Memorial Union Fire

One of the most terrible events of 1970 occurred on the night of April 20 when the Memorial Student Union burned as a result of arson.  The fire followed a week of turmoil and unrest in Lawrence.  Investigators determined that the fire started at about 10:30 with the origin near the Pine Room on the third floor.  The blaze spread quickly breaking through the roof on the west side of the building.   

More than a hundred student volunteers assisted the Lawrence Fire Department by hauling hoses and removing furniture and art work to safer parts of the building.  The fire was under control in about two hours with the most damage centered on the ballroom, the English Room, the Pine Room and a catering kitchen.  Frank Burge, Union Director, estimated that with the help of students about $50,000 in art treasures were saved. 

Topeka Capital-Journal reporter, Tom Johnson, was on the scene that night and the next morning recording his almost minute to minute observations in his water spattered notebook.  

After the fire Lawrence was placed under a Governor declared state of emergency requested by city and county officials. The proclamation stated that “such emergency constitutes a danger to the public health and safety of such magnitude that the normal and ordinary process of state and local government are inadequate to protect the public peace and safety, and the lives and property of citizens.” Curfews were set for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights with frequent disruptions including the setting of small fires, and arrests of curfew violators. Several co-ed dormitories held curfew parties. 

During the curfew the faculty were called upon to provide added security for campus buildings.  They were asked to “serve as a listening and lookout post.”  They were not to take any action other than call an emergency number if they should hear or see anyone or should hear the sounds of breaking glass.  Student and faculty were asked to form groups of fire watchers as well for each night of the curfew. 

Damaged areas of the Union were repaired by May 1971 in time for commencement activities that typically were held there. 

To this date no one has been charged with the arson.