Ripples from the fire reach far

Linda Ruholl in 1949

I was born in the old hospital in May of 1946, so I was almost 3 when it burned. My parents didn't talk about it in front of me. There was a worn copy of the April 6, 1949, Effingham Daily News in my mother's keepsake trunk. But it wasn't nearly as interesting as Josephine Hatke's 1930s jewelry, or the faded sepia tone photos of my Aunt Emma Schwerdt McDonald, who lived in far off New Jersey. I missed the opportunity to quiz my mother about the fire before she passed away. I'll never hear her insights, and I regret that.

It was only after retirement in 2008 that I started to pay attention. The publication of Eleanor Bounds' and Audrey Garbe's 2009 book about the fire was the flashpoint. As I read, my initial impression was, "My family was lucky. We didn't lose anyone in the fire. It had no effect on us." I was wrong about that conclusion. As time went on, I started to see connections. Later, I saw the "ripple effect," the intersecting ways some of the deaths impacted on my mother's family, my husband's family, my neighborhood, and my hometown.

My husband lost his mother, Mary Rieman Ruholl, in 1949. The Ruholl family was from Lillyville, in Cumberland County. Mary Ruholl didn't die in the fire. She had breast cancer, and she was being treated at the old St. Anthony Hospital. With the hospital gone, Mary Ruholl lost access to radiation therapy. She died the day after her birthday, in June of 1949. She was 47, and my husband was motherless at 7.

I've lived on the same piece of property north of Teutopolis for most of my 72 years, and I'm surrounded by the ripple effects of the fire. My husband's older cousin, Norbert Ruholl, lost his 22-year-old wife, Laura Repking Ruholl, in the fire, along with their 5-day-old son. Norbert's brother, Henry Ruholl, lives just a couple of blocks north of my home.

A niece on my husband's side, JoAnn Koester Niemeyer, lives a few miles east. Her husband, Allen, lost his grandmother, Emma Niemeyer, in the fire. Emma was at the hospital taking care of baby Clarence Ulhorn, and that baby died also. Allen's father was Emma's son, Bernard Niemeyer. Allen's older sister, Carol Niemeyer Heuerman, lives across the road from Allen and JoAnnn. His other sister, Vera Niemeyer Koester, was part of my Teutopolis Community High School graduating Class of 1964.

Several Hotze families live in my neighborhood, also to the east. The Hotze men's mother was Grace Niemeyer Hotze, a sister to Bernard Niemeyer. When Emma Niemeyer died, those Hotze families lost their mother and grandmother. The Francis Uthell family lives north of me. Peggy Niemeyer Uthell's father was Dale Niemeyer, another one of Emma Niemeyer's sons. Thus, yet another family group was left without a mother and grandmother.

My daughter and her family live just west of my home. My daughter's husband is Corey Dasenbrock. Corey's grandmother was Marge Adams Wall. Marge's sister was Adele Adams Rhodes, so Adele was Corey's great-aunt. Adele's story is that of the "near miss." She worked at St. Anthony Hospital, but got away safely because she went off duty at 11 p.m., not long before the fire was reported. I didn't hear about this from Corey's Grandma Marge until a couple of years before she passed away.

Further east of me, on the Cumberland Road, also known as old U.S. Route 40, is the town of Montrose. Frances Bersig was from Montrose, and she died in the fire. Two of my aunts on my mother's side lived near Montrose in 1949. Mayme Schwerdt Flood and Veronica Schwerdt Osborne were flower girls at Frances Bersig's funeral, but I didn't discover that connection until I read her obituary many years later.

When I was a young nurse, I worked at the new St. Anthony's Memorial Hospital. I got to know Norma McEnroe, who was a nursing supervisor at that time. I only learned later that Norma's maiden name was Bersig, and that the Frances Bersig buried at St. Rose Cemetery in Montrose was Norma's aunt.

The postmaster in Teutopolis when I was growing up was Fred Weis. All the kids knew him. The Teutopolis post office was in the center of town and catty-corner across the street from Wessel's store, a popular spot. My aunt, Adeline Hatke Ludwig, lived just six doors down from the post office, and I stayed there sometimes in the evenings when I was in grade school. Later on, I got to know Fred even better as his health declined, and I worked as a nurse. But I didn't know until years after his death that his sister, Gertrude Weis, had worked at the hospital for many years, or that she roomed at the hospital and died in the fire.

The study and preservation of local history is a mixed blessing. The research process is time consuming, but fascinating. The findings can be revealing, and the conclusions striking. But there will always be regrets about missing data and missed connections.

Linda Ruholl is a retired nurse educator. She led the Effingham County Museum's effort to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the hospital fire. Her home is north of Teutopolis.

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.

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