Old Gal In Flames

A personal account of the fire that burnt down the ΑΣΦ Beta Omicron Chapter's Fraternity House  at Tri-State College  located at 113 N Superior St Angola, Indiana

by Larry Wasielewski  #744

In the summer of 1966 the Old Gal was located on the north west corner of Superior St and Gilmore St.  It was a large three story house with a full size basement.  Lawns surrounded the house with a front porch toward Superior and a large stand alone garage on the Gilmore side.  The two story wood house with a large attic (called the third floor dorm) was painted white. Brothers parked their cars on the corner streets that framed the house.  The ΤΚΕ house was directly across the street.

As you walked in the front door from the covered porch, immediately on your right side was a set of pigeon hole mail boxes. Brother Nick Santino had rigged an alarm with a button inside one of those pigeon holes that went off in the basement party room.  A pledge  would be posted at the front door during parties to alert us downstairs that the Dean or other school or "civic" official was coming up the porch. When the "sentry pledge" would  push that button it would signal the party downstairs to slide a fake wall in front of the liquor cabinet behind the bar tender and flip over the bar top. On the other side was mounted pre-arranged pop (soda) cans.  What a great venue that basement was for all kind of events. The brothers who pledged in this house will remember it fondly.

On the left side of the entrance hall was the living room with a closet facing you on the west wall (that was The File Room) and a curtain draped sash window adjacent to The File Room facing back to Superior St.  Just past the pigeon hole mail boxes, on the right side was a stair well rising to a landing that turned 180 degrees for steps to continue to the second floor hall. That hall was lighted around the clock to aid the wayward Brother, returning from a trip to the Heidelberg or other oasis of fine beverage.  On the east side of the hall was a cork bulletin  board for messages that featured  a dead bat that had been recently caught with it wings spread wide.  The Brothers stayed in rooms off  the second floor hallway and in the 3rd floor dorm. At the end of the second floor hallway, past the stairs leading up to the dorm, there were exterior stairs, leading down to the first floor kitchen and a back door out to the backyard.

Alpha Sig at the time took great pride in having the best study file system on campus. The brothers considered it a duty and a gift to future brothers to update files with the latest tests and notes. Only Alpha Sigs were to have access to these files located in "The File Room".

THE NIGHT OF THE FIRE

It was about 2:00 or 3:00 AM and I had just turned in after a long night of tending bar with Jungle Jim Rivera, of Chicago White Sox fame,  at his Captain's Cabin. One of my seven part time jobs.  I slept in the large bedroom on the 2nd floor directly across from the top of the stairs and over the downstairs living room.   Because of the hot and humid Indiana summer nights, I slept in my birthday suit, with no covers and left the bedroom door open to allow for a little breeze from the open windows.  With the bedroom door open, the hallway safety light kept me from sleeping sound.  Shortly after I fell asleep, I started coughing and I was having difficulty breathing.  As I rolled over, and opened my eyes, I could see that the hallway was smoky and I soon realized it wasn't a dream.  I jumped up and ran into the hall and followed the smoke down the stairs.  As I reached the bottom of the stairs, to the main floor, I looked across the living room and saw flames coming from the little closet off the living room,,,The File Room !  As I made a quick move to the kitchen for some water, the flames jumped out of The File Room and caught the curtains on fire that hung on the front living room windows, facing Superior Street.  Everything accelerated in my mind.  I knew this thing was now beyond trying to extinguish it with buckets of water.  I realized there were brothers asleep in the 3rd floor dorm and they would have no idea what was going on two stories below them.

I turned and ran back up stairs, pulled on some shorts, ran down the 2nd floor hall  noticing the "spread wing bat" on the bulletin board. I opened the door to the 3rd floor dorm and yelled, "FIRE...FIRE...GET OUT OF THE HOUSE NOW...the downstairs is burning".  As the "dorm brothers” came running down the stairs, we all ran down the hall to the back stairwell and exited the house through the back kitchen area.  When I got to our back yard, I turned right on Gilmore and ran east down the street to the Fire House, about 3-5 blocks down from our house.  I smashed the glass and pulled the alarm and ran back to the House.   I can't remember how much time it took, but it seemed like a lifetime as we stood across the street, watching the Old Gal burn, knowing its fate was no longer in our hands.

As I stood there, with the brothers and the growing crowd of neighbors, waiting for the firemen to show up, someone yelled at me to move my car from in front of the House. My very cool classic '53 maroon and black two door Merc, with rear fender skirts over the large white-wall tires and a smooth running flat head V-8, was in the way of the fire trucks.

I ran across the street, jumped in the car, grabbed my keys from under the seat and moved it, caddy corner from the house, up against the curb.  A few minutes later, the fire trucks began showing up. As flames were shooting from the windows, the fire fighters set up, positioning themselves around the Old Gal for better access to the house with their hoses. Then someone, in the crowd told me to move my car off the front lawn of our neighbor.  I didn't know what they were talking about, because I parked the car alongside the curb catty corner from the House.   I turned around and noticed my car was indeed, up on the neighbor's lawn.

One of the fire trucks, in maneuvering itself around the Old Gal, had pushed it like a toy onto the neighbor's front lawn, demolishing my prized car.  That little mishap did provide enough insurance recovery funds to buy a yellow, 4-door Mercury, which has its own story.

Just as I lost my car, I noticed a draft coming from the back of my shorts.  Apparently, when I ran back up the stairs and grabbed my shorts in my haste, I pulled them on inside-out and backwards.  My zipper was exposing my bare butt as I was standing on the street corner with our neighbors watching the Old Gal burn.

The Fire Dept. extinguished the fire in about a hour, but not before the blaze took its toll and brought the Old Gal to her knees. The exterior of the house was still standing, the down stairs interior was substantially destroyed.  The upper floors were mostly intact structurally with little direct fire damage.  However, only a few items on the upper floors were salvageable , in that most things were destroyed due heat and smoke damage.

Some of the rooms still had dressers and closets filled with clothes that belonged to  brothers from many years before.  You could identify items for insurance purposes but once you picked them up, they would just fall apart from all the extreme heat damage.  I still have my portable Royal typewriter, in its charred hard-back case.

THE AFTERMATH

Brother Wayne Champion, in addition to being a professor in our Business School, served as our fraternity advisor.  He also owned an insurance agency in Angola and personally coached all the brothers who had fire damage claims.  That was a big help. He said to include every paper clip from your desk, etc. because by the time the insurance company applies the wear and tear and depreciation to your possessions, you'll be lucky to a get total reimbursement for your losses.  He was right.

The thing that I remember most is the way the town of Angola reached out to the five brothers in the house at the time. The Strock family owned a haberdashery in town along with the Lake James Country Club. They told us (the brothers who suffered losses) to just come in and purchase anything we wanted, on account.  Whenever we got an insurance check, we could pay them.  Other merchants in town extended similar graces.

In my case, working for Jungle Jim Rivera at the Captain's Cabin, he took me up to a special room he had, above the restaurant, on Crooked Lake.  He opened his closet and  threw open a large, hand carved leather travel trunk, from Mexico and said, "Take whatever you want. The trunk is yours, fill it with clothes." He began throwing pants, shirts, sweaters, belts etc. into the trunk.  The guy was a gem.

For me the fire was an experience of a lifetime.  The cause of the fire was Arson.

The perpetrator was a member of TKE, located across the street from our House.  He had apparently got a little too much into the sauce that evening and entered the house shortly after I had gone to sleep. It was said his goal that night was to just destroy our "  File Room" and not the entire house.  He was apparently disgruntled because one of our brothers refused to let him have a file he needed badly.  The fire got out of control, he ran out of the house and started the Beta Omicron Chapter on its long journey for a new house.

We never did see him on campus again or see anything in the papers. We just assumed the school and civil authorities took care of the matter. I don't recall much about the investigation interviews, other than talking to the fire chief and a police officer.  After all, it happened in the summer, with very few students in school and when life tends to be easy in the summer resort town of Angola, Indiana.

By the time the next quarter started, about two months later, we had secured a house to use. It was just one block north of the ashes of the old house on the north east corner of Superior St and Bond St.  ΑΣΦ Beta Omicron rose again.