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Monday, December 07, 2009

Fire at McDonald Hall, Southern Wesleyan University (Used to be Central Wesleyan College) in 1962, 47 years ago today

My wife and I attended the annual employees' Christmas dinner at Southern Wesleyan University recently. (See also Wikipedia article on the institution, here.) I no longer teach there, being retired, but retired employees and their spouses are invited to this event.

I first came to the campus on Labor Day weekend in 1964, under contract to teach science at what was then Central Wesleyan College. At that time, the largest, and newest, building on the campus was Stuart-Bennett hall, a girls' dormitory. The main reason that I applied to CWC was that I was a Wesleyan Methodist (Now The Wesleyan Church), and this institution, like three others in the US, was a college operated by my denomination, and I wanted to serve my Lord through my church. One thing that brought CWC to my mind when I was finishing my graduate work, and looking for the next phase of my life, was that, on the night of December 7, 1962, this small institution had made national headlines. McDonald Hall, the girl's dormitory, burned to the ground that night, and two girls died. I heard about this on the radio in Madison, Wisconsin. Hearing about this event made an impression on me, and that was one of the reasons I applied for a job there.

While my wife and I were on the way to the evening event, I began to think a little about the history of this Christmas meal. The annual Christmas Dinner began, I was told soon after I began to work at CWC, after the fire. The reason for it was that the college wanted to thank the community for their support. Before the fire, CWC wasn't well known, even in the small town of Central, South Carolina. The College pretty much kept to itself. The fire awakened the community, and there were many gestures of support. The College community reciprocated, as they had not before. Since that time, the Christmas Dinner has evolved into a meal to thank the employees, partly, of course, because the fire was so long ago, and also because there are now so many employees that it is impossible to feed them and community representatives at the same time. SWU has other ways of thanking the community, such as a Donors' Banquet.

I also thought about those who worked at CWC during the fire. There are three people who were employees at that time who are still alive -- all of them, like me, retired. I spoke to all three of them in the course of the Dinner. I spoke to two of them about the fire. One of them told me that she was so traumatized by this tragedy that she didn't snap out of it until a few days later, when she and her family attended the annual performance of Messiah at Furman University, which is in the next county. (Christmas traditions change at other institutions, too. Furman no longer holds this performance.) She said that she went to sleep during the performance, and, when she awoke, she was much better.

The other employee, who was Dean of Students during the fire, told me a couple of more dramatic and remarkable things. He had actually gone into the building, with at least one other employee, to try to get anyone out that he could. While he was in there, he said, he was pretty sure that two girls were dead -- they were -- and was complaining to God about how He could let such a thing happen. He said that he had seldom heard God speak to him, but, on this occasion, he did. God told him, he said, to "Shut up. I'll take care of this." And, as we agreed, He had.

The other thing that he told me was one example of how the community helped. He said that, at that time, there was an important apparel manufacturer with a plant near the town, but he hadn't even realized this fact. After the fire, the plant manager sent over a truck full of women's clothes. Of course, the girls in the dormitory had lost all of their clothing except what they had on at the time. This was one example -- there were many others, many lost even to memory by now -- of how the community rallied behind CWC.

God's care was evident materially. Although two girls were lost, the College was able to rally, and seek community and government assistance as they never had before. By the time I came, less than two years later, there was a new dormitory, named for the two young women who died in the fire. (A few years later, that three-story building had two more stories added. It is still a dormitory.) There was a new fine arts building, named for the parents of a wealthy resident of Central, who had donated a significant portion of the funds needed, in their honor. The college was beginning to think about getting accredited, and building some more buildings. Enrollment was increasing. It was about 200 when I came, and is well over ten times that many, including students at other campuses in South Carolina.

The two of us, talking together, agreed that, if the fire hadn't happened, it is very possible that CWC would have soon gone out of existence, and there would be no Southern Wesleyan University today. God used this terrible tragedy for good.

Thanks for reading.

5 comments:

George said...

My grandmother, who was a graduate of CWC, would tell me stories about the fire even before I enrolled myself. Thanks for your viewpoint and your thoughts. Hope your Christmas season is shaping up to be a sacred one.

Jason and Kelley said...

So interesting to hear more detail. Thanks so much for sharing!!

Martin LaBar said...

I didn't know that about your grandmother, George.

Thanks, Jason and Kelley. You have lived in history . . .

Travis said...

Hearing stories and details about how the college was in the past is really special to me. I'm not sure why, I guess it's because I grew up with the college being a big part of my life, living practically on campus and all. Thanks for sharing!

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Travis. Your grandparents may have been living next the the campus back then. I'm not sure when they came.