The blaze was a picture of hell. It was April 14th, 1975. Just after midnight. The gluttonous fire stretched it’s fingers high into the dark sky, reaching for more to consume, to devour. It’s hunger was unquenchable. But soon there was nothing more. By the time the catastrophe at the Medford campus was over, the cost was incalculable. Irreplaceable specimens, books, antiques, artwork, Americana – gone. Those reporting for work in the morning could still smell the smoky aroma of history in the air. And although no one had died, there was unfortunately still one body to count.
Phyllis Byrne was an administrative assistant at the University’s athletic department and that body was the first thing on her mind when she tearfully witnessed the scene at what was only the day before Barnum Hall. Frantic, she ran to her office and told everyone the news. George Wilson, a maintenance man at the university, was passing through and stopped in a corner to listen to what Phyllis was describing. She noticed him there and rushed over to him.
“You’ve got to save those ashes!” she pleaded.
“What?” a startled George responded.
“Yes ... This is important ... You’ve got to get those ashes!” Phyllis said again and began rushing around the office, looking on desks and opening cabinets. Finally she found what she was looking for and shoved it into George’s hands.
At first George just stood there, but as he looked into Phyllis’s eyes, he knew she was serious. He turned and hurried out, carrying a large empty jar of crunchy-style peanut butter under his arm.
Today, whenever Tufts University sports teams take the field, they still stop to rub the jar for luck. Inside, along with who-knows-what-else, are the powdery remains of P. T. Barnum’s wonderful donation – Jumbo the elephant.