As a new year is getting ready to start at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, faculty member Ryan Scott will be able to end his work day by doing something most everyone does without thinking – he’ll be able to go home.
The professor of criminal law and federal jurisdiction lost his house to a fire in June 2016. It was his home since he arrived in Bloomington in 2009, where he had nurtured a relationship with his now-husband, Cameron Bryan, and where he would enjoy the company of friends or the peace of solitude. Even today in the excitement of settling in to a rebuilt home in the same neighborhood and on the same property as his former abode, he still gets emotional when talking about all that was lost in the blaze.
Navigating through the rebuilding process was, Scott said, “a huge time suck.” Filing a claim then negotiating with the insurance company, along with having to call the bank’s 800-number, wait on hold and then find out documents already submitted have to be resubmitted, was like a part-time job that did not pay.
“Someday I will look back on this as a great teaching moment for me,” Ryan said. “But it’s too soon for that now.”
The classroom became his refuge. At the law school, he did not discuss the fire and, in fact, did not tell his students. Talking about losing his house was not only painful but also a distraction from his teaching and research.
IU Maurer Dean Austin Parrish would be surprised if any of the students were even aware of Scott’s predicament. The professor is an active member of the law school faculty, serving on curriculum committees and judging the moot court competition. Among the students, he has a reputation as a professor of being engaging in lectures and skilled at teaching legal writing.
Parrish said Scott kept up his work ethic at school during what was a difficult year of trying to get his home back. “In any case, he didn’t let the ball drop,” the dean said.
Apparently, the students did not see any change either. In April, they presented Scott with the Leon H. Wallace Teaching Award, the highest teaching honor given at the law school.
A grueling process
The fire started while Scott and Bryan had stepped out to grab lunch at a local restaurant. As they were driving back home, Scott received a text from a friend that his residence was in flames.
Everything was quickly destroyed, leaving just a pile of smoldering wreckage and the foundation. Because the fire consumed so much, officials could only speculate as to the cause. They surmised that cigarettes left earlier by friends had ignited the blaze on the back porch, which caused propane tanks on the grill to explode.
The one thing that was saved was their rat terrier, Chani. Scott explained a group of construction workers who had been at a site across the street ran to the house when they saw the smoke. Fearing someone might be trapped inside, they entered and rescued the pup from his crate.
“What incredible heroism for three complete strangers to literally run into a burning house to try to rescue people,” Scott said. “It’s just extraordinary that people are willing to make that kind of sacrifice for someone they don’t even know. I’m just really inspired by that.”
The rebuilding process began with an inventory of all the stuff that gets added to make a home comfortable. Helped by friends, Scott and Bryan donned surgical masks and sifted through the debris, enduring the foul odor and bugs. They were trying to jog their memories about the household items they’d had, such as kitchen utensils, televisions, computers, tables, chairs, lamps, clothes and books.
Scott said the process was grueling and very detailed.
“I’m a lawyer, I’m a law school professor, I’m used to detailed work,” he said. “But there’s something about this that it’s detailed work, but it’s your own life and there’s this overlay of profound sadness and loss.”
Submitting the final list to the insurance company led to extended negotiations over the cost to replace some of the articles with the same kind and quality of items. As taxing as the insurance company was, getting the bank to release the funds needed to rebuild became Orwellian. What was said by one bank official would be contradicted by another, and forms that were properly filled out would be rejected for being incomplete.
“If you did not have the patience and determination and organization of a lawyer and a willingness when necessary to yell and scream and make your point, I don’t know how people would get through it,” Scott said. “It was so baffling and irrational at times that I don’t know how folks who don’t have that same kind of background get through it.”
After the fire, Scott and Bryan lived in a hotel then relocated into a rental home owned by IU Maurer executive associate dean Donna Nagy. The wrangling with the bank and the insurance company eventually gave way to the burned remains being cleared from the lot and the new house slowly being constructed.
They have recently moved in and are settling into life as a married couple. About two months after the fire, Scott and Bryan held their wedding. The celebration was already in the planning when the catastrophe struck. While they briefly thought of scrubbing the event, they realized they needed to be surrounded by family and friends.
Emotionally, the recovery continues. The fire destroyed a couple of Star Trek neckties that carried a lot of sentimental value for Scott because they had belonged to his uncle who was also a college professor. And their dog, Chani, died from old age several months after the fire.
However, Scott and Bryan once again have a home waiting for them at a permanent address.•