Lucy and I were walking in the park one August afternoon when a Cave Spring citizen strolled over to us and said, “I’ve got an idea for a column I wish you’d write.”
I’m always interested in ideas, and like the fact that somebody knew I wrote columns. “What is it?” I asked.
“The Winecoff fire,” he answered. “Billy Walden’s jersey hung in the halls of Rome High until they closed the school, but I don’t know what became of it after that.”
I’m searching through dusty brain cells. I didn’t know who Billy Walden was, but did remember there were Rome High students that died in that fire.
I began to read a little about it. The more I read the more depressing it got. I mentioned the possibility of a column at the monthly Hysterical Historian Hour on the Nelle Reagan Show. Marlin Teat just loaded me down with research. I had to scatter it out. It was just too much. 119 people died in that fire in Atlanta, still the worst hotel fire in U.S. history, and over 30 were high school students from around the state.
In March of 1946, the YMCA sponsored a Youth Assembly at the Capitol in Atlanta. Delegates from Hi-Y and Tri-Hi-Y clubs across the state elected delegates and they flocked to Atlanta. They sat in the House chamber, introduced bills, held committee meetings and argued on the floor of the Capitol. Eighteen-year-olds had just been given the right to vote in Georgia, and legislators were interested in what they had to say. And at the same time the YMCA was interested in promoting “Christian Citizenship Development.” The last item on the agenda was to have another Assembly in a year, but the YMCA thought different. They would hold another on Dec. 7, 1946. Delegate registration forms were sent out, and delegates chose from seven different hotels. The Rome girl’s delegation (I’m sorry that I have no names of the girls that attended, but it must have been horrible to know the boy’s hotel was on fire) chose to stay at the Piedmont Hotel. The eight boys and counselor chose the Winecoff. Upon check-in they had a choice. There would be four to a room, and they had rooms 430 and 1030 available. The four seniors chose 1030, leaving the juniors 430.
James “Buzz” Slatton had been elected “Clerk of Court” at the youth rally in Toccoa back in the summer. He was interested in politics and stated that he intended to be governor of Georgia someday. He had signed all 316 youth assembly membership cards given to delegates at registration, and called the roll at Friday’s opening session. At the evening session he supervised the assigning of delegates to committees that were to amend, combine or table bills. Forty-three bills had been presented for consideration from delegates. They were quite progressive for a 1946 southern state. Over half dealt with health issues and education, and others condemned hate organizations. Buzz had his picture in the Atlanta Journal. He died in the Winecoff fire.
Charles Keith, one of the seniors from room 1030, was class historian and was the brother of the first soldier from Rome to be killed in World War II. He died in the Winecoff fire.
Billy Walden was a tailback for Rome’s single wing offense. He had put on a show his senior year and was regarded as one of the best football players Rome had ever produced. He was president of the local Hi-Y club and his Sunday school class. His jersey was displayed in Rome High for years. I can’t find it now. Billy died in the Winecoff fire.
Dallas Lamar Brown Jr. was the city badminton champion and an avid stamp collector. He was a last minute replacement. Alvis Miller was scheduled to go, but his mother advised him the money he would spend in Atlanta would be better used for college. Lamar took his place. Lamar’s father would become Rome’s postmaster on down the road. Lamar died in the Winecoff fire.
What about the four juniors in room 430? Their room was directly across from and slightly above a shoe store. With the fire raging in the hallway, Frank Pim knocked the screen from the window and crawled onto the ledge. He was the first to jump. He made a seven foot broad jump to the roof of the shoe store. Roger Sumnicht and Dick Collier followed. Charles Gray glanced back as he stepped on the window sill. He saw the door fall in and the flames shoot into the room. He barely made it to the roof, jumping barefooted and stumbling as he landed. They found a rusty ladder fire escape on the back of the building that went part way and then shimmied the rest of the way down on a drain pipe. (There would be another youth assembly the following year, in which Charles Gray would serve as “Clerk” just as James “Buzz” Slatton had.)
Counselor C.E. Hamil and his son, Richard, were on the 15th floor (the hotel had 16). They wrapped wet towels around their heads until someone pushed a ladder from an adjacent building across the divide, 140 feet above the ground. They scampered across. Richard seemed fine, but C.E. Hamil spent some time in the hospital. He would later be principal of East Rome High.
One of the things that intrigued me so much was that a 25-year-old Cedartown native named Bill Berry, a South Pacific Marine who had gotten out of service and was at the Winecoff, had survived Guadalcanal, and died in the Winecoff fire.
This Dec. 7, forget neither Pearl Harbor Day nor the Romans that suffered through that Christmas of 1946 (and it was traumatic!).
I received a message from Blake Silvers last night reminding me there is a marker to the Winecoff Victims at the corner of Broad Street and East Sixth Avenue. Would you go by and tell them they aren’t forgotten?