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Thursday, September 04, 2003
Story Date: 5/15/2003 9:24:26 AM

Tornadoes left schools in disarray

By Sherry F. Pruitt

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of articles marking the anniversaries of tornadoes striking Jonesboro in 1968 and 1973.

Death, destruction and devastation were delivered to Jonesboro by May tornadoes in 1968 and 1973.

The 1968 tornado is remembered for the 34 lives lost, but memories of the 1973 twisters are mostly of property damage -- more than $61 million, in addition to three lives lost.

News accounts said the '73 twisters were part of "the most destructive storm in Arkansas history."

"Four of Jonesboro's schools were smashed by the winds' insane fury, and Nettleton's University Heights Elementary School was a mass of rubble," wrote Mike Overall, then city editor at The Jonesboro Sun, in a special publication. "Jonesboro High School was virtually demolished, South and Hillcrest elementary schools sustained severe damage, and MacArthur Junior High School was battered by the rampaging winds."

Officials from the Jonesboro School District then estimated total damage at $2.5-$3 million.

Dr. Jane Jamison, now director of federal programs, testing and technology, was an English teacher at the three-story, storm-damaged high school located at South Main Street and College Avenue.

"We tried to rescue as many materials as we could," said Jamison, who had taught for only four years prior to the '73 tornadoes. "My room happened to be on the bottom floor of the old high school building, so most of the things in my room were intact. I went down and took posters off the wall, gathered up books ... I had basically enough teaching materials to keep teaching."

She said a house trailer was thrown through the school's auditorium, which was directly above her room.

"The school year came to a premature end after the storm, but determined Jonesboro High seniors went ahead with a belated commencement ceremony on their destroyed campus, an event which drew national media recognition," wrote Overall in 1973.

The building was destroyed, and plans were made to rebuild. First, though, school officials had to decide where to hold summer school classes.

"We went to MacArthur," Jamison said. "The first two weeks of the 5-week summer school program, MacArthur had no electricity, so we taught in the dark. We had a few windows. I went ahead and lectured like I knew what I was doing, and the kids pretended like they were taking notes. And we got through it."

Finding facilities for 900-1,000 high school students was the next task, and school officials had to find a place that would work for at least two years until a new senior high could be constructed.

"The district secured trailers, and we rented the (Craighead County) Fairgrounds," Jamison recalled. "We had most of our academic classes at the fairgrounds. We used the exhibit buildings; we had, I believe, 12 classrooms in the huge exhibit building separated by the same blue curtains that they used to separate the exhibits at the county fair. Of course, we had to break when the county fair was scheduled."

The fairgrounds campus took on the names "Heifer High" and "Pig Pen High."

Jodi Dent, a Jonesboro district employee, said she spent her senior year at the fairgrounds. Dent recalled a "wild" time and "a free-for-all," and "pretty free-spirited" students at the makeshift high school. She said students could overhear lessons from other classrooms. "It didn't seem like school," Dent said. "It didn't even resemble a school."

The fall after the tornado, Jamison said, school started a little bit earlier and was closed through fair week. The high school operated a split schedule, with some attending from 7 a.m.-1 p.m. and the remainder going from 1-5 p.m., a schedule which would continue for 212 years. Jamison worked 9 a.m.-2 p.m.

She vividly recalled "exposed duct work just lined with flies" when school returned following the break for the fair.

The second year Jamison was moved from the exhibit building to a trailer, where she said she saw the sun come up every day because her schedule began at 7 a.m. That's where she encountered mud and additional open classrooms. Two classes were held in each portable trailer, but there were no barriers until the following year.

Dent said students constantly walked in water when it rained, and their cars got stuck, with tow trucks being called virtually every day. Jamison added that business teacher Dot Cook "stepped out of her car one day and lost her shoe in the mud and never did find the shoe."

The former English teacher said it was difficult to keep up with and supervise the high school students at the fairgrounds. It was "easy to get lost" and hard for the students because of a lack of activities.

"The school district had no other option. That's the best they could do," Dent said.

Band and physical education classes were held in downtown Jonesboro.

"We ran shuttles all day long for kids to leave the academic classrooms and herded downtown to (churches) and the YMCA (Earl Bell Community Center)," Jamison said.

The high school's library also was destroyed. "Obviously we had no library the first year or two until they started replenishing the library collection, and that was a massive task," she added.

Science classes without labs operated in portable trailers.

"And yet, through all of that, I think what we learned was that if you have a teacher and you have students and you have a bare minimum of materials, you can conduct school," Jamison said. "It's not an ideal situation, and those kids will forever be branded, I guess, as the fairgrounds kids, but they got an education in lots of ways."

Even though mud, flies, tiny frogs and open classrooms were part of a larger experience for the "fairgrounds kids," they still "learned to do math, they learned English and they learned to write. They did fine," Jamison said.

"We all graduated and turned out to be productive adults," Dent added.

Elementary students at South and Hillcrest also were displaced to downtown churches, Jamison said. MacArthur was damaged, so Annie Camp Junior High School and MacArthur shared the building that now houses the central office, following the high school's split schedule.

"They had a portable building, which was a teacher resource center. After students left from the morning crew, those teachers spent some time planning in a portable trailer while the next group of students took over the classrooms," she explained.

The junior high schedule continued until MacArthur was repaired within that school year.

Approximately 225 displaced students from Nettleton's University Heights Elementary, which was totally wrecked, attended school at churches following the '73 storm, according to a story in The Sun. Also in the later tornadoes, the Nettleton High School gym floor was ruined because of water damage and had to be replaced.

When Nettleton's main campus was virtually wiped out by the killer twister in 1968, school officials housed most of the elementary students in churches, according to stories in The Sun. Portable buildings were obtained for the displaced high school students.

J.D. Coker, Nettleton High School principal in 1968, described the scene at Nettleton as "general chaos" after the twister hit the campus about a week before school was to end for summer break.

No children were in the building at the time, but an adult education class was in session, Coker said. Those students were in a room that stayed fairly intact, and no one was killed.

The back of the school took the brunt of the storm, he explained, while houses on the other side of the street remained virtually unharmed.

"It was just one big pile of rubble back there," he said.

Coker said about a half-dozen classrooms were salvaged and restored enough to be used by students in grades 7-12. The district purchased six to eight portable buildings to complete the temporary school on the Nettleton campus.

Although the cafeteria was destroyed, the gym was largely undamaged, he said.

Coker recalled that the district's football field was not usable. A chainlink fence surrounding the arena "crumpled up like a piece of paper." Bits of glass and nails were strewn across the length of the field. School officials combed the field, followed by a crew of state prison inmates, who raked the area to rid the debris.

"We still couldn't put the kids out there, and we went in with a tractor to break it up and to reseed it," Coker explained.

Copyright © 2003, Jonesboro Sun