Faculty looks back on disaster
Friday, December 7, 2007
By Carly Darrow
a Sunday morning in late November 1997, a fire erupted in a section of
the Garvey Center on the Oklahoma Christian University campus.
A decade later, the scars of an Oklahoma Christian University disaster appear healed.
No one was injured, but the music wing was destroyed and smoke damage was extensive throughout the entire Garvey Center.
“We all really pulled together and recognized where we could
emerge,” Music Department Chair John Fletcher said. “We had to make the
best of a challenging situation and respond in a positive way.”
The fire took place about 9:30 a.m. on Nov. 30, 1997.
Two staff members from KOCC radio detected the smell of smoke while
working at the radio station located inside the building. Firefighters
arrived within four minutes, according to the “History of Oklahoma
University,” a book by Bible Professor Stafford North that will be
available next homecoming.
At the scene of the fire, campus security officers observed
Oklahoma Christian freshman James Hopper among those watching
firefighters extinguish the blaze. Previously, Hopper had been
questioned about a Sept. 22, 1997 fire in the student center that
caused $5,000 damage.
Hopper later confessed to starting both fires. On Oct. 16, 1998,
Hopper was sentenced to a seven-year prison term followed by seven
years of probation and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.
The fire was started in the music wing on a sofa in the student lounge and spread to other areas of the building.
Associate Professor of Music Kathy Thompson said she remembers sitting in church at Memorial Road and hearing emergency sirens.
When church ended, she went outside and could see the smoke. She
drove by and knew there was severe damage to parts of the building.
Her office, like many offices in the building, received mainly
smoke damage. Thompson said all the offices were relocated to other
parts of the campus.
“Everyone worked to make the best of the situation but the music
department felt displaced. It was really depressing at first,” Thompson
said. “We had a loss of cohesiveness,like we didn’t really have a
place. It’s always depressing to lose what you have.”
Fletcher said he learned of the fire when he received a telephone call upon arriving home from church.
“We were all surprised at how substantial the fire really was,”
Fletcher said. “It was apparent to us that we couldn’t continue to hold
anything here in the department for the last weeks of the semester. So
we shifted into crisis mode.”
The music department was destroyed, Fletcher said. Pianos and the
listening library were damaged. Students lost sheet music, instruments
and class materials.
Given the extent of the damage, the first thought was how to get
through the semester. With cooperation from all departments, the
university was able to pull together to devise a plan.
The temporary fix included moving the piano lab to the third floor
of the library and Cocoa & Carols was rescheduled to be held in the
The band practiced in Scott Chapel and DAH was used for recitals and rehearsals. Many music offices were moved to the library.
John Maple, chair of the department of history and political
science, said he was surprised by how few flames were visible and yet,
how extensive the damage was.
“Smoke, ash and soot just infiltrated everything and ruined so many
things that really were not burned at all but were rendered unusable,”
Wes McKinzie, who was editor in chief of the “Talon” at the time of
the fire, said the campus newspaper published a special edition the
following week, on Dec. 5, 1977. Among the articles was one he wrote
entitled, “Picking up the Pieces.”
McKinzie, now the associate director of marketing services at
Oklahoma Christian, said he saw the fire on his way home from church
around 12:15 p.m. He stopped when he saw smoke coming from the
building. He was able to go in and see parts of the building shortly
after the fire.
The next day, the “Talon” was allowed to send photographers into the building.
“For a student journalist, covering the fire was a good experience
because of the subject matter,” McKinzie said. “It was a large,
breaking, real-world, in-depth story. It wasn’t just a
run-of-the-mill-type deal. It was beneficial because the compressed
time frame to put the news together gave it a little more of a real
Covering the story proved to be difficult as the “Talon” needed to relocate. Its offices were located inside the Garvey Center.
McKinzie said the situation was a big challenge because the
newspaper staff didn’t have the chance to go into the building and get
As for the renovation work, McKinzie said college students often
wonder how their college will look if they come back in 15 or 20 years,
but Oklahoma Christian students were able to witness the change take
place before their very eyes.
Maple said he doesn’t recall any student dissatisfaction, after the
initial shock wore off. Quickly after the fire, the decision was made
to renovate and expand the building and administrators announced the
plans for major upgrades.
Thompson said it was one of those times where you make the best of
a situation and find the silver lining in the storm cloud or, in this
case, you “find a way to re-create the silver lining.”
The administration worked fast to get repairs done and they cared for the faculty as individuals throughout the work.
Fletcher also praised the school’s response.
“Our administration was nothing but helpful and supportive during the
whole process,” Fletcher said. “They were very much in our corner and
helped us move things to a higher level.”
The new floor plan for the music wing was completely different from
the previous layout with only the band room staying unchanged, Fletcher
said. Other rooms were moved, and the building was expanded.
Ken Adams, professor of music, recalled other design changes ordered up.
The administration decided to enclose a large area, now the
conservatory, and make it a single unit, Adams said. The design allowed
the conservatory to operate three theaters: Judd, Hardeman and the
Recital Hall. The addition of the Recital Hall was a particular
highlight for the faculty.
Adams said the architects and acoustic engineers were contacted, and
a number of meetings took place right after the fire in November. Many
of the meetings concerned the internal construction of the recital
The architects’ first drawings were an unmemorable, modern design Adams said.
“My wife suggested it should be done in a classical style like
buildings in Europe. This provides for a style that is never out of
date and always looks elegant,” Adams said.
Adams said the music department conducted research and provided pictures of old concert halls.
The architects then reworked the designs with pillars, cream colors,
woodwork, burgundy and chandeliers, a modern version of an old concert
hall with some of the 17th century details.
Acoustical architects were also hired, Adams said.
A nationally known consulting firm, Pelton Marsh Kinsella, which had
done previous work for the National Football League and Disney, took on
the project of the recital halls. This ensured high quality acoustics
Thompson said the music department had wanted to update the piano
lab before the fire and afterward, received a brand new piano lab
system that was a beneficial change and a big upgrade they appreciate
While construction was ongoing, and in order for students to
practice and not disturb one another or other classes in their
temporary rooms, the university rush-ordered sound isolation products
from music company Wegner, Adams said.
The expansion allowed creative opportunities for the school.
“The expansion gave physical room for the programs to expand,” Adams
said. “There are some nights when there is something going on in each
of the three areas. For a school this size, we have a very active arts
program, and the facility allows us to do that.”
In addition, Adams said, performing groups have grown in size and in
quality and that Oklahoma Christian students continue to compete and
perform at increasingly higher levels.
Student input was considered during the buildings planning stages.
Work-study students and chorale members contributed quite a bit.
The motorized chairs in the recital hall that allow the area to be a
dual-use facility was the idea of chorale students, who had practiced
once in the gym and liked the motorized chairs there.
Fletcher said that, though a cliché, the phrase about making
lemonade from lemons seems fitting in this situation. Aesthetics like
the changing of the chairs in Judd Theater to a more appealing style
and color are viewed positively.
Adams said much credit is due to Joe Watson, then the Vice
President of Operations and current professor of electrical and
computer engineering, and Jeanine Varner, Vice President for Academic
Affairs at the time, who spent many hours piloting the facility to its
“I think there is a point to be made that architecture affects
human beings. I think the acoustical and visual quality of the Recital
Hall has contributed to the increasing excellence of our student
performers,” Adams said. “You walk into the room and the room says that
this is a place where excellence is demanded and subconsciously it has
Courtney Knapp, senior vocal music performance major, said she
appreciates the building improvements, including the soundproof
“You can definitely tell that they started incorporating a more
modern curve to buildings starting with Garvey,” Knapp said, referring
to the rounded corners in the architecture in both the communications
hall and conservatory. “They tie in together nicely with
similar-colored brick, too.”
Thompson recalled that in 1997, while walking through the building
after it was gutted, it was hard to visualize what had been or what was
going to be. The renovation went beyond what she had imagined, she
“It’s rare that a facility meets your expectations. Most fall short. This one exceeded our expectations,” Adams said.
Fletcher said, after the fire, the university came back stronger than ever before.
The faculty worked so closely together from a physical standpoint
that it pulled them closer together in an emotional sense, Thompson
Students pulled together as well, McKinzie said.
“It was a stressful and interesting week. It was also a week that
everyone pulled their weight and went above and beyond to put together
a good and memorable edition of the ‘Talon’,” McKinzie said.
It is nice that the university was able to see some good come out of
the situation and upgrade facilities, McKinzie said. He said it is hard
to believe it has already been ten years.