Fire stirs Redding Elementary memories

Telegraph StaffDecember 19, 2013 

William Blanton Redding III had a special attachment to the old Redding Elementary School building in Lizella, which burned Wednesday night.

The building had been used as a Hindu center since 2009, but from 1919 to 2002, most every member of his community went to elementary school there.

“It renews an awful amount of memories,” Redding said of the fire that destroyed the school named after his grandfather, William Blanton Redding Sr. “It’s life. It’s reality. It’s not always what we want, but we have to deal with it.”

For many in Lizella, the former school building represented fond childhood memories.

Though it closed as a school in 2002, the building remained a landmark in the community. Thursday, former Redding Elementary students and current members of the Hindu center reflected on the old school’s significance, while fire and law enforcement officials investigated the fire’s cause.

Redding recalled sitting inside Lizella Baptist Church on Wednesday evening when he got a text message from his daughter that the former school was on fire.

“I ran out the door of the church, and I immediately saw that it was almost totally engulfed,” Redding said. “It was flames going a hundred feet in the air at least. I knew then that it was absolutely a loss.”

He walked to the scene with his 9-year-old granddaughter and saw at least eight fire trucks and almost three dozen firefighters locked in a futile effort.

The 94-year-old building, where he, his mother and his daughters went to school, would be reduced to charred remains by dawn Thursday.

Former students react

The brick building opened in 1919 after moving from a wooden schoolhouse.

Betty Lindsey said attending Redding in the 1950s and ‘60s was the highlight of her childhood.

“It was a simpler time,” she said. “You knew every year who you were going to be in class with.”

“It was a neat old building,” Lindsey added. “That’s a piece of Americana that’s gone.”

Juanita Jordan, the retired former president of the Peyton Anderson Foundation, said she remembers scrap iron drives organized at the school to aid the war effort in the 1940s. She was a first-grader at the time, and her future husband was the captain of the scrap iron drive team.

Later, when they were in high school, she remembers seeing him on the steps of Redding when he first noticed her and had a friend make an introduction.

“He had a lot of stories to tell about the flag pole and running things up the flag pole that they shouldn’t have and racing around it with an old car,” she said.

After meeting at Redding, the pair lived happily ever after, said Jordan’s granddaughter, Kris Hattaway, who was a student at the school from 1991 to 1998. Diane Hattaway, Kris’ mother and Jordan’s daughter, taught at the school 15 years.

“I’m very sad,” Jordan said. “However, once it was purchased and turned into a church, I guess it didn’t affect me as much as it would have were it in its original form.”

The Bibb County school system closed Redding Elementary in 2002 in response to population shifts in the county and moved students to a new school in southwest Bibb County, but not without a fight from Lizella residents who filed a lawsuit in an attempt to keep it open.

Bibb County Commissioner Joe Allen said he tried to save the school as a commissioner and later led an effort to try to buy buildings on the property for a senior center.

“When they closed the school I was heartbroken,” Allen said. “That was the backbone of Lizella.”

Wednesday night’s fire was another blow.

“I almost had tears in my eyes when I got the call,” Allen said.

Life and loss as a Hindu Center

The school campus was redeveloped four years ago after Macon businessman Ashok Patel purchased the property from the Bibb County school system in 2009.

The businessman secured rezoning a few months later for a Hindu community center and offices.

Patel is visiting his parents in India, where he got the call about the fire.

“I was just praying for my holy books to be safe,” he said by phone. “All of our members are all over the United States, and they are very upset.”

A book called the Kuljam Swaroop Saheb or “the total and complete knowledge” contained close to 19,000 verses, said Raxit Patel, Ashok’s nephew.

The collection of handwritten notes was compiled from 3,000 followers all across the country, Raxit Patel said.

“It’s the only one of its kind in the world,” Raxit Patel said. “The Lord wrote that book by the will of God.”

Four people were rescued from the temple building on campus and were checked by EMS on the scene, but there were no injuries, said Macon-Bibb County Fire District Chief Richard Blair.

The Macon-Bibb County Fire Department, the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating the fire’s cause. Fire Chief Marvin Riggins said Thursday evening he expects to have results available by Monday.

“It does not appear to have a criminal element at this point, but we are not ruling out arson,” Riggins said.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303. To contact writer Andres David Lopez, call 744-4382.

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