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  • Writer's pictureTye Ojala

Living Through the Clarke Fire

Updated: May 5

May 17, 1984, is a day that will be remembered in Clarke history forever. Four historic buildings were lost forever in the tragedy. 2 days before commencement students and faculty had nowhere to go as the fire made its way through the attic of Rose O’ Toole Hall, then it spread to the attic of Margaret Mann Hall and through Mary Bertrand Hall. The university without a doubt had a choice to make after this disaster. Do we lie down and let these events get the best of us or do we show we’re not defined by this? The students chose the latter as a “Clarke Lives” banner hung the next day. This showed the resiliency of the university, and how they persevered through this difficult situation. Clarke strived to grow closer as a community and with the students at the historic university. While Clarke was burning, Sister Catherine Dunn was thinking about all the things that would have to be done in terms of fixing the buildings. Even though a third of the campus was destroyed, there was absolutely never a consideration of closing down the university for Sister Catherine Dunn.


The community of Dubuque supported Clarke with donations and trying to make this difficult process as smooth as possible. There was $15 million in damages created by this fire By October of 1986 there was a new music hall, bookstore, administrative offices, chapel, and a new atrium were all rebuilt. The stained glass, stone, and statues were all able to be saved before the fire got to them. These items were included in the new chapel which was significant in keeping the Clarke tradition alive.


Norm Freund who was a witness of the fire that day says, “when firefighters broke through the third-floor ceilings to get to the fire, it was already like a blast furnace within. There was a couple of feet of attic above my third floor Rose O’ Toole office. Consequently, my office was spared. The greatest destruction of all was in the library and Chapel building, Mary Bertrand Hall. There the fire found 20 feet of attic and oxygen above the sacred heart chapel. The fire quickly breached the outside here as well, and a fire ball 40 feet in height extended from the Mary Bertrand Hall. During the most intense part of the fire, many in the Clarke community including BVM sisters gathered across the street in front of Mary Francis Hall, there they consoled one another. Constantia Fox gazed up at the fire with tears in her eyes. The place that had been her home for 60 years burned.”


“Photos of the fire were taken from the Dubuque Senior Parking lot, and these show the Dubuque senior baseball team practicing the game and no one was looking at the fire, I guess life goes on”, Freud said. The attitude of life going on was exactly what Clarke embodied through this setback. If you knock us down three times, we will get up a fourth.

Tye Ojala

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