HSU remembers fire that kindled Reddie Spirit

By Wayne Bryan Published February 13, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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SUBMITTED This 1913 photograph, showing the fire engulfing Old Main at what was then Henderson-Brown College in Arkadelphia, is part of a display in the Huie Library at Henderson State University commemorating the 100th anniversary of the blaze. While it could have forced the college to close, the blaze is credited with being the “spark” that ignited what the students call the Reddie Spirit of HSU.

ARKADELPHIA — A small crowd gathered near the Huie Library on the campus of Henderson State University to commemorate the 100th anniversary of a fire that destroyed the main campus building of what was then Henderson-Brown College.

Why were the current students and others at the Feb. 3 event looking back 100 years to a tragedy that almost meant the end of the school? Because as one of the speakers at the ceremony, Mary Jo Mann, a 1962 graduate of Henderson and a former alumni director of the school, said, the day after the fire was the first day of a new spirit on the campus.

“It’s the birth of the Reddie Spirit, the fact that the students just met that night and decided they were going to stay, that they weren’t going to let anything keep them from going to

college,” Mann told the gathering. “That spirit has been around ever since.”

Mann tells the story of the aftermath of the fire every year to students in what has become known as her “pine-tree speech.” This year, she again told the gathered students about how the fire brought students and faculty together to start the school again, literally from the ground up.

The story of the 1914 fire is the topic of a photo display in the university library this month, said David Sesser, assistant librarian in charge of special collections.

“We have a picture of Old Main taken sometime before the fire; then we have the building in flames, along with a picture of the temporary building that was used while the new building, College Hall, was being built,” Sesser said. “That building was demolished in the early 1960s, and the current library is near the site.”

The bell from Old Main was saved and is on the South Lawn at the university, where the bell stands next to a commemorative plaque.

The story goes that about 5 a.m. Feb. 3, 1914, building and grounds superintendent James B. Garrett was completing his rounds of the Henderson-Brown campus when he discovered a small fire in the kitchen of the main building.

While the fire was small when it was discovered, access to water and assistance hampered Garrett from putting out the fire. The blaze quickly engulfed the building before the fire department could arrive.

Along with being the administration building of the small college, the building was also the residence hall for women.

While teachers assisted with the evacuation of the young women from their rooms on the third floor, some of the young male students rushed back into the building to salvage as much as possible. It could have been bravery and a love for the school; however, it cannot be ruled out that the boys were just showing off for the young ladies.

“The girls stood in their nightclothes watching the building burn while the college boys ‘invaded the burning dormitory and began the work of saving the possessions of the girl students,’” wrote Bennie Gene Bledsoe in his book Henderson State University: Education Since 1890 Vol. 1. “They formed salvage lines and rushed trunk after trunk along the sidewalk leading from the College to the street. Many of these ‘boys risked their lives in this work, but they saved nearly every trunk in the building.’ In addition, they had saved ‘the entire library, consisting of thousands of volumes, their trophies of the athletic field, silver cups won on debates and more than a dozen pianos.’”

Though the feat of the young men was impressive, it was the occurrence of the next day that is considered the spirit that carries over to today’s HSU.

While ruins of the building were still smoldering, George Henry Crowell, the president of the college, met with five of the university’s board members who lived in Arkadelphia about the future of the school.

When he returned to campus, Crowell wrote on a plank, “The College will be rebuilt; recitations will be resumed tomorrow,” and posted it over the campus gate. He then returned to the students, who were huddled under the pines on the lawn, and told them what he had written. The students cheered and sang school songs.

The first person to step up and offer a donation that day was a member of the staff, said Jennifer Boyette, vice president of university advancement at Henderson State.

“Michael Smith, the chief cook at the school, a local businessman and an African-American, offered $25 toward the rebuilding of the school,” she said in a recent interview. “That was the beginning.”

The fire was first commemorated in 1920 on Feb. 3, which had become Founders’ Day for the school. During that ceremony, Benjamin Foster told the students, “Whatever fate may bring, the spirit of Henderson will survive and surmount it.”

Like in 1914 and in 1920, the ceremony ended this year with students singing.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 247-6129 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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