The damage to the gym, built only 24 years earlier in 1914, as seen the morning after the hurricane passed over Meriden.

The damage to the gym, built only 24 years earlier in 1914, as seen the morning after the hurricane passed over Meriden.

Seventy-five years ago on Tuesday, September 13, 1938, Kimball Union registered 159 students and classes began the following day. By Thursday, September 22, while students and faculty were still getting to know each other, an incident occurred that brought them together in an unexpected way. That evening, as students and faculty sat down to formal dinner in the old Dexter Richards dining hall, now the KUA daycare center, enjoying the pristine view of French’s Ledges and Mt. Ascutney, they noticed that the wind that had been blowing all afternoon had become much more violent.

According to the 1939 yearbook, the Concordia, as people were leaving the building, they found the wind had now reached “unnatural proportions. The first damage occurred when the power ceased, cutting off lights, water, heat, and communication.” In those days, unlike today with our ability to access immediate news via satellite, KUA’s only communication with the outside world was through party line telephones – accessed by literally “cranking” (ringing) the handle on the telephone box for the operator –  daily newspapers, and electric radios located in only a few faculty homes.

Headmaster William Brewster decided to assemble all the students in one safe place and first considered the Charles Lewis Silver Memorial Gymnasium, but, wisely, as it turned out, chose the large chapel located on the first floor in Baxter Hall. As the storm raged on with no signs of abating, “he decided to get the boys safely to their dormitories before conditions became more dangerous. As it was, one person had to stand with a lantern beside a fallen telephone wire in front of Baxter Hall. At this time branches and slate were falling continually.”

Safely back in their dormitories, there was little for the boys to do, “but listen to the raging storm or go to bed. A few who happened to be looking at just the right moment, must have experienced an unusual sensation on seeing a large barn collapse and part of the gym roof torn off and sent crashing to the ground.”

The next morning, the sun shone brightly and all was calm; the hurricane had passed. Outside, the landscape told a different story. Telephone poles were down and many trees were uprooted or broken and laying across the roads and lawns. “The center of the gym floor was littered not only with a heap of bricks from the chimney and slate from the roof, but also with a number of large beams which had formed the rafters. The greater part of the roof was open to the sky.”

“Mr. Brewster, declaring a state of emergency, called off school and asked for the cooperation of the entire student body in the work of cleaning up The Hilltop.” The priority was the downed power lines and replacing the broken poles. Groups of 15 seniors took turns at this task from morning until night for three days, “… sometimes having to wade through swamps, and sometimes pushing through thick underbrush.” Back on The Hilltop, the other boys “… hauled brush, chopped up the fallen timber, and worked on the huge pile of brick and slate in the gym. Many of the boys did a great service in helping residents of Meriden restore their property.”The people of KUA, grateful that no one had been hurt, realized a few benefits from the storm as boys and faculty worked side by side making new friendships much earlier in the year than usual. “The three days of good, healthful exercise by which everyone profited cannot be considered a waste of time. A splendid spirit of cooperation and friendliness was promoted by the situation, making the hurricane endure in the minds of the students as a monument to the spirit of Kimball Union.”
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