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In 1965, a string of fires kept campus on edge, destroyed a building and led to changes in the way NC State operates.
On the night of Tuesday, Feb. 22, 1965, Banks Talley Jr. came to campus to work on his doctoral dissertation. In the basement of Peele Hall, where he had an office, he scanned old newspaper stories in the dim light. The only sounds came from the clunky microfilm reader. Then, BOOM!
The building rattled. Shaken and confused, he ran to pull the blinds. His eyes stopped on the four-story Pullen Hall, just 30 yards away. Flames shot from the buildings first-story windows. Banks, the university’s director of student activities, called the fire department, called campus security, called a couple of college officials. There was a second explosion. He watched as the fire engulfed Pullen and embers fell on Peele. He rushed to shut filing cabinets stuffed with student records and college applications. He darted upstairs, out the door. He composed himself, took it all in. Flames appeared to shoot higher than the 115-foot Bell Tower nearby. The heat intensified. The fire’s orange and red glow radiated.
Just a few minutes passed. Firefighters arrived.
Too late. Pullen Hall was gone.
Word spread. A guy popped his head into a bar near campus and yelled, “Someone’s burning down campus!” Young women, wearing curlers and bonnets, evacuated their rooms in nearby Watauga Hall. Groups of young men heaved vehicles parked beside Pullen to safety. Others fought small brush fires. Some hauled filing cabinets containing student records out of Peele. More darted into nearby buildings, shutting doors and windows, warning others. Police and fire officials set up a perimeter. Nearly 150 firefighters -- with four ladder trucks and five pumpers -- battled the blazes, dumping water on Pullen and wetting down trees and buildings. Peele’s roof collapsed.
Talley scanned the faces of the nearly 8,000 people, including many pajama-clad students, who had joined him in watching the building burn. And for each face he came across, he wondered: “Are you the firebug?”
It was the question campus had asked for weeks. Four fires had been reported on campus on Feb. 9. A small fire in Danforth Chapel. A stack of IBM cards burned in Holladay Hall. A bulletin board and trash can set afire in Brooks Hall. A drape torched in Becton Hall’s lounge. There were no injuries, and total damages amounted to just several hundred dollars. But the fires startled campus. Chancellor John T. Caldwell called them the work of a “pyromaniac.”
About a dozen detectives from multiple agencies, including the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI), the Raleigh Fire Department and the N.C. Department of Insurance’s arson division, were put on the case. They were only “nuisance fires,” SBI director Walter Anderson had said. But it felt “like a man-eating lion was stalking through campus,” Technician reported. “A siren shrieks in the night and we hold our breath, wondering what could happen next.”
Fear escalated. A flaming box of rags destroyed a window curtain in Pullen’s basement on Feb. 17. Three days later, a blazing telephone book in a phone booth in Berry Hall caused minor smoke damage. By then, Technician said, it was obvious: A current or former disgruntled student must have set the fires deliberately. When a reporter asked during a press conference soon after the Pullen fire how many suspects there were, an SBI agent answered: “How many students are there?”
William Royal “Bill” Fairchild ‘67. That’s the name other students kept bringing up during the investigation. He was a senior in applied mathematics. He was fingerprinted, given a lie detector test and interrogated again and again. And he had already made a confession: On Dec. 17, he and a friend headed out for a few beers and some fun. They set a phone book in Williams Hall on fire. Next they stuffed burning paper through a ventilation window in a supply room in Withers Hall, home to the chemistry department. The room contained 20,000 gallons of ether, alcohol and other flammable solvents. Though the fire burned itself out before any solvents ignited, several water pipes burst and flooded the building, causing $10,000 in damage.
Ten days before the Pullen fire, Fairchild and his friend were charged with two counts of unlawful burning and one count of unlawful entry. That brought them “under an extreme cloud of suspicion,” he says, for the six small fires set in February.
In mid-February, he withdrew from school and moved back home. Friends deserted him. Investigators hounded him. Nobody believed him when he said he didn’t have anything to do with the February fires. He felt pressured, abandoned, isolated.
On the night Pullen burned down, his father received a call from an investigator asking, “Do you know where your son is?”
“He’s right here,” his father answered.
It was just past 11 p.m. Fairchild was sitting on the family couch in Winston-Salem watching the news. The broadcasters were reporting live on the Pullen fire. Fairchild was sad—not only had he been an NC State student, he had played clarinet in the marching band for two years and had spent many hours in Pullen, the university’s music building. But he also was relieved. Something had happened that would force investigators to focus elsewhere.
The morning after Pullen burned, N.C. Gov. Dan Moore toured the site. There was Peele—home to all the student records—still standing only because the concrete slab under its roof prevented the fire from spreading faster. Streams of water circulated throughout the three-story building. At least five inches of water filled the basement, and it was hot because maintenance workers had turned up the furnace to dry it out. Windows were cracked. Plastic blinds and light fixtures hung like taffy. Telephones were melted.
No student records were damaged. Most had been stored in a fireproof vault in Peele’s basement, and others were saved because Talley had closed filing cabinets and students had carried them out the night before.
Next door, Pullen was gutted and charred. Only a few walls and portions of its four white Doric columns remained. It resembled Greek ruins.
Pullen was an “irreplaceable landmark,” Technician claimed. One of the oldest structures on campus, it was built in 1902 and named for Raleigh resident R. Stanhope Pullen, who gave the state 62 acres in 1887 to build the N.C. College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. Known as the “chapel” and “assembly” among the college’s earliest students, it first served as a dining hall, auditorium, library and lecture hall. Until the 1940s, its 1,100-seat auditorium hosted the college’s weekly assembly (and was a favorite target for pranksters who wanted out of them, letting loose bees, cows and even a bear inside on separate occasions). Later, as enrollment grew, it housed the English and math departments. Since 1955, it had been home to the music department. But because of its age and mostly wooden construction, it was restricted to limited use.
Then it was gone—and with it, all the college’s musical instruments, copies of the alma mater, glee club arrangements and the records detailing the music department’s history. Total losses exceeded $500,000.
Things could certainly have been worse, Moore said during a press conference after his tour. Still, “this is an alarming problem,” he added, “because we don’t have the slightest idea where the fires will occur next on campus.”
He pushed college officials to take all necessary and immediate steps to prevent more fires and ordered the SBI to intensify its search for the perpetrator. Within several hours, what was left of Pullen was demolished. Chancellor Caldwell announced a curfew effective immediately, limiting entrance to campus buildings after 6 p.m. to those who presented photo IDs or IBM registration cards and to only visitors on official business. Dorm residents organized fire watches. Two 50-person crews of students, police officers, firefighters and campus security officers patrolled campus at night. “It was sort of like martial law,” Talley says.
The N.C. General Assembly even called an emergency session to reclassify the intentional burning of a state university building as a felony and punishable for five to 10 years in prison. Just five days after the fire, the law was in effect.
It didn’t take long for more leads to come in after Fairchild was cleared. A few days later, a young man calling himself the “Imperial Chicken” used a ham radio to ask anybody near Tucker Hall to bring him two cans of gasoline—one for a stalled car and one to set Williams Hall on fire.
A couple days later the “Imperial Chicken” called The News & Observer
to claim, “We are going to burn State College to the ground. Tonight is a nice night for a fire.”
A tip from a student led investigators to the “Imperial Chicken.” They questioned him but concluded he had no connection to the fires. “The Chicken has been plugged,” Robert Goodwin, an SBI agent, told The N&O, “but we are still investigating the [firebug] case.”
Investigators pleaded with students to continue feeding them tips, no matter how small. Chancellor Caldwell and student body president John Atkins ‘65 begged students to cooperate with authorities and report any suspicious behavior. College officials toughened their stance against pranksters, dismissing at least two students who set off a smoke bomb in a dorm and a small fire in a fraternity-house trash can.
The curfews continued, the nightly patrols continued, the press continued its focus on the case and the investigators continued fingerprinting students living in dorms.
Despite this, on March 3, 1965, at about 10:45 p.m., a student found a pegboard on fire in Frank Thompson Theatre. He extinguished it with the help of an off-duty Raleigh police officer; one of the paintings hanging on the board was destroyed. The SBI blamed the firebug.
“Mad as hell” was how Technician reporter Bill Fishburne ‘66 described the student body's reaction. ”[Why] would someone do this once and then continue to do it? This was our home. If we could have found the guy who did it, we would have beaten him to a bloody pulp.”
A week or two later, a student from Henderson went to investigators to report the suspicious behavior of his roommate, 18-year-old Vernon Dodd.
He told investigators this: “I kept watching. I’ve been hoping there would be a fire sometime when Vernon was with me so I knew he didn’t do it. But there never was. [One evening] he said he was going to see a girl in an apartment. But I knew he didn't have any girls like that. And that night there was a fire.”
Investigators looked into Vernon. He fit the profile of the likely firebug: He was a disgruntled student and a loner. During his first semester at State, he failed his forestry-orientation course. “He was sort of the boy who liked to go his own way and think his own thoughts,” his high school principal, John Nettles, told investigators.
And his whereabouts fit the timeline: On Feb. 3, 1965, he was suspended from NC State for academic reasons and headed to Salisbury, his hometown. Unable to find a job there, he returned to campus just a few days later, moved back into Becton and signed up for a correspondence course. In early March, his father underwent emergency heart surgery and had a pacemaker installed. So Vernon returned to Salisbury on March 9 to look after his younger siblings for a couple of weeks. “He’s your original hard luck kid,” his college roommate had said. “Everything seems to be going against him—his family, school, girlfriends.”
Vernon Dodd, the investigators concluded, was the firebug.
On Friday, April 2, 1965, he was arrested in Raleigh and charged with eight counts of unlawfully burning property. He faced up to eight years in prison for each felony count.
That evening, the SBI drove him to his parents’ small brick house on West 14th Street in Salisbury. They arrived at about 5:30 p.m. He spent most of the night sitting with his mother, Betty, on her bed. “He cried and cried and cried,” she told The Salisbury Post
He told her his story: One night in early February, he left his room in Becton and walked to Danforth Chapel to pray. When he got there, he felt an urge to set a fire. He struck a match and lit a curtain. Then he went to the basement in Holladay. He found a stack of IBM cards and set them on fire. Next was Brooks, where he started a fire in the men’s bathroom. He even helped firefighters keep people away from the building. Finally, he returned to Becton and set a fire in the lounge.
And on the night Pullen burned down? He struck a match and lit wood boards in a hole under Pullen’s staircase.
A few weeks later, he left a drinking party in Becton and walked to Thompson Theatre. There, he set fire to a pegboard.
“I'm so thankful that nobody’s ever been hurt,” Vernon told his mother. “I just think if anybody had been killed I’d just kill myself.”
Why do it then?
“I don’t know why I did it,” he told The Salisbury Post
. “I realize I need help, and I want to get help.”
At 1:30 a.m., the Dodds’ phone rang. It was the SBI. They came to pick him up and take him back to a holding cell in Raleigh.
On the night of February 22, 1965, when nearly 8,000 people stood alongside Banks Talley Jr. and watched Pullen burn, Vernon’s older brother was among the crowd. John Perry Dodd Jr. ‘66 was a senior majoring in textiles. He had no idea his brother was responsible.
When he found out, on the news just like the other students, he was in “total disbelief,” he says today. “It was very emotional.”
Born July 11, 1946, to Betty and John Perry Dodd Sr., Vernon was the second of five children. His father had spent 18 years in the Army but had a heart attack while serving in Korea. After he returned home to Washington, D.C., he had several more -- each worse than the one before -- and eventually moved his family to western North Carolina, where he had grown up, to be near a brother and an aunt, and where his pension and Social Security would go further.
Vernon attended Piedmont Junior High School and Myers Park High School in Charlotte before moving to Salisbury during his sophomore year. He made A’s and B’s in school up to that point.
But his father became bedridden as his condition worsened, and his mother was an alcoholic. With John away at college, Vernon looked after his family. His grades suffered. He graduated from Boyden High School in 1964 with a 1.9 GPA and ranked 160 in a class of 209.
He entered NC State as a forestry student on a junior GI Bill scholarship because his father was a totally disabled war veteran.
“My husbands been ill . . . , and I think that's affected Vernon,” his mother told The Salisbury Post
. “He worried a lot about his daddy.”
After Vernon Dodd’s arrest, the firebug quickly became old news. The university temporarily moved student records to Daniels Hall. Plans got under way to find the music department a new home in what would eventually be the Price Music Center, completed in 1972. Another copy of the alma mater was found in Raleigh’s Broughton High School. Curfews were lifted. Students protested an effort in the state legislature to rename NC State the University of North Carolina at Raleigh. And the student theater group—by coincidence because the schedule was set in advance—concluded its spring 1965 season performing “The Firebugs,” a Max Fischer play written in 1953 that depicts how a town responds as arsonists threaten its tranquility. “The firebug was a hiccup more than anything,” Atkins says. “There was relief, but you didn't have time to dwell on it. There were so many other things going on.”
But, before the semester ended, Technician editors warned: “It can happen again, and it eventually will unless some changes are made in the basic concept of what an education is, and how it is transmitted.”
Campus officials believed so, too. And over the next several years, changes were made. Gone was the “the casual existence of the past,” Talley says. A past when you didn’t need a key or security card to enter residence halls. When the lone medical doctor on staff worked part time and could prescribe only cold medicine. When there was no audible warning system or even Campus Police. When the tightest security on campus was a sheet that young men signed to pick up and drop off their dates who lived in Watauga.
Some changes were implemented almost immediately and others over time. Outdoor emergency telephone units around campus. Student patrol teams to escort students and employees at night and to monitor campus parking lots. A larger and more professional security operation. Admissions officers looking deeper at students’ applications, searching for hints of any mental and physical health problems.
Student health and counseling services also expanded significantly in size and scope. Residence halls became more secure with the addition of fire alarm systems and keys to access the buildings, not just dorm rooms. Professional staff was added to residential housing offices. And student leaders were employed and trained to live in dorms as residential advisers.
Yes, many of these things were going to develop anyway, says Talley, who retired from NC State in 1984 as vice chancellor emeritus for student affairs. “But the fire caused the college to move ahead rapidly in some areas. Everybody was very serious about doing what they could to prevent it from happening again.”
Change too came to Bill Fairchild, the initial firebug suspect. Since he withdrew from college in February 1965, he has been “diligent to live a proper, sane, sound, mature, legal, moral and ethical life,” he says.
He returned to NC State and finished his degree in applied mathematics in 1967. He was sentenced to five years probation for the fires he set Dec. 17. They were silly, youthful pranks that got out of hand, Fairchild says today. “My friend and I did pretty much the same thing that Dodd did when Pullen went up,” he says. “We were lucky that our little fires didn't spread. He wasn't.”
Because of good behavior, his probation was reduced a year. In 1972, a judge expunged his criminal record.
“Not everyone changes,” says Fairchild, a computer programmer and software developer in Franklin, Tenn. “But it’s possible.”
As for Vernon Dodd, his case went to trial in Wake County Superior Court in April 1966. He pleaded guilty to five charges of willful and malicious burning of property for fires in Danforth Chapel, Holladay, Brooks and Becton. He pleaded not guilty to the Pullen fire. But during his sentencing hearing, investigators testified that he told them that he had set fire to the music building, and the city solicitor said a psychiatrist reported the same confession. Vernon was sentenced to three years in a youthful offenders’ center, and he served out his years. After that?
Vernon’s adult life could be described as “down and out,” says his brother, John, a retired technical sales engineer for the textiles and paper industry in Wellford, S.C.
After his release, Vernon struggled with drugs and alcohol and was in and out of rehab facilities. He married and divorced, held odd jobs like putting up drywall. He developed lung cancer and spent the last few years of his life in a nursing home. He died July 18, 2003, at 57.
Vernon had a rough life, John says, “but he didn’t have any malice in his heart against the students of NC State. He told me a few months before his death . . . that he never figured out why he set those fires, but he was so glad no one was hurt.
“As time has gone by,” he adds, “it has just become part of history.”
A new Pullen Hall was built on campus in 1987. Today, it houses six offices, including Student Affairs. The site where the original Pullen once stood is a parking lot for Peele Hall, paved over, with access guarded by a gate.
Cherry Crayton 01, 03 med is assistant editor of NC State magazine.
This story was shaped by the reporting on the firebug investigation in The Salisbury Post
, The News & Observer
, The Raleigh Times
. Other sources include more than a dozen interviews with former NC State staff, faculty and students and with those who knew Vernon Dodd.