This month marks the sixtieth anniversary of Michigan’s State Office Building fire. This 1951 disaster destroyed much State property. As the photos to the right show, this included some government records (The top photo was taken in 1948; the bottom in 1951, shortly after the fire was extinguished.).
A Frightened Young Man
It began with the fears of nineteen year old Richard Shay. Shay was a former Naval Reservist who had recently received orders to report for a pre-induction physical. The Korean War was well underway at this time. As a new father, Shay dreaded the prospect of combat. He felt that his wife and newborn daughter wouldn’t have money to support themselves in his absence. Truthfully, this situation would have exempted Shay from military service. He wasn’t aware of this, however. He later claimed that his co-workers had been taunting him that he’d “be in the trenches in a couple of months.” (This information comes from a Feb. 12, 1951 State Journal newspaper article.)
The Feb. 12, 1951 report in Lansing’s State Journal newspaper describes what happened next: Shay saw an item on his draft questionnaire asking about probation. From this, he assumed that probationers could not be drafted. Shay felt that “a little fire” would gain him the probationary status he coveted.
Shay worked as an employee in the Michigan Highway Department. According to the State Journal account, he put a match to some cotton cord in the Department’s microfilm office. Shay expected the results of his arson to be quickly extinguished. Instead, the State Journal notes that Shay’s “little fire” burned for a total of forty-five hours! The April 1951 issue of Hy-Lighter, the Michigan State Highway Department newsletter, estimated that it would cost the State of Michigan $3,500,000 to restore the building for occupancy (The actual final tally was unavailable to the writer of this article.). Shay himself was sentenced to Jackson Prison, where he remained for the next three years.
For Michigan state government, the fire proved an object lesson on the importance of record keeping. Many documents were unrecoverable and proper inventories didn’t exist. Clearly, the situation needed to be addressed. In 1952, the year after the fire, legislation was enacted to establish a state records management program.
Today, Michigan’s Records Management Services resides under the auspices of the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget. The program advises and assists state and local government agencies by providing record keeping standards and guidelines and records management education and training. It also establishes records retention and disposal schedules, provides micrographics and document imaging services and stores and retrieves inactive records for state government.