EMMA BUSH COLUMN: The rise of today’s Ferris State University from the 1950 fire

Several weeks ago, my driver and I were at the stop light in Big Rapids at the corner of Perry Avenue and State Street, in front of the entrance to Ferris State University. I happened to mention that Ferris had become so big so fast, that I felt like I had not been able to keep up with it. The next thing I knew, my driver was nosing around, looking for advice on the best way to learn about Ferris. Before long, he was sitting in the office of Sandy Gholston, Ferris news services and social media manager, discussing ideas to gather information for Emma articles about today’s Ferris State University so we could learn and then share what we learned with the community. I haven’t been feeling good, so I haven’t met Sandy yet. But here’s my driver’s report on what has been going on:

Sandy was interested in talking about an Emma article on Ferris. He suggested that an initial article might feature the rise of today’s Ferris State University from the 1950 fire, and set the stage for a journey from the “good old days” to “what’s happening now.” In the discussion that followed, Sandy asked if Emma had seen the fire or if she knew anyone who had been an eyewitness. Ideas started flying back and forth and a project began to take shape.

After the meeting, we did some homework and found examples of connections between Ferris and Emma family members and friends that included having Ferris jobs, being Ferris students, following Ferris sports and getting your hair done at the Ferris beautician training shop in what is now the Prakkan Building. There was even an Emma connection by marriage to the sale of farm property near the Old Main Building that became a part of Ferris becoming first a state college and then a state university.

Emma Bush family members, her sister, Erma Bechaz, and Erma’s daughter, Nancy Sage-Bechaz, attended the March 7, 2012, meeting and represented the absent Emma Bush. They presented information about 40 acres of farm land that was sold to Ferris in a deal negotiated between John Bechaz and Ferris President Victor Spathelf in 1952, as they sat on the Big Rapids City wooden bench on the corner of Maple Street and Michigan Avenue. The two sat next to the Big Rapids cast-iron water fountain designed with water spigots and water tray levels that served people, dogs, birds and horses. They discussed their mutual interest in doing what was best for Ferris and the community and nailed down the terms of the sale to make it happen.

For both Nancy and Erma, it was their first public speaking engagement. They said afterwards that they were both nervous, but you certainly couldn’t tell as they proudly described the role of their family in supporting the rise of today’s Ferris from the ashes of a fire 62 years ago.

The Emma family and friends homework seemed to also indicate questions, interest and sometimes lack of information and awareness of the Ferris of today. Questions included: What might be available to the community in the way of eating at Ferris restaurants, the rules and location of public parking on campus, services available to the public in the many areas of Ferris expertise like eye care, pharmacy, etc., and the availability of meetings and entertainment that might be of interest to the community.

Although these topics were all beyond what was being considered as Emma article topics, it might be interesting to determine if these questions are shared by the general community, or just unique to the “Emma family.” It occurred to me that maybe I should “nose around,” as Emma would say, to see what kind of information was available about community access to things on the Ferris campus of today.

Anyone interested in providing comments, input or information about Emma articles, or to Emma herself, may send them to Myrl Thompson, 16505 175th Ave., Big Rapids, MI, 49307. Attn: Emma Bush.

Emma’s driver will pick them up and see that they are hand delivered to Emma. Emma could use a little pick-me-up after her kitchen floor fall that gave her a big black-and-blue bump on her rump that she reports is the size of a pie plate.

Well, that covers my driver’s report. The good news is that the time with Sandy resulted in a community awareness “work” meeting on March 7, 2012. The meeting was well attended by eyewitnesses of the Ferris 1950 fire and others who were interested in Ferris. Speakers and attendees shared not only community eyewitness accounts of the fire itself, but also shared testimonies of people-to-people cooperation and mutual support, support between the community, Ferris faculty, Ferris students and area businesses that was fondly remembered.

The meeting was video and audio recorded by Melinda Isler, university archivist, and Sandy Gholston, both from FSU, a welcome touch in a meeting of enthusiastic community members. The meeting ended up with a discussion about what the community could do to demonstrate community interest and appreciation to Ferris, and at the same time get to better know the Ferris of today, the Ferris that grew from its burned foundation of yesterday.

The bad news, at least for me, was that I was unable to attend the meeting after having slipped and slid across my slippery kitchen floor in my fuzzy, wool bed socks. I ended up flat on the floor. The result was a black and blue lump on my rump the size of a pie plate and a rib cage that flared up to remind me that cracked ribs take longer to heal the older they get.

We decided to go ahead with the Ferris project even if it meant that I had to become a rocking chair columnist. We’ll see where this all goes. I am not feeling too good right now. Meanwhile, let’s get on with things and take a look at the 1950 Ferris fire eyewitness accounts and the Ferris memories expressed by members of the local community.

Gus Anderson recorded the shortest eyewitness account using less than 100 words. “I heard fire trucks coming behind me on Stuart Avenue and pulled over to let them by. Two trucks drove up and over the curb at the Ferris Old Main Building and the ladder truck raised its ladder against the tower. It was too short. The ladder was lowered and the truck left. I didn’t see any smoke or fire, so I left too. The next day I found out that Old Main had burned to the ground.

Dick Wheeler was 10 years old, and found his mom crying as she looked out her kitchen window. He asked her why she was crying and she boosted him up to show him the fire consuming the Old Main Building across the street. He ended up outside standing in the middle of fire hoses watching the fire get bigger and bigger. Sheriff Sober saw him and put him in the front seat of his Sheriff’s car so he could see without getting hurt. His view of the fire from the front seat of the Sheriff’s car came complete with the Sheriff’s two-way radio that kept 10 year old Dick up to date on what was going on. Dick especially remembered one two-way radio exchange where the Rockford Fire Department offered to send trucks and crews, and Big Rapids declined the offer explaining that they did not have sufficient water pressure for even their own trucks.

Our article next time will continue with eyewitness accounts and comments from our March 7, 2012, community awareness meeting. We will complete our look at “The rise of today’s Ferris State University from fire” in preparation to find out what’s happening today in the life of the Ferris that was nurtured in its early years by a community that cared.

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