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On the afternoon of January 13, 1923, an out of control blaze destroyed the home of “Doctor” Tom Jeffries in Wake Forest’s northeast neighborhood.
Jeffries, born a slave in Virginia, migrated to Wake Forest after the Civil War and eventually took a job as a janitor and groundskeeper at the college. His partnership with Wake Forest College President Charles Taylor led him to build the famous rock wall and plant the grounds with shrubs, flowers, and towering magnolias.
By 1923, Jeffries had worked on campus more than forty years. He was 76-years-old.
The fire was front page news.
Old Gold and Black
January 16, 1923
Fire of unknown origin completely destroyed the home of “Dr.” Tom Jeffries, highly beloved and respected janitor and college generalissimo for the past forty-five years.
“Dr.” Tom–the degree is honorary and was conferred by the students at least a generation ago–is known and honored by every Wake Forest man who has attended the college for two generations and, if his degree is considered, is probably the oldest living graduate. Standing among his household goods, which kind neighbors helped to save, he viewed the smoldering debris of his comfortable cottage with the fortitude of a true philosopher.
According to Jeffries, he was sitting down for lunch with his wife and a few friends when someone outside reported smoke from the roof. By the time he went out to investigate, the house was well on its way to being fully engulfed.
Although the local volunteer fire department arrived–helped by a neighborhood bucket brigade–the home was a total loss.
Later, Jeffries described a dream he’d had the night before the fire.
“I woke up in a dream and determined that I was going to hear some very distressing, hasty news in the morning…. (after waking up) I went in the office at the college and a red dog jumped up on my breast and I shoved him off. So then, when the house got on fire, I then determined that was the interpretation of my dream. The dog, of course, was the red fire.
I was a person that did not have much thought about a dream and would not let my wife tell one ’til after sunup. But after this I decided there was virtue in a dream.”
Friends from town and college rallied to help Jeffries recover from the disaster. Doctor J.H. Gorrell, chairman of the Buildings and Grounds Committee, began gathering contributions to rebuild the home. No follow-up articles describe the success of this effort, but it’s clear the relationship between Jeffries and Wake Forest continued to stay strong.
When “Doctor” Tom died four-years later–on July 4, 1927–his funeral was held in the College Chapel with professors serving as honorary pall bearers.