The Day the School Burned Down

“Where were you on April 9, 1956?” The answers are pouring in from the Class of 1960.

Marple-Newtown Junior High-Senior High School Fire, April 9, 1956

Marple-Newtown Junior High-Senior High School Fire, April 9, 1956

We were in the 8th grade of Marple-Newtown Junior-Senior High School. On that day we were eating lunch, getting ready for our next class when the fire alarm sounded. Must be a fire drill. We knew the drill. So did the teachers. The teachers led us outside, hand-in-hand in the continuous line processional we’d learned in those ridiculous fire drills. The school was going up in flames.

One of my classmates, Dave, remembers it this way:

The Boys’ Room was crowded with guys smoking cigarettes before class, the air was filled with a cloud of tobacco smoke and smells, so we didn’t have any indication that a fire was building below the first floor. Hearing the fire alarm, we stepped out into the hallway to see a trickle of smoke rising from each plank of the hardwood flooring. Seeing that smoke, we knew that the school and the students were facing a serious fire emergency. An orderly evacuation began and although it was a cold day, no one was permitted to go back to their homerooms for their coats.

To a chorus of cheers, we all stood outside shivering for what seemed to be a long time and watched the fire fully consume the building. To a chorus of boos, the fire trucks finally arrived and the volunteer firemen had trouble hooking up the hoses and getting water on the destructive blaze.

The school building was obviously a total loss and since I was cold, I decided to hitchhike home. It was about lunchtime, when I arrived home. My mother immediately descended on me, “…why are you home, are you playing hooky and where is your leather jacket?” “No,” I said. “It wasn’t my fault,” I blurted out, before feeling the back of her hand across my face. “Tell me the truth,” she demanded. I said,”the school burned down,” just before getting a fresh one on the other cheek.

One of the memories we share is the picture of Mr. Harvey, still inside the building, handing the typewriters out the upstairs window from his typing class to Seniors who were ascending and descending a firetruck ladder to save the typewriters until he had to come down himself to loud gasps and cheers.

Fred, remembers being “in typing class a year later using one of those ‘saved’ machines with melted keys.”

Ellie, who wasn’t in the building when the first started, adds something else:

I was approaching the school entrance after lunch at the pizza shop and was met by students rushing out to safety. Still remember that once we were all assembled by homerooms Mr. Rathey went tearfully from group to group checking whether we were all accounted for.

What a surreal day!

Mr. Rathey pointing

Mr. Rathey pointing

The miracle is that we all made it out safely. Before Mr. Rathey, shown here pointing to the school, could see his charges walk across the stage at graduation, he was diagnosed with cancer. The Class of 1960 presented him with a gold watch at his early retirement. Ellie reminded us today of Mr. Rathey’s tearful care on the day the school burned down and in the years that followed.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 9, 2015.

This entry was posted in America, Life, Memoir and tagged , , by Gordon C. Stewart. Bookmark the permalink.

About Gordon C. Stewart

I've always liked quiet. And, like most people, I've experienced the world's madness. "Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness" (Wipf and Stock Publishers, Jan. 2017) distills 47 years of experiencing stillness and madness as a campus minister and Presbyterian pastor (IL, WI, NY, OH, and MN), poverty criminal law firm executive director, and social commentator. Our dog Barclay reminds me to calm down and be much more still than I would be without him.

8 thoughts on “The Day the School Burned Down

      • I heard my aunt Betty tell me the story when I was younger. I’m 38 now but when I was about ten I remember her saying she walked home after the fire started and my grandmom said “what are you doing here?!” Betty replied “the schools on fire!” Betty kept repeating. Needless to say my grandmom did not believe her lol.


  1. I emailed already, but a quick add: Two or three of the girls were crying. They were, I’m certain, those who already felt a strong allegiance to MN, as school, football team, etc.


    • CA – I bet I could name them. But, maybe not. I don’t remember cheering, but I do remember Bill Spiller getting into an accident on his way out of the parking lot, racing to the volunteer fire department in his hotrod.


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