Wednesday, January 20, 1999

Show must go on at Wilson after arson

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When teachers picked up exam materials Tuesday at Wilson Junior High, they had a chance to see the Hamilton school's new learning center. It's a blackened, empty shell that used to be the school's band room.

        Sheets of plywood covered gaping holes where windows once looked out on a gently rolling lawn. Walls, ceiling and floor were burned to a crisp. Desks, music stands, chairs, dozens of instruments and thousands of sheets of music filled this space until an arsonist's fire destroyed them on Friday.

        Eric DeKay, the school's band leader, intends to use what happened to the room as a teaching tool. He wants his students to learn: Never give up. Even when you have had a bad break.

        “How you deal with a situation like this defines what kind of person you are,” the teacher told me as we walked across the school's parking lot, still strewn with singed pieces of sheet music.

        “You can change the situation or you can let the situation change you.”

        He intends to change the situation. His band will play again. He doesn't know exactly where or when. But, he refuses to let an arsonist stop the music.

        “We're not going to let this fire get the best of us,” the school's second-year band leader said. “We're going to keep rolling.”

        He spoke over the roar of giant dehumidifiers. Their yellow hoses, as round as sewer lids, trailed from the school building as they sucked moisture from the classrooms firefighters doused to put out the flames.

        “You can let something like this stop you in your tracks,” Mr. DeKay added as he watched the wind whip strands of yellow crime-scene tape tied to the trees that circle the school building. “You can get mad. But that's a waste of energy. We need to move on.”

Good fortune
        Inside the music room shared by the school's band, orchestra and choir, construction worker Mike Harrison worked up a sweat scraping acoustic tiles off the wall.

        “This is sad,” he said after a row of tiles hit the deck. “Someone did this to a school.”

        Puffed and toasted like black biscuits of shredded wheat, the squares of sound-absorbent material fell onto heat-curled floor tiles.

        The room reeked with the sweet-sour odor of burnt paper, melted glue and charred plastics.

        “What you see and smell here is the aftermath of disaster,” Mike Harrison said as he continued scraping. “This was a bad burn. Arson always is. It hurts a lot of people. This fire hurt kids, parents and teachers.”

        Mike is a father of three. Cleaning up after a school fire unnerves him.

        When he's working all alone in a room where 67 years of school kids sat and made music, where a fire ruined 72 instruments, from finger cymbals and a tuba to three string basses, he starts thinking dark thoughts.

        “The fire was discovered early in the morning,” he noted, “around 3:30 a.m. I hate to think about what would have happened if it had started around 3:30 p.m. on a school day.”

Applause, applause
        Mr. DeKay and Mike Wallick, the school's longtime orchestra leader, are scrambling to round up replacement instruments. They need trumpets, flutes, saxes and about 15 violins, as well as some finger cymbals and a tuba, when rehearsals begin next week at Hamilton High School.

        “We have to get the students up and playing again as soon as possible,” the orchestra leader told me. “They need continuity back in their lives.”

        They also need to honor the tradition that the show must go on. The school's spring concert was set for March 4. After the fire, it was indefinitely postponed.

        “But we're not going to cancel,” Mr. DeKay said. “The band has been working hard on the music.”

        The concert will be a testament to surviving. After losing their band room and their instruments, and still coming up with the will to make music, these students will have earned a standing ovation.

        Enquirer columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.