After recently hearing that Logan High School will not have a high school band this year, I was, like many other folks, appalled. After thinking about it for a while, however, I realized that many people had seen this freight train coming for a few years and we did little to prevent it.
For instance, over the years people witnessing parades in downtown Logan and band performances on the football field watched as the membership of the bands diminished each year. Although I cannot offer a solid solution to the problem, I can say that without successful programs at the middle school levels, it is likely there will be no success at the high school levels. I will also note that it wasn’t that long ago — 2015 — that the Logan High marching band captured honors in band competition at Ripley.
Recently, I noticed that former Logan band directors Don Elkins and Les Duncan were among those who attended a meeting and addressed the Logan County Board of Education concerning the situation. Those two men produced great Logan Wildcats marching bands. In fact, when I was young and attended Logan High football games watching the likes of people like former Logan police officer and councilman Kenny Jeffrey, Arvis Curry, Squirrel Alexander, Mike Smith and Eddie Lee perform — to name just a few — when Logan’s band came marching onto the field from the other side of the school’s fieldhouse there was always only one way to describe the occasion — magnificent. They were loud and 150 or more members strong.
The difference today, unfortunately, is that the loss of population has helped lead to the problem. For instance, in the late 1960s there were 1,900 or more Logan High students, as opposed to around 600 students of today.
I want to get this off my chest and then leave you with a “feel-good” narrative that I hope some will enjoy. First, let me say that I believe that history speaks for itself when in the 1920s Logan County had the highest-paid educators in the state. What I believe is that Logan County would prosper by advertising its educators as the highest paid in West Virginia, which would include band directors and some coaches.
In addition, I feel like Logan County law enforcement at the county level should be the highest-paid in West Virginia. Instead of spending money on things not necessarily needed, it would be great to have the best-paid teachers and law enforcement in the state. Great pay might mean great employees.
Now, here’s the story that needs repeated.
It was Friday, April 18, 1968, when an explosion “that sounded like a jet plane breaking the sound barrier” rocked Logan High School, according to Joe Fannin, then a janitor at the school. Fannin, who was quoted in an April 20 edition of The Logan Banner, said he was walking toward the boiler room that day when he bent over to pick up a piece of paper. “The blast knocked me down and addled me for a few minutes,” Fannin told S. J. Easterling of The Banner staff. Fannin related that as he picked up the paper, the blast destroyed the coal-fired boiler room and sent tons of debris flying into classrooms.
Fortunately, of the 1,900 students who then attended Logan High School, 1,500 or more were in the fieldhouse, which is located on the other side of where the boiler room used to be. The Banner story said other students “had gone to lunch or were in study halls in the cafeteria or library, away from the blast.” The violent boom sent bricks and glass flying into classrooms and into the vocational shop. It was reported the shop took the hardest jolt as tons of brick were hurled through the windows. Fortunately, students in the vocational program had been dismissed for lunch about 10 minutes before the blast.
“The concert had been going on for about 45 minutes,” sophomore student Steve Vance said. “Then, all of a sudden, we heard this thud and the building started vibrating.” Sophomore David Allie, who was doing some extra work in the school library, said “it sounded like a dynamite blast.” Fortunately, the fieldhouse was packed with students who ordinarily would have been in the classrooms. Injuries and possible deaths assuredly would have occurred had it not been for the concert, which originally was scheduled for later that afternoon. Don Elkins, the most notable Logan High School band director in the school’s storied history, recalls the details of that fateful day. Elkins, who led the LHS marching bands to the Macy’s Day parade in 1965, also took his talented groups to such places as the Miss America Parade in Atlantic City, the Expo ’67 in Montreal, Canada, and the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida.
“There was dust on the floors like that inside a coal mine,” Elkins explained. “There could have been a great deal of injuries, or lives lost.” Elkins recalled that Charlie Harris, the school’s principal, had wanted the concert to take place that afternoon. However, Harris was attending a principal’s meeting in Fairmont on the explosive day. Elkins approached acting principal Cap Glenn and asked that the concert be moved up. The probable reason for the change would seem to be because the Logan band was slated to perform in concert at 8 p.m. that same evening for the public. A full-page ad in The Banner the day of the explosion said that the “Annual Band Concert” would be presented by the LHS band at Logan Memorial Fieldhouse.
“Sophomores back then went a half-day to Aracoma Hall at Coal Branch, so that accounted for 300 to 500 students not being at the Island location,” Elkins said. Reflecting upon the past, the longtime band director and popular businessman noted that it was an “exciting time back then.” “We didn’t have all the girls’ sports that they have today, but still, most of the band members were boys,” he recalled.
“We have no way of making an estimate of the damage,” Logan School Superintendent Tom Orr said the next day. However, unofficial estimates at the time were as high as $200,000, it was reported. Following the thunderous boom, all lights went off in the school and smoke filled both floors of the west side of the building. No fire followed the blast, and it was said the student body “handled themselves in an orderly manner.” “The students just walked to the nearest exit and got out of the building without any trouble,” Coach Jim Willis Sr. said at the time. “No one started to run or panic,” added Cap Glenn. “The students acted very calm in clearing the building.” “I walked through the fieldhouse and went outside,” said Mary Rose Varacalli. The LHS teacher added, “Everyone was very calm.”
Following inspections made by the state fire marshal’s office and by structural engineers retained by the Logan school board, one theory derived was that coal gas collecting in the fire box underneath one of the boilers may have created the problem. Students returned to the school Monday, April 22, dressed in “work garb” to help clean up dirt and debris that remained. Although window panes were replaced over the weekend following the incident, window frames, which were blown out of some classrooms, could not be replaced until new ones were obtained from suppliers.
The Logan High School band of 1968 may not have been at the time performing the music of “Fire” by rock artist Jimi Hendrix, or “House of the Rising Sun” by the group known as The Animals, like the award-winning 2015 Logan band did at Ripley, but the perfectly in-tune musical sounds that reverberated off the Logan fieldhouse walls on that fateful 1968 day proved to be a blessing in more ways than one.
The “booming” sounds of the Don Elkins-directed Wildcat band demonstrated the music-loving band members to be more powerful than the “booming” sounds of the boiler room — and consequently, many students live today to tell about it.
How ironic it is that “Fire” was released by Hendrix in 1967, while the Animals’ No. 1 hit was made public in 1964— 51 years ago — a time when Don Elkins and the Wildcat band and majorettes were the best in West “By Gosh” Virginia.
Dwight Williamson serves as magistrate in Logan County. He writes a weekly column for HD Media.