40 years ago, Civic Center fire changed our community

The Wicomico Youth & Civic Center was a state-of-the art facility when it opened in 1959.

Forty years ago this week, the cultural and emotional heart of Wicomico County experienced a myocardial infarction.

The cause was a fatal conflagration.

Translation: A fire destroyed the original Wicomico Youth & Civic Center.

It cast a palpable pall over the community for months.

As a front-row witness, that sad day remains seared in my memory.

Around lunchtime on June 27, 1977, I was working the cash register at the Sears Auto Center in the long-gone Salisbury Mall when I heard what sounded like a sonic boom.

I thought nothing more of the noise until out of the corner of my eye I saw co-workers stop, pivot and gaze out the open doors of the garage facing Glen Avenue.

One of the mechanics signaled me to come see what the commotion was.

By the time I stepped into the first bay, flames were shooting out of broken windows. It was as if a bomb had gone off.

The blaze’s cause, I recall, was attributed to an electric short in a buffing machine that ignited fumes of what apparently was a flammable liquid being applied to the floor.

The good news: no was killed or injured.

Timing is everything; a tragedy had been averted by just minutes. News accounts in the fire’s aftermath said a youth activity in the building that morning had just broken up. Young children were gone.

One of the mechanics went to his car a few parking spaces from Glen Avenue to move it. Not wanting the potential of intense heat to damage the finish on my repainted 1968 Volkswagen Squareback, I followed suit.

As I approached my VW, flames shot out the rear of the building, where electrical transformers sat. A blinding white arc resembling the business end of a welding tool flashed, followed by another explosion, which in turn caused a nearby pick-up truck to catch fire.

The Civic Center of my youth was home to traditional Independence Day fireworks shows, but those midsummer pyrotechnics occurred at dusk. This midday display halted traffic and commerce in the mall, and prompted oohs and ahhs of the mournful variety.

Salisbury firefighters responded quickly, but even with back-up help from hundreds of volunteers in surrounding communities, it was a lost cause.

The Quonset-hut design of the original structure, with its impressive wooden arches and basketball gym floor, was vulnerable to the flames and heat. I want to say the main building collapsed in an hour, give or take.

A monument, of sorts, remains to those brave firefighters who gallantly kept the fire from consuming the entire structure. A smaller, arched roof structure adjacent to the current civic center’s auxiliary parking lot is testament to their skills in containing the blaze.

As I told a local TV reporter on the 35th anniversary of the fire, in hindsight, the day the Civic Center burned was the demarcation point between my youth and adulthood.

The old building was where people, young and old, gathered for the Wicomico Farm & Home Show each fall, the winter boat show and the Better Living Exposition, high school graduations and proms each spring.

It was home to the local church league basketball, and where I saw Meadowlark Lemon of the Harlem Globetrotters upclose toss a bucket of “dry” water (confetti) on a kid sitting three seats away.

Oh my, “Sweet Georgia Brown.”

And there was the 13-year period when Salisbury was the self-proclaimed “Tennis Capital of the World.” Top men’s tennis players came to town each February (and stayed in the homes of locals) to compete in the U.S. National Indoor Tennis championship.

The tournament attracted stars of the day Clark Graebner, Stan Smith, Charlie Pasarell, Rod Laver and the colorful and hirsute Torbin Ulrich, whose son, Lars, went on to fame as the drummer for the heavy metal band Metallica. There also was the brash teenager, Jimmy Connors, a protégé of tournament director Bill Riordan, who shocked spectators and introduced my generation to the single-finger salute that became his signature gesture when he objected to line calls.

The fall following the fire, I returned to college to complete my senior year and graduate. Back home in Salisbury, civic and elected leaders drew on their Greatest Generation experience and went to work devising a plan to build a “new” Civic Center that still serves our community today.

Bill Robinson, a Salisbury native, was once a reporter for The Daily Times and is now Community Relations Director at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

Just after the noon hour on Monday, June 25, 1977, county employee Jay H. McKee was using a floor-finish in the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center’s Normandy Room when a spark ignited the wood floor. There was an instant combustion and explosion of flames that doomed the community structure.

 

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