Answer Man

Henry Raab School fire triggers fond memories

Residents check out the damage to Henry Raab School after the fire in 1960.
Residents check out the damage to Henry Raab School after the fire in 1960.

Q. My brother is on the committee for his 50-year reunion at Belleville Township High School, and he is trying to locate the history and pictures of the city’s feeder schools, including the original Henry Raab. He has some early pictures of the school that he found online, but he is seeking pictures of the school from the 1940s to the late 1950s, because he thinks the school was rebuilt after the late ’30s due to some disaster or fire until a second fire destroyed it again in the late ’50s.

— Kevin Borutta, of Belleville

A. Thanks for the question, because it conjured up some happy childhood memories I hadn’t thought about it in years.

Yes, after that terrible fire in 1960, I was one of those little kids who had to be bused around Belleville for nearly 2 1/2 years while a new school was built.

In the winter, I remember huddling in a small house on the southeast corner of the property to stay warm as we waited for our ride. Then, as we made our way to Union (third grade) and Washington (fourth grade), I’d break out a bag of potato chips or piece of cake for a preschool snack. On the way home, we’d find our songbooks for a lusty round of such favorites as “Blow, Ye Winds” or “My Grandfather’s Clock.” There was no admonition to quiet down, because the teacher and driver usually would join right in for the 10-minute ride.

But enough of this idle reminiscing. As it turns out, if you have pictures of the school anytime before the fire, they’re the only ones you need, because it was the original school that was destroyed in 1960. As far as it suffering an earlier calamity, I’m betting your brother may be thinking of the tornado that tore through Union School at about 5 p.m. on March 15, 1938. So, if you haven’t seen them, go to the marvelous photos section at www.bellevillehistoricalsociety.org, which has two color pictures — one of the 10 city grade schools and the other a circa 1920 shot of the original Henry Raab School — complete with nearby horse and carriage. Click “Photos” on the home page, then click on “Old Belleville Post Cards” and scroll down until you find the pair.

As for its history, the local school chiefs decided on Feb. 28, 1906, to erect a new grade school on South Silver Street (now South 11th). Built for a little over $26,000, the school was named for prominent local educator Henry Raab, who once famously said, “No instruction is of any avail when it leaves the child indifferent.” Born in Westzler, Germany, in 1827, Raab moved to Belleville in 1854 and later served as the first full-time superintendent of the Belleville School District. From 1882 to 1886 he served as the school superintendent for all of Illinois. In 1899, he would organize the Belleville Turners social group, which, by 1925, had the second largest membership in the American Turners’ federation. He died in 1901.

So when the school was dedicated on Nov. 28, 1906, ceremonies had to be extra special — and they were. The event was led by Dr. Ernst F. Raab, president of the board of education and Henry’s son. You can bet that he beamed with pride as his 8-year-old daughter, Agnes — Henry’s granddaughter — whacked a bottle of champagne on the school’s bricks.

The school opened the following summer with an enrollment of nearly 300 and would educate hundreds more over its 53-year history. I still remember climbing the stairs to the large open area on the second floor, where we would make ourselves comfortable on the floor to watch the latest Encyclopedia Britannica movies. And, this is fascinating: Do you know what Henry Raab eighth-graders debated on Feb. 27, 1914, as part of a school assembly? “Should President (Woodrow) Wilson sign the immigration bill?” — the Burnett Bill, which was designed to restrict immigration by imposing a literacy test. (Wilson ultimately vetoed it in early 1915.)

But this quiet routine was shattered just before 5:30 a.m. on March 24, 1960, when a strange noise woke Marjorie Ruser in her home across the street.

“I heard a cracking sound,” she told us in 1998 as the new school prepared to celebrate its 35th anniversary. “And when I sat up, I could see through the blind the red. It was a good flame. It was leaping out of the windows over the boiler room.”

Her husband, Kenneth, immediately called the fire department.

“I looked up and I could see the red glow in the sky,” recalled Assistant Fire Chief Fred Bruss, who lived near South 18th at the time and had two children who attended the school. “I thought it was going to burn down to the ground. I thought it was gone.

One ladder truck, three pumpers and 28 city firefighters battled the early-morning blaze, which was thought to have been caused by an electrical malfunction. Despite their best effort, it was a total, $100,000 loss.

At first, the district seriously considered not rebuilding, because of the expense. Instead, it proposed additions to Union and Roosevelt schools to handle the displaced students.

Area residents became outraged. Many had moved into the neighborhood for the very convenience of a nearby school, so about 125 of them formed the Citzens Committee for the Henry Raab School and went door to door collecting 10,000 signatures on a petition drive calling for the construction of a new school on the same 1.8-acre site.

“I can remember as a kid going with my parents collecting signatures,” said now-Mayor Mark Eckert, who grew up in a home at South 14th and Raab Avenue and was president of the Henry Raab PTA in 1998.

Finally, in late October 1960, the district relented, agreeing to build a new $526,000 school. By a 13-1 margin, Belleville voters approved the sale of $286,000 in bonds to help fund its construction.

The school that you see now opened in August 1962. I could sleep a few minutes later for fifth and sixth grade, because I could walk the four blocks to school without worrying about missing a crosstown bus ride. And, in December, I played Christmas carols on my sax as 500 people attended its dedication.

Today’s trivia

How much was suffragette Susan B. Anthony fined for voting in the 1872 presidential election, a half-century before the ratification of the 19th Amendment that gave women the legal right to vote?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: During pitcher (and weak hitter) Gaylord Perry’s second year in the majors, his manager, San Francisco’s Alvin Dark, reportedly quipped something like, “They’ll put a man on the moon before (Perry) ever hits a home run.” Sure enough, less than an hour after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed Apollo 11 on the moon on July 20, 1969, Perry hit his first moon shot in the Giants’ 7-3 win over Los Angeles. In his 22-year career, Perry hit just six home runs. (For the record, Snopes.com rates this story as a legend, not necessarily fact. The timing of the home run is true, but Dark’s quote apparently has never been verified.)

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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