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AlumNews: Talon Articles

Faculty looks back on disaster

Friday, December 7, 2007  
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By Carly Darrow

On 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 cafeteria.

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,” Maple said.

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 newspaper feel.”

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 any materials.

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 hall.

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 for performances.

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 having.

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 conclusion.

“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 that affect.”

Courtney Knapp, senior vocal music performance major, said she appreciates the building improvements, including the soundproof practice rooms.

“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 said.

“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 said.

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.

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