Release of Old Main documentary relives memories for past MSU students

MSU built the Old Main Academic Center in remembrance of Old Main Dormitory.

The Old Main Dormitory has been the center of focus since the release of Mississippi State University Films' Old Main documentary. The short documentary, directed by James Parker, focused on the fire of the Old Main Dormitory in 1959 and was released on the 63rd anniversary of the tragedy.

Billy Jean Flanagan was a student at MSU during the Old Main fire and recalled her memories from before and after the blaze.

"Before it burned, I remember it being a big brick building. It was big and noisy, and I remember it having three or four floors," Billy Jean Flanagan said.

Flanagan remembered hearing the commotion around campus and soon realized what was happening.

"I soon knew it was burning. I sat on the windowsill and just watched it burn; that's what I remember," Billy Jean Flanagan said.

Billy Jean Flanagan said she still holds the sadness she felt at that moment as she glanced at the chaos happening around her and as she watched a notable piece of her campus burn to the ground.

Her husband, Jim Flanagan, was more personally connected to Old Main due to his short-lived dorm assignment within the building.

"When I first came to State, I stayed in Old Main for a while before moving dorms eventually. It was a very big brick building, and I think at the time, it was the largest dormitory in the country. They put freshmen there, so I was there," Jim Flanagan said.

Jim Flanagan transferred to the University of Southern Mississippi a few years into his collegiate journey but remembered the nostalgic disappointment he felt after hearing about the burning of his old dormitory.

Sid Salter, director of MSU Public Affairs, recalled the stature of the building and its former title as the largest university residence hall in the U.S.

Salter described the old dormitory building as leaving a footprint of where McCool Hall and the Colvard Student Union stand today as its backside formerly faced the Perry Cafeteria.

"On January 23, 1959, a fire broke out in the building. The students and emergency officials began to try to clear the building as there were no elevators in the building. They were coming down various sets of stairs. Because this was an old building with a lot of wood in it, the firewalls and wiring were primitive," Salter said.

One person died during the fire, and Salter explained that the university used the ruins of the building to construct a symbol of remembrance for the loss, the Chapel of Memories.

"That became a generational memorial, and the campus needed closure. When the shell of Old Main was raised, and the bricks were salvaged to construct the only place of worship on the campus, that meant a lot to the students, faculty and the townspeople," Salter said.

According to Salter, the Old Main Academic Center is also an architectural homage to the original structure and holds resemblances to it.

"Old Main has been an integral part of the history of Mississippi State and continues to be. The design of Old Main Academic Center was forward-looking to how much that building meant to the campus," Salter said.

Salter explained the recent initiative of the University Television Center to create MSU Films to share important stories of MSU's past and future.

"We were delighted to debut the Old Main film as a means of showing what our capabilities are in the documentary film area and to make it known that we intend to use that medium as part of our storytelling platform," Salter said.

David Garraway, director of the University Television Center and co-producer of the Old Main short film, said he felt it was vital to share this glimpse of history through film due to the importance the building holds within MSU's history.

According to Garraway, the directing and production crew were able to carefully piece this compelling film together through the narrative stories of alumni who were there on the night of the fire.

"It's a very important part to so many who went to Mississippi State for decades. You would live in Old Main. Everybody who had family at Mississippi State seems to have an Old Main story, either from them or their father or their grandfather or other relatives," Garraway said.

Garraway said he felt the short documentary would allow current students to understand the cultural importance of the Old Main Dormitory and the feelings of those who were emotionally connected to the building in some manner.

"We're so far removed from the nuances of that feeling of being in this very large dormitory and watching your home burn. For hundreds of students that night, that was their home, and they watched it burn," Garraway said.

Garraway said this documentary preserved the memory of the fire for the older generation and provided insight into that night for generations to come.

"I think we say rationally, 'Sure, there was a large building, and it burned on campus.' However, have the students experienced the feeling of that firsthand, as told through the stories of those who were there? Have they seen the photos of the days after? Do they really understand how the Chapel of Memories is literally created from the bricks of Old Main itself?" Garraway said.

To watch the MSU Film's Old Main short film, visit films.msstate.edu.

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