"We lost a building, but we didn't lose our family."
Those words from Dr. Cathi McMahan, head of the Arkansas Tech University Department of Parks, Recreation and Hospitality Administration, summed up the mood of more than 50 students, alumni, faculty and staff members gathered for a departmental support session and lunch at ATU's South Hall on Thursday, April 4.
Their departmental home, Williamson Hall, was damaged during a fire on Wednesday, April 3. The building was in the midst of a renovation project at the time of the fire and was not occupied by students, faculty or staff.
An alumna of ATU who has served on the faculty on a full-time basis since 2000, McMahan addressed the department's students during the gathering on Thursday.
"Truly, we are a family," said McMahan. "We wanted to share this time together to say thank you and to say that we will be fine. We will come back bigger and better than ever with the help of each and every one of you and those we have heard from. That's what has kept us going."
Constructed in 1940 as the state headquarters for the National Youth Administration, Williamson Hall soon after reverted to the possession of Arkansas Tech and served as the institution's fine arts building until the opening of Witherspoon Hall in 1972.
Williamson Hall has also served the needs of the U.S. Army ROTC program on campus, but the most recent generations of ATU students and alumni know the facility as the home of the parks and recreation and hospitality administration programs.
Weekly dinners during the fall and weekly lunches during the spring have drawn visitors from the campus community and beyond to Williamson Hall Dining Room, which has played host to a wide variety of university events.
A Williamson Hall classroom even served as Jerry the Bulldog's backstage before he made his public debut as campus ambassador on Oct. 26, 2013, restoring a Tech tradition that had been lost for 76 years.
Williamson Hall was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.
"I don't know how you describe what Williamson Hall is,” said McMahan. “It is a tough time. That was my home away from home for 22 years. To see your faces today and have your support is why we do what we do. The saving grace is we weren’t in the building, none of you were in that building and none of our things were in that building. For that, I can’t tell you how thankful I am.”
A preliminary report from the Russellville Fire Department indicated that no civilians or firefighters were reported injured in Wednesday’s blaze. The report also stated that the cause of the fire is under investigation and property losses are unknown.