By Mary Margaret Halford
VICKSBURG – It was nearly 4 a.m. on a frosty February morning in 1977 when Father Alfred Camp got the call that St. Aloysius High School was burning.
The then-principal immediately got up, dressed, and headed straight for the school. “I was driving down Clay Street, and I saw all those fire trucks and police cars, and thought to myself, ‘well, I guess we’ve got a fire,’” Camp said.
“It was heartbreaking, the smoke and the flames bellowing from the rooftop,” said Jimmy Salmon, who was teaching at the time of the fire. “We weren’t just primarily concerned with finishing that school year, but about the future of St. Aloysius High School.”
As firefighters worked to contain the blaze on the other end of the building, Father Camp approached Salmon and said they needed to get Sister Matthew’s typewriters out, they’d be needing them for school that week.
“I looked at him and said ‘Father, the school is still burning,’ and he got that little smirk he gets when you try to tell him something,” Salmon said. “I wasn’t going to tell him no, so I turned and followed him into the school.”
After the fire was finally extinguished, Father Camp organized groups of people – teachers, parents, and students alike – to rummage through the debris and salvage desks, books, or anything they could and move it to the gym.
“In all that confusion, Father Camp had the presence of mind to turn this gym into a school,” Salmon said. “He said it was important to get the message to the community that a little fire would not shut the doors of St. Aloysius. And more importantly, to let parents and students know they wouldn’t have to search for a new school, we weren’t going anywhere.”
On Thursday, he returned to that very same gym, this time filled with hundreds of current and former students and teachers who were there to celebrate the naming of the St. Al school building after Father Camp.
“This is a great day, that we’re finally recognizing the individual that I believe saved St. Aloysius,” Salmon told the crowd after a Mass in the gym.
In the days and weeks following the fire, Father Camp was told raising money for a new school wasn’t feasible, that the elementary school could still operate but the high school should not.
“I can remember Father Camp laughing, saying St. Aloysius would not close its doors on his watch,” Salmon said. “I truly believe that if it were not for Father Camp, we would not be sitting here today, we would not have a school.”
Though the fire was a defining moment in his tenure at St. Al, other former teachers and students spoke of Camp’s inspiration as an educator.
Father Camp was a disciplinarian, especially for those students wandering the halls during class time, according to Lisa Reid.
Camp always had a specific question for those nomad students, “Where’s your box?” Where were they supposed to be?
When Reid met with Camp to choose classes for her senior year, her heart was set on study hall, a break from an otherwise tough schedule.
“But Father Camp said ‘that’s not available to you.’ I was crushed,” she said.
He then laid out two options – physics or journalism. Reid chose journalism, the field she wound up getting a degree in before working for years in newspapers and as an English and journalism teacher at St. Al.
“Even though I thought study hall was my box, you knew it was not,” Reid said to Father Camp at the dedication. “Through the years, though you kept asking where our boxes were, I think you had a pretty good idea of the answer. I’m sure I speak for thousands of students whose lives you touched when I say we’re deeply grateful for your wisdom and guidance in helping us find our way.”
During morning prayer the day of the dedication, current principal, Buddy Strickland, told the students to look in front, behind, to the left and to the right of each other.
“What you’re seeing is Father Camp’s legacy,” Strickland told them.
“I didn’t expect all this, I appreciate it so much,” Camp told the crowd gathered to honor him for his years in Vicksburg. “My dad’s name was Aloysius Joseph Camp…I guess that meant I was destined to be at St. Aloysius a long time. I think my dad would say ‘good job’.”
(Mary Margaret Halford is a member of Vicksburg St. Paul Parish.)