning of prairie stubble, spurred the college to renew itself as an institution that was stronger, more vital, and more focused than ever.

It was the fire that refueled us.
- Sara Weinert

Campus was quiet as Saturday turned into Sunday April 16, 1950. A slight southeast breeze was blowing, carrying an air of vitality and a sense of future direction "far above the Walnut Valley." At 550, Southwestern's enrollment (although down from the previous year) was quite high compared to the recent War years. The school had grown steadily, adding faculty and courses, along with new buildings.

Three stories below Richardson's silver dome, though, a small custodian's closet in the basement was about to become pivot point of the most important events in the college's history. Cleaning materials in this closet, located in a recess that today holds vending machines, had hours before begun to heat up as the process leading to spontaneous combustion began. At about midnight, the closet 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.

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 12:19 a.m. Firemen and equipment where 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 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. 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 focused their streams of water on the vaults, located in the northeast corner, which held the registrar's vital records.

In the mild April weather, a large crowd 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 the sickening feeling they felt at the moment the dome came crashing down amid a shower of sparks and flames; others noted 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 firelight revealed the exposed rafters of North Hall, which, only six days before, workmen had started to raze.

By 1:30 a.m., 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 a.m.-after pouring approximately 300,000 gallons of water onto the conflagration-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.

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, as well as documents essential to doing business.

Still, the loss was overwhelming. The building contained the accumulated treasures of the college's 64 years of existence. Other than the vault files, the college's records were destroyed. Then there was the memorabilia of all sorts-pictures and paintings, trophies and banners, etc., all intended to remind future students of past triumphs. Historic items went up in smoke as well, such as famed evangelist Peter Cartwright's Bible, on display in the rotunda.

The most pressing loss was Richardson's many classrooms with their furnishings and equipment, from 45 German microscopes secured after the Great War to the Kibbe organ. Destruction was total in Miss Graham's drama department, with its rich collections of props, costumes, scripts, and equipment, painstakingly acquired over many years.

The only disciplines escaping major loss were the food classes of home economics being held at Newton Hospital; the music department, with its own building plus facilities downtown; and athletics and the library, both located in Stewart. With few exceptions, faculty members lost their class records, along with personal items of varying value and importance. Few had insurance.

The impact of the fire, devastating as it was, was felt even more sharply because of an eerie coincidence in timing. Only days before, demolition of the campus's other principal building had begun.

Early in September 1949, the state fire marshal had 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 work of razing of North Hall began on April 10, 1950. The loss of the building, 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 four months existed to relocate.

And 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 toward the project, when the Central Kansas Conference (the Methodist organization that had founded Southwestern) 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 renewed campaign for funds was underway as 1950 began.

But as April 16, 1950, dawned, nearly the entire academic facilities at Southwestern College had been reduced to rubble and ashes.

Richardson Hall and its contents were insured. The college collected $298,000-but mere dollars could never replace what had been lost. Since its erection in 1909, the building had become the symbol of the college and a familiar landmark. With the passing of Richardson Hall and North Hall 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, was no more.

Sunday afternoon, with the fire still smoldering, President 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.

Murray had been president for only six months, and was facing one of the worst moments of the college's history. At this point his strong management and leadership style came into play. It was decided that classes at Southwestern would continue and resume on Tuesday, April 18. Later, it would become a boast of the school that only one-half day of classes 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, President Murray met with the press. His tone was positive and forward-looking. He made three points: 1) The school would be rebuilt bigger and better than ever; 2) no student records had been lost; and 3) school would resume on Tuesday morning; there would be no major change in the academic schedule, including plans for summer school.

Early Tuesday morning, an all school assembly was held in Stewart Field House. President 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.

" know now it was not a midnight experience, but rather the dawn of a new day," he told the students. Students were given their classroom assignments. Classes resumed.

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. On April 25, President 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.

By far the most important outpouring of support for Southwestern came from Winfield. Four days after the fire 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 the importance of the school to the city and its affection for the college.

In one respect, Southwestern was blessed: Development and expansion plans had been under consideration since 1944, when former President Charles E. Schofield had presented such a plan to the Conference. 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. President Murray directed the architect to hurry his plans to completion.

As for the new administration building, a decision was made to rebuild using Richardson's walls. 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. Already $805,000 had been or was being raised, leaving a need for additional $195,000. In the meantime, school had continued, and students were meeting the situation with loyalty and cooperation.

Finally came May and Commencement week. Dr. Murray and the trustees had in place a realistic, achievable plan for funding and building a new campus. It would do much to restore confidence in Southwestern's future.

The graduating class numbered 130; there had been only three larger classes.

The college's most critical moment was still to come, though: A special session of the Central Kansas Conference was called to confirm actions taken and to approve the development program.

Since 1939, a cloud had hung over Southwestern. In that year, the old Southwest Conference, which had established Southwestern in 1885, 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 that the Conference should support 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 Thursday, 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, Mo., 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, President 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.

Murray had as his objective at Hutchinson the immediate approval of the Million Dollar Building Program-no delays for further study, as some would propose-so that all concerned with Southwestern's fate would know its future.

To his surprise, President Murray had to fend off a renewed drive to merge Southwestern and Kansas Wesleyan. Forces from Hutchinson, where he had previously served as pastor, pushed the idea, anticipating that the new college would be located in their home community. In a dramatic presentation, Murray, assisted by Raymond Dewey, confronted the proponents of merger. Murray, an outstanding speaker and debater, spoke for 40 minutes on the development program and current status of the college. Dewey followed with a most effective speech attacking the merger concept. Murray concluded with final arguments.

The vote was taken and the motion to merge was defeated handily, 241 to 98. The motion for the Million Dollar Building Program was then approved by a substantial vote of 267 to 54. The "On Southwestern!" forces were triumphant.

The future of Southwestern College was settled, the cloud lifted!

As the galleries broke out in cheers, Lester Hankins of Wellington declared the historic session "Alvin Murray Day." 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 moved aggressively to raise funds and carry out the building program.

In September 1953-three years and four months after the fire-all the new buildings were in place and in use. More funds and work, however, would 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 remained unfinished with a floor of dirt and its auditorium lacked air-conditioning. Moreover, a clear need also existed for additional dormitory and classroom facilities.

These challenges, however, would have to await Dr. Murray's successor.

In late June 1953, 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. While challenges remained, he left Southwestern positioned for a future of significant growth and development.

Many individuals and groups played crucial roles in helping Southwestern survive its three 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 were remembered and well repaid.

The college owes its existence to many: Those students, enduring hardship and inconvenience without complaint.the alumni, who gave their alma mater their full and faithful support.the faculty, with professionalism and dedication to their students.the Board of Trustees, providing crucial vision and support during this period.the citizens of Winfield, who were determined to save Southwestern.and those members of the Central Kansas Conference who recognized South-western's value to Christian education in Kansas and, when the question was put, chose to preserve it for the future.