20 years ago this week: Anniversary brings back memories of the night Dora School burned

Word spread quickly through the Dora community as the 60-year-old school building burst into flames on Jan. 21, 1998. The state fire marshal and ATF agents said the fire started in a 10-burner gas stove in the kitchen. Former superintendent Ken Cook said the fire “was a tragedy when it happened, but a blessing when it was over.”

Editor’s note: Recalling the fire that destroyed Dora School 20 years ago this week, we share this story reprinted from the Feb. 27, 2008, edition of the Times.

Sally Gunter still doesn’t remember exactly what made her turn her head and look toward the Dora School that night just over 10 years ago. After all, she and husband Brian had other things on their minds. They were on their way to West Plains, where they thought their second child would soon be born. 

“I don’t know why, but I just happened to look at school,” Sally said this week, recalling the night of Jan. 21, 1998. “I saw a kind of flickering light in the ground-level windows. I can’t remember exactly, but I think we stopped and Brian got out and looked inside and saw the fire. We turned around and went back to Dick Deupree’s house.”

Even though it was after midnight, Deupree was still awake. “I was sitting up reading when someone knocked on the sliding-glass door. I looked up, and it was my neighbor, Brian,” Deupree said. “He said, ‘Listen, the schoolhouse is on fire.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding.’”

But Brian Gunter wasn’t kidding. A blaze had started in the 60-year-old school that soon would demolish almost all of it.


11 fire departments, 21 trucks

“My grandson Carl Butts was staying with me. He was a senior that year. I hollered at him upstairs. I said, ‘Get up! Let’s go up there. They say the schoolhouse is on fire.’”

Deupree and his grandson hurried to the school about a quarter mile away. “We looked in one of the windows and could see some flames. Carl said, ‘Grandpa, we can put that out,’ but I said, ‘No, it might be burning underneath. We’ve got to go home and call for help.’”

Deupree started making calls, and within minutes phones were ringing throughout the area. In a surprisingly short time, scores of local residents were on the scene along with 11 area fire departments and 21 trucks.

Wanda Watkins, now a school board member, had been district treasurer for 25 years and also had worked as secretary to the high school principal and attendance clerk. She and her husband, Ron, live about a mile southwest of the school. 

“We were sleeping, and I heard a siren,” Wanda said. “Our kids were living away from home, but I’d talked to them and knew they were all safe. So I went back to sleep. But then I heard more sirens – four or five of them. I woke up my husband, and just then the phone ring, and I tell you, my blood ran cold. I could not have answered that phone if my life had depended on it. I knew it was something bad.”

Ron answered, and she heard him say, “Oh, my God!” Then he hung up the phone and ran toward the living room. Through the window, they could see the north sky glowing orange.


‘Look out your window’

Dick Deupree called board member Sheena Grisham with the news that the school was on fire. “No it’s not,” Sheena argued. “We were just there.” She and her family had come by the school a hour or two earlier after an out-of-town ballgame. “Our son Randall was a senior, and he played on the ball team. Our daughter Leslie was in eighth grade. We had stopped by the school on our way home from the game, and everything was fine.”

“Look out your window,” Deupree told Sheena.

She called superintendent Ken Cook in West Plains. 

“My wife Mary Jo answered the phone,” Cook told the Times. “She listened and then hung up and told me, ‘The school’s on fire.’ I was pulling on my clothes and told her to call Sheena back and make sure it was her.” By the time he got in his vehicle, his wife was calling out the door: “Yes, it was Sheena. The school’s on fire,” she said.

As he drove, he thought about the school board meeting just a couple of months earlier. “At that meeting, the board had voted to increase our insurance coverage to well over $1 million,” Cook said. 

The new coverage had gone into effect Jan. 1, three weeks before the fire.

“That turned out to be the biggest blessing of the whole thing. Our claim ended up being $2.3 million, and it was all covered,” Cook said.


Fighting the fire with water from the sewage lagoon

When Cook arrived, residents were saving what they could – but it wasn’t much. Water was a problem. At first, the fire trucks refilled their tanks from the water hoses at Crossroads Store. Then they started pumping water out of someone’s pond, Cook said. Eventually, they started drawing water out of the school’s sewage lagoon.

Volunteers rushed to carry books out of the school’s library and threw them into a school bus parked nearby. Others worked to cut loose the outside air conditioning units and pull them away.

Firefighters realized that the school’s library might be saved if the hallway that connected it to the main school could be breached. Ronnie Howard, owner of Howard House Moving, rammed his semi-truck through the hallway to separate it from the rest of the school.

Eventually, all people could do was stand and watch the firefighters hose down the smoldering rubble. 


A hodgepodge of new and old structures

The school was a hodgepodge of new and old structures. Dick Deupree remembers seeing an old, two-room school being moved from CC Highway to the school’s present site. “The old school – I think it was built around 1920–had high school in one room and grade school on the other. I was a kid, and I remember my dad furnished the horses for them to use when they moved it. We went to school there and at Sweeden Pond while the new school was being built,” he said.

The old school, now remodeled, escaped damage and still stands on the current site. 

Deupree said his family donated the land for the “new” high school. “It was a WPA project, and the rock for it came from down around Hammond Mill. They’d been planning to build a dam down there above the bridge, and they’d cut some rock for it, but for some reason that project stopped. When they started building the new high school, they used that rock and quarried some more from there.”

The first year classes were held in the new school was 1939. “I was a freshman,” Deupree said. A newer part was added in 1957, and in April 1997, the district passed a bond issue that provided for the remodeling of the school’s gym. “We’d just had three or four ballgames in it when it burned,” Wanda Watkins said. 

About 330 students attended the school in preschool through grade 12 when the fire occurred. 

The parts of the school that were saved from the fire included the library, the vocational agriculture building, the superintendent’s office and a new cafeteria that was still under construction. The gym and classrooms, along with the student records, 50 years of composite photographs of graduating seniors and nearly all the school’s equipment, furniture and books were lost.

Wanda and Ron Watkins, stayed at the scene through the night but left at daybreak to feed their cattle. “Mr. Cook told me, ‘You go home and get some rest. When they get the phones hooked up, I’ll call you.’” 

Cook called her at 9 a.m.

The school’s first call after the fire that Wednesday morning was an early indication of what was to come. “A guy called and said, ‘I’ve got five mobile classrooms coming off lease around Springfield, and I’m looking for someone to take them,’” Ken Cook said. “I asked when he could have them here, and he said Monday. I told him I’d take all of them.”

The state fire marshal and a national response team of 18 ATF agents soon arrived on the scene to investigate the cause of the fire. Wanda Watkins remembers the attention they paid to the school’s Civil War-era safe. “They used a crane to pull it out of the rubble, and they said I had to be there to open it because I had been the last person to close it,” Wanda said.

A backup computer disk of the school’s financial records had been placed in the safe, but the heat had damaged it so much it couldn’t be salvaged. Most student records were lost. “They were in fireproof filing cabinets, but we think the safe fell on top of them and let air in, and that basically caused all the records to be lost,” she said. Paper money stored in the safe was scorched, and some of the coins had melted.

The ATF initially told Cook that the fire had started in a convection oven.

“I hate to disappoint you,” he told the agents, “but it couldn’t have been the convection oven because it was brand new and hadn’t even been hooked up yet. It was to go in the new cafeteria when we got it finished.”

The agents later decided it had started in or near a 10-burner gas range in the school’s kitchen.

Miraculously, the district missed only eight days of school. During that time, an amazing flood of donated or purchased used furniture, textbooks, computers, and equipment poured into Dora. 

“I was on TV one day on channel 10 and said, “I know you superintendents out there all have storage rooms. We need what you’ve got in those storage rooms. If you’ll call us, we’ll come and get it,’” Cook recalled. Dora volunteers made several trips with cattle trailers to bring back donated goods from all over the state. The truck-driver-training school in West Plains sent semitrucks to Kansas City, where thousands of dollars’ worth of good were donated to the Dora district.

Wanda Watkins kept a scrapbook of the news coverage that focused on the school from all around the nation. Recently she found a note that said donations had come from 104 businesses or organizations, 182 individuals and 53 school districts. “But there were probably more than that,” she said. “Sometimes they came so fast we couldn’t keep up” At one time, she said Richard Martin’s old skating rink on Hwy 181 was full, along with a couple of barns.

On Feb. 2, classes resumed. To indicate it was time to change classes, the school counselor got in her car and honked the horn.

For a while, school lunches were prepared in a nearby church basement and delivered to the students, who ate in the vo-ag shop. Basketball teams practiced wherever they could find space in a gymnasium, but often in Fairview; wearing donated uniforms, the teams played most of their home games in the West Plains Civic Center.

In May, the class of 1998 graduated in a huge red-and-white-striped tent set up in the parking lot. 

In December 1998, just less than a year after the fire, the new gym was completed, including bleachers donated from Hickory Hills Middle School in Springfield. A year later, the school got more bleachers from Republic. “Donnie Berry, the maintenance man, put them together,” Cook said.

All the student records were tediously reconstructed, and all the photos for the composite class pictures were reassembled, photo by photo. 

On Dec. 9, 1999, the school moved back into its new facility. 

Today, more additions and remodeling projects have increased the school’s size and enhanced its facilities. It is a busy, modern, thriving place  

Ken Cook, now superintendent at Malden School District in southeastern Missouri, looks back on the fire and marvels at the loyalty, hard work and determination that helped the school rise from the ashes. That experience was forecast by what Wanda Watkins said to her husband the morning of the fire. He told her, “Well, I guess you’ll want to be retiring now.”

“No way,” she told him, knowing what would happen. "We’re gonna rebuild. And I want to be a part of that.”

Ken Cook speaks for everyone who had a hand in recreating the beloved heart of the Dora community.

“It was a tragedy when it happened,” he said, “but a blessing when it was over.” 

Ozark County Times

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