SWU remembers a milestone
Remembering the McDonald Hall tragedy
In December, Southern Wesleyan University will mark the 50th anniversary of the fire that destroyed McDonald Hall and claimed the lives of two students.
McDonald Hall was built in 1941 and expanded in 1944 and 1953. McDonald Hall housed 56 students and three staff members at a time when the university, then known as Central Wesleyan College, had a total student population of 150 and a few high school seniors who remained in what would be the last year for the high school program.
On Dec. 7, 1962, the quietness of the night was broken shortly before 2 a.m. when cries of “Fire!” were heard through McDonald Hall and soon across the campus. As students rushed from the building, most didn’t even grab a coat to protect them from the frigid night.
As the cries of alarm raced through the building, most were able to evacuate without difficulty, but the fire quickly engulfed the structure. All but two of the students escaped. A frantic search began to see if Crystal Bennett or Myrna Stuart could be located. Students searched nearby wooded areas. Others made an attempt to enter the burning building to see if they could reach the rooms of these two girls. Bennett’s brother Gordon and other students tried to enter the burning area, as did Academic Dean Claude Rickman and Dean of Students Paul Wood, but the flames prevented their entry.
Firemen from Central and other surrounding areas came and made a valiant effort to contain the fire, despite cold temperatures and limited water pressure.
After the fire, students were sent home a week early for Christmas break. The semester’s schedule was pushed back a week in order to complete classes and finals by Feb. 2. The female students who had lived in McDonald Hall and Smith Hall moved into Childs Hall. Many of the male students moved into Smith Hall, while some stayed in a mobile home or in other temporary quarters.
During a memorial service Jan. 6, 1963, the campus came together, along with members of the Bennett and Stuart family. They mourned their losses, but the families expressed appreciation to the entire campus for all that had been done to help Crystal and Myrna.
The response to the fire was a dramatic outpouring of support from the local community and beyond. A number of civic organizations pitched in and donated clothing, replaced eyeglasses and donated books and other necessities.
This tragedy brought national attention to the quiet school on the hill outside Central literally overnight.
A new residence hall was soon constructed and named Stuart- Bennett Hall – as a tribute to their memory. It was completed in fall, 1963, then two more floors were added in 1967.
Southern Wesleyan University will join the community in a period of solemn remembrance with two events: A service of worship and remembrance Dec. 2, 2:30 p.m. at ALIVE Wesleyan Church, and a gathering of prayer and remembrance on the university’s campus in Central on the anniversary of the fire, Dec. 7, at 10 p.m. The gathering will take place on the lawn between Stuart-Bennett Hall and the Rickman Library.
For details, contact Bob Sears at (864) 644-5064 or email . You can also get more background on the McDonald Hall tragedy here.