Last student in Nichols Hall before it burned 50 years ago says he knows who started the fire

(Archive photo)

The night of Dec. 13, 1968 was frigid, the temperatures dipping down to 15 degrees. Nichols Hall offered respite from the cold as it burned down to the ground.

The cause of the fire was ruled as arson in protest of the Vietnam War, but a culprit was never arrested or charged.

However, the last student inside Nichols on the night of the fire said he knows who is responsible and that the fire was not a war protest.

Ed Klimek, who was the program director at KSDB-FM in 1968, said the Kansas State campus was rife with political tensions at the time, derived from both the war and the civil rights movement.

“There were some grim times where you had a lot of this [racial] unrest on campus, and it was a dangerous time,” Klimek, now the vice president of business development at Kansas State Bank, said.

During this time, Klimek said numerous fires were set on and around campus. He said he recalled the steeple of Anderson Hall being torched and the local country club set aflame twice.

On the day of the fire, Klimek said there was a tense confrontation between a journalism faculty member, F. Virginia Howe, and a student during which a threat was communicated.

“The person involved was a challenge and created many tense situations within the radio television department,” Klimek said via email following the interview. “A threat was made to the department head … as to the exact words of those threats I cannot recall.”

Klimek said he believes he knows who is responsible for the fire, but declined to give a name.

“I can’t prove it,” Klimek said. “The [Kansas Bureau of Investigation] couldn’t prove it. No one could actually see what happened, and no one could actually be a witness to anything. It never was—no one was ever arrested. I think I know for sure, but also I don’t want to say that name and indict somebody for something that maybe I’m wrong about. But I don’t think I’m wrong.”

It started as a spark

On the day of the fire, Klimek attended a doubleheader basketball game in Ahearn Field House. Afterward, Klimek walked over to Nichols to visit KSDB on the third floor. He found a pile of wood planks burning outside Nichols’s front door. Klimek said it seemed as though someone had spread gasoline over the planks before setting them on fire.

The campus fire department, which was made up of students, arrived shortly after Klimek. The Manhattan Fire Department arrived about five minutes later. Duane Beichley, who was a broadcasting student at the time, assisted the firemen in connecting their hose to a fire hydrant.

“Once the water was turned on there was only a trickle of water coming out the nozzle,” Beichley wrote in a 2007 email to a former K-Stater magazine editor. “I thought that the equipment must be faulty, but I was later to learn that the actual problem was insufficient water pressure.”

Soon enough, the flames spread to the wooden front door of Nichols. On the other side of the door lay the gymnasium, and above that a varnished balcony that doubled as a running track.

When the flames breached the front door, Klimek recalled, it took a mere five seconds for the fire to race around the track, encircling it in a ring of fire.

“When that happened, it was obvious that there was no saving the building,” Klimek said.

The last K-Stater in Nichols Hall

In the moment the flames spread to the front door of Nichols, Klimek remembered there would be a student in the KSDB studios, DJ-ing.

“There’s gonna be a DJ up there. He’s gonna get burnt alive,” Klimek said before running into the burning building followed by two firemen.

But that DJ, Michael Leathers, had already left the building. After calling the campus fire department at the start of the fire, Beichley bolted upstairs to the studio to alert Leathers.

“After he gave the cursory, ‘Due to circumstances beyond our control, KSDB-FM is going off the air!,’ we both began our exit,” Beichley wrote in the 2007 email. “By this time, the entire stairwell was filled with smoke. We could barely see our hand in front of our face. We had to count the stair landings to figure out if we had arrived to the first floor where we could safely exit the building.”

Upon realizing the building was empty, Klimek and the two firemen began their exit as well. Klimek could feel the heat from the fire on the other side of the stairwell wall. Besides the two firemen who chased after him, Klimek was the last person to stand in Nichols before it burned to the ground.

‘An amazing sight’

News of the incident spread across campus. An estimated 1,500 students gathered to watch the flames, which were now out of control, consume the building.

“If anyone could call a fire something of beauty, that was it,” Klimek said. “The flames were just immense … There was no way to control it at that time. You could have all the fire trucks in Kansas there, and you couldn’t control it. It was just well beyond that.”

Firefighters struggled to battle the flames due to low water pressure, wind and freezing temperatures. According to the 1969 edition of the Royal Purple yearbook, water from fire hoses froze immediately upon coming in contact with the ground.

As the fire burned, the floors inside Nichols could be heard crashing down upon each other. Each crash drew cheers from the crowd of hundreds.

Although Klimek described the fire as “an amazing sight,” it carried a somber meaning for him and his classmates in the radio-TV department. Inside, all of KSDB’s equipment was being destroyed, including a new radio transmitter valued at $27,000. The Royal Purple also reported the music department suffered significant losses as well—$500,000 in instruments and sheet music.

“Everything we had was burning up,” Klimek said. “It was kind of a solemn occasion. All our equipment, a lot of our work for studies … They’re gone. Everything was gone.”

As the fire died

The fire burned throughout the night and smoldered for days afterward, leaving only a shell behind. The following days and weeks were rickety.

“Life went on with the studies, but obviously it was a pretty disjointed time for several years for the department,” Klimek said.

The departments that called Nichols home had to find new classrooms, meeting and storage spaces. Five trailers from Washburn University became the music department’s new classrooms, and KMAN radio opened up some of its studio space for KSDB. Broadcasters statewide donated equipment and the station was back on the air two months later in February.

While Nichols’s departments redistributed themselves across campus, the building itself remained in ruins for years, except for the two swimming pools in the basement, which were untouched by the fire. The pools remained in use until the Natatorium was built in 1975 despite the burned building that stood above them.

A decade later, in 1979, university president Duane Acker announced the plan to destroy the remains of Nichols. This led to a student campaign known as “The Castle Crusade.”

The campaign involved what 1979 student body president Greg Musil called “peaceful, but passionate and prideful” protests.

“There was already a group crusading for the reconstruction of Nichols, so that group became active,” Musil said in an email to the Collegian in 2013. “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.”

Students traveled to the state governor’s office to protest. The legislature allocated funds to K-State for rebuilding Nichols in 1981, and construction began in 1983.

The building eventually reopened 17 years after the fire destroyed it.

Klimek said he is “really happy” that Nichols still stands on the K-State campus.

“I think it’s a true K-State story because, not only was there a tragedy, but the students came to rescue the building,” Klimek said. “They took on the university president, then they took on the governor and the state legislature and they won. It’s really neat to see a student movement like that.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that the Natatorium was built in 1970. It was actually constructed in 1975.

Hey, hi, hello! I’m Rachel Hogan, the copy chief for The Collegian. I’m a senior in journalism from Olathe, Kansas. When I’m not at work in the newsroom, I like to spend my time cuddling with my dog, working as a barista and laughing with my friends.