Tragedy often can take the heart of a person or group of people and render them helpless for the road ahead. It can make one feel as if the world at large is beyond our reach and what is the purpose of caring if you have no control over your future? However, tragedy also gives birth to heroes. It can bring groups of people closer together in effort to survive against the odds and for the common good. Such was the situation as President David Ross Boyd left his office for home on January 6, 1903.
David W. Levy described the situation in The University of Oklahoma, A History: Volume I, 1890-1917.
We do not know precisely how David Ross Boyd spent the afternoon and evening on Tuesday, January 6, 1903. The University’s official Christmas vacation had ended the day before, the students had returned, and school had started smoothly again…We cannot know what he was thinking that evening. It is unlikely that he indulged himself in a meditation on what he had accomplished during these last ten years. But it would be pleasant to hope that sometime during that fateful evening he thought a little about the growth and development of the University that he, more than any other person, had guided and supervised: the expansion of the student body, faculty, and programs; the grappling with finances and land and potential competitors; the establishment of procedures and standards; the mastery of the thousand details of administrative duty; the hundreds of trips to high schools and churches of both Oklahoma and Indian Territory; the hundreds of hours of counseling students, watching them arrive in Norman and embark on their studies and, with their companions, make a happy and wholesome way of life. It would be pleasant to think that Boyd felt some of the satisfaction that he deserved to feel that night as he turned down the lights and went off to bed. Unfortunately, he was not destined to sleep through the whole night.
Levy goes on to tell us that disaster struck just after 11 o’clock on the night of January 6, 1903. Spotting smoke coming from the basement area where the geological collections were held, the watchman shouted the alarm and mayhem ensued. Students and teachers alike leapt into action to save material and sentimental items from the angry blaze. There was no chance of a hose from the fire department reaching the building so people began filling buckets with water and throwing it on the building.
With the situation growing hopeless by the second, students and teachers just attempted to retrieve items before the building was completely ruined. Students climbed into offices and saved paperwork, braved the flames to grab books for class, and even lowered on professor’s desk down from a window to preserve the piece of furniture. Finally, the inevitable happened, the event again was described by David W. Levy, “just at midnight the dome quivered, groaned with breaking timber, turned gracefully over and with point down, crashed through the chapel into the first floor and basement. Everything possible had been done, so all stood back, watched the floors fall and listened to the explosions in the glowing mass of debris where was once the chemical laboratory.”
Levy surmised that something so elegant must have been written by Vernon Parrington. The writer went on to describe what remained of the building as, “the eyeless sockets of a grinning skull.” Eleven years of hard work and gritty determination seemed to be undone…but President Boyd was not a quitter, not even close.
Boyd was the type of guy who could find sunshine in a blizzard, so he went to work. While running the school system in Arkansas City, before coming to Norman, Mr. Boyd decided to take advantage of all the people moving through town. Arkansas City’s population ballooned as people moved through and even stayed to wait for the Oklahoma Land Run.
Boyd suggested that the city pay the workers a minimal sum for labor to improve the city’s appearance, basically Roosevelt’s New Deal long before Franklin ever considered it. Though that situation didn’t stem from tragedy, it definitely showed Boyd’s ability to make the most out of any situation. He never wasted time to grieve or complain, just considered the next step and took action. The next step was a faculty meeting at 9:00 a.m. the next morning to be followed by a school meeting at 2:00 p.m..
Boyd’s decision was to continue with classes almost without missing a beat. Even though the young University’s only existing building was gone, Boyd found a way to make the transition nearly seamless. By utilizing the old rock building that they had used to start classes back in 1892, OU had found the hub to center everything else around. Classes were to be had in the rock building, an old private dormitory, the new First Baptist Church, Norman’s Commercial Club room, and some classes were held in the faculty’s houses. David Ross Boyd was in no mood to allow all the hard work and dedication that built the University go up in flames along with its building. Amazingly enough, classes started without so much as a hiccup and Oklahoma laid yet another log on the fire to the lore of Oklahomans as resilient people.
The University got help from the local government leadership to construct two basic frame buildings to help with classes and so forth, but went through another long, arduous campaign by President Boyd to get back to solid ground. Finally, on March 16th the faculty and students walked across Norman to the new University building, a much more intimidating structure than the first. The building looked lopsided because of financial constraints that led the administration to eliminate the west wing of the building. However, it was something that students, faculty, administration, and the citizens of Norman were extremely proud of and it gave some consolation to the events of the previous three months.
Boyd had proven himself once again to not only be capable of the job he had, but to be exceptionally good at it. Not only did he lead the university through the flames of the fire and the darkness of the night that it raged in, but he saw the University begin to modernize itself in the coming year. The elimination of the actual wooden “boardwalks” and move to the cement sidewalks was cheered far and wide. The addition of a few more buildings, including a gymnasium and a library, was something to take even more pride in. However, the biggest step forward for this budding institute of education smack in the middle of Indian and Oklahoma Territory was the addition of electricity. The University had truly been led from darkness to light.