VALPARAISO — Richard Baepler had been a professor at Valparaiso University for just two years when he arrived on campus one November morning in 1956 and noticed something different.
"I was living at the University of Chicago and commuting to Valparaiso every day," recalled Baepler. "It was the day after, and smoke was still in the air."
While Baepler was gone overnight, the university's chapel/auditorium had burned to the ground.
"That's where all the university's records were kept, in vaults and protected. Several university professors had offices in the building. People had a sentimental attachment to the building. It had hosted speakers and graduations," he said.
While firefighters fought the blaze that claimed the 63-year-old building, there were fears that the adjacent library would burn, according to information from the Valparaiso University Archives and Special Collections. Students formed a "book brigade" and removed many of the library books, hand to hand, to the safety of another building.
Connie Bretscher said her heart sunk that day when she looked at the ruins of the chapel, where, as a 1942 graduate, she had given a piano recital, learned of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and participated in her graduation ceremony.
Both Baepler and Bretscher said that fire marked the end of the "old campus" being the center of the university's activities. And it wasn't the first — or the last — fire on the campus during its 158-year history. Founded in 1859 as the Male and Female College, the university has weathered more than a dozen fires that have changed the face of the campus.
"After (the 1956 fire), the new chapel was the center of the university," said Bretscher, now 96. She earned her bachelor's in 1942 and came back to earn her master's degree in 1970. She continues to audit classes at the university.
Three years later, the Chapel of the Resurrection was opened, not only giving students a new place to worship and meet, but also giving the Valparaiso University campus a new identity.
"I had two small boys at the time. We walked over almost every day and watched the progress," she said. "We watched that chapel go up. It got struck by lightning a few times."
Fires help shape VU's campus
Baepler, who taught in the law school, became the first dean of Christ College (VU's Honors College) and retired as vice president of academic affairs, also is an historian of Valparaiso University. He authored a book published in 2001, "Flame of Faith, Lake of Learning: A History of Valparaiso University," which chronicles the college's rich history.
The fires at VU helped shape the university's future much like the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 or the fires following the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 helped shape those cities. In some ways, he said, they helped accelerate the development of what is referred to as the "new campus," centered around the Chapel of the Resurrection, moving from the "old campus," the original seven or eight buildings originally constructed and now the site of the current law school.
The university faced fires early on. In 1879, when the school was known as the Northern Indiana Normal School and Business Institute, fire struck Heritage Hall, known as Flint Hall at the time. Built in 1875, the fire destroyed the third floor. It was later remodeled into the university's school of music. Today the building is part of the law school and houses the Valparaiso University Law Clinic.
A bird in the belfry
The most unusual fire may have struck in 1912. According to an article in the now defunct Chicago Inter Ocean. According to the article, a smoldering cigarette was picked up by a sparrow and carried to the belfry of the main hall on the campus, nearly resulting in its destruction. While the building — the Old College Hall — was saved that day, it met its final fate in 1923 when it burned to the ground on Feb. 15.
According to the VU archives, the building, erected in 1860, housed administrative offices and the library. The center of the university at the time, the building had been used for offices, classrooms, a library and meetings.
Fire among student protests
Baepler and Bretscher also were present for another of the university's more well-known fires.
In May 1970, just days after four students were shot and killed during protests on the Kent State University campus in Ohio, the Kinsey building, which served as the administrative building, was significantly damaged by a fire.
According to Vidette-Messenger articles during the week of May 6, 1970, VU students were on strike and rallied in protest over the invasion of Cambodia. The night of May 6, students marched from the VU Union to Kinsey Hall, lingering at the building until 2:30 a.m. Around 4:20 a.m. May 7, a fire was discovered at the hall.
"I was there trying to calm down the protesters," Baepler said, recalling the incident.
"I remember I went to Kinsey every morning to play the piano," Bretscher said.
The fire was ruled an arson, Baepler said. Eventually officials learned a couple of students who were under the influence of drugs, had set the fire, never intending it to get out of control, he said. While they were never prosecuted, they were expelled from the university.