Elon commemorates 1923 fire, honors firefighters at community breakfast

Local firefighters and Alamance County leaders were honored during the Community Breakfast on Wednesday, a kickoff for the yearlong celebration — Rising from the Ashes: A Century of Innovation.

On Jan. 18, 1923, the beginning of the modern Elon University was born. That morning, a devastating fire destroyed the college’s Administration Building. “Old Main,” as it was often referred to, held most of the institution’s records, books and furnishings. Fire departments in Alamance County responded in less than 10 minutes and students formed a bucket brigade, working successfully to stop the fire from spreading to other buildings.

But the damage to Old Main was done. Elon’s leaders, faculty, students and the community could have given up. Instead, undeterred by the setback, the trustees approved a “building plan for … the next hundred years.”

Elon firefighters enjoy a buffet at the Community Breakfast commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Elon College fire and rebuilding January 18, 2023, at the Inn at Elon.

On Wednesday, Jan. 18, 100 years later, the Elon community gathered in commemoration of that faithful day and in celebration of the resilience and innovation that followed.

“Today, on this 100th anniversary of the fire, we salute you in the spirit of 1923. We thank you for being our partners in creating a great university. We thank you for supporting and nurturing generations of Elon students,” President Connie Ledoux Book said during the Community Breakfast in honor of local firefighters and Alamance County leaders. “With the same kind of determination as the people of 1923, you helped propel Elon to become a national university drawing students from across the country and around the globe.”

This year, Elon University is commemorating the resilience and rebuilding of the institution after the 1923 fire destroyed its Administration Building and threatened the young college’s future. The community breakfast was a kickoff for a yearlong celebration — Rising from the Ashes: A Century of Innovation. A video explaining the events of the fire, how the community responded and how Elon has catapulted forward was shown to those in attendance.

Since 1923, Elon University has grown to become a national leader in higher education with 7,000 total students, six academic schools, a campus of more than 650 acres and an alumni network of more than 38,000.

The support from the university’s many partnerships with the community have been a significant reason for Elon’s growth.

“I often work directly with Chief Landon Massey and Assistant Chief Charles Walker … [and have] regular communications about ways we can keep the physical infrastructure safe, along with students, staff, faculty and visitors,” Campus Safety & Police Chief Joe LeMire said. “On this 100th anniversary, we offer our appreciation for that support and the commitment in partnerships that have lived on and will carry through for the future.”

Elon University President Connie Ledoux Book, center, chats with Elon firefighter Briton Wertz ’98 P’26, left, and her son Massimo Wertz at the Community Breakfast commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Elon College fire and rebuilding January 18, 2023, at the Inn at Elon.

Jeff Stein, vice president for strategic initiatives, spoke on the university’s current partnerships that have made Elon one of the best institutions in the country, as named by a plethora of rankings. Stein also asked those in attendance at the breakfast to think about future partnerships that will further cement Elon as a national thought leader and drive the university toward another century of innovation.

“The question we might ask in 2023 is, ‘What will they say about us on Jan. 18, 2123?'” Stein said. “We can’t head down the roads of promise and progress if we sit and wait at red lights or wait for someone else to put out the fire. The past, present and future of our organizations and this county are interdependent. Our success as your hometown university is tied to your success very clearly.

“As Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, ‘We are tied together in a single garment of destiny. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be,'” Stein added.

Bob Frigo, assistant dean of campus life and director of the Kernodle Center for Civic Life, spoke about the cultural differences that have occurred over the last 100 years. Studies have shown that in the last several decades that Americans are not as civically engaged as they were in past generations.

Town of Elon Station 18 firefighters chat with Elon University President Connie Ledoux Book, who delivered some food items and t-shirts to station following the Community Breakfast commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Elon College fire and rebuilding January 18, 2023, at the Inn at Elon.

But the hundreds of volunteers at the Kernodle Center over the years and the countless supporters of Elon have been an exception to the rule.

“Communities are not as close-knit as they used to be. However, those of you, those of us gathered in this room today represent a counter in this narrative. You represent the light,” Frigo said. “The nonprofit leaders, the firefighters, the elected officials and all of us who choose to play a role in strengthening our communities, you represent the light.”

Following the breakfast, President Book visited the Town of Elon Fire Department Station 18 to meet with firefighters and presented them with T-shirts and food as a show of appreciation for all that they do to keep the community safe. The town formed its first fire department in the wake of the 1923 fire.