Piece of Northwestern history celebrates 'Homecoming' after alumna donation

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Piece of Northwestern history celebrates 'Homecoming' after alumna donation

October 28, 2008 

With homecoming fast approaching at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, it seems only fitting that a remnant of the university’s history is having a “homecoming” of its own, more than 70 years later.

Finial from the Castle on the Hill

This finial has been a part of Hellene Fuller Mitchell’s life for more than 70 years. After “The Castle on the Hill” burned in 1935, she discovered it in the remains and rolled it down the hill to her house.

Finials circled on the Castle on the Hill

The Finials were concrete decorative spires that were at the top of the entrances and spires of “The Castle on the Hill.” Some of them are circled here.

Ava Poole and Hellene Fuller Mitchell with the finial.

Finial donor Hellene Fuller Mitchell stands with Ava Poole and the finial she has had since she was a child. Mitchell said that the finial represents her childhood.

Finials in museum

Dr. Vernon Powders stands with the finial donated in 1997 (front) and the finial donated by Hellene Fuller Mitchell (back). Neither of these finials has been this close to each other in more than 70 years.

A second known finial salvaged in 1935 from the burned remains of The Castle on the Hill has been returned to the university by 1941 Northwestern alumna Hellene Fuller Mitchell of Wichita, Kan.

Northwestern has had many historical occurrences, but none have had more impact than when The Castle burned down.
Early in the morning on March 1, 1935, Northwestern’s Castle caught fire. The building burned through the morning, and in the end, all that was left was brick and concrete.

The rubble was removed and buried, and a portion of the bricks were used to build a scoreboard at Newby Field in 1956, which was located where today’s J.R. Holder Wellness Center and lawn is now. Then, when the scoreboard was torn down, a portion of those bricks were used to floor the base for a new Bell Tower, which was completed in 1985 on the north side of Herod Hall.

For years, it was thought that these bricks were all that were left of the Castle, but in 1997, Nell Eden Fowler donated to the university the first finial known to have been salvaged from the fire. That finial had been in her parents’ garden as a decoration all of those years.

The finials were decorative concrete spires that stood above the entrances and on the points of the Castle when it was still standing, and when the building was demolished, it was thought that the finials were buried with the rest of the rubble.

Campus police officer Frank Lambert learned of the second finial during a family trip with Mitchell, his second cousin, and his aunt Ava Poole. Lambert said that it came up in conversation that he worked at Northwestern, and that’s when he found out that one of the Castle’s finials was safe in a garden at Mitchell’s home in Wichita.

Her mother was a teacher who received a teaching certificate through Northwestern and taught in the “One Room School House” that sits behind the President’s house when it was at its original location. Her father also was a graduate of Northwestern, along with her cousin Ava Poole, Ava’s husband A.B. Poole, one of Northwestern’s legendary basketball players, and all of Lambert’s siblings, including himself. They all graduated with teaching degrees from Northwestern.

“There’s a lot of history with our family and Northwestern,” Lambert said.

Dr. Vernon Powders, director of the Northwestern Museum of Natural History, visited with Mitchell and learned many interesting things about her.

Powders explained that Mitchell lived across the street from the Castle when it burned down. In fact, her house was so close that her father had to spray the roof with a hose to keep the burning embers from igniting it.

Through their conversation, Powders learned that Mitchell remembered the Castle very well, and said that she loved it very much. It made her want to travel all over the world and live in her own castle someday. She could recall riding her pony “Sparkles” around campus and admiring the building.

When the ashes cooled after the fire, he said Mitchell told him that she discovered one of the finials and rolled it to her house, but her father said she had to take it back. However, the finial was too heavy to roll back up the hill, so she kept it.

Powers said Mitchell told him, “‘the Finial has been a part of my life, and is a treasured part of my childhood.’”

Mitchell graduated from Northwestern with a degree in music. She then moved to Wichita and studied voice at Wichita State University. She later traveled to New York City and Europe performing professionally including a performance with special services/USO, traveling around the world several times. In Powders’ notes, he says that she lived a storybook life.

“She’s a neat lady, and she’s a pistol,” Lambert said.

She now resides in Wichita where she built a home with her late husband Elden Mitchell. When the couple moved back to Wichita, she retrieved the finial from her parents’ house where it had been while she toured the world, and placed it in her own garden, where it has been now for the last 20 years.

Mitchell was approached several times by Lambert, who suggested she might want to donate this piece of history back to Northwestern, but after an extensive visit with Lambert and Powders in May, she graciously gave the finial to the museum.

“She was gracious to give it to the college, but she was sad to see it go because it was part of her life,” Lambert said. “I’m just grateful we got it back to the college.”

After 72 years, another piece of Northwestern history has returned home and currently is housed with the 1997 donated finial in the Museum of Natural History in Jesse Dunn. Anyone interested in viewing the finials, may do so Monday through Friday, 1 to 5 p.m.