Former A&M president Robert Gates reflects on Bonfire collapse

Robert Gates took the Texas A&M presidency in 2002, three years after Aggie Bonfire collapsed and killed 12.

Gates, who also went on to serve as the U.S. Secretary of Defense, oversaw the completion of Bonfire Memorial and the conclusion of the Bonfire-related lawsuits. He was also the administrator who chose never to have a Bonfire on campus again.

News 3's Kathleen Witte sat down with Gates for his memories of that time.

News 3’s Kathleen Witte: Sec. Gates, you were dean of the Bush School when Bonfire collapsed. What are your memories of that night?

Robert Gates, former president of Texas A&M University and former U.S. Secretary of Defense: My wife and I had been out of town. We only arrived back on campus during the day when Bonfire had fallen the night before. We walked out to the site the next night and walked all the way around it, and they had roped off huge area around the collapsed Bonfire. It was clear the entire campus was just in shock.

KW: How long had you been at Texas A&M at that point?

Sec. Gates: I had just started the previous August. So I had never seen a Bonfire. This was quite an introduction to the campus and to its traditions.

KW: Then you became president of Texas A&M. At which stage was the memorial project when you took the presidency?

Sec. Gates: The memorial was well-advanced—planning for the memorial and fundraising and so on—was well-advanced by the time I became president by late summer of 2002. My biggest contribution to the memorial was probably just staying out of the way.

KW: You were there as the Bonfire lawsuits were happening. How did you help Texas A&M navigate that contentious time?

Sec. Gates: It was a very contentious time, and there were a lot of lawsuits. A lot of those in the university administration were subject to the lawsuits or were involved in one way or another, as witnesses and so on. So trying to keep people focused on getting the day-to-day job of running the university done, I thought was a very important part of my role at the time.

KW: How involved were you in the decision not to allow a university-sanctioned Bonfire back on campus?

Sec. Gates: That was basically my decision. What it boiled down to was, to avoid legal liability, we would essentially have to have professionals come in and build the Bonfire—basically a construction company if you will. Even with that, the insurance required, particularly if anyone from the campus were to be involved in that effort, the cost of the insurance was absolutely out of sight. As I recall, it was well over $1 million. So between the litigation that was ongoing, and then the recommendations—which would have been very difficult to ignore without exposing the university and people in the administration to legal liability—it would have been very difficult to go forward with Bonfire. I was persuaded also the fact that what made Bonfire such a wonderful tradition, such a great tradition, so intimate to the story of the Aggies—was that it was student-led and student-built. And if it was going to be built by outsiders and by professionals, it seemed to me that the spirit of Bonfire would not be the same as it had been before.

KW: Do you think the campus lost something, along with the 12 who died, in terms of that spirit?

Sec. Gates: I think so. I think it was really an integral part of the A&M’s traditions. It was perhaps the most popular of all the traditions. The one that certainly attracted the greatest crowds when the Bonfire would be lit before the University of Texas football game. It was clear there was a great sense of loss on campus and particularly among former students. I think that it left a hole, and probably a hole that has not been filled by anything since then. One of the things that strikes me, has always struck me, about A&M’s traditions, is that the oldest and the best of them, those that have endured the longest, have been those that celebrate the Aggie family. Whether it’s Muster or Silver Taps or any of a number of others, I think what it represents is the Aggie family coming together. I think Bonfire was the most significant manifestation of that coming together of the Aggies, and that I think has not been replaced.