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PSU honors firefighters at Russ Hall fire centennial

June 30, 2014 1:45PM

PSU honors firefighters at Russ Hall fire centennial
University and community members gather on June 30 to observe the centennial of the Russ Hall Fire.

Pittsburg State University welcomed scores of Pittsburg firefighters and others from the community on Monday, June 30, at a commemoration of the centennial of the fire that nearly destroyed Russ Hall, its first permanent building.

Lynette Olson, provost and vice president for academic affairs, began by praising William A. Brandenburg, who, just 10 months into his appointment, was faced with a crisis that some believed could be the death knell for the young institution.

“President Brandenburg was presented with the greatest challenge a university leader can face,” Olson said. “His school’s primary educational facility was in ruins, but even more devastating was the death of one of his students, Rex Tanner.”

Olson described Brandenburg’s leadership in the face of incredible tragedy.

“The scene that confronted President Brandenburg was filled with emotion and uncertainty for what would come next,” Olson said. “(Many) questions had to be swirling through President Brandenburg’s head as stood in the smoldering rubble of Russ Hall and pledged that our school, ‘would carry on.’”

Olson recounted the way the city, the university and its students rallied in the aftermath of the fire, saying it was the foundation for the relationship that exists to this day.

“In many ways, Russ Hall is a physical reminder of the undying spirit of cooperation that exists between our city and our university,” Olson said. “As we commemorate this centennial, let us never forget the sacrifices and struggles of those who have come before us. Their courage and vision laid the groundwork for what has become an amazing university that is located in an incredible community.”

Randy Roberts, PSU’s dean of library services and university archivist, told the dramatic story of the fire. It is a story, he said, that holds a pivotal place in the university’s rich history.

Jordan Schaper, president of the Student Government Association, said Russ Hall is usually the first building that new students come to know, but until he began to prepare for his role in the commemoration, he did not fully appreciate the event’s place in university history.

“I’m struck by the role our students played that fateful night,” Schaper said. “They didn’t hold back and wait for others to handle the situation. They stepped forward  and joined forces with our firefighters, administrators, faculty, and community to try and save Russ Hall.”

Schaper said he believed Rex Tanner would have fit in with students of the current century.

“He was an active student leader who loved his school,” Schaper said. “In fact, as an undergraduate, he was the first student to sign a petition in support of our school’s first leader Russell S. Russ. And it wasn’t just Rex who loved this school, it was his entire family. His brother, Vic, was captain of the football team. Both Vic and his sister, Luca, went on to graduate.”

Speaking for the student body, Schaper thanked the firefighters, the university and the community for more than a century of support.

Pittsburg Fire Chief Mike Simons said that although technology has changed a great deal over the century since the Russ Hall fire, some things are still the same.

“When a firefighter responds to the scene of a call, he’s doing much more than simply riding in a truck,” Simons said. “He’s controlling his emotions, remembering his training and developing a plan of action for what lies ahead. Our team feels this every time they hear those tones and I’m certain our brethren reacted the same way when they were called to respond to this location in 1914.”

Olson presented Simons a plaque, expressing appreciation to the Pittsburg Fire Department for “more than a century of service to Pittsburg State University and the community.”

Following the presentation, City Commissioner Mike Munsell, himself a retired Pittsburg firefighter, read a proclamation from the city recognizing the significance of the day.

Following the ceremony, guests toured an exhibit on the second floor of Russ Hall containing photographs and artifacts from the University Archives. Among those were scorched bricks, books rescued from the library and even the preserved hide of Deck, the fire horse killed in the fire.

©2014 Pittsburg State University