My name is Maxine Dehn. My husband was an attorney; we moved to Effingham earlier in the year of the fire.
My father-in-law, George Louis Dehn, was co-chairman of the Finance Committee. This group of men brought in a large amount of money through various appeals, one of which came to be known as the Dehn Letter. This letter asked for a dollar donation and the name of a person to which a similar appeal could be sent. It proved to be very successful and money poured in.
Another method used was to scan the phone books of large cities, Boston for example, with large Irish populations, to ask for contributions in the name of Fern Riley, the young woman who stayed with the babies in the nursery and died with them. This approach was unique and again successful.
The period immediately after the fire was a time when the entire city of Effingham was of one mind. The city was not very large then, and smaller communities are often clannish. This was set aside by the large group of volunteers who worked in shifts to address envelopes and stuff them.
The letters asked for donations to be sent to the "Hospital Fund, PO Box 449, Effingham, Illinois." Many letters were returned with large donations. There is a picture of the committee with large stacks of mail around them. Another one I remember is of a thermometer in front of the courthouse that showed the progress of the campaign. One very unusual return was a dollar bill tied to a small rock, with the PO Box written on the rock. However the donations reached them, the group was very proud when they reached their goal.
In the early days after the new hospital opened, there were commemorative plaques placed on room doors honoring the efforts of the many people who worked hard after the fire. Many years later, when I was doing some research on the fire, I looked for them. The hospital staff thought they might have been removed during some remodeling and perhaps they were somewhere in the basement. They looked, but could not find them. They seem to be lost, which is unfortunate.
Maxine Dehn has many family ties to local history. She has done historical research on a number of topics. Maxine lives in Effingham.
In their own words
On the night of April 4, 1949 – 70 years ago – a raging fire lit the sky over Effingham as St. Anthony’s Hospital burned. Devastation of the structure would take only minutes, but the fire's devastating impact lingers to this day. There were 128 patients, staff and visitors in the building. The fire claimed 77 lives. Linda Ruholl, nurse historian at the Effingham County Museum, has collected 11 "oral histories" from people affected by that night. The Effingham Daily News will share these stories of tragedy and triumph throughout April.