Education

Events Stir Memories of Dark Day at Mich. School

By Robert C. Johnston — May 05, 1999 2 min read

The gunfire that left 15 people dead at Columbine High School near Denver is believed to be the most lethal shooting ever at an American school.

But what apparently was the country’s worst-ever school massacre occurred 72 years ago--the work of explosives set off by a school board member in Bath, Mich.

On May 18, 1927, Andrew Kehoe, an angry board member and struggling farmer, set off a series of explosions at the Bath Consolidated School near Lansing, leaving 44 people dead, including 38 children.

“It was a clear day, and there was not a cloud in the sky,” Chester McGonigal, who was a 14-year-old Bath student at the time, recalled in an interview last week. Students were also taking final exams that day prior to summer break.

No one suspected that over the previous several weeks, Mr. Kehoe had stashed dynamite around the rural school. The local farmer had run for and won a seat on the school board to fight taxes levied to pay for the 5-year-old school. He blamed the taxes for his financial troubles.

A Town Remembers

Summarizing a local news account, the current Bath schools superintendent, Susan Bolton, said that hours before the school explosion, the man killed his invalid wife and set his house on fire.

Then, at 9:46 a.m. on May 28, the clocks at the 250-student school stopped after much of the dynamite laid by Mr. Kehoe exploded, flattening one-third of the school. The death toll would likely have been worse, but more than 500 pounds of dynamite failed to detonate.

In the aftermath, said Mr. McGonigal, who is now 86: “People were running hither and yon. They were trying to get their kids out. They were trying to get under a roof that had gone down.”

Thus, few noticed a car pull up to the school driven by Mr. Kehoe, who called Superintendent Emory Huyck to his vehicle.

Moments later, Mr. Kehoe detonated dynamite in his car, killing himself and four others, including Mr. Huyck. Later, a nationwide fund drive helped rebuild the school. “Their want to support education was one thing that pulled the community through,” said local historian Gene Wilkins.

Earlier this year, art students at Bath Middle School researched the lives of the victims and portrayed them on ceramic tiles now on display at the school.

Now, the April 20 shootings in Colorado have stirred further memories of the long-ago tragedy in the Michigan farming community, whose school system has grown to 1,000 students and three schools.

“Some people discuss it,” Superintendent Bolton said of town residents who lived through the explosions. “Some have a hard time reliving the memories. They know it happened, but don’t want to talk about it.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 1999 edition of Education Week as Events Stir Memories of Dark Day at Mich. School

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