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Reflections from Clarke alumni who lived through the ’84 fire, to the Class of 2020

By Clarke News  |  May 15, 2020
Paula Avelleyra at her Clarke Commencement in 1978

Throughout its history, the Clarke University community has been defined by its spirit of perseverance.

On May 17, 1984, two days before commencement, a devastating fire destroyed four historic Clarke College campus buildings. The midday fire, which started when insulation boards combusted spontaneously on a roof, resulted in $15 million in damage to Clarke’s campus, spreading rapidly through attics connecting massive buildings. Smoke from the blaze was seen 20 miles away. It was two days before graduation. Catherine Dunn, BVM, Ph.D., Clarke President at the time, said, “I started to pray, and suddenly I was filled with the Holy Spirit and Mary Frances Clarke (Clarke’s foundress) and they permeated my whole being. I don’t know how to explain, but the whole time I was pacing and watching the buildings in high flames, I was filled with hope for Clarke’s future.” Undaunted by the disaster, students hung a banner proclaiming “Clarke Lives!” Under the leadership of Sr. Catherine, the Clarke community held commencement in the next days amid the rubble.

Today, the year is 2020, and our graduating class is facing a very different emergency that has left them in a very similar situation as those who graduated in 1984. We reached out to the Class of 1984 and other Clarke alumni of that generation to ask them to share some thoughts with the Class of 2020, who were evacuated from campus in March due to the coronavirus pandemic and their graduation was postponed until October. The end of their senior year is forever marked by this worldwide pandemic. Clarke wants to connect these two generations of Clarke students who both faced catastrophe with dignity, diligence, and honor. Graduates of the Class of 2020, this is for you.

Paula Avelleyra ’78

“Congratulations Class of 2020! Graduation alone can bring with it a variety of emotions. Happiness, sadness, excitement, and uncertainty are all common at this momentous time. These feelings may be magnified with the unusual circumstances of your final semester. You will forever have the dubious honor of the COVID class. Do not let that alone define you. Instead, I encourage you to reflect on the entirety of your Clarke experience. It is the sum total of the past four years that have led you to this cumulation of your accomplishments. Along with your family of origin that has supported you along this road, it is the ‘family’ forged at Clarke that has also provided you with a solid foundation for future challenges. There is a photograph of me on Commencement Day May of 1978 where I am crying hard (pictured above). At that moment I could not be consoled. I was swept up in the feeling of sadness and finality of what I believed were the best years of my life. My friends and I were moving towards new jobs, new cities, new relationships, and the previous years of camaraderie were abruptly coming to an end. I felt bereft. What I could not have possibly known at that moment is that those tears would morph into tears of joy and happiness over the years. There is no doubt that my education at Clarke, years ago, provided me with the foundation for an extremely rewarding career. My instructors were top notch and taught me the skills I required to pursue my chosen career path. They also expanded my thinking, my perspective about my individuality, and my role in the human experience as a whole. But by far, the most valued and treasured gift I received from my time at Clarke are the lifelong friendships made. These friends have been by my side with each celebration, misstep, and challenge I have encountered over the past 40 years. These relationships are immeasurable. I tell you this so you will hold onto these people who have been alongside you these last years. My friendships were maintained without today’s technological advances, but rather through snail mail, phone calls, Christmas cards, and Homecoming Reunions. You have so many technological tools with which to stay in touch. Use whatever means you have and hold them close, FaceTime, Zoom, talk, travel to see them in person and attend reunions. I guarantee if you put in the effort to maintain these friendships you will reap benefits that are limitless. Best wishes!” 

Ann (Bares) Beetham ’78
“Commencement is a ceremony, an important ‘rite of passage,’ but what you have already experienced, learned, and shared as a student at Clarke is the real rite of passage. It may be years before you recognize the impact that your Clarke education has had on your life, like when you realize how much you really took from that ‘communications skills’ class after you use those skills with a co-worker, or how much the theology and philosophy classes (that most of us complained about taking) helped you to grow and understand the concepts of Social Justice in such a diverse and inequitable world. When you stay connected with your Clarke friends, you’ll hear about the impact that you and your classmates have had after graduation, such as my friend Jane Skelley going to Texas to work with immigrant families. I am sad with you, that you won’t get to put the final ‘cherry’ on the ‘ice cream sundae’ of your education, but not having the cherry doesn’t make or break the sundae.”

Brian Beresford ’86

“On May 17, 1984, as my sophomore year at Clarke was winding down, the massive fire that punctuated Clarke’s long history broke out, ravaging and destroying three stately buildings and Sacred Heart Chapel. Watching from the terrace of Mary Frances Hall, it was heartbreaking and beyond belief. Four structures standing in the heart of the college were lost. Media outlets speculated the damage was too great; the institution couldn’t recover. By the next morning, however, a bedsheet emblazoned with the words “Clarke Lives!” was affixed to the front entrance to Margaret Mann Hall. This student-created proclamation was the mantra by which we all lived by in the difficult days and years ahead.

Hope in, and the promise of, a preferred future fuel one’s spirit and soul. Mindset matters. During my junior and senior years, my view to and from classes was initially of the charred buildings, and, eventually, the erection of the Atrium and surrounding structures replaced what the fire destroyed. I knew I would never walk the halls of the replacement buildings as a student. I was, however, part of a remarkable time in Clarke’s rebirth. Those memories are an indelible part of my Clarke experience and I treasure them today. Though your graduation from Clarke isn’t what you envisioned or planned, be assured you will fondly recall your time as a Clarke student. Your memories of your time there will bring you smiles and a longing to return. It is indeed a special place. Your future is bright and your success is assured. Clarke has prepared you well and your experiences with fellow classmates are now part of your DNA. Go forth, fellow Clarkies. The world is waiting for you and you will make it better!”

Tracy (Williams) Diestelmeier ’84

“As a 1984 Clarke graduate, the fire brought disruption into our lives and plans, broke our hearts as we watched the destruction of a place we called home for so many years, and tested our faith and strength. In retrospect, that experience brought us closer, was the catalyst for creating the beautiful facility that now welcomes so many to Clarke, and has strengthened our faith in the Divine and each other. Graduates should know they have fulfilled the requirements for earning their degrees and enjoy that success which always remains theirs; but also, take note of the special situation they are in and look for the positives that apply lifelong lessons, despite the loss of some traditional experiences. God is great and is always with you, even when you’re clouded by temporary disappointments. Let His light shine through you for those around you; you are blessed.”

Karen Doland ’84

“When I remember my graduation in 1984, I remember the fire. But that is only when I think of graduation. When I remember Clarke, I remember the excellent professors I had, the great friends I made, and the wonderful experience it was to be a part of the Clarke community for four years. I think the same thing will happen to the class of 2020. This graduation, like my graduation, was not supposed to be like this. But I hope your memories of Clarke encompass all of your experiences over the last four years, not just this painful denouement. I think you will find, especially as more time passes, that the pandemic did not take away the important part of your college experience. You will still think of Clarke fondly. Your time at Clarke will still have shaped the person you are. You will still have dear friends for life. The only thing different for your class is that you will have an interesting story to tell in 2056 or so when the alumni association asks for your thoughts on graduation. Congratulations and good luck in the future!”

Mary Jo (Jacobs) Duffy ’84

“The fact that this year’s seniors have had to live through the COVID pandemic and have had to sacrifice so many things, their spring of “senioritis” and senior activities and perks have flown out the window. Spring sports, prom, party after prom, senior picnics, yearbook signings, and the actual graduation ceremony and the parties have all been canceled. All seniors have had an amazing lesson in resilience this year. I hope they continue to move forward and live their lives to the fullest for their legacy. I feel this echoes the Clarke graduating class of 1984. The week of graduation, we watched our campus burn. We stood linked hand in hand in prayer and moved forward. I remember being part of the line of staff and students creating a human chain to empty the library. My family arrived and I know that those around me filled in my place as I greeted them. We went forth after graduation and became our best selves. While at Clarke we built a family, we enjoyed our time there, the highs and the ultimate lows, and we went forth and did what Clarke taught us. Whether we were teachers, scientists, or musicians, we moved forward. We had no idea in the fall of 1980 what we would find ahead but Clarke prepared us in the best way by giving us faith, family, and resilience. This fall’s freshmen have a leg up on this legacy and will be there in 2024 when we celebrate and remember Clarke 40 years later. They will have built their Clarke family and will take their experiences and move forward.”

Christopher Fitzpatrick ’84

“Three days before my graduation exercises, the Clarke community suffered a fire that many thought would devastate the college. As we grieved for what once was and for what was to become of this place we loved so dearly, the administration/faculty/staff surrounded the student body with love and support, making sure that our ceremony was every bit as celebratory as originally planned–right down to the awarding of rush-printed diplomas to replace the originals lost to the flames. In the rebuilding years to follow, Clarke became the resilient example for all of us on how to go about our personal and professional lives. I remind myself and try to be guided by: Patience – careful listening, planning, and identifying objectives and values, especially when those of others don’t necessarily reflect my own. Perseverance – following through on those plans and ideals. Faith – beyond a faith in God, a faith in the good nature of others, and that, in the end, everything will turn out all right. In the post-COVID world, having achieved this round of educational goals, you, the Class of 2020, are the builders of dreams, and the example for us all to know that everything will turn out all right.”

Paula (Koellner) Friedman ’78

“After my junior year, my roommate–who happened to be named Paula also–and I exchanged gifts. We were headed to senior year with single rooms in Mary Frances Hall and we had had one helluva great year. Paula knew that in sharing our life goals with each other, I had hopes of becoming a mother in the future. She, on the other hand, did not share that wish for her life. Before we parted ways in June of 1977, Paula gave me a medal of Mother Mary and the Christ child. And as unbelievable as it may seem, I have rarely taken it off since 1977. I went on to fall madly in love and have three children who are in their mid-thirties now–my pride and joy. And, Paula is also the mother of a son, the light of her life. Funny how plans change. About 15 years ago, I went through a rather rough time with one of our kids. In visiting with a parish priest about my situation, he asked me if I had a devotion to Mary and if I didn’t, maybe it would be of comfort to pray to her for her help at the time. Remembering his words, ‘Mary accepted many situations in her life that were beyond her control and she continued to say ‘Yes’ to God and her path in life.’ The medal took on more meaning for me. I can’t imagine what each of you is feeling right now. Your anticipation and excitement for the last couple of months of your college lives have had an unplanned and undesirable ending. The time with friends, family, and fanfare at the traditional commencement ceremonies has been postponed with the hope that it will happen … someday. These things I don’t know and feel. But I can tell you that shortening your college senior year is just one bump in the road of life and you will get through it TOGETHER. For over 40 years, my friends from Clarke and I have weathered much TOGETHER. We have accepted many of life’s ups and downs, disappointments and joy, life and death, broken relationships and lengthy marriages, dealings with parents and children and family members, career changes and jobs lost. But most of all we have stayed true to our bond as Clarke grads and trusted friends with love and respect for each other. This has not come easy and without effort. We have placed a priority on returning every five years to campus. We have reached out to each other often via old-fashioned ways and new technology. We are taking a cue from other Clarke classes and hoping to meet once or twice between reunion years. We have kept the love and respect alive. So I encourage you to continue to be involved in each other’s lives going forward through joys and heartaches. Continue to say ‘Yes’ and embrace it all. Stuff will happen that is beyond your control, but you can count on your Clarke classmates if you all put forth the effort to stay connected. Some days I feel like I don’t know much, but this I know for sure.”

Lisabeth Hawks ’87

“I believe the sincerest message I can pass to the senior class is one of the strength of relationships. The Clarke experience is nothing without the relationships built during your time there. It did not take the formal graduation ceremony to highlight this for the seniors. Over the past two months, the seniors realized that it’s not the buildings, the cafeteria, the stage, or the field that made them Clarkies; it was those relationships established with friends and professors that made them one.”

Sheila (Doyle) Hocking ’78

“Dear Members of the Class of 2020, I can’t even begin to know how disappointed you are to have your senior year cut short. It’s just not fair and my heart goes out to you. I know there’s nothing I can say to make up for that, but there are a few things I can say about what is ahead for you. As Fr. Barta, now Monsignor Barta, said to us at our Baccalaureate Mass, ‘You have lived the ideal at Clarke. Now go out and strive for that ideal in all aspects of your life.’ Those words have stayed with me for 42 years now. It’s interesting how they played out. I have found that those friends I made at Clarke have been my lifelong friends. They are the people who are there to celebrate significant moments in my life, and they are the people who are there to support me in those moments of sadness and loss. Sure, there have been many important people in my life since graduating, but Clarke friends have sustained me throughout all of these years. I know this isn’t unique to me or my classmates. I have served on the Clarke Alumni Association Board for the past 10 years. I have been on campus quite often for alumni events. I’m always amazed to hear alums of all ages walking along and saying the same thing I say to my Clarke friends, ‘It’s like we just picked up where we left off.’ So, Clarke University Class of 2020, you’ve lived the ideal these past few years. Go out and strive for that ideal. Reach out to your Clarke friends often. They’ll lift you up when you need it, and they’ll cheer you on when you share your celebrations. Come back to campus often. I think you’ll find that any time you’re back at Clarke it’s HOMEcoming! Not just that special weekend in the fall. Stay connected and know that this is not the end of your Clarke experience. It’s just the very beautiful beginning.”

Vicki Krstansky ’84

“Congratulations to you! As painful as it is to go through this crisis, it is still a time to celebrate with your families and loved ones. Back in 1984, not only did we have to deal with the losses from the fire, but we were also facing an economy that was in the midst of a recession. For a music major like me, getting a job was not easy. In tough times like this, I rely on my faith, family, and friends to keep myself going. I know that God has brought me through many difficult situations, and will continue to do so. ‘For I know well the plans I have in mind for you…plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.’ Jer 29:11”

Carolyn Merrill ’84, Ed.D.

“To my Clarke University Family, the Graduation Class of 2020. May 16, 2020, is the day your family would come to celebrate your accomplishments at Clarke University. The day you would be the center of attention, the day you would make your mother (father, relatives, guardians) proud. The day family would cheer and yell, especially momma (daddy, relatives, guardians), ‘that’s my baby.’ Now what? No cheers. No one to see you go across the stage. All of this work and for what? May 17, 1984, I asked the same questions. I expressed the same feelings. I had the same expectations. The fire that destroyed three buildings on the campus of Clarke College (University) robbed my spotlight, my cheers, my ‘baby I am so proud of you.’ I wanted to hear those words. I wanted to see my family beaming in the crowds as I walked across the stage to receive my degree. I worked hard for that day. Yes, there is disappointment. Yes, there is hurt, and there might even be some anger, but that does not negate the fact that you earned the degree. Just like the fire in 1984 could not take away the education, joys, and wonderful memories at Clarke College for us, the Coronavirus cannot take away your memories, joy, and education. You have a degree from Clarke University. Make a difference! Let your cheering section come from your goals, dreams and visions that will impact our society. I am proud of you. Congratulations!”

Carrie (Lakeman) Northrop ’84
“On Thursday, May 17, 1984 we had what we thought would be a normal day turn into an inferno. We stood in front of Mary Frances Hall and watched one building after another burn. We made a human chain to get the books out of the library. We graduated two days later and had to say goodbye to a home that would never look the same to us. The campus is beautiful, just different than what we had and it will never look the same. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of that day.”

Mary Ann Zollmann, BVM, Ph.D. (Clarke University Board of Trustee Member; Campus Minister and Faculty Member in 1984)

“For the past several months I have been thinking a lot about the Clarke University Class of 2020. Covid-19 brought an abrupt end to your years as a Clarke student and left you without the long-awaited celebratory rituals that mark the second semester of senior year or the achievement of a graduate or post-graduate degree. The loss hurts; and I, a Clarke teacher for 20 years and a current member of the Board of Trustees, feel that hurt for and with you. In this pandemic, with its devastating dissolution of plans and aching deferral of dreams, millions around the globe are asking: What lasts? You may be asking that question, too; and with our common Clarke connection, I turn to my experience at Clarke for a response. I went to Clarke as Campus Minister and Religious Studies teacher in 1981 when I was 40 years old. I was at that developmental stage in life when all dimensions of my being were seeking integration. In relationships with students in classes, in one-on-one conversations that sometimes lasted until early morning, in deepening friendships with faculty and staff that endure today, I learned who I was, what mattered to me, what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and how I wanted to be as I did it. I grew to know, to claim, and to love the woman I am. On May 17, the day after the planned date of your Commencement, we will be marking the 36th anniversary of the Clarke fire. I still recall staring through eyes blurred by unstoppable tears at the burning buildings and wondering: what will remain, what lasts? What endures is the person I have become and continue to become. What lasts in the midst of this pandemic is the person of courage, hope, faith, and love formed and shaped in such a great part by Clarke. This is something I have come to realize only in retrospect, only with the unfolding years and the living of life events. Clarke is a touchstone of identity for me. Even now, I walk the campus, feel that interior sense of coming home, and remember who I am. Maybe, in ways all your own, this may be true for you.”