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HLG continues to move forward 10 years after devastating fire

HANNIBAL, Mo. (BP)–A large archway of red brick and concrete, bearing the quote from Proverbs, “The Lord Giveth Wisdom,” stands tall on the front lawn of Hannibal-LaGrange College’s administration building.
For HLG President Woodrow Burt and many others, the archway, which at one time was the entrance to the former administration building, serves as both a symbol of hope for the future and a gateway to the past. “It’s a way of tying the past in with the future,” he said.
Ten years ago, on Thursday, June 22, 1989, a devastating fire ripped its way through the college’s complex of administration building, auditorium, gymnasium and cafeteria. On that hot summer day, the massive structure was gutted by intense flames and flooded with water poured in by area fire fighters. When the flames were finally contained the following morning, only a hollow, smoldering shell of what most people referred to as the heart of the campus remained.
The fire was discovered around 2:20 p.m. in the afternoon when maintenance workers spotted smoke coming from the cafeteria area. Summer school students, faculty and staff were evacuated from the building, and the Hannibal Fire Department was immediately dispatched to the scene. At first, the fire was believed to be minor and was expected to be quickly contained. Firefighters, however, soon realized the fire had been raging for some time in the crawl space between the cafeteria and gymnasium floor above. Before the day was over, at least 200 firefighters and volunteers from more than 25 neighboring towns in Missouri and Illinois were sent to help contain the blaze.
Firefighters scrambled in and out of the building for many hours trying to put out the blaze, but to no avail. The fire gradually burned its way from the back of the structure to the front, consuming the cafeteria, gymnasium, auditorium and the third floor of the administrative building. Those areas that weren’t touched by the fire were severely damaged by smoke and water.
When the smoke finally cleared, the damage was estimated between $6 million to $8 million. Fortunately no injuries were reported, and many records and important papers including student transcripts were secure in a safe. The cause of the fire was later believed to be faulty electrical wiring somewhere in the kitchen.
For several days following the fire, faculty and staff attempted to salvage what they could from the rubble. The administration worked quickly to form a strategy to keep summer classes running. Friday classes were canceled, but classes resumed the following Monday.
Burt said closing the college was never an option for the administration. He said a few months before the fire, a major expansion plan for the college had been approved and administrators were not about to give up. “There was never any thought it [the college] would not continue, but the early days were difficult,” he said. “We knew there were going to be new challenges, but we never considered closing.”
For the next three years, many adjustments to accommodate classes and students were made to keep HLG running. During that time, the entire campus was utilized for classroom and office space. Administrative offices were moved into a men’s dormitory, a few classes were held in trailers, and students were shuttled to area restaurants where they used their meal tickets. Athletic events were held in various facilities in the area, and major events were held at the Orpheum Theatre, which is still being leased by the college today.
With help and support from the community, alumni and its Baptist constituency, the college began a rapid period of growth unlike any other in its history.
That fall semester, HLG had a record enrollment of 1,021 students. Six months after the fire, HLG opened the Tech Center, which housed the cafeteria, classrooms, and computer labs.
In October 1991, the 46,835-square-foot Mabee Sports Center was opened, following a generous donation by the Mabee Foundation in Tulsa, Okla. The complex is the site for athletic events and houses classroom and office space.
A year later, the administration building was completed. During the dedication in 1992, Paul Brown, president of HLG at the time, expressed thanks and appreciation to God and all of those who never gave up on the college during a time of loss and hardship. “This new building will stand as a monument: a monument to the grace of God, who has a way of turning tragedy into triumph if we allow him to do so … and as a monument to the many friends with whom God has blessed this college through the years friends who have given of their time, energy, good will and financial resources to keep this institution moving forward.”
Since then the college has continued to move forward with the addition of many new academic programs, increased enrollment, the addition of athletic programs and the completion of a new women’s dormitory.
For Burt, the vision is far from over. Even though today there are no visible signs of damage or loss on the campus, Burt said there are still some areas of need. Drama and music productions are still being held at the old Orpheum Theatre, which is desperately in need of repairs, and more adequate class space for art and music students is needed.
In February 1998, a $7 million campaign for a new fine arts building began. Burt said through this campaign, he hopes to bring the arts back onto campus.
Reflecting on the Scripture verse from Isaiah 61:3 engraved on the front of the administration building: “… a crown of beauty instead of ashes.” Burt said, “God restored beauty where once we had only ashes. It’s a fitting theme for these last 10 years.”

Hendricks is a staff writer at Hannibal-LaGrange College.

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  • Shawn Hendricks