“Fire in west wing of North Catholic High School was under control by 7 a.m., but not before flames gutted the entire second story despite tons of water poured on blaze by Portland firemen,” the Catholic Sentinel reported in July of 1970. (Sentinel archive)
“Fire in west wing of North Catholic High School was under control by 7 a.m., but not before flames gutted the entire second story despite tons of water poured on blaze by Portland firemen,” the Catholic Sentinel reported in July of 1970. (Sentinel archive)

It was July 16, 1970. Tim Maguigan, his three brothers and some of their friends walked through the empty and blackened halls of their academic home — North Catholic High School. The smell of smoke lingered.

“It was haunting,” recalled Maguigan, who witnessed the scene just two days after North Catholic was torched by an arsonist in the early morning hours of July 14, 1970. The fire devastated the school’s second story and collapsed its roof.

Maguigan remembered the feeling of seeing the building that was so much a part of his life gutted and charred. “It was eerie,” he said.

He and his classmates would have to continue on, knowing there would be no more football games, no more lunchroom conversations, no more classes, no more post-basketball-game pizza parties at Chico’s and no graduation. Maguigan, who was going to be a senior at the school months later, and the other students who didn’t get to graduate from North Catholic had to transfer to other schools in the area. Many, like Maguigan, went on to La Salle in Milwaukie.

“It was crazy,” remembered Carol Eckart, another student who would have been a senior at North Catholic in the fall of 1970.

She was home in bed when she got the news that her beloved school burned down. She and a friend joined the many students and families who went to the school to survey the damage.

“It was just unbelievable. It was really destroyed,” said Eckart.

In the days that followed, she helped clean up the school. She walked through the rubble, cleaning football helmets and taking items over to the surviving school building.

Eckart and her friends made jokes about having an extended vacation, not yet knowing the school would never reopen.

Father Karl Schray was a teacher at North Catholic in 1970. Having left the school July 14 at 2 a.m., he was the last person in the building before the arsonist set it ablaze.

The next morning, he saw the smoke billowing into the sky.

“It was sad,” he said.

Eulalie Leonard Slowikowski was one of the fortunate students who was able to complete her time at North Catholic. She had just graduated.

“I was registering for beauty college in downtown Portland at the time I heard about the fire,” said Slowikowski, remembering a beauty school instructor having a transistor radio on.

“That was how I heard about the fire. It was broadcast over her radio,” recalled Slowikowski. She was filled with emotions — first sadness and then worry that someone might have been hurt. Luckily, no one was.

“My heart sank,” said Slowikowski.

When Frank Spitulski heard from a cousin that his school had burned over night, he was shocked. His brother had just graduated in 1969. He was going to be a senior. The memory of that lost final year still haunts him 50 years later.

“I think about it all the time,” said Spitulski.

Spitulski was set to be the starting quarterback for North Catholic’s football team. The squad already had been given a top pre-season rating that year. The fire took that away from him and his teammates. He spent his senior year at Benson High School, since La Salle didn’t have a football team.

“It was heartbreaking,” he said. “It changed everybody’s lives.”

sarahw@catholicsentinel.org