John Tyler High School Fire

A Brief School History

John Tyler High School in Tyler, Texas is the only school in America named for President John Tyler. The city of Tyler itself is named for President Tyler due to his efforts to annex the state of Texas which had actually been carried out during President James Polk’s administration. John Tyler High School boasts a proud history which is displayed with the use of the Lion mascot and the school’s motto, “Proud is our Pride”. Most notable John Tyler High School alum, NFL Hall of Fame running back, Earl Campbell led the Lions to a state championship during his high school football career.

Recently, a mentally ill student attacked and killed a John Tyler High School music teacher. This is not the first time John Tyler High School has weathered tragedy.

One of many photos published in my 1982 John Tyler High School Alcalde documenting the reconstruction.
One of many photos published in my 1982 John Tyler High School Alcalde documenting the reconstruction. | Source

St. Valentine's Day Fire

In the early morning hours of February 14, 1981, two disgruntled students set the school’s buildings on fire. Using gas jets from the science classrooms as accelerants, the boys ignited the escaping gas causing an estimated ninety percent of the school’s buildings to go up in flames. The motive for such devastating destruction was simple revenge. Earlier, the school's principal had caught the boys with an alcoholic beverage on campus which lead to disciplinary action against the boys. According to the fire marshal’s report, the fire had been started in several different areas of the school. Though no one was injured or killed in the initial blaze, two firefighters were injured during the attempt to control the flames. One area of the school that was totally destroyed was the library. Of the school’s compliment of library books, the only books to survive the fire were the books that had been previously checked out to students before the fire was started. Although permanent records were saved, no office areas survived. The stuffed Kenya lion mascot used during games and pep rallies perished in the flames. The only building to survive the massive fire was the gymnasium.

Aftermath

The total destruction of John Tyler High School’s campus forced the entire student body to temporarily relocate to cross-town rival, Robert E. Lee High School’s campus for classes. In an effort to accommodate the displaced John Tyler students, Robert E. Lee High School immediately set up split schedules for students of both schools. The Robert E. Lee students would attend their classes in the mornings which would leave the afternoons available for the John Tyler students. Due to the forced split schedules, employers had to rearrange their work schedules for their student workers.

Robert E. Lee High School officials and students did their best to make the new students feel welcome in a strange environment. Throughout the Robert E. Lee campus, the school’s traditional red and white colors also sported John Tyler’s blue and white colors. Blue and white banners, ribbons and welcome signs were placed throughout the halls of John Tyler High School’s bitter sports rival, Robert E. Lee High School. One of the first joint ventures for the two high schools was a band concert featuring both high school bands. The proceeds from this concert went to pay for a new Kenya lion mascot for John Tyler upon completion of the reconstruction of the new John Tyler High School campus.

The borrowed portable buildings used as makeshift classrooms.  Photo taken from my 1982 John Tyler High School Alcalde.
The borrowed portable buildings used as makeshift classrooms. Photo taken from my 1982 John Tyler High School Alcalde. | Source

Back Home

With the help of borrowed portable buildings lining the student parking lots, classes were resumed on John Tyler High School’s campus in the fall of 1981 while the construction workers diligently and patiently worked around new and returning students to class. John Tyler’s driver’s education students took that course at Robert E. Lee’s campus until John Tyler’s campus construction was complete. After eighteen months, reconstruction was completed and an official dedication of the newly built John Tyler High School was held in the school’s surviving gymnasium in September 1983. Part of the dedication ceremony was the donation of a new stuffed Kenya lion mascot. Part of the hunter’s speech included phrases such as, “We searched for an animal who was sick and dying anyway to kill.”

The Kenya lion’s home was a display area in the newly built library. Students could touch him if they so desired. A rose was placed in the lion’s mouth; a symbol of Tyler’s nickname, “The Rose Capital of America.”

John Tyler High School's main entrance after the reconstruction.
John Tyler High School's main entrance after the reconstruction. | Source

Memories of John Tyler High School

One of my fondest memories of my days at John Tyler High School came during final exams week of my tenth grade year. The year was 1983 and M*A*S*H's final episode had aired the night before I was to take my final exam in English class. My high school English teacher, a huge M*A*S*H fan, had written her exam based on the show's final episode. She told me she had given me extra credit on the exam because I was her only student to spell Father Mulcahy's name correctly.

It was also during my tenth grade year that my cousin, whom was also in my typing class, informed me that she did not like being called by her first and middle names. It then dawned on me that her first name was Cheryl and Lynn was her middle name. I had always assumed her first name was a combination of the two names. Since that day, I was her only relative to call her by her first name only. When other relatives asked me why, I told them, "Cheryl put a stop to that in high school."

© 2013 Tammy L

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