Middle School Gave Food, Shelter to Many in Blizzard of ‘77
(Taken from the Southtowns Citizen, Saturday, June 27, 1998)
If you had to be stranded anywhere during the Blizzard of '77, Orchard Park Middle School was on the A-list. "We had food, light, heat, the switchboard, the library, the gym for exercise. Some people swam in the pool. It was not a bad port in a storm," recalls Superintendent Dr. Charles L. Stoddart. “In fact, it was probably the best port, unless you were stranded at the Buffalo Country Club."
Here's how it all came to be:
For reasons no one can quite recall nearly a quarter of a century later, there was no school in session the day the Big Blizzard hit. But, the district's principals and administrators were at work. They had gathered in the district's old Lincoln Building (now the Boys and Girls Club and Village Pine Apartments) across from the middle school.
They were scouring about, taking stock of old furniture and tagging it to be saved, discarded or sold. Eventually, someone turned away from the project and looked out the windows. The sky had turned very black. "We could see an enormous cloud heading our way and enveloping the middle school," recalls Dr. Stoddart, who was South Davis Elementary School principal at the time. "We decided something was really, really wrong. And we decided to get out of the Lincoln Building. There was little heat, little light, no food, the whole place was just an empty shell."
Most of the group headed for their cars and home, but principals Stoddart, Ron Mellerski (Windom) and Norm Naslund (Eggert) had lingered, looking for furniture that could be salvaged for their buildings. By the time they were ready to leave, the storm was so severe, their only recourse was to try to make· it across the street to the middle school where there was heat and light.
"The wind was so strong and the ice pellets whipped so sharply, that we couldn’t stand up," recalls Dr. Stoddart. "We were on our hands and knees, and we crawled across the street and the lawns until we bumped into the middle school building. Then we worked our way along the wall to the front doors." They made their way in, and that's where they spent the next three days.
"Ironically, I had been over there just a few days before," said Stoddart, “And I mentioned to Barb Miller, who was our switchboard operator at the time, that she worked with what looked like a very complicated monster. Imagine the old Lily Tomlin scenario: it was all headsets and plugs and wires and cords. She had said, 'Oh, no, it's not complicated at all. Would you like to learn how to use it?’”
The few minutes she spent teaching him how to work the switchboard just before the storm proved to be her ticket home a few days later. “We were able to send a few people home on snowmobiles,” said Stoddart, “But people assumed that Barb Miller would have to stay, because no one else knew how to work the switchboard. But Barb said, “Oh, Chuck Stoddart knows how to work it!” So she was one of the lucky few who were able to go home. But, others came. "The police kept bringing in people who had been stranded on the expressway or in the village, not just in vehicles, but at businesses that had no food. There were families with children.
"And they brought in several dozen women who worked at Gaymar at the time. They were from the city and many could speak only Polish. Of course, they wanted to call their relatives to let them know they were OK. But, I don't speak Polish and they didn't speak English, so one by one, they came to the switchboard and held up their fingers to show me the numbers to call. That's the way we called their families, one at a time."
Two individuals who didn't make calls and were too terrified to attempt communications with anyone at all, were two Greek truckers brought to the school by police from their abandoned truck. "The minute they arrived, they took two blankets and hid underneath the boiler. They just reached under and pulled themselves in and would not come out. They wouldn't come up for food. We couldn't make them understand that everything was OK. We brought food down and left it near them. That's where they stayed for three days, hiding under the boiler," says Stoddart.
Eventually, some 80 people were housed at the middle school "We had gym mats in the library/media center for them to sleep on, along with furniture pads that police pulled from a truck that had been abandoned in the village. We hooked up televisions. We fed them hamburgers and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We had those big freezers in the middle school kitchen where we stored the frozen school lunch foods, and those were the days when large supplies of government surplus foods were donated to schools. So we ate a lot of cheese, a lot of raisins and a lot of nuts, and then we cooked the hamburgers. There were no rolls, but we thawed frozen bread. And we had large supplies of milk, the kind that comes in those little cartons.
“People used the gym to exercise. They went on tours around the building. They read in the library. Even the people who didn't speak English were going through the books. Mostly people watched TV. That was the time of the Roots miniseries, and that was the highlight of every evening," he said.
As for Dr. Stoddart, he manned the switchboard, which was the only link between the district's buildings and the world outside. He slept under then principal Tom Grant's desk. “There was a lot of construction going on at the time and a lot of unlaid carpet. The carpet rolls also were used for bedding,” he said. Naslund and Grant organized the food and beverage detail.
The building was warm and secure, but the wind was so strong, Dr. Stoddart recalls, that a couple of times there were snow drifts in the foyer, right through the shut doors. “The wind had pocketed itself in that back parking lot like a funnel,” he explains, “so when the blizzard stopped, we started shoveling out from the inside, while others started shoveling in from the outside.
Eventually, the Polish-speaking women from the city were taken back to their cars at Gaymar. The two Greek truck drivers disappeared. The furniture pads were returned to the furniture truck. And the middle school was cleaned up, and made ready for school to start again.