How a Tragic School Fire Led Journey’s Jonathan Cain to Music

Jonathan Cain was nine years old when a fire broke out on Dec. 1, 1958, at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago, where he attended.

The blaze started in the basement of one of the buildings and had spread uncontrollably within an hour, leaving children and teachers stranded in various parts of the campus. By the time the fire was extinguished, it was clear that the toll would be shocking. A total of 92 children and three nuns died as a result of the incident, either from the fire itself, heat, smoke inhalation or from injuries sustained as they jumped out of second-floor windows. Cain managed to escape the building.

The day started normally. “That first morning in December seemed like any other cold and crisp morning in the Chicago area,” Cain later wrote in his 2011 autobiography, Don’t Stop Believin’: The Man, the Band, and the Song that Inspired Generations. “I wore my favorite jacket to school, the brown leather bomber jacket with Dad’s army patches sewn on the shoulders and chest.”

A few hours later, Cain was scrambling to locate his friends amidst the chaos. Even at such a young age, the future Journey keyboardist said he couldn’t fathom how such a tragedy could occur out of nowhere.

“My idyllic life full of friends and Italians and music and love had suddenly by interrupted by this silence – a silence that carried no answers,” Cain wrote. “I wanted the darkness to go away, but I knew the stain of soot would forever be marked on my soul.”

Afterward, Cain’s father steered him toward music, encouraging him to find gratitude in having survived. “My father saw my sorrow right away and led me straight to music,” Cain said in the 2022 film, I Am Second. “He told me, ‘Son, your life was spared for something greater and that must be music.'”

Cain eventually enrolled at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, slowly developing his skills as a musician and songwriter. He still had his share of struggles and when he called his father for advice, he offered him three words: “Don’t stop believing.”

Cain jotted the words down, they would come in handy a few years down the road.

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It’s all the more surprising when you consider the success so many of them had by any other measure. 

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