January 1981: Firefighters attempt to subdue the lethal fire at 16 Arlington Street

The Context

1980 kicked off the decade with a potent mixture of inspiration and uncertainty. While international concerns still weighed heavily on the nation, there was a feeling of technological progress and optimism domestically. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was screened for the first time, and the smallpox virus had been declared extinct. The hostage crisis in Iran was in full swing, and the “Miracle on Ice” of the Winter Olympics would serve as inspiration and a reminder of persisting cold war tensions. The year would end with the death of musician and activist John Lennon, culminating the mix of hope and tragedy.

As the new year approached in 1981, our organization faced its own existential challenge—losing its home—while simultaneously making profound progress. Nearly 3,000 volunteers were placed in the Boston Public Schools by School Volunteers for Boston (the former name of Boston Partners in Education) that year.

The Fire

In January 1981, while Executive Director Isabel Besecker and her staff negotiated plans to host a convention of School Volunteer Programs, a blaze was breaking in the elevator shaft five stories below. A few staff members detected the smell of smoke, but it was assumed to be coming from a mimeograph machine that had been operating through the morning.

By the time they realized that something was wrong, the stairwell had been rendered unusable by thick, suffocating smoke. Besecker and Jack Lisciandrello led the staff to the fire escape and onto the roof of the neighboring building. The group was lucky to survive – two firefighters were killed fighting the fire that day at 16 Arlington Street.

The Aftermath

Space to perform SVB’s work was not the only issue the fire had raised; gone were ALL of the organizations files regarding volunteers, placements, teachers, programs, and donors. The fire seemed like the end of operations at that time, but instead served as proof of the support and love that SVB had earned from its community and staff for all of its work.

Kathy Baublis, credited by those closest to her with an extraordinary memory, began work on reassembling volunteer information, requesting that schools and volunteers help wherever they could. “We put an ad in the Boston Herald and the Globe, anybody who volunteered please get in touch with SVB!” she said. “And of course the schools were able to tell us who was there. But we were never able to recover everything.” Volunteers phoned in from around the city, reporting on their names, contact information, and assigned schools, quickly rebuilding a key component of SVB’s operations.

Prudential Life Insurance, under the direction of Edward Lietz, a Board member of SVB, immediately offered office space for the group while they reorganized. Lietz, having survived two such disasters in his own life, felt that the best way to deal with the trauma was to ensure that the work could be continued. Later, the organization would find another home in the John Hancock building near the Boston Common. Other businesses donated cash, furniture, and office necessities.

John O’Loughlin, who had nearly completed his extensive book on the 15-year history of SVB before it was lost in the fire, began again, this time utilizing the memories of staff members and volunteers in an oral history. Edna Koretsky Warsawe, now retired in Florida, also sent along all of the relevant files in her possession. This act was repeated by several of the original 28 volunteers who had in their possession a number of valuable historical documents. Bill Baldwin was instrumental in acquiring duplicates of SVB’s financial documents, which were invaluable in keeping the organization secure.

Also gone was the donation of artwork by Corita Kent, a pop-artist who made her name through vivid, politically-charged screen prints. Corita had initially donated a large number of prints to SVB, due in part to her experience as an educator and her belief in the power of the public schools. In response to the loss, Corita decided to donate once more, a total of 1400 prints. She thought her work might serve an educational purpose as well as an inspirational one: a major feature of most of her work is handwritten text of articles and quotes from famous and wise individuals, from Fyodor Dostoevsky, to Martin Luther King Jr, to President John F. Kennedy.

If there was ever any question as to whether SVB itself could survive the disaster, it was answered by an outpouring of support from staff, volunteers, and corporate partners that Isabel Besecker had cultivated over the previous 10 years. By August 1981, operations ran as though not even a minor setback had occurred.

Such rapid recovery against such extreme loss is a testament to the community of generosity and support that School Volunteers for Boston had built in its first 15 years of operation. Their quick recovery proved how valued they were by the volunteers, educational system, local businesses, and the City of Boston as a whole.

Today, SVB continues to match volunteers with Boston Public Schools students under the name Boston Partners in Education, which is able to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year thanks to the generosity of its partners.

Boston Partners in Education is holding an online auction of Corita Kent’s artwork (referenced above) in the month of November. Corita Kent donated her work in support of our mission and the proceeds of the auction will benefit Boston Partners in Education to mark its 50th anniversary year.