A Disaster Brings Changes
It was a bitterly cold day on Feb. 21, 1950, when disaster struck the Ferris Institute and the Big Rapids community.
The fire alarm rang shortly after 5 p.m. President Byron Brophy had just finished hosting a reception for graduating students when custodian Melvin Dunn and Karl Merrill, Dean of Men, informed him of smoke in the attic of the Main Building of Ferris Institute. The men quickly investigated and found the source of the smoke to be in a ventilation shaft that ran from the basement of the building to the attic. They kicked in the door to the shaft and attempted to put the fire out with extinguishers.
Meanwhile, the Big Rapids Fire Department was making slow progress to the scene due to the icy street conditions. When they arrived, the building was already engulfed in flames. Extremely low water pressure hampered their efforts. There was little they could do except to attempt to save the Alumni Building from the same fate. Hundreds of Big Rapids residents watched as the building burned to the ground, and flames could be seen for miles around the area.
Teams of faculty, students and community members worked until the very last moments rescuing equipment and records from the building. Four people, including three students and a police officer, were injured in the fire. Miraculously, there were no fatalities.
Following the fire, President Brophy declared that “Ferris would go on!” And indeed it did. On July 1, 1950, Ferris Institute officially was turned over to the State of Michigan. A flurry of construction followed the fire, and the contemporary campus began to take shape.
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