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EXCHANGE: Remembering school fire that devastated a village

Posted 8:56 a.m. Thursday
Updated 8:58 a.m. Thursday

— It was just after midnight Monday, March 8, 1954, when the Kingston Grade School burned to the ground.

The last surviving teacher who remembers that fire, Alice Paulson, spoke about it Nov. 7 at the Oak Crest DeKalb Area Retirement Center, with five former students, all in their 70s, present. She told about the phone call early that morning from Genoa-Kingston schools Superintendent Clarence Louderback, explaining there would be no school that day.

However, all the teachers and other staff went to the scene, where they found their school destroyed, along with all the books, desks, lesson plans, grading books, school records and every piece of equipment used by the 150 students, six teachers and Principal Carl Tucker.

The cause of the blaze was never determined, but fire officials said it started at the front of the school and was suspicious in nature. Kingston had about 300 residents in 1954, and they pulled together to find places to continue the school year.

Paulson said the classes were scattered around the community. Two grades moved into the second floor of the Masonic Hall, three more into the basement and first floor of the Kingston Methodist Church and four other grades into the White Oak Grange Hall basement and first floor.

Her pupils were fourth-graders and half of the fifth grade. They were crowded so closely in the church room that when one student had to go to the bathroom or anywhere else, every student in that row had to get up so one could pass by. The "bathroom" was a chemical toilet in the corner of the room with walls that didn't reach the ceiling. The strong odor of chemicals sometimes forced her to take her class outside.

In good weather they went across Route 72, over a double set of railroad tracks, the Kishwaukee River bridge and into Kingston Park, where they put picnic tables together so they could all hear their teachers.

There was little money in the school district budget, so no new blackboards, library books or even workbooks were acquired for the rest of that year. Paulson recalled duplicating workbooks and other materials provided by DeKalb County Superintendent of Schools Marjorie B. Leinauer and making do with donated pencils, crayons and paper.

Her husband, Ed, was co-owner of Genoa Offset, and his printing business provided rolls of paper for art projects. There was no longer a cafeteria, so children who lived in town were encouraged to go home for lunch and the farm kids brought lunches.

It took only 11 months from the time of the fire to rebuild the grade school on the same land near where the old building once stood.

Paulson emphasized that despite the hardships and difficulty of teaching that spring, the pupils' standardized test scores never dropped. She added that the experience made them all pull together, and that the children became stronger, more resilient and supportive of each other. There were no school counselors in those days, and few fire regulations and occupancy limits, something she said would never be tolerated today. The six former students gathered around her to share experiences and reminisce after the talk.

By the way, Paulson wrote a book about the fire in 2005 titled "Fire! Kingston School Destroyed." It is full of class photos, news clippings and documents related to the school, its rebuilding, and reminiscences from several of the students. It is a good read.

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Source: The (DeKalb) Daily Chronicle, http://bit.ly/2fJfWXc

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