One hundred years ago, fire destroyed the Main Building at what was then known as Henderson-Brown College. A century later, there are few reminders of the event, other than the building’s tower bell that sits on the university’s South Lawn alongside a commemorative plaque.
But in the hearts of Henderson alumni, this moment was crucial in the formation of what is known as the “Reddie Spirit.” This Spirit serves as the Henderson mascot, but perhaps more importantly, represents the pride and motivation behind the university’s many successful students and alumni.
In the early morning of Feb. 3, 1914, building and grounds superintendent James B. Garrett was completing his accustomed rounds when he discovered a small fire in the kitchen of the Main Building just before 5 a.m. Although the fire was still small, access to the necessary water and assistance was limited, and the blaze quickly overtook the building before the fire department could arrive.
While teachers assisted with the evacuation of the female students in the third floor dormitory, male students rushed back into the building to salvage as much personal and school property as possible. Bennie Gene Bledsoe, author of Henderson State University: Education Since 1890 Vol. 1, wrote of this vivid moment: “The vital, immediate concern was to evacuate the scores of girls from the third-floor dormitory… 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.’ 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, the trophies of athletic field, silver cups won on debates and more than a dozen pianos.’” The building was completely destroyed, but no lives were lost that day.
If the story stopped here, there may not have been a modern-day Henderson State University. But it did not.
While ruins of the building continued to smolder, then-president George Henry Crowell met with five of the university’s board members that lived in Arkadelphia for approval of a plan. Dr. Crowell then returned to campus and wrote on a plank, “The College will be rebuilt; recitations will be resumed tomorrow,” and posted it over the college gate. He then returned to the students, who were huddled under the pines on the lawn, and told them what he had written on the plank. The students responded with an outpouring of support and sang spirited school songs.
The next morning, as they met to have their regular chapel service on the lawn, President Crowell encouraged the students to stay and immediately arranged for temporary accommodations. In the days that followed, a new living and learning community was established in nearby in residences and in the president’s home. The first of several temporary structures was raised within a week. A year from the date of the fire, the new university administration building, complete with living quarters for the women and classrooms, was opened. Almost the whole student body remained; only about seven students left Henderson as a result of the fire.
Although the inspirational story of Henderson’s fire and rebirth is known by every alumnus, few have the familiarity of Mary Jo Mann, a 1962 graduate of Henderson, who delivers the annual Pine Tree Speech in the fall. When asked why the fire was such a formative moment in the university’s history, Mann said, “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. That Spirit has been around ever since.”
As a former director of public affairs at Henderson and current leader in the Arkadelphia community, Mann can attest to the strength of the Spirit that still runs through Henderson students today. She noted that the same strong ties students form with Henderson and their fellow students now were evident the night of the fire: “The (1914) students had already been at Henderson for six months and had fallen in love with the school and formed a bond with each other. They all pulled together.”
Mann says that the actions of those who returned to rebuild still teach us a valuable lesson today: “Those are students we can relate to; if things don’t go as they should, we ought to be able to do like they did. The hardship just made them want to keep on.” Perhaps it is this very spirit that makes Henderson “The School with a Heart.”