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Survivors Recall 1927 Michigan School Massacre

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Survivors Recall 1927 Michigan School Massacre

Survivors Recall 1927 Michigan School Massacre

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Today from our StoryCorps project, we'll hear from survivors who lived through school violence in Michigan, 70 years before Columbine.

Mr. DONALD HUFFMAN: I am Donald Huffman. I grew up in Bath, Michigan. It was a little farm town, had a elevator, a little drugstore, and you knew everybody within 20 miles. Back then, that's the way it was.

INSKEEP: In 1927, Donald Huffman survived the worst act of school violence in U.S. history. His school was bombed. Thirty-nine people were killed; 38 were children.

Mr. HUFFMAN: I was 9 years old. I lost one eye, lost part of my cheekbone, broken wrist, compound fracture. That's where they had to have plates put in. And lots of scars - lots of scars all over. I was just messed up. There were three kids, three out of the same family, they were killed right there. Everybody was hard hit, everybody.

INSKEEP: Donald Huffman is 91 years old today. Here's what's known about the bombing he lived through: When a local man named Andrew Kehoe lost his farm to foreclosure, he blamed his money troubles on taxes used to fund the school. Kehoe, who worked as the school caretaker, planted dynamite in the basement. But only half of that pile ignited, allowing many kids to escape.

One of them was Willis Cressman, who also recorded his memories for StoryCorps. Mr. Cressman sat down with Johanna Cushman-Balzer, the daughter of his younger sister, Wilma, who was also at school that day.

Mr. WILLIS CRESSMAN: When the school blew up, the inkbottles on the desks flew clear to the ceiling. So, I jumped out of the window and ran down the roof and jumped off. Well, that's when I saw my sister. Her leg was pinned in from a rafter. And actually, not too far from her, was an arm stuck up out of the rubble.

Ms. JOHANNA CUSHMAN-BALZER: Mom told me how she remembered laying among bodies and body parts. My mother was 12, and half the children in her class were killed. When I was a child, there were lots of people around town that were maimed from the accident. So, you know, as a curious child, you might ask what happened to that person, why did they have that bad scar? And it was always that they had gotten it in the Bath school disaster. So, you just didn't ask questions.

Mr. CRESSMAN: Well, wasn't a very nice thing to talk about. You wouldn't think a church member could do such a thing, would you? He was the caretaker of the school. In fact, I saw him that morning. He was working on a door, and he smiled at us as we walked in.

Ms. CUSHMAN-BALZER: My mother told me that she didn't use Kehoe's name. To use his name was like speaking an obscenity. Years later, we still look at ourselves as survivors, so you look after one another differently, because you know that the absolute unthinkable can happen - even going to school.

Mr. CRESSMAN: Oh, yes.

Ms. CUSHMAN-BALZER: Uncle Willis, how did this affect your outlook on life?

Mr. CRESSMAN: I don't know. I guess I don't trust anybody too far.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRESSMAN: It's just part of the world, I guess. Things do happen. You have to put up with whatever comes on.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: That's 97-year-old Willis Cressman with Johanna Cushman-Balzer for the StoryCorps project. You can find photos of the Bath disaster and its aftermath at NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's NPR News.

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