This Friday the 13th marks the 45th anniversary of the 1968 fire that nearly burned Nichols Gymnasium to the ground. The fire left the remaining structure untouched and barely used for 17 years. Many students at K-State recognize the Nichols Hall fire for the creation of the traditional usage of “The Wabash Cannonball,” because the music was taken home by a music instructor that night. However, this iconic building on the K-State campus also has an important and lasting legacy that involves arson, protest and passionate student involvement.
The 1960s were an intense time for universities all across the country. The assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and political dissatisfaction with United States involvement in Vietnam had created a heated atmosphere in U.S. Students, and young people around the country began to question the government, the military and institutions of higher education. These types of feelings were not absent at K-State.
Ed Klimek, market manager for Eagle Communications in Manhattan, was a student at the time of the 1968 fire. As the program director for the student radio station, which was housed in Nichols Gym at the time, Klimek was the last person out of the building when it was burning. He remembers the heated atmosphere on campus at the time of these events.
“There were many national protests going on around the country,” Klimek said. “These groups had a pocket of influence at K-State. These protesters on campus wanted more rights for minority students.”
Klimek also said there was a nationwide movement of dissidence on college campuses that involved the burning of college buildings.
In 1965, two student arsonists started a fire that destroyed KSU Auditorium, according to a Manhattan Mercury article from Nov. 11, 2011. KSU Auditorium was the precursor to what is now McCain Auditorium. Both arsonists were students in the department of music. Klimek said that this fire was set for a different purpose than the Nichols Gym fire. These student arsonists were unhappy with the condition of the auditorium.
According to a March 9, 1983 article in The Collegian, the day before Nichols was set on fire was quite contentious. A meeting was held between students and faculty that was designed for both parties to air complaints. It quickly got out of hand, and one student said that he wouldn’t mind seeing Anderson Hall burn down. K-State President James McCain quickly organized night watchmen and patrols to protect campus buildings. Several small fires were discovered on campus that night, including one near Anderson Hall.
The next night, Friday, Dec. 13, 1968, Klimek was at the Sunflower Classic Tournament basketball game at Ahearn Fieldhouse. After the game concluded, Klimek headed to Nichols Gym to check on the student disc jockey who was working that evening.
“When I got over to Nichols, I noticed some wood planks stacked on the north side of the entryway. They were on fire. When the student fire department arrived with their 1940s fire truck, the fire was spreading inside. The flames got in the gym and hit the second floor running track. The fire spread rapidly after that,” Klimek said.
Klimek then went to the west side of the building, which housed the campus radio stations and the music department. A wall separated the fire in the gym from this part of the building.
“I ran upstairs to check on the DJ. He had already exited the building when I arrived. I started to leave, but I went back up to see if I could save any of the radio equipment. The Manhattan Fire Department showed up. They grabbed a hold of me and escorted me out of the building,” Klimek said.
Klimek said the news traveled rapidly despite the fire being in the age of no mobile phones or email.
“You could see the flames from miles away. It drew a really huge crowd of people,” Klimek said. “It was a beautiful thing to look at. I mean it was a tragedy, but it was beautiful.”
Approximately 1,500 people were present to watch Nichols Gym burn.
The students responsible for the fire were believed to have been identified at the time, but there was not enough evidence to bring charges against them, according to a Jan. 12, 2007 article from “Talking in the Library.”
Not much was left of Nichols Gymnasium after the fire, but the basement of the building, which housed the university men’s and women’s swimming pools, was still used until the completion of the Natatorium in 1970. The university allocated approximately $10,000 in emergency funds to construct a roof over the pools, which had not been damaged in the fire.
After the completion of the Natatorium, the remaining Nichols Gym structure sat abandoned for about 10 years. K-State administrators couldn’t decide what to do with the structure, and the university didn’t have the funding to rebuild it.
Then, K-State President Duane Acker made a controversial decision that would have enormous repercussions. On April 4, 1979, President Acker recommended that the Kansas State Legislature allocate $125,000 to raze Nichols Gym. The plan was to leave the north wall intact, but demolish the rest of the structure to create a paved road to McCain Auditorium.
Greg Musil was the K-State student body president at the time. Musil became very involved with what happened next.
“There was already a group crusading for the reconstruction of Nichols, so that group became active. In the span of a few hours, hundreds of students gathered around the south entrance to Anderson Hall to object to any razing of Nichols,” Musil said in an email. “The event was passionate, but civil until towards the end when some students thought about pushing inside Anderson and into the President’s office. We eventually convinced everyone that was not a good idea, but that we in a leadership group would make sure the President heard the strong and united voice of the student body. As usual, the rally was an impressive statement about peaceful, but passionate and prideful K-State students making a stand for what they believed in.”
Because Acker was not on campus the day of the first protest, another protest was scheduled for later in the week. This protest also took place at the south entryway to Anderson Hall.
Gail Pennybacker, retired Emmy award-winning news reporter for ABC7 in Washington D.C., was a student reporter for KSDB-FM in 1979. Pennybacker said she remembers these protests like they were yesterday.
“They were peaceful demonstrations, but powerful,” she said. “Many of the students at K-State at the time had been kids during the protests of the 1960s and learned from the examples of those before them, on how to stand up for what they consider important.”
According to Musil, soon after these campus protests occurred, approximately 75-100 students traveled to the state capitol in Topeka to meet with legislators and express their concerns.
“We rallied on the south steps of the capitol and then spread into the building to spread our word and our cause,” Musil said. “I remember we were graciously granted a meeting with Governor Carlin and that was very beneficial to us.”
Former Governor John Carlin, now a visiting professor in political science at K-State, remembers visiting with Musil and three other student leaders about Nichols Gym.
“I was very impressed with those students for visiting with me about their concerns,” he said.
Carlin also said he felt that students today are not as engaged as they were during this time.
“To link it to the last five to 10 years, I personally think students have been too accepting of tuition increases. If students got involved and voted one way or another, they could make a huge impact,” he said.
Musil stated that he and his fellow campus leaders left this meeting hoping to have made a positive impression.
“Ultimately the legislature postponed a decision, created the Nichols Hall Task Force to study the alternatives, and after several public hearings, the Task Force, of which I was a member, recommended rebuilding Nichols as classroom space that would preserve part of K-State’s history,” Musil said.
The Kansas State Legislature ultimately allocated funds to the university in 1981 and construction on the building began in 1983. Three years and $5.58 million later, Nichols Gym became Nichols Hall and was opened for students.
Nichols Hall now houses the department of communication studies, theater and dance and the department of computing and information sciences.
“From the Wabash Cannonball to classes in Nichols Hall, this history and tradition is with us 40-plus years after the fire,” Musil said. “It’s important always to remember and look back, particularly because this was one of many positive examples of how K-State’s legacy of student involvement, student participation and student government could work in a constructive manner.”