Reprinted from an article in the Providence College alumni magazine, May 18, 2021.
The family tradition that is Providence College has been manifested over the decades in many and various ways. Generations of Friars have attended PC. (In my case: my dad John M. Reynolds ‘40, my cousin Kathy ’73, my sisters Ann ’78 and Mary Beth ’84, and me ’80. My husband James ‘79 – even though we didn’t know each other then, and his father Ray, also ‘79.) it’s a family tradition! Many of my classmates have sent their children to PC. For those of us who were students in the late 1970s, there is one event that has, and always will, define us.
To write about the Aquinas Hall dormitory fire of December 13, 1977, a tragedy that ultimately claimed the lives of 10 young women, prompts sharp and difficult memories. Memories of youth and innocence, of traveling back through time to golden days full of promise and hope. And in one night, much of our innocence and sense of invincibility was lost.
In 1977, there were no cell phones, no internet, no texts or Skype or Zoom. There was no Netflix or Hulu, no TSA at the airports, no ATMs, no AIDS. The Berlin Wall still stood, and Jimmy Carter was the president. There was great (and not-so-great) music, and if you were dining in Raymond Cafeteria, you might have heard Donna Summer singing about leaving a cake out in the rain at “MacArthur Park” over the intercom system. We wore clogs and Fair Isle sweaters, and we sported Dorothy Hamill haircuts.
For many young women in the mid-1970s, going away to college was an important part of the rite-of-passage experience. A different state perhaps, a new dormitory adventure, and roommates! For some of us, the entire experience was unfamiliar. And daunting. But that’s how bonds begin. Everyone is starting out and going through the same unfamiliar rituals, to varying degrees. Few of us had cars, so our entertainment consisted of basketball or hockey games at Alumni Hall or Schneider Arena, tipping a few pitchers at the Rat, the occasional concert or lecture at ’64 Hall, or just hanging out in each other’s dorm rooms or in Mural Lounge, where the hot ham and cheese grinder was $1 and an ice cream cone was just a quarter.
There were three dorms for girls (which is what we were in those days): Meagher, McVinney, and Aquinas. Each dorm had its own personality, and all three buildings faced what is known as the Quad — a quadrangle of green space flanked by the three women’s dorms, plus McDermott Hall for boys. There were girls who met each other as roommates freshman year and stayed friends forever. And there were attachments forged through tragedy.
I’ve written about that December day, listing all 10 of the young women, even though I only knew two of them well enough to greet by name. But because we’re so connected, because we’re family, all of us, our Friar community is linked by the tragic Aquinas fire.
When people die young, at the very beginning of their adult lives, one can’t help but imagine what they would have become, how their lives might have turned out. The 10 girls who died in the fire that snowy night will remain youthful in our memories.
Every year in December we stop to remember, because we can’t ever forget. When I return to the Providence College campus, I pause to look up at the fourth-floor windows of Aquinas and offer a prayer for the girls who perished, and for their family members. But I also pray for the girls who survived. One of those survivors told me that for many years, she tried to figure out why she was saved, what was her purpose. Was it her marriage? The birth of her child? She said it took decades to realize she was saved for many reasons, and she tries, even now, to understand. It’s a question that is beyond comprehension, she said. So she focuses on what matters in her life: kindness, expressing to loved ones how much they mean, letting go of anger, cherishing friends.
All these years later and the memories can be as sharp as yesterday. That’s the thing about memory, even as we grow older. Now in our 60s, we often joke about forgetting the most meaningless things, yet none of us can forget the fire. I can remember a conversation with Katie, or the last time I saw Debbie.
Life is filled with moments — some so happy you’ll swear you must be dreaming, and some so tragic you wonder, for years, why they occurred. But if I can learn a lesson from my friend Kim, it is to find joy in small moments, to express kindness, and forgiveness, whenever possible, and to give thanks to the tightly knit community that is Providence College.
Martha Reynolds McVeigh ’80 ended an accomplished career as a fraud investigator and in the past 10 years has written ten novels. Her novel, Villa del Sol, was awarded the 2018 Book Prize in Literary Fiction by the Independent Publishers of New England.