Irene Dunham of Lansing is the oldest person in Michigan, and a survivor in more ways than one. Most notably, she survived the deadliest school massacre in U.S. history.
Irene turned 113 on Dec. 16, a birthday she shares with her 75-year-old son Bruce. When the 1927 Bath School Massacre happened, she was a senior in high school. Because she had stayed home with a sore throat, she was not at school that day. This did not spare her, entirely, however.
“She was at home with her mother, and they heard the explosion, and her mother – they jumped in the car and they drove into town and…to see what it was about…and that’s when they saw the school explosion and the carnage and all that. She talks about seeing body parts hanging from the telephone lines, and dead children and their mothers kneeling over them crying,” Bruce recalled the story as he's heard his mother tell it.
“All I remember was all the little kids that were killed. It was terrible." Irene said.
Irene also said she knew Andrew Kehoe, the former treasurer of the Bath Township school board who detonated the bombs that killed 38 children.
“Yeah, I knew him,” Irene said.
"He was on the board...the school board," Bruce added.
“Yeah… school board,” Irene recalled.
“Did he ever talk to you?” Bruce asked his mother.
“Yeah!" Irene replied. "He talked to all of us girls like we were…okay...just before he did what he did.”
Irene recalled when Kehoe drove up to the school about 30 minutes after the bombs in the school detonated, the back of his truck filled with dynamite. He detonated his truck, and the explosion killed himself, Superintendent Emory Huyck and others, including an 8-year-old child.
“We had a principal we loved…of the school…and he was walking down to see what this guy was up to, but just as he got to the car, well he…this guy turned a switch on and blew the poor…Huyck and of course the car, and everything. Part of the car was on a wire above, a part of him with it. It was horrid to have to look at. Mom and I had to…we saw that," Irene said.
Irene has survived a lot in 113 years. When she was 90, she was diagnosed with colon cancer and survived both surgery and chemotherapy. Irene drove until she was 106. On her 113 birthday, her senior assisted living home celebrated with her with her family outside her window.
She was recently vaccinated for COVID-19, the second pandemic she has seen in her lifetime.
She attributes her long life to her time spent outdoors, something she’s always loved and is looking forward to again this spring.
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