Prairie's response to the darkest night in school history proved more impactful than the disaster itself.

By Brendan O'Brien | 12 Days of Giving, all school

Have you ever thought about the attributes needed to make up a dynamic, evolving community? Take Prairie, specifically. What qualities define us? What keeps us going and growing through the decades? Whether you’re here now or a proud alumnus, what types of details decorated your every day?

Creativity. Collaboration. Empathy. Respect.

These are some of the attributes that make ours a successful community. In a way, you could say we’re sort of like a trusted and timeless holiday recipe. (Speaking of, we’re collecting recipes for a virtual community cookbook this holiday season. Send us yours today!) In any given year, our ingredients might be subject to a subtle tweaking – a sprinkle more of teamwork, a dash more of flexibility (ahem, we’re looking at you 2020) – but by continuing to follow the recipe created by Gene Johnson back in 1965, we keep growing as a trusted, impactful place for students to learn and evolve.

In January of 1975, resilience was the ingredient Prairie needed a little bit more of when, just ten years into its existence, the school found itself faced with an unimaginable catastrophe: the total loss of the Art Department and surrounding locations to a devastating fire.

“No matter how hard we will all try to think otherwise, the Tenth Anniversary Year at Prairie will always be remembered as ‘The Year of the Fire.'” So reads the opening paragraph for the year 1975 in the book, The Prairie School at 25.

When it comes to Prairie’s defining moments, few outrank “the fire.” Ten years in, Prairie was on the rise. The school was experiencing record enrollment at all levels. The breadth of curriculum was broader than ever. The Fund Drive had elicited more resources than ever before from parents, alumni, and friends.

But all of that quickly took a backseat following the night of January 17th.

Dig long enough through the archives and you’ll uncover a variety of different accounts from that night. However, none are as real, as raw, as the words shared by Pat Badger, Advisor to the Head of School for Arts and Equity. Badger, who was a teacher in the Performing Arts Department in 1975, shared the below memory following Gene Johnson’s passing in the spring of 2018. 

“It is a long ago Friday night and I am folk dancing when a friend arrives and says, ‘Your school is on fire!’ Somehow I am able to drive up Three Mile Road, the last car before it’s closed. Prairie is, indeed, ablaze. At that point there are only two people standing in that dark, dark night, watching. Gene Johnson and Willie Hilpert. No fire trucks or police have arrived. What I remember is Gene’s steadiness. Her resolve. Her calm as she watches the flames consume the building. The next day some of us salvage sodden remnants. Plans are made to hold classes in the small gym. There’s a plan ‘to build as before and more.’ The fire burns our educational home, but Gene is present for us all and so is her vision. There is no energy wasted on the how and the who. She believes in her dream and rallies all of us right into the future.”

Few mental images are as poignant as Gene Johnson standing outside on a cold winter night watching Prairie burn, few actions as prescient as the decisions she made in the hours that followed. To build as before and more. That is leadership. That is strength in the face of adversity. That is the recipe Prairie has continued following to achieve prolonged, indisputable success.