Dubuque marks 30 years since Clarke College fire - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Dubuque marks 30 years since Clarke College fire

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Clark College fire May 17, 1984. Photo Courtesy: The Telegraph Herald Clark College fire May 17, 1984. Photo Courtesy: The Telegraph Herald
DUBUQUE (KWWL) -

Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of one of the largest fires in Dubuque's history.

It was a hot afternoon May 17, 1984, when roofing materials on top of a Clarke College building spontaneously combusted, sparking a devastating fire that would destroy four buildings.

Incredibly, nobody was seriously hurt in the disaster at Clarke College, which is now called Clarke University.

Sr. Catherine Dunn remembers the day vividly.

"I looked up and I saw a poof of smoke," she said Friday, standing on Clarke University's campus.

Dunn had been the president of Clarke College for less than four months at the time.

"I ran out in front, and fire trucks were there and the building was just engulfed in flame, and black-sooted smoke went up," the past president said, recalling that afternoon.

The fire started around 1 p.m. on the roof and quickly spread through the four buildings' shared attic space, destroying Clarke's chapel, plus three buildings that housed classrooms, administrative offices and retired sisters' living spaces.

"It was a horrible thing that happened to us, and many people lost their personal belongings as well as their professional belongings and all the writings they'd done," Dunn said. "One professor had done research on women in literature. She lost it all."

Dubuque fire chief Dan Brown remembers the fire. He was a young firefighter at the time, who had been with the department for just two years.

"Yeah, there were some parts that were falling in on us," Brown said, recalling the fire. "We went and pulled one ceiling, my partner and I did, and it all kind of came down around us, so there were parts of the building starting to fail and, you know, they made the call to get everybody out and it was a good call."

He said the Clarke College fire is one of the largest fires of his career.

The four buildings were a total loss and cost Clarke College $15 million to rebuild, about $9 million of which came from insurance pay-outs and the rest of which came from community fundraising and alumni donations.

The Clarke community, however, was not going to give up following the fire. They salvaged more than half of the books in the library and re-used stone and other parts of burned buildings in the new buildings.

"Never for one moment did I not think we would rebuild and move forward and be greater than we ever were," Dunn said. "I said, 'We will rebuild. We will have graduation.' This was Thursday. 'We will have graduation on Saturday, and we will start summer school on Monday,' because one of the things I truly believe, that when you're in a crisis, it's an opportunity for you."

True to her word, and the word of the entire college community at that time, Clarke College -- now Clarke University -- lives on.

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