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Ceremony set for Carthage graduate killed in SUNY Cortland fire in 1948

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CARTHAGE — Who remembers Barbara A. Kelsey, a Carthage graduate who died in a SUNY Cortland sorority house fire in 1948?

It’s a question Carol Seiken, of Philadelphia, Pa., is posing to the Carthage community. Her hope is to find someone who knew Miss Kelsey and who will attend a ceremony to honor the fire’s three victims.

“One of the three girls was a cousin of mine, so I did a lot of research about it. Now they’re going to do a class of 1949 reunion banquet and a memorial plaque for the three girls killed in the fire will be placed in the campus square. Past 1950, no one really remembered the fire,” Ms. Seiken said.

The 20-year-old Miss Kelsey had resided in the Arethusa sorority house at the then-Cortland State Teachers College.

Miss Kelsey had been a senior at the time of her death on Nov. 21, 1948, and was studying physical education. On campus, she participated in glee club and yearbook. She was the secretary of her sorority. According to Ms. Seiken’s research, she was engaged to a member of the college’s football team.

“He got back from playing a game that morning and found out she had died,” she said.

The only child of Fay W. and Ethel Kelsey was a 1945 graduate of Carthage High School. She was involved in girls sports, cheerleading and the senior play.

According to a Nov. 24, 1948, article in the Carthage Republican Tribune, “The fire broke out at 1:30 a.m. Sunday in the kitchen of the house, and swept up the back stairs.”

According to an article published on the SUNY Cortland website, a total of 27 girls were residing on the second and third floors.

“Barbara’s room was in the front of the house on the second floor,” the article said. “Overcome by fumes, she was carried from the burning building on a stretcher by firemen. She was placed in an oxygen tent but never regained consciousness.”

A total of nine girls were injured in the fire, and three died.

Lilian Rudnetsky, 19, one of the three, was the cousin of Ms. Seiken’s father. “It was just a story passed down in my family,” Ms. Seiken said of how she first heard about the fire. Last November she wanted to learn more about that story. She and Ms. Rudnetsky’s younger sister, Helene James, began to search online and later reached out to SUNY Cortland.

“Lillian’s sister was shielded at the time. She knew a little about what happened to her sister,” said Ms. Seiken. “She’s unable to make the ceremony but I have five family members going on her behalf.”

She hopes to have someone who knew Miss Kelsey attend the ceremony on her behalf.

An estimated 40 people, many in their mid to late 80s, are expected to attend the reunion.

This will mark 65 years since the class graduated. Alumni weekend will kick off July 10 with events planned until July 13. To learn more about the incident and get a schedule of alumni events, visit

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