Investigating the Bankhead School fire and the life of T.L. Kerby

Posted 9/28/18

When the fire alarms went off at Bankhead School in Cordova on Sept. 21, 1976, many of the students thought they were participating in a drill as they filed out of the building.Members of the Cordova …

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Investigating the Bankhead School fire and the life of T.L. Kerby

Posted

When the fire alarms went off at Bankhead School in Cordova on Sept. 21, 1976, many of the students thought they were participating in a drill as they filed out of the building.

Members of the Cordova Fire Department arrived on scene at 12:45 p.m, five minutes after getting the call, but the 50-year-old school was beyond saving.

I have always been told that the school went up quickly because the wood floors in the auditorium had soaked up so much oil used to clean them for decades.

The fire started in the boiler room. Sixth graders having class in the auditorium saw smoke coming through the floor and notified Principal Morris Stone. The school, which had approximately 280 students in grades five, six and seven in attendance, was emptied in a minute and a half. 

The Daily Mountain Eagle incorrectly reported on Sept. 22, 1976, that Bankhead was the oldest school in the county. In fact, Nauvoo School had been built in 1919, five years earlier than Bankhead.

Nearly all instructional materials, supplies and records dating back to the 1930s were lost. 

The only items saved were 30 to 40 desks, a few seventh grade textbooks, three air conditioner units, a television set and a bronze bust of John H. Bankhead. The latter had been retrieved by two high school students who had gone into the ashes the day after the fire and fished out the school's namesake.

The bust would be transferred to the new Bankhead Middle School, where it was on display near the office while I was a student. It is now housed at the Bankhead House and Heritage Center in Jasper.

Bankhead School was located in the Benchfield area, across town from the town's elementary school and high school. The Eagle reported on Sept. 23 that the school would not be rebuilt on that site. According to Stone, state law required at least an eight-acre site based on enrollment. The old site was five acres, including a creek.

Bankhead students were temporarily relocated to the gymnasium of the Cordova Special Education Area School and one portable unit until 10 trailers could be set up for classrooms.

A new Bankhead Middle School was eventually built between Cordova Elementary and Cordova High. Cordova Elementary, built in the early 1950s, is now the oldest school in the county. According to a wish list presented at a recent board meeting, a new Cordova Elementary School could be coming in 2022.

Bankhead School has been on my mind for the last couple of weeks while I've been doing some research on Mr. Theo L. Kerby, the last principal of Bankhead High School and first principal of Cordova High School.

His story is one of several that will be told in the fall issue of WALKER Magazine, which will feature a series on the county's high school football stadiums and their namesakes.

I struck out several times when I started asking around about the Kirby in Cordova's Hudson-Kirby Field. Finally, former city council member Ralph Sandlin got a message to me that he was a principal and he spelled his name Kerby.

To date, I have not determined why we have been spelling it incorrectly for decades.

Janis Hudson, daughter of beloved CHS Principal Wilburn Hudson, confirmed that Mr. Kerby had been a principal before her father and speculated that he may have been the school's first principal.

My search then took me to the Cordova High library, where I discovered that the first annual, published in 1943, had been dedicated to the memory of Theo L. Kerby.

I imagined Mr. Kerby was an older man until Elizabeth Blanton at Jasper Public Library found his photo in a scrapbook compiled by the Bankhead High class of 1940, the school's final and largest graduating class.

He was obviously a young man and yet he was dead by 1943. 

Elane Jones, regional library director Sandra Underwood and I spent an afternoon attempting to solve that mystery via Ancestry.com. I'll save the reveal of what we found for the magazine.

Mr. Kerby's students and the committee who chose to name Cordova's football field after him might have assumed that his name would never be forgotten by the Blue Devil faithful.

That was not the case. The students who knew and loved him have now passed on. The first Cordova school that he served burned in 1976 and the one that he helped open in 1941 was torn down in 2013. 

The only trace of him today is a misspelling on a weathered stadium sign. 

Part of the joy of this job is getting to rediscover stories that have been lost over time and sharing them with readers through the newspaper and magazine. 

If you have suggestions for a column or magazine topic, you can reach me at the office number, 221-2840, or email at jennifer.cohron@mountaineagle.com.


Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.