23 January 2014

52 Ancestors #5 Sebe Cyril Miller Jr.

52 ancestors #5: Sebe Cyril Miller Jr.
No Story Too Small — 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge

The Day a Generation Died
18 March 1937 – New London, Rusk County, Texas

Sebe Cyril Miller Jr. (1920-1937)

His picture set on my grandmother’s dresser in her farmhouse in Oklahoma for as long as I can remember. I knew it was a picture of Sebe Cyril Miller Jr., who was called Junior by the family. He was the son of my mother’s oldest sister and therefore my first cousin, and I knew he had died tragically, but no one talked about it. He died before I was born, in a faraway place called Texas. In my child’s mind everywhere except the immediate environs was “faraway.”

I often looked at grandmother’s pictures. By the time I had come along, she already had nine grandchildren and most of them lived in Texas. Like grandmothers everywhere, she loved to show off their pictures and I was a captive audience. I enjoyed looking at the pictures of relatives in various faraway places and listening to grandmother tell stories about them.

One day I asked her about him – the one who died so young. Her eyes filled with tears and she said “his school blew up.” Then she changed the subject. I realized she did not want to talk about it. But, I was born curious, so I asked my favorite auntie the next time I saw her. She gave me the same story and I asked her “how.” How had the school blown up? What had happened and when did all this happen? She told me all she knew about the New London, Texas school explosion and how her nephew was killed in it. Then she cautioned me not to talk about it around grandmother or Aunt Lena when she came to visit. Aunt Lena was the boy’s mother. “She has never gotten over it,” my auntie said.

Years later, while doing research on the early careers of some American journalists, I stumbled across a story about a cub reporter who was working for United Press (UP) in Dallas in 1937 and who was one of the first reporters to reach the scene in New London, Texas after the school explosion. “When he finally reached the scene, it was dark and raining. Floodlights were being set up, casting long shadows from the big oil field cranes that had been brought in to help remove the rubble. Workers were climbing up and down the piles of debris like ants, instinctively going about their grim task. From the perspective of a news reporter, this was a tragedy of epic proportions. The UP team that eventually joined this reporter set up a news bureau in the Western Union office in nearby Overton Texas.” (1) Overton is where my relatives lived.

Walter Cronkite
That young cub reporter was Walter Cronkite. Decades later, according to the article “Walter Cronkite Remembers” (2) as his life in the public eye was winding down, Cronkite said, "I did nothing in my studies nor in my life to prepare me for a story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story since that awful day equaled it."

New London, Texas School, 1937
The picture, above from Wikipedia,(3) is of the remains of the New London School after the explosion of March 18, 1937.

The explosion was blamed on a gas leak inside the school, which ignited when an instructor turned on a sanding machine sometime between 3:05 and 3:20 p.m. Immediately the building seemed to lift in the air and then smashed to the ground. Walls collapsed. The roof fell in and buried its victims in a mass of brick, steel, and concrete debris. The explosion was heard four miles away, and it hurled a two-ton concrete slab 200 feet away, where it crushed a 1936 Chevrolet parked nearby. Reports from witnesses state that the walls of the school bulged, the roof lifted from the building, and then crashed back down and the main wing of the structure collapsed. Approximately 600 students and 40 teachers were in the building at the time. About 300 of them were killed in the blast, (4) making it the deadliest school disaster in American history.

Most of the bodies were either burned beyond recognition, or blown to pieces. Obviously this was one of the reasons why my family did not talk about the tragedy that took my 16-year-old cousin that day.

The New London Cenotaph (5) is located in the middle of the road in New London, Texas. It notes that here on March 18, 1937, 293 children and teachers died when the New London School exploded 10 minutes before dismissal. The memorial cenotaph honors those who died. The London Museum chronicles the town’s history and expostulates the tragedy of the school explosion. Among the names are Sebe C. Miller Jr. He was born 19 August 1920 and died in the school explosion 18 March 1937. There also is a burial marker for him in Pleasant Hill Cemetery in New London, Rusk County, Texas where his parents and a younger sister are buried.

1. Irvin M. May, Jr., "NEW LONDON SCHOOL EXPLOSION," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/yqn01), accessed January 23, 2014. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

2. Walter Cronkite Remembers: New London School Explosion. http://web.archive.org/web/20080423031400/http://www.nlse.org/walter.html

3. Explosion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_London_School_explosion

4. Perished. http://newlondonschool.org/ListOfNames.htm

5. Cenotaph: http://www.newlondonschool.org/index2.html


  1. It would be hard to get over losing a child in a tragedy like that. Ten or 15 more minutes and the building would have been nearly empty. How sad.