The day the school burned down

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2017. It’s been 60 years since the high school in Oconto Falls burned down.

March 8, 1957. We were seniors in high school, less than six weeks away from graduation, when Oconto Falls High School burned down.

And while many of our contemporaries had often made smart-aleck remarks about wishing for some catastrophe so we could have a few days off, almost no one was happy to have that wish fulfilled.

It was a cold wintry March day, and as the school buses arrived at the school, there were officials waiting to tell the bus drivers to take everyone back home. Only the senior boys were allowed to disembark. We were pressed into service to rescue what we could from inside the building.

The fire had started in the attic of the old three-story structure and was gradually burning its way down. The volunteer fire department had punched a hole in the roof, and they pouring water into the building trying to slow the progress of the fire. Those firefighters up on the ladders were coated in sheets of ice, and I marveled at their tenacity in fighting the blaze.

Our job – the senior guys – was to start as high up in the building as we could and grab whatever we could, especially typewriters (remember typewriters?) from the typing classroom and paper records from the files in the office. We took whole filing cabinets and the PA system from the office. We hauled stoves, refrigerators, and sewing machines from the home ec classrooms, and chemicals and lab equipment from the science rooms. We grabbed the movie projectors, filmstrip projectors and slide projectors from the AV room, and the cameras and developing equipment from the darkroom.

The library was on the second floor next to the auditorium/study hall, and we grabbed armloads of books from the library and shoved them down the big fire escape tube in the auditorium. Another crew of guys caught them as they came shooting from the fire escape and pitched them into a waiting truck. We weren’t much concerned about keeping them in order by Dewey Decimal classification. We just heaved them out. We threw desks, table, and chairs out of classroom windows onto the ground below. Some were broken, but many survived with only minor damage.

Many of my buddies — Wally Schaal (we called him Fuzz), Bob and Bill Johnson (we called them BJ and Scrap), Rick O’Niell, Wayne Kussow, Dave Tisch, Roger Tarlton, Pat Trudell, Gary Gallagher (we called him Scoop), Jack Magnin, Pete Peterson, Bob McKeever, Doug Curran, Falton Fischer (we called him Junie) — and a lot of other guys worked feverishly down through the building until ceilings and stairwells began to fall around us as the weight of the water being pumped in from outside weakened the structure. We were knee-deep in water in the basement level by the time we’d finished what we could do in the building and we were ordered out. There were some close calls, but we all made it safely out and we saved an awful lot of stuff.

After the fire, the community pulled together and we had classes all over town. We met in the showroom of Thomson’s Chevrolet dealership on Main Street, in the basement of the Methodist Church and the public library, in the refreshment shelter at the athletic field, in private homes … all over the place. Sometimes classes were divided only by blankets hanging from ropes stretched across a basement room, making concentration pretty hard.

All those books we’d so unceremoniously pitched down the fire escape were sorted by volunteers and housed in the bus garage, and that became our “library” where a lot of us seniors finished our research for our senior term papers.

It was hard to believe that after such a disaster, none of us lost our transcripts, we missed only a few days of school, and the great Class of ’57 graduated on time. What an amazing thing it was to see the small town spirit of cooperation that invested that time of almost-disaster with a kind of camaraderie and self-satisfaction at the work we’d all done to recover. I guess that’s one of the reasons that I’m so proud of my small-town upbringing.

Roger VanHaren can be contacted at