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The Telegram
  • Ilion school fire was 50 years ago Sunday

  • Ilion High School senior Tom Deyle was typing the final copy of his English paper the night of April 21, 1963.

    “It was the last day of our Easter break and the paper was due on Monday,” Deyle wrote in an email.

    It was a paper that wouldn't be turned in on time.

    That night, a half-century ago now, was the night of the fire at Ilion High School.

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  • Ilion High School senior Tom Deyle was typing the final copy of his English paper the night of April 21, 1963.
    “It was the last day of our Easter break and the paper was due on Monday,” Deyle wrote in an email.
    It was a paper that wouldn't be turned in on time.
    That night, a half-century ago now, was the night of the fire at Ilion High School.
    The fire log for that day shows a 9 a.m. test of the fire alarm followed later by an ambulance call. Then came the call listed in the log as Alarm No. 43. “Telephone alarm followed by 2-2 standby followed by Box 1-5: 10:55 p.m. Sunday to 12:50 p.m. Tuesday. Location Ilion High School.”
    The fire originated in an air shaft on the third floor and, fanned by brisk winds, spread to the roof. Some 25 classrooms were destroyed or damaged as was the school auditorium, girls' gymnasium, administrative offices, guidance office and the school's new $4,000 language laboratory.
    The biggest loss, though, had nothing to do with dollars and cents. Ilion Fireman Burton Seymour was killed and volunteer fireman Robert Day was seriously injured when they plunged some 32 feet from a second-floor roof down an airshaft to a courtyard below. The two had been running the first hose lines over the roof of a rear section of the building in an effort to attack the flames on the third floor and did not see the opening on the unlighted roof.
    News of the fire spread quickly throughout the community.
    “I heard the fire whistle and my dad, a volunteer fireman, went to the fire station,” Deyle recalled. “A few minutes later someone called to say the high school was on fire. I looked out my brother's bedroom window, as we lived on South Fourth Avenue, and could see flames in the sky from the general location of the high school.” He drove as close as he could to the school, but found many of the streets blocked. “When I got close to the school, I saw my dad and a couple of other firemen inside a classroom, spraying water on the fire. It was terrifying to see the school burning.”
    “I lived in North Ilion at the time and believe it or not we could hear all the commotion from there,” said Janet Darling. “We looked out our window and we had a clear view. We could see just what it was. There was an eerie feeling and a sad feeling because it was our big year.” She didn't go to the school until the following day. “My parents didn't want us going near there that night. There was a lot of sadness, a lot of memories burned up and we were wondering what we were going to do the rest of the year.”
    Page 2 of 3 - Jean Maneen was a sophomore at the time of the fire and she watched the blaze from the West Hill area.
    “It was sad,” she said. “I remember the teachers in disbelief and tears. All their materials and their mementos were destroyed. I especially remember the world history teacher, Barb Swartz, was just devastated.”
    Fran Retzloff, who was a senior at the time, heard the alarms and went out to see, but was unable to get near the fire.
    There were others who had a hard time getting to the scene as well. According to newspaper reports, Utica firefighters responded with their aerial ladder. They made the run from the Utica city line to Ilion in about 9 minutes. It took about 15 minutes, though, to find a back route to the fire because the main route to the school was blocked.
    Mohawk firefighters hooked up their old Ahrens-Fox pumper to a fire hydrant on Otsego Street. The water from the hose went shooting up over the building and firemen had to ask Mohawk to lower the pressure. The Salvation Army was on the scene handing out coffee and doughnuts while Panarites' Grocery stayed open to give the firemen hot coffee and refreshments. School cafeteria workers came the next day to feed the firemen.
    “Extensive fire and water damage to building. Cause believed arson,” the entry in the fire log stated. Firemen found a pile of charred paper and books in an otherwise undamaged classroom on the third floor.
    But while a number of people were questioned, no arrests were made.
    In the meantime, that night marked a major change for Ilion students.
    “During the next five days many of the students pitched in to help with the clean up and the relocation of books, chairs, desks etc. to the elementary wing, where we would finish out the school year,” Deyle recalled. “We worked side by side with teachers and community members to put our school back together again. It was a Herculean effort, but we succeeded. The elementary students were moved to a school in Frankfort. The cafeteria became the homeroom for the entire senior class.”
    “My husband, at the time my boyfriend, spent many hours helping the teachers and maintenance men clean up after the fire,” said Maneen. “The students really rallied for that.”
    The junior high and high school students took over the Weber Avenue Elementary School, but there wasn't enough space for all of them to attend classes at the same time. The sophomores, juniors and seniors went to school early in the morning with students in grades 7-9 started their school day later.
    “We went to school until the noon hour and then walked downtown,” said Maneen. “I remember taking a bus to Herkimer and getting a job.” As for the new schedule, she said, “It was an adjustment we knew we all had to do to get by.” Still, she remembers being glad she had the early session rather than the later one. “I wouldn't have wanted to go to school until 6,” she said.
    Page 3 of 3 - It wasn't only the students whose routines were interrupted. Fran Retzloff recalls, “My poor mother, she ran a little gift shop in Mohawk and because we had to go to school so early she let me use the car to pick up my classmates and she took the bus. After school, since I had the car, I had to go there after and sit in the shop and help her out.”
    She added, “When we got out at lunch we'd go different places for lunch.  The Black and White Restaurant up in the (Ilion) Gorge was our favorite, especially the hero sandwiches.”
    As for free afternoons for Darling says, “I was a country girl. I went home and did what I was supposed to do at home. I did the chores.”
    Deyle said the entire community pulled together to make the split sessions work. “I think it really created a very strong bond for all of us involved, something we will never forget. Whenever I get together with my classmates, the fire usually comes up. The saddest part was the death of Fireman Seymour. One of my good friends was initially accused of starting the fire, but he was innocent. However, it changed his life forever. The name of the real arsonist was never publicly revealed to my knowledge.”
    When it came time for graduation, the ceremony was held in the old Capitol Theater building.
    “The school did a good job,” Darling said. “It's like always. When there's a tragedy things just seem to work out.”
    Ilion students continued their schooling in temporary quarters for the next few years. It was May 1966 before a dedication was held at the new junior-senior high school.
    Deyle pointed out that the school first opened in 1913, so the 1963 class yearbook showed the changes during the first 50 years.
    Now the class is preparing for its 50th year reunion and Deyle is a co-chairman for the July 19-21 event. So far close to 50 members of the class have said they plan to attend.
    “When we return this summer, we will see what has changed in the next 50 years since the fire and since we graduated,” said Deyle. He said many members of the class have remained close through the years. “We jokingly said, 'We went out in a blaze of glory.'”
    Five years later after his high school graduation, Deyle became a school teacher in the Rush Henrietta Central School District in the Rochester area. He retired in 2003.
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