NU surprises fire victims with generous gesture

Dan Murtaugh Column

If a friend in need is a friend indeed, then four Northwestern seniors have found the most unlikely of friends — the university itself.

On April 15, flames consumed the house at 720 Foster St. Kristin Cass, Jodi Langer, Stephanie Penate and J.D. Robertson are four of the 12 students who lost their home and almost all their belongings. But with a couple of quick and kind actions, NU administrators helped them get back on their feet — and restored four cynical seniors’ confidence that the university cares about its students.

I’ve been friends with the four of them since the first day of New Student Week four years ago. You couldn’t find a group of kids that loved their house more than these four.

I can remember sitting on their porch on a warm, sunny afternoon last May. They were debating whether to renew their lease. They loved the house, but they were losing a roommate and would have to pay an extra $100 each per month in rent.

But as they closed their eyes and tried to glimpse a future away from the blue house, they realized they couldn’t.

“I just can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Robertson said.

They loved everything about the house — from the slanted ceilings in their bedrooms to the porch overlooking Foster Street. The weekend before the fire, the four roommates cleaned the house, repainted the walls and had a picnic on the porch.

“It wasn’t a normal college apartment, it was our home,” Penate said. “Everyone who’s ever been at 720 knows that feeling.”

Then came the fire. The flames billowed through the third floor, where Cass, Langer and Robertson’s rooms were. The flame’s flickering orange fingers destroyed everything it could touch. It left Langer with nothing but a few singed shirts, a jewelry box and a pair of shoes that still smell like smoke. Only a cracked bowling ball survived from Cass’ room.

Luckily, no one was home during the fire. But when they found out what had happened, they were in shock.

“I could see fire trucks from two blocks away,” Penate said. “It felt unreal. There was nothing I could do but cry, because I couldn’t feel anything else.”

Several administrators came to the house the night of the fire and immediately offered the denizens free temporary housing. Over the next few days, NU got them permanent rooms on the same floor at the Foster-Walker Complex and gave them money to buy food and books.

When everyone walked into their new home in the Plex, they found gifts waiting for them — a laundry basket filled with snacks, detergent, an alarm clock and a teddy bear.

The Residential Hall Association is continuing to offer a helping hand. They’re hosting a benefit party for the residents at 7 p.m. tonight in Norris University Center’s Louis Room. It costs $5 to enter, and a portion of the proceeds will be given to the displaced seniors.

NU’s efforts have been one of the few bright spots for these seniors throughout their ordeal. For them, and for others including myself, it’s gone a long way toward erasing bitter memories of four years of tuition hikes and parking tickets.

“You always hear about the school that doesn’t care about the students,” Langer said, “but in times of crisis, that’s apparently not the case.”