Gale Holt’s Interview with the New London Museum

A Tribute to a Lost Generation

On July 30, I shared some moments over the phone with Mr. John Davidson, a longtime docent of the New London museum. This top-flight museum in a small East Texas rural community plays tribute to a lost generation and to the parents and survivors of the worst American school disaster, the New London School explosion. Mr. Davidson has a deep investment in honoring this history, for his lovely teenage sister, Ardyth perished in this calamity on March 18, 1937 and his parents somehow found the inner resources to resume their lives.

In his slow, measured East Texas accent, Mr. Davidson shared with me how so many people found themselves in this small community. During the Great Depression, this community offered ready employment to people desperate for work. Men and their families from all over the country streamed into the Piney Woods to labor in the oil fields during a rich oil boom. Another bonus was the wealthiest and second-largest rural school in the world. The state-of-the art campus boasted the very first Friday Night Lights in Texas—a lighted ball field. The junior high and high school also offered a home economics building, a science lab, wood-working and metal shops, and an agricultural building replete with a freezer and instruction in butchering.

Mr. Davidson stated that “spirits were high on March 18.” Students and faculty alike were anticipating the following free day in nearby Henderson. They would be coming out to support New London boys and girls in county athletic and academic events. When the accident occurred, some athletes and academic competitors were away and preparing for these University Interscholastic League playoff competitions. The PTA was scheduled to meet at 2:30 that afternoon, and the students would normally be dismissed one hour to one half hour early. Superintendent Wesley Shaw decided that students should stay for a full school day. The explosion occurred at 3:17 and Superintendent Shaw’s youngest child, Sambo was among the confirmed 294 casualties.

John Davidson went on to explain that a natural gas leak of 64,000 thousand cubic feet was ignited by a spark from a defective sander. The building was inappropriately retrofitted to use free gas from the oil industry—a common money-saving practice. The building was not engineered for this, and the looming disaster resulted. For some days, students and faculty complained of burning noses and running eyes, but the odorless gas gave no other warning.

Though news reports greatly inflated casualty numbers, it is likely that many deaths went unreported. Numerous families gathered their children’s remains and immediately returned to distant homes for their funerals. All records were incinerated in the blast. A transient population came for work and left fleeing tragedy, without leaving any official record of their children or of their loss.

The enormous immediate community response to this calamity is a matter of record. People of every walk of life converged on the scene. Mothers and fathers tore at the wreckage with bare hands, seeking their children and others. Mothers in their PTA best, men in suits, oil workers in dungarees alike pitched in. Peach baskets were employed in this frantic rescue mission. Ultimately, heavy equipment from oil fields and timber tracts accelerated the effort. The site was cleared in under twenty-four hours. As Mr. Davidson remarked, “They did it until it got done.” Health workers from local hospitals reported to the scene and the newly constructed Mother Francis Hospital in Tyler opened a day early to minister to young victims.

In the aftermath, John Davidson remarked that bereft parents “leaned on each other, grieved, buried their children, resumed their lives… some moved away.” Three hundred young survivors went on to fight in World War II. Survivor William G. Moore became a four-star general in the air force. His brother Ira Moore flew mercy missions to evacuate Vietnamese refugees from Saigon. New laws were put in place protecting communities around the world from the dangers of natural gas. Texas was the first to pass odorization and uniform engineering laws. By law, natural gas has the unpleasant odor to warn home owners of its presence. By law, a registered engineer alone must work on heating systems.

What can we learn from this community’s response to catastrophic tragedy? Mr. Davidson was quick to answer.

“Work together, lean on each other, and with their faith continue with their lives.”

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