Chapter 3: Old Main

Daily Egyptian photo
Old Main as it looked before being destroyed by fire in June of 1969.

“Piss on Old Main Old Main is burning.”

Message written on a third-floor blackboard of Old Main

Harry Hix heard the wail of the fire engines at his home off U.S. 51 not far from the campus of Southern Illinois University. It was Sunday morning, June 8, 1969, and as Hix and his family got ready for church, he thought to himself, “Tough time to have a fire.”[1]

It was a typical early summer morning in Carbondale. Already sagging under the weight of heat and intense humidity, the day promised to be uncomfortable enough without the added stress of a major conflagration.[2]

Hix learned more when he arrived at church, but it was difficult for him to believe what he was told: Old Main, the university’s oldest building and its symbolic heart, was burning to the ground.

“I thought they were just joshing me,” said Hix, a professional journalist who had moved to Carbondale from Portales, New Mexico, to pursue a graduate degree and had stayed on to become faculty managing editor of the Daily Egyptian, the campus newspaper at SIU. “Then, I thought I’d better go check. I’ve forgotten who it was, but one of our people was already there taking pictures.”[3]

John Lopinot, a journalism major from Litchfield, Illinois, lived in Schneider Hall just off the main campus; he grabbed his camera when he heard about the blaze. So did Nathan Jones, of Virden, Illinois, who had an on-campus residence at Thompson Point. Jim Hodl, a student writer from Chicago, followed the smoke and the sound of fire engines from his apartment at Stevenson Hall.[4]  More staffers would join them.

It was the Sunday before finals week. The Daily Egyptian had ended regular publication for spring quarter, and the next edition wasn’t scheduled to appear until June 13.[5] That didn’t prevent the student journalists who staffed the Daily Egyptian from converging on what would be one of the biggest news stories — and one of the biggest mysteries – in the university’s history. 

It still is not clear who — or what ­­– destroyed Old Main, although most theories favor a who over a what, and the fire often is linked to the social protest that was part of the university culture of the period. 

The previous spring, an explosive device had denotated in the Agriculture Building on campus. The month before the fire, a dinner celebrating Delyte Morris’ 20th anniversary as SIU’s president was disrupted by about 100 protesters, some of whom shouted “Sieg Heil!” and shot diners clenched-fist salutes before being ushered out of the SIU Arena.[6] And just days before the blaze, student demonstrators ended a weeklong vigil on the lawn of Morris’ on-campus residence, demanding an end to curfew hours in the women’s residency halls.[7]

Yet, the notion that dissident students might be responsible for the Old Main fire was beyond comprehension.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted Carbondale city manager C. William Norman: “I can’t believe any student would feel that strongly over any of the things that have caused demonstrations. This was the work of a demented mind.”[8]

Local authorities called the Old Main fire arson, but as was the case with the Ag Building bombing, no one was charged; no suspects were publicly identified; and no individual or group claimed responsibility. Evidence that might have provided an answer was destroyed in the blaze, leaving only the handwritten statements of witnesses to offer clues and to provoke even more speculation about possible motives.

Photo by Nathan Jones | Daily Egyptian
Flames burst through the tower of Old Main
on June 8, 1969.

If it was “the day the ‘revolution’ officially came to Carbondale,” as H.B. Koplowitz would say in his book, Carbondale After Dark, it was an ambiguous – if audacious – beginning.[9]

By the time the Daily Egyptian staffers arrived, thick, black dreadlocks of smoke had curled up through the roof and were draped around Old Main’s most distinctive feature, a clock tower directly above the building’s east entrance that rose 76 feet above the decorative stone trim at the roofline.[10]

Students flocked to the fire from the surrounding dormitories and downtown rental properties. A line of volunteers streamed like ants up the graceful exterior stairways to the entrances at each end of the building, where SIU police allowed them to enter in groups of 30 at a time – something that would be unthinkable today. Volunteers went first to the third floor, where university officials supervised the removal of file cabinets, classroom desks, instructional materials – anything that could be denied to the flames that raced through the attic above them. Students also rescued historical artifacts from the university museum on the first floor.[11]

Items were hauled outside, passed hand-to-hand in human chains or dropped from windows to students on the ground who caught them in T-shirts stretched taut like nets. The materials were piled haphazardly on the lawn, which soon resembled a garage sale mishmash of books, papers, office furniture and the occasional oddity, such as a single woman’s high-heel shoe set upright in the center of a small table, as if on display.[12]

There wasn’t time to save everything. The value of instructional materials, furniture and classroom equipment lost in the fire was estimated at $72,000 (nearly $4,746,000 in today’s dollars).[13] The figure included the inventory of an attic rifle range used by the campus Air Force ROTC program, including 19 .22-caliber rifles, six rifle scopes and 1,260 rounds of .22-caliber ammunition.[14] University officials put the value of the building itself in excess of $5 million (more than $34 million at today’s value.)[15]

The roof and clock tower were beyond the reach of equipment available to the Carbondale Fire Department. As firefighters tried stop the blaze from inside the building, spectators watched flames eat through the roof and consume the tower, which collapsed in a shower of sandstone, pressed red brick and multicolored glass. The falling debris barely missed the circa 1887 fountain at the east entrance. There, two sculptured cherubs huddled beneath an umbrella, as if seeking shelter from the rain of burning timbers and scalding hot stonework.[16]

The tower fell about 90 minutes after the fire was discovered. The roof and burning tresses fell into the third floor of Old Main fifteen minutes later, bringing the flames to a level where hoses from the Carbondale fire trucks could reach them. It took another two hours before the blaze was under control. Firefighters continued to douse the embers until after midnight, pouring an estimated million gallons of water into the brick shell of Old Main. When it was over, the third floor had been gutted, and much of the second floor was gone.[17]

 “It was the first real fire I had ever photographed,” said Lopinot, who went on to a career as a photojournalist with the Palm Beach Post newspaper. “I remember it was intense, lots of smoke and flames. It was an old building, so it went up pretty quickly.”[18]

Nathan Jones was credited with the dramatic photograph of the burning tower that appeared on Page 1 of a special edition of the Daily Egyptian, which was published that Sunday afternoon.

“I remember trying to find different angles, positioning myself between the fire and the buildings around it,” he said. “I was always in front of the crowd.”[19]

 Jim Hodl, a journalism major from Chicago, had been in Old Main just the previous day. He had taken a class in the building that semester, a course on Shakespeare.

“It was an interesting old building,” he said. “The stairs were a lot taller than a lot of stairs you have in other buildings. It had high ceilings, and in the corners, there was molding, nice intricate work.”[20]

Old Main was the second building erected on the site. It was dedicated in 1887 as a replacement for the first permanent structure on the campus of Southern Illinois Normal University, as SIU originally was named. The first building, which opened in 1874, also had been destroyed by fire. Old Main had three floors, which housed offices, the museum and more than 43,000 square feet of classroom space.[21]

Daily Egyptian photo
The fountain that stood in front of Old Main survived the fire and still is part of the SIU campus.

The building was the focal point of what was called the “Old Campus,” which included Altgeld Hall, Shryock Auditorium, Anthony Hall, Parkinson Laboratory and Davies Gymnasium. It had taken shape during the tenure of Henry Shryock, the university’s fifth president, who favored a campus layout modeled on Yale’s quadrangles. His successors, particularly Delyte Morris, who was president at the time of the blaze, were guided more by the natural topography of the campus in planning new buildings.[22]

Old Main had been constructed on the high sandstone foundation of the first building, and 200,000 bricks salvaged from the earlier fire also were re-used. Sharply pointed, Gothic-style entrances and first-floor window treatments followed the original design; the upper floors featured semicircular arches of rock-faced sandstone, reflecting the popular Romanesque architectural style of the period. In a sense then, Old Main represented in stone the evolution of the university from its earliest days, giving it arguably had more symbolic than functional value at the time it was destroyed.[23]

“The building was over seventy-five years old, had a wooden frame and somewhat suspect electrical wiring,” wrote Robert A. Harper in The University That Shouldn’t Have Happened, But Did.  “It was an insurance risk, and except for its historic significance and shortage of classroom space on campus, might have already been torn down.”[24]

Nathan Jones recalled little sentimental attachment to Old Main among students.

“I don’t remember anything that had that connection to Old Main,” he said. “The auditorium next door – because we had a lot of theater in there – would have had a lot more history.”[25]

Cathy Speegle, a 1971 journalism graduate from Anchorage, Alaska, had a distinct olfactory memory of Old Main: “It smelled,” she said.[26]

But Rich Davis, who worked at the Daily Egyptian all four years he was at SIU, did feel a sense of loss as he stood among the spectators and watched Old Main burn.

“It wasn’t much of a building; it was very old, but it was a landmark,” said Davis, a native of West Frankfort, Illinois. “So, it was very sad to me to see something from the early history of the school go up in flames.”[27]

What Speegle and others remember most about Old Main are the theories about its destruction: “It started with the theory that a frat hazing, which they called a ‘challenge,’ got out of hand to no, it was left-wing people from Chicago; Marxists came in to burn it down because ROTC was connected with it.”[28]

SIU police became aware that something was amiss on the Old Campus around 7:45 a.m. that Sunday. A student who had been working on a project in the Communications Building drove to the security office to report that fire alarms in the building had been sounding throughout the night.[29]

Officers Joe Cagle and Robert Hopkins went to their patrol car, intending to check the Communications Building, but before they could pull away, the student returned to say that now there was a “real fire” in Wheeler Hall. Cagle told the Security Office dispatcher to alert fire units, and he and Hopkins drove to the Old Campus.[30]

About that time, SIU custodian Bob Brewner noticed smoke coming from the southwest corner of the attic of Old Main. He entered the building through the west door, pulled a fire alarm and went to the third floor, where he discovered a fire. The building already was filling with smoke as Brewner ran to Altgeld Hall and telephoned the Carbondale Fire Department.[31]

Cagle and Hopkins also saw the smoke as they pulled up to Old Main at 7:55 a.m. Hopkins stayed in the car to update the radio operator, while Cagle went through the east entrance and up the stairs to the second floor.[32]

“The fire at this time was confined to the area of the rifle range,” Cagle said in a statement given later that day to SIU police. “The fire had already burnt through the third-floor ceiling, exposing the entrance to the rifle range. The attic was completely engulfed in flames at this time. Debris was beginning to fall down onto the second-floor steps.”[33]

Cagle grabbed an emergency fire hose on the second floor and went halfway up the stairway to the third floor, where he began putting water on the flames and the second-floor ceiling. When Hopkins caught up to him, he and Cagle continued to battle the fire until the Carbondale Fire Department had its hoses in operation.[34]

The first firefighters entered Old Main at 8 a.m. They soon discovered that fire blocked access to the attic from the third floor. While searching for a way to get at the blaze, they spotted things that suggested arson.

Elmer Rodgers, a fire department captain, noticed a wastebasket whose contents were burned in a room in the southeast corner of the building that the attic fire had not yet reached. Papers on a desk also had burned, but the small blaze had burned itself out before Rodgers found it.[35]

Fireman Glenn W. Wright was at the opposite end of the building. In a janitor’s closet near the north stairway, he discovered a two-gallon galvanized bucket in which it appeared that a fire had been started with paper and plywood. A wall of the closet above the bucket had been singed, but because the door was shut, there had not been enough oxygen to sustain a fire.[36]

Wright also came across something else that morning that was considered a clue. He found these words written on a blackboard in a classroom in the northwest corner of the building: “Piss on Old Main Old Main is burning.”[37]

Robert Kragness was one of the first students on the scene. He had spied the smoke around 8 a.m. as he was leaving Spudnuts, a doughnut shop in the University Shopping Center at the edge of campus. Kragness was among the students who volunteered to move files and equipment, which is how he ended up on the third floor at the north end of the burning building.[38]

“Some of the firemen came up and asked if there was another way up to the fourth floor (attic),” he said in a statement to investigators. “I told them there was another stair, but it was sealed off with a door with no knob.

“One of the firemen went to get an ax, and another looked in a janitor’s closet for something to use. I noticed some burnt wood in the floor of the janitor’s closet and looked closer. There seemed to have been a fire in a storage shelf in the same closet. It had burnt the closet walls and seared the waste papers in the corner. Also, it had started to burn a mop head nearby. I felt of the burns, and they were not hot. But they seemed to be fairly warm and recent.”[39]

Kragness showed the burns to another student, who left to get a policeman. Sgt. Marvin Braswell of the SIU police force had arrived at Old Main around 8:55 a.m. He was assigned to check out the closet and to gather evidence.[40]

Braswell started to collect some ashes and the unburned portions of the mop, but he was told to leave the evidence for investigators from the state Fire Marshal’s Office. He asked if the fire could be contained and kept from the area. Informed that containment was possible, he left the closet as he had found it.[41]

Some photographs were taken of the closet,[42] but no further investigation was conducted. Flames and smoke forced evacuation of the building shortly after 9 a.m. — about the time the clock tower crashed to the ground.

However, firefighters had seen enough to concoct a theory about the Old Main blaze, which they made public the same day: Based on their observations on the third floor, firefighters said it appeared as if the primary fire had started in the attic and that secondary fires had been set on the third floor to block access to it.[43]

Harry Hix went from the fire to the Daily Egyptian offices at the south edge of Thompson Woods, where he found DE staffers working on the story as if it were a regular publication day. Hix got in touch with Howard Long, the Journalism Department chairman and fiscal officer for the campus newspaper.[44]

Photo by John J. Lopinot | Daily Egyptian
Rubble from Old Main fire

“This is when the idea of doing something special came up,” said Hix. “We had volunteers come in, several of the students, knowing something had happened. We kind of got the word out and got a group together.  The pressmen agreed to come in, and we put that sucker together.”[45]

Lopinot was among those drawn to the newspaper.

“I guess it was just instinctual to get over to the paper, even though it was closed on a weekend, and start developing pictures,” he said.[46]

A four-page afternoon edition – a rarity for the Daily Egyptian­, which then, as now, published for a morning print audience – included an assortment of fire photos, a description of attempts to save the building and reaction from university and community officials. But perhaps the most important news for students was a long list of alternate final exam sites for the classes that met in Old Main, such as Jim Hodl’s Shakespeare class.[47]

“I still had a final exam,” Hodl recalled. “They posted that they would hold it in Shryock Auditorium instead. They really didn’t have anything akin to a desk for you to sit at. You were sitting in theater seats.”[48]

Training and instinct brought DE staffers together to cover a story of obvious importance to their readers, but the Old Main fire got Hix thinking about the next emergency.

“That really was another one of those things that you’d look back and say, ‘Hey, we could do better if we were organized and ready to go,’” said Hix.[49]

A coverage plan for big, breaking news — the sort of unplanned calamity that requires a swift marshalling of resources — was something that Hix and other newsroom leaders would kick around in the months to come.  And by the following May, when the rubble of Old Main became ammunition for rioters in the days after the shooting of Vietnam War protestors at Kent State University, Hix and the Daily Egyptian would be ready.

NEXT: Toward the brink

Endnotes: Chapter 3

[1] Harry Hix, interview by author, by telephone, Carbondale, Illinois, 20 September 2002.

[2] Weather conditions at the time of the Old Main fire derived from the Southern Illinoisan, edition of 9 June 1969; the Daily Egyptian, special edition of 8 June 1969; the St. Louis Post Dispatch, 9 June 1969; and from examination of fire photographs in the Daily Egyptian archives.

[3] Hix, interview.

[4] John Lopinot, interview by author, by telephone, Carbondale, Illinois, 18 September 2002. Nathan Jones, interview by author, by telephone, Carbondale, Illinois, 27 September 2002. Jim Hodl, interview by author, by telephone, Carbondale, Illinois, 9 February 2003.

[5] SIU observed a quarterly academic calendar in 1969.

[6] A bomb exploded in the School of Agriculture Building at 3:55 a.m. May 7, 1968. A deputy state fire marshal concluded the blast was caused by a timing device. Information from “Chronology of Student Disorders, n.a., memo to James Brown and Morris Carr, 2 December 1968, President’s Office Collection, Box 569, Special Collections and Archives, Morris Library; and university news release, n.a., n.d., President’s Office Collection, Box 450, Student Dissent Folder, Special Collections and Archives, Morris Library. Morris tribute information from “Counter-celebration fizzles,” Southern Illinoisan, 6 May 1969.

[7] H.B. Koplowitz, Carbondale After Dark (Carbondale: DOME Publications), 18.

[8] “$5,000,000 Fire at SIU Attributed to Arsonists,” n.a., St. Louis Post Dispatch, 9 June 1969.

[9] Koplowitz, 54.

[10] Architectural details from Susan B. Maycock, An Architectural History of Carbondale, Illinois (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), 70. Old Main fire description from DE archive photographs credited to Nathan Jones and John Lopinot.

[11] “Fire Destroys SIU’s Old Main, Arson Evidence in Three Places,” Southern Illinoisan, Extra, 9 June 1969; “Old Main Burns; Arson is Suspected,” Daily Egyptian, Special Edition, 8 June 1969.

[12] Ibid, plus examination of Daily Eygptian photos.

[13] Consumer Price Index inflation calculator, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, accessed via internet on 27 April 2019 at

[14] Inventory list, n.a., 27 January 1970, and C.W. Thomas Jr., memo to SIU Security Office, 10 June 1969, President’s Office Collection, Box 562, Old Main folder, Special Collections and Archives, Morris Library.

[15] Estimate of building value from St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 9 June 1969; Southern Illinoisan, 9 June 1969; and Chicago Tribune, 9 June 1969. Today’s value estimated from Consumer Prince Index Calculator, op cit.

[16]Southern Illinoisan, Extra, 9 June 1969; Daily Egyptian, Special Edition, plus Maycock, Architectural History, 71.

[17] Southern Illinoisan, Extra.

[18] Lopinot, interview. 9

[19] Jones, interview.

[20] Hodl, interview.

[21] Betty Mitchell, Southern Illinois University, A Pictorial History (St. Louis, Missouri: G. Bradley Publishing, Inc., 1993), 10-12. Classroom square footage from Rino Bianchi, memo to Dr. James Brown, Clifford Buyer, Robert Galleghy, Williard Hart, Dean Isbell, John Lonegran, Gene Peebles and Charles Pulley, 27 January 1970, President’s Office Collection, Box 562, Old Main folder, Morris Library.

[22] George Kimball Plochmann, The Ordeal of Southern Illinois (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 1957), 9.

[23] Maycock, 67-68.

[24] Robert A. Harper, The University That Shouldn’t Have Happened, But Did (Carbondale: Devil’s Kitchen Press, 1998), 259.

[25] Jones, interview.

[26] Cathy Speegle, interview by author, by telephone, Carbondale, Illinois, September 2002.

[27] Rich Davis, interview by author, in person, Evansville, Indiana, 21 July 2002.

[28] Speegle, interview.

[29] Joe Cagle, handwritten statement, 8 June 1969, President’s Office Collection, Box 562, Old Main folder, Morris Library.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Bob Brewner, handwritten statement, 8 June 1969, President’s Office Collection, Box 562, Old Main folder, Morris Library.

[32] Cagle, handwritten statement, and Robert Hopkins, handwritten statement, 8 June 1969, President’s Office Collection, Box 562, Old Main folder, Morris Library.

[33] Cagle, handwritten statement.

[34] Cagle and Hopkins, handwritten statements.

[35] Elmer Rodgers, handwritten statement, 8 June 1969, President’s Office Collection, Box 562, Old Main folder, Morris Library.

[36] Glenn Wright, handwritten statement, 8 June 1969, President’s Office Collection, Box 562, Old Main folder, Morris Library.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Robert D. Kragness, handwritten statement, 8 June 1969, President’s Office Collection, Box 562, Old Main folder, Morris Library.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Marvin Braswell, handwritten statement, 8 June 1969, President’s Office Collection, Box 562, Old Main folder, Morris Library.

[41] Ibid.

[42] For discussion of photographs, see Kragness, handwritten statement, and James Cade, handwritten statement, 8 June 1969, President’s Office Collection, Box 562, Old Main folder, Morris Library.

[43] “Message scrawled on board,” n.a., Southern Illinoisan, Extra, 9 June 1969; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 9 June 1969; “Fire Destroys Old Main on S.I.U. Campus,” n.a., Chicago Tribune, 9 June 1969.

[44] Journalism did not become a School at SIU until March 1970. It was a department within the College of Communications and Fine Arts prior to that time. For a history of the department, see Earl E. Parkhill, “The History of the Department of Journalism, Southern Illinois University,” (master’s thesis, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 1971).

[45] Hix, interview.

[46] Lopinot, interview.

[47] Daily Egyptian, Special Edition, 8 June 1969.

[48] Hodl, interview.

[49] Hix, interview.