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Bradley Hall 50 years ago: Fire & ice spectacle

Double-digit below-zero temperatures kept most students and local residents indoors on January 12, 1963. For entertainment, there was Jackie Gleason, Saturday Night at the Movies, and Gunsmoke on TV, not to mention the radio broadcast of the Bradley Braves basketball game at Wichita. Just after 8 p.m., firefighters raced to campus to battle a blaze at Bradley Hall and a humdrum Saturday evening came to a halt.

Fifty years have passed, but the memories are vivid for many who streamed out of their dorm rooms and homes to witness a drama that surpassed anything television had to offer. Bradley’s 65-year-old flagship building was engulfed in flames. Local and national news accounts reported later that flames shot 30 feet above the tower and its gargoyles. 

BRYCE HESSING ’63 MBA ’71 was driving down Bradley Avenue from his fraternity house to pick up his date MARILYN HOERR ’64 when he encountered the fire trucks. Marilyn, his wife of 48 years now, remembers watching the fire together from the quad. “We were in disbelief. It was so cold, you could hardly stand to be out, but you didn’t want to leave either,” she says. “It was just an inferno. Flames were coming out everywhere,” Bryce adds.

All off-duty Peoria firemen and police officers were called to the scene where an estimated crowd of 3,000 gathered. The Salvation Army and a nearby McDonald’s provided coffee and food for the weary firefighters. In later years, most recalled that frigid, windy night as the most brutal of their careers.

By morning, the Gothic stone building was an eerie spectacle. It was in ruins while it also was encased in ice. Freezing temperatures kept the massive ice sculpture intact for weeks. Equipment and hoses, frozen to the ground, were other reminders of the fire.

Stepping up

“I believe that Mrs. Bradley would be grateful that no student, faculty member, or firefighter was in any way injured or maimed,” said Dr. Talman Van Arsdale, Bradley president, shortly after the fire. “…she would have been decidedly proud of the splendid manner in which the Bradley University family responded so promptly and so generously.”

Louis Neumiller and his wife Selma are a case in point. At 3 a.m., the former Caterpillar board chairman sent a telegram pledging $75,000 for rebuilding Bradley Hall. “We decided there’s a time for good words, but there’s also a time for good deeds, and we feel this is the time,” he said. Jean and Sam Rothberg, an executive with American Distilling Co., followed with a gift of $25,000, saying they were impressed by the Neumiller gift. Pabst Brewing Co. donated $10,000 with the company president writing from Milwaukee, “Bradley University has been a source of strength and service to central Illinois for many years. … A strong Bradley is an asset to this community where many of our employee families reside.” 

Donations from $1 to $1,000 flooded the president’s mailbox. Other major corporate donors included Keystone Steel & Wire; LeTourneau-Westinghouse; Hiram Walker; CILCO; Colgate-Palmolive Co.; V. Jobst & Sons; and architects Phillips Swager and Associates, and Lankton, Ziegele, Terry, and Associates. Caterpillar boosted the fund with $35,000.

“Paradoxical as it may seem, the tragic fire in our beloved Bradley Hall has served to distinguish the University’s importance to the Peoria area and the nation. Certainly, the fire caused central Illinois citizens to assess anew the importance of Bradley in their society, culture, and their economic well-being,” Van Arsdale wrote several weeks later in his Hilltopics column.

Offices and classes were quickly shuffled to other sites — some in churches, dormitory lounges and recreation rooms, and other Bradley buildings. The two wings that housed the flooded science labs were cleaned and deemed safe for use second semester. Meanwhile, five professors had lost their grade books in the fire and others had to decide how to handle student work that had been lost. 

“I had spent a lot of time on a final paper, and I worried that it was in the building,” Marilyn Hoerr Hessing recalls. “I think the instructor told me not to worry about it.”

A new foreign language laboratory was destroyed, and the home economics department was particularly hard hit. Another recent addition — the department’s dining room — was charred. 

A lost dress comes to mind when KAY RINGEL RIEGLER ’66 thinks back to the fire. She had been completing the sewing project in a clothing class. Her family lived nearby and hurried over to watch the fire. 

As for official Bradley documents, student transcripts had recently been copied on microfilm and were stored elsewhere. Diplomas for the mid-year commencement in February had been delivered to the wrong building and were saved; the ceremony was canceled, but graduates received their diplomas in the mail. Registrar Ruth Jass and her staff worked diligently from Illinois Mutual Casualty Co. offices and saved registration for second semester.

Thousands of written inquiries about Bradley admission from high school students were not so lucky; their destruction was considered serious. The most somber loss, however, was that some personal effects of founder Lydia Moss Bradley were destroyed. A portrait of Laura Bradley, her daughter, was believed to have been in the tower.

A new “B” Hall

Bradley’s Board of Trustees approved rebuilding the University’s original building on April 22, 1963. Insurance paid about half the cost of the $2 million project. 

Online

Visit bradley.edu/go/ht-bradleyfire for a video of the 1963 fire, which was captured by media specialist emeritus DON RAEUBER ’55.

The new Bradley Hall welcomed students on September 21, 1964. With a full fourth floor, it boasted 45 percent more floor space than the building it replaced; the number of classrooms doubled — from 13 to 26. The Neumillers and Rothbergs were recognized with the naming of Neumiller Chapel and the Rothberg Lounge.

Students and alumni were in the mood to celebrate when, two weeks later, the building was dedicated with U.S. Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon as the Founder’s Day speaker. Louis Armstrong played to a full house at the Field House, and alumni attended a gala downtown at the Hotel Pere Marquette. More than 1,200 alumni returned that weekend, making 1964 the largest Homecoming and Founder’s Day the Hilltop had seen.

– Gayle Erwin McDowell ’77 
Photos courtesy Special Collections, Cullom-Davis Library.