Fifty years ago from Thursday, former Clinton High School Principal Harold Weber stood in front an audience of more than 1,400 people, and made known that the situation happening at that moment wouldn’t deter from the school’s mission.
“We will be operating with a short fuse and little patience,” Weber said on Jan. 18, 1968, more than a week after a fire burned down much of Clinton High School.
In today’s language, I would translate that to “no excuses.” Students from junior high to high school, along with the district staff, were being forced into a situation with no manual.
How does a school function without a building?
Not having to go through that before, I would assume it would start with not having excuses. It would be easy for the students and staff to feel self-pity, and not give their full attention on what was truly important — receiving the best education possible.
I’ve talked to a handful of people this week about the fire, which is marking its 50th anniversary this month. And while the discussions centered on the different scheduling, the arsonist and the oddity of what happened, the conversations usually veered back to the fact that nobody was feeling sorry for them, and school and life went on, albeit with new scenery.
We may be 50 years removed from this incident, but it’s not that far off from a current proposal today that features the possibility of bringing an international academy to Clinton, which would utilize the former Mount St. Clare/Ashford University campus.
The district utilized the former Mount St. Clare campus as one of the places students had classes in 1968. Busing will be a major issue with the upcoming international academy, and was a major concern during the 1968 fire. Transporting a student body with more than 1,000 students to Washington Middle School, Mount St. Clare and Clinton Community College took a steady diet of coordination and patience.
And just think, district personnel had less than two weeks to figure it all out.
In times of trouble, it’s common to see people find their way with enough will power. That was evident in 1968, and once the international academy reaches Clinton, that could be the case again. Clinton needs a jolt and filling the former Mount St. Clare/Ashford University campus would go a long way in not only creating a use for the former campus, but also to rebuild the local economy that experienced a downturn with the loss of students.
Much like 1968, it can’t be done by a single entity. In his address, Weber in 1968 told the students they would still get a “first class” education and that cooperation would be important in making the best of the situation.
And that situation was not easy, especially in the days following the fire. Student Richard Jablonski, who later admitted to setting the fire among others, was still not known to police. The school was instituting 24-hour surveillance due to the threat of another attack. The district also had to deal with students contemplating transferring out of the district, which happened in the days and weeks that followed the fire.
Oh, and there was the need to institute a plan for actually educating the students that would remain in place until 1970.
Area schools pitched in to help. Businesses aided the district. Community members were receptive to pretty much anything that had to do with helping the high school.
It wasn’t easy. And neither is the academy that is being planned in Clinton.
Similar to 1968, the district isn’t the only entity involved in the academy. Clinton Catalyst is leading the charge, with several community institutions lending a helping hand along the way.
How it will work is still unknown, but the partnerships developed have created a blueprint for bringing the academy to Clinton by at least 2019.
The story of the 1968 fire can teach us a lot. History seems to do a pretty good job at that.
What the Clinton High School fire of 1968 can show us is that vision and cooperation can go a long way in patching up whatever life brings us. Whether that’s an international academy to be housed at a former campus or a life event that catches us off-guard, the people affected by the CHS fire showed us that even major obstacles can be overcome with enough willpower.