White Out

A Storm to Remember

Reed Browning's first-hand account of the blizzard appeard in the March-April 1978 issue of the Gambier Observer, a newsletter of Harcourt Parish.

To all but the most passionate of meteorologists, the term "perfect storm" has a perversely oxymoronic ring—a little like "immaculate disaster" or "unblemished calamity." But it's hard not to reach for linguistic extremes in talking about the blizzard that swept the eastern United States during the last week of January 1978.

The Blizzard of '78 literally blew away most of the existing records for Midwest winter storms. It slammed Ohio and engulfed Kenyon, transforming an already-isolated campus into a windswept outpost that felt something like a remote Antarctic ice station.

Kenyon produces vivid memories for students in every era, and those memories are often entwined with a sense of the landscape and the elements. In the annals of dramatic weather on the Hill, however, not much matches the Blizzard of '78.

During Wednesday, January 25, the evening before the storm's arrival, the weather had been generally mild throughout Ohio. Temperatures ranged from the upper thirties into the forties; a light drizzle fell amid fog. Then everything changed.

Not long after midnight, the blizzard crossed the Ohio River on a lateral path running from Cincinnati to Portsmouth. In Cleveland, less than two hours north of the College, the barometric pressure plunged to 28.28 inches, the lowest non-hurricane reading ever notched in the lower forty-eight states. At Cleveland Hopkins Airport, winds were logged at eighty-two miles per hour. On Lake Erie, the ore carrier J. Burton Ayres measured gusts as high as 111.

Meanwhile, Kenyon slept.

"We had no idea it was going to be something catastrophic," recalled Lisa Dowd Schott '80, who today serves as the College's director of alumni and parent programs.

Schott was awakened before 5:00 a.m. on Thursday, January 26, by Kevyn Hawke '78, the student manager for the dining hall in Peirce.

"I got a call from the food service director at about 4:30," Hawke remembered. "He said that nobody could get in because the highway patrol had shut down all the roads. He asked me if we could get in there and prepare something for breakfast."

Hawke and Schott rounded up student Rich Hebert '80, who they knew had experience as a short-order cook, and went to work. Hawke and Hebert, both members of Phi Kappa Sigma, conscripted pledges for dishwashing duty. If there is reasonable accuracy in the collective recall of those who were pressed into service to feed a hungry Kenyon, five hundred students were served breakfast (pancakes and eggs) on the first morning of the storm. The lunch crowd more than doubled, when twelve hundred were fed. More than nine hundred students showed up for dinner.

Landa Patterson '80 remembered pitching in, noting with amusement that her prior food-service experience wasn't particularly helpful. "My other job at Kenyon was serving hors d'oeuvres at the president's cocktail parties and social gatherings."

On that first day, tuna salad was the lunch fare. "I thought it would be over by lunch time," Hawke later told the Collegian. But as the storm groaned on, and no delivery trucks arrived to replenish exhausted inventories of milk and bread, he realized that his crew was going to have to hunker down and push through the weekend.

Spaghetti fed the hungry hordes at dinner. And, with other supplies dwindling, pasta appeared on the menu again. And again. The blizzard-bound student body consumed a lot of pasta that weekend.
Dean of Students Thomas Edwards visited the dining halls in both Peirce and Gund throughout the weekend to encourage the provisional crews of volunteers preparing the food and make sure the student body was getting three squares. Edwards, who had been at the College since 1954, told the Collegian, "No one can remember as severe a blizzard as the one we have experienced."

According to the newspaper, students prepared eleven meals over the course of four days, some working as many as fourteen hours a day. "These students made up for curtailed resources with an abundance of enthusiasm and a dash of culinary inspiration," an editorial said.

Classes were canceled on both Thursday and Friday, though a story persists that one professor trudged through a wind-chill of minus fifty degrees on the first morning, confronted an empty classroom, then chalked on a board before he departed: "Where the hell is everyone?"

Richard Ralston, Kenyon's maintenance chief at the time, had alerted his crew in the predawn that they would soon be on an emergency footing, summoning to the school as many as could make it on essentially impassable roads. He later praised the six who got through. They remained at Kenyon from 3:00 a.m. Thursday until 5:00 p.m. Saturday, taking a sleep break of only four hours throughout the ordeal.

"Our first priority was with electricity," Ralston said later. "A lot of primary and secondary lines coming into campus were damaged. A tree took out the power to Bexley Hall for thirty-two hours."
With everything paralyzed, what could students do?

"You have a party," Schott said. She remembered classmates making a path to the Village Market, where English professor Gerald Duff told them, "There isn't a beer left in Gambier."

But there was beer in the Rathskeller, the pub located in lower Peirce, and the weary volunteer kitchen crew liberated a keg as compensation for their labors.

Although the Blizzard of '78 claimed no casualties at Kenyon, there was at least one close call. Kyle Henderson '80 remembered, "I was walking down Middle Path with Robert Standard '81. We were just out for a walk, probably because of cabin fever, when a massive tree fell fifteen feet from where we had just passed." It was one of eighteen trees felled by the storm on campus.

The White House declared Ohio a federal disaster. Troops were sent in to help rescue residents trapped in their homes. In all, the blizzard claimed fifty-one lives in the state, most of them storm victims who had left stranded vehicles or unheated homes seeking warmer shelter.

All things considered, Kenyon was lucky. Beyond the power outage in Bexley, Mather and Caples residences lost heat for a few hours, and some windows were broken in Peirce. Another casualty: the
Collegian, whose January 26 issue was marooned at the print shop ten miles from Gambier. "Neither rain, nor snow, nor gloom of night ...," the paper noted later. "Unfortunately, when you get all three together, even such reliable fishwrappings as the Collegian must fail in its appointed rounds."

Did the blizzard have a lasting impact? "I think the storm gave the student body more respect for the student workers," Hawke told the Collegian.

Anything more? It's hard to say. But perhaps some Kenyon graduates from that time have, over the years, found themselves trudging through a snowstorm and dodging into a restaurant for warmth and sustenance. They study the menu, ponder the blowing white outside, and, without quite knowing why, announce, "I think I'll have the spaghetti."

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