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Tacoma quake survivor remains grateful to the boy who died saving his life 67 years ago

Ashley Gross
Kelcy Allen stands in front of the statue commemorating his rescue by Marvin Klegman in the 1949 Tacoma earthquake

This story originally aired Feb. 25, 2017.   

To live in the Northwest is, to some extent, to roll the dice. If you lived through the 1965 Seattle earthquake, or the Nisqually quake in 2001, or if you just read the New Yorker article about the “really big one”destined to hit our region, you know this well: There are forces under our feet that could just shrug our cities off into the abyss.

The push and pull of continental plates is so huge compared with a puny little human. And yet, for a man named Kelcy Allen, the act of a child shielded him from the seismic forces. He’s spent decades feeling grateful to the boy who died saving his life.

On April 13, 1949, at 11:55 a.m., deep below Puget Sound, the Juan de Fuca plate plowed beneath the North American plate, setting off a magnitude 7.1 quake. News reports of the devastation declared that the Pacific Northwest was reeling “under the worst earthquake in its history.”

Mud geysers spurted into the air, several homes slid into the Sound, and railroad tracks buckled. The quake was felt from Victoria, B.C., to Salem, Ore.

Lowell Elementary

And at Lowell Elementary School in Tacoma, it was around lunchtime and a few kids were in the ground-level basement as the floor began to shake. One of them was a six-year-old kindergartner, Kelcy Allen.

An older boy who was a crossing guard noticed him.

“This little crossing guard said, `Hey, you’re not supposed to be here. This is the girls’ basement. We’ve got to get out of here,’” Allen recalled.

Credit photo courtesy of Keith Klegman
Marvin Klegman (right) and his younger brother Kerry

The crossing guard, 11-year-old Marvin Klegman, grabbed Allen’s hand and led him out the door toward the school yard. Just after they exited, a brick cornice near the roof collapsed.

“He said, `Look out!’ He tugged me under him, and the bricks came down and the next thing I knew, I woke up in an ambulance,” Allen said.

Allen’s head got hit but he didn’t even go to the hospital. Klegman bore the brunt. He shielded the younger boy from most of the falling bricks with his body and was killed instantly.

Myrna Phelps was a second-grader also in the basement during the quake. Right after the shaking stopped, she saw a teacher weeping and carrying Klegman’s limp body.

“She was carrying him and she got so far down and somebody else took him from her because she was just, you know, hysterical,” Phelps said.

Grieving Parents

Klegman was one of eight people who died in the quake and the only one in Tacoma. He was mourned in the Jewish community that he was a part of, but no one had any idea that he had saved Allen’s life. Allen didn’t know the name of the boy who died protecting him, and he and his family moved to Portland shortly after the quake.

Slowly the public memory of Marvin faded. His parents, Thelma and Sam Klegman, kept their sorrow and their love for him deep in their hearts and to themselves.

Credit photo courtesy of Keith Klegman
Keith Klegman said his parents, Thelma and Sam Klegman, were devastated by their son Marvin's death but kept their grief private.

“My parents were of the generation where they don’t talk about things,” said Keith Klegman, who never knew his older brother because he was born four years after Marvin died. “They never wanted to talk about the incident of Marvin’s earthquake. They just didn’t even acknowledge it, basically.”

Keith grew up thinking he came from a family of four – his mom, dad, older brother Kerry and himself. He said the first time he found out he had an older brother named Marvin who had died was when he saw a plaque at the elementary school.

“I really think that’s how I found out about it. I can’t really remember my parents sitting me down and telling me about it,” Klegman said. “Isn’t that strange?”

But when he asked his parents, they didn’t want to talk about Marvin. So his brother remained a mystery to Keith.

Confronting Feelings Of Guilt

But his memory lived on with Allen, even though he didn’t know Klegman’s name. He said he often told people about the crossing guard who died saving him. But there was always something holding him back from doing the research to find out the boy’s name.

He kept remembering that Klegman told him he wasn’t supposed to be in the girls’ basement. For years, Allen thought he had done something wrong, and maybe if he hadn’t been in the girls’ basement that day Marvin would still be alive. He carried that guilt with him for years.

But finally, the 2001 Nisqually quake jolted him into confronting his feelings of guilt. Allen’s own daughter was in elementary school in Kirkland, and picking her up there after the earthquake brought back a flood of memories.

“I thought to myself, `If this isn’t telling you to go find out that boy’s name, for crying out loud,’ [so] I went down, my daughter was fine, everyone was fine, and the next day I was down in Tacoma here trying to find out the boy’s name,” Allen said.

At the Tacoma Public Library, he looked up old newspaper articles and found what he was seeking. Marvin Klegman, 11, was the boy who had been killed on the school grounds of Lowell.

Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
"I just live a life of overwhelming gratitude," Kelcy Allen said.

Allen said he felt emotional after learning more about Klegman, who had been a Cub Scout and an honor student and a paperboy for the Tacoma News Tribune.

`Really Humbled'

“I was really humbled, but upset with myself because it got to the point where I couldn’t tell Marvin’s mother because she had passed away and I couldn’t speak with Marvin’s dad because he had Alzheimer’s,” Allen said. “If I had done that 10 years earlier, they would have known what their son did. It bothered me that no one knew.”

But now, people do know. The News Tribune interviewed Allen about how Klegman had saved him, and a family friend of the Klegmans, Tacoma philanthropist Griselda “Babe” Lehrer, read the article.

Lehrer raised money for a statue outside Lowell Elementary. The sculpture created by Larry Anderson shows the two boys running, with Klegman leading Allen by the hand. Allen said he initially didn’t want to be portrayed in the statue.

Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
Larry Anderson's sculpture of Marvin Klegman and Kelcy Allen in front of Lowell Elementary School

“I wanted it to be all about Marvin and what he did, and I was talked into it – talked into it by Babe, talked into it by Larry, and now my daughter says, `What would this be if you weren’t here telling people this? He’s not here anymore; he can’t say anything,’” Allen said.

And that resonates with him. Allen has packed a lot into his life. He’s worked as a police officer and a cabinet maker and learned to skydive, scuba dive, and fly airplanes. But sometimes he faces that nagging question.

A Nagging Question

“Would we be better off with him or with me? What would he have been? Maybe he would have been a doctor; maybe he would have helped people,” Allen said.

How does he get over that feeling?

“Just by honoring him,” he said.

Allen created a website in Klegman’s honor called He talks to school kids about Klegman’s sacrifice. Lowell Elementary observes Marvin Klegman Day on April 13 and kids are encouraged to do something nice for someone else.

Coming forward with the story gave Allen some relief. He spoke with a woman who taught at the school and she told him he hadn’t broken the rules by being in the girls’ basement. He had merely crossed over a line that had been painted down the middle of the floor.

“That freed me from a lot of guilt,” he said. “That was a load off my shoulders.”

Allen said most of all he just tries to be grateful, day in and day out. Whenever he feels down, he said he tells himself, there’s no room for that.

“Somebody gave up absolutely everything so you could have everything and why would I want to taint it by not being thankful?” Allen said.

This story originally aired on Sept. 10, 2016

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.