1949 Tacoma earthquake survivor forever grateful for his rescue

Since the age of 6, Kelcy Allen has been trying to repay a debt of gratitude to the boy who died saving his life.

Allen was rescued April 13, 1949, the day a magnitude 7.1 earthquake sent bricks and cornerstones tumbling down from Tacoma’s old Lowell Elementary School, built in 1892.

He made it out alive, thanks to a sixth-grade safety patrol boy named Marvin Klegman.

Eleven-year-old Marvin grabbed the younger boy’s hand, led him from the school basement and threw himself on top of him when the masonry began to fall.

Allen, now 72, has never forgotten.

“I have been blessed,” he says. “I’ve been given something. I have been fortunate to live a really rich life. It’s part of me — part of my being.”

Since that day at Lowell, Allen has lived in Oregon, California, Hawaii and elsewhere around the Pacific. He’s served in the Army, worked as a police officer and a videographer in Los Angeles, a flight instructor in Hawaii, a certified nurseryman in Portland and, most recently, a cabinet maker in Snohomish County.

He’s wind-surfed in Mexico, bungee-jumped in Australia and skydived in Oregon.

“I have used every bit of my time,” Allen said. “I figured I better not waste it, because some little boy gave up his existence for me.”

He recalls standing in the basement of the North End school on the day of the earthquake. He remembers the patrol boy telling him he was standing on the wrong side of a dividing line that separated girls from boys.

“I remember sirens, and a boy saying, ‘You’re not supposed to be here. You’re in the girls’ basement.’ He grabbed my hand and we ran out the door. Bricks began to fall, and he said, ‘Watch out.’ He tugged me, and pulled me under his arm. I woke up in an ambulance.”

Since 2003, that moment in 1949 has been frozen in time in a statue outside the rebuilt Lowell, at the corner of North 12th and I streets. The bronze sculpture by artist Larry Anderson shows the two boys running for their lives with Marvin in the lead, looking skyward, holding Allen’s hand. At their feet are fallen bricks.

But for Allen’s conscience, the statue might never have been installed. It was after the Nisqually earthquake struck the Puget Sound region in 2001 that Allen went fishing for News Tribune files at the Tacoma Public Library. That’s where he discovered the name of the hero who saved him.

Allen’s family moved to Portland not long after the earthquake, and he never learned Marvin’s name. He remembers telling the story to boyhood friends, but the name of his rescuer was always missing.

Once he learned Marvin’s identity, Allen’s efforts to share his story prompted a fundraising effort that built the statue and a proclamation making April 13 Marvin Klegman Day.

Every year, Lowell students recognize Marvin by participating in acts of kindness to help others. The local Red Cross chapter now bestows a Marvin Klegman Memorial Award for heroism.

“I've always kept a low profile because this story was never about me,” Allen said. “It's about a thoughtful young boy who unknowingly sacrificed everything simply by living up to the responsibility he felt to help others.”

Allen can still feel a slight indentation in his forehead, evidence of the brick that knocked him unconscious.

He remembers recovering at his home not far from Wright Park, looking out the window and seeing motorcycles drive by. He later learned it was probably Marvin’s funeral procession, as it headed to or from what was then the local Jewish temple, Temple Beth Israel.

Whenever the Echo Lake resident drives south to Portland to see his daughter Natalie, he tries to stop to visit Marvin’s grave at the Home of Peace Cemetery in Lakewood. There, he leaves a stone of remembrance atop the headstone.

Allen and his daughter are Christian. But he said Natalie had a Star of David tattooed on her inner wrist “out of respect for what Marvin did.”

Allen thinks about Marvin often, especially as April 13 rolls around. But the anniversary is always bittersweet — a celebration of his own life well-lived, but sorrow for the older boy whose sacrifice made that life possible.

This year on the anniversary date, Allen was back at Lowell, speaking to students about the value of good deeds.

Today’s Lowell kids know the statue and the story behind it. But Allen said many were surprised to learn that one of the boys it depicts is now all grown up.

“I told them that little kindergartner is me,” he said. “Their jaws dropped.”

He told students that while they can’t all be life-savers, they can contribute in small ways. He made a list of more than a dozen suggestions. Among them: bake cookies and take them to a senior center; sit down with and get to know a new student at school; donate your outgrown toys to charity.

Allen said he has tried to live without spite or other negative emotions.

“People never see me get angry,” he said. “I have no right to be mad at life. It’s all about being grateful.”

He calls it Marvin’s Law.