Thursday, November 14, 2019

Bath School House Disaster Presentation

Frank Boles

When people talk of violence in a school setting, most people think of places like Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where two teens went on a shooting spree in 1999. Michael Moore’s film, Bowling for Columbine, used this tragedy to discuss guns in America. In a presentation Moore made about this film, he challenged his Michigan audience by saying, “but I bet not one of you remember the Bath School House disaster, do you?” noting that more people died in the Bath disaster than at Columbine.

George Robson was in Michael Moore’s audience that night, and he did remember Bath, vividly. After Moore’s talk, Robson approached him and told Moore what he knew of the events at Bath. After listening for a few minutes to Mr. Robson, Moore said simply, “you’ve got to tell people this story!” Which is what George Robson did on October 2 in the Sarah and Daniel Opperman Auditorium in the Park Library. 

On May 18, 1927, Andrew Kehoe, the 55-year-old school board treasurer in Bath, Michigan, used timing devices to set off an explosion that devastated the north wing of the Bath Consolidated School building, killing 36 schoolchildren and two teachers. As rescuers began working at the school, Kehoe drove up in his truck, stopped, and detonated dynamite inside his shrapnel-filled vehicle. He killed himself, the school superintendent, and several others nearby, as well as injuring many bystanders.

What made Mr. Robson’s story more poignant was that both his parents were survivors of the disaster. That day, his mother had been in a second-story classroom when the bomb went off. After the explosion, the hall in front of the classroom door was gone. The door opened into the air. The building on the other side,  including the hallway, was gone. Eventually, people with ladders helped her and the other students stranded on the second floor to the ground.

George’s mother remembered that Mr. Robson’s father, the president of the senior class who had asked her to be his special guest at the coming commencement ceremony, had walked through that vanished hallway only seconds before. He was on his way to rehearse his commencement speech at a church next to the school. As he walked by, he had waved and smiled at her. A little more dynamite underneath the building or a few seconds delay in the hallway, and either or both could have been among those who died.

Although the disaster received significant coverage in newspapers, it soon was eclipsed by other news. 

On May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris, having flown solo across the Atlantic from North America. As the papers turned their coverage to Lucky Lindy’s exploit, Bath was forgotten. In Bath itself, there was a reaction that many today would find curious. Today when disasters strike, there is a tremendous urge to remember and memorialize. But in Bath, the goal seemed simply to move forward. There were no vigils or memorial ceremonies, and only one, ambiguous memorial was created. 

In 1928, artist Carleton W. Angell presented the community with a memorial statue entitled Girl With a Cat. The statue was funded by pennies collected by schoolchildren throughout the state.

The statue, however, did not document the event or list the victims. Nor was the statue prominently displayed in the community. When George, as a youngster, first saw it tucked away in a corner of the school building that had been constructed to replace the destroyed Bath Consolidated School, he asked his mother about it. She simply said it memorialized a terrible tragedy.  

In 1991, a Michigan Historical Marker was established in Bath that recalled the facts of the incident. A separate marker listing the names of those killed was also installed in 1991.

To hear Mr. Robson’s presentation click on this link: