Harnessing history before it’s gone

UND students’ class project key part of Sayre Hall/Wesley College documentation effort

Sayre Hall memorial 2018

About 75 people attended a special tribute ceremony on Thursday to honor Lieutenant Harold Holden Sayre and his heroic legacy on the grounds of the 110-year-old Sayre Hall. The majestic old building was renamed in Sayre’s honor about a year after his death, in 1919. A group of UND students is working with facilities to document the history behind Sayre Hall before it is torn down this summer. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

And here the sadness of it begins,
As I tell this story to you;
And the sadness felt by me,
Is seldom felt by few.

For UND student Trevor Redlin, that first stanza of a nearly century-old poem forged an instant connection to the subject of the verse – a man he never knew.

They were the words of U.S. Army Air Service 1st Lt. Horace Schindler, written in his jail cell while a German prisoner in World War I, about fallen American comrade Lieutenant Harold Holden Sayre.

Redlin and a group of fellow students had been on a quest to learn as much as possible about Sayre long before they discovered the hand-written poem tucked away in a box in UND’s Department of Special Collections. That’s because Sayre is the namesake of one of a number of old buildings on the former Wesley College portion of the UND campus slated to be torn down this summer. The students, members of the one-credit “Wesley College Documentation” class project, had been surveying Sayre and the building that bears his name in an effort to preserve their history.

“Usually, I just try to scan through the stuff we find,” Redlin said, “but when we saw the poem, I just stopped and read it, and I read it again and I read it again. It was so deep and emotional.”

Sayre Memorial event 2018

People stand at attention Thursday as the flags are set prior to a memorial ceremony for Lieutenant Harold Holden Sayer, who is the namesake for Sayre Hall on the UND campus. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Source history

Redlin, an air traffic control major from Hebron, Ill., had already known about Sayre’s World War I record – how he first enlisted in the American Field Service in the ambulance corps as a sophomore at Stanford University in 1917  — before the United State officially entered the war, how he told his father, A.J. Sayre, “I don’t want to be a slack and not go; I’d feel like a coward as long as I lived,” and how later, as a gunner in the Army Air Service, he died when his plane was involved in a German ambush after a successful bombing run at the Battle of Saint-Mihiel.

He knew all that. But the feel of the poem in his hands and the feeling conveyed by the words of the man who flew with Sayre and was their when he died – actual source history – brought Redlin to a higher level of connection.

“It was just so deep and emotional, written from the other person in the plane with him,” Redlin said. “It was great to have a chance to see in words how valiant (Sayre) was and how he died and how he was willing to fight until the very end.”

Last Thursday, Redlin and several student members of the Wesley College Documentation Project were among about 75 people who attended a special tribute ceremony to honor Sayre and his heroic legacy on the grounds of the 110-year-old Sayre Hall. The majestic old building was renamed in Sayre’s honor about a year after his death upon a request from a mourning father, A.J. Sayre, who had largely bankrolled construction of the building a few years earlier.

Sayre Hall functioned as a men's dormitory for most of its life along University Avenue. Designed by prominent New York City architect, A. Wallace McRae, in the Beaux Arts style, it cut a sophisticated and cosmopolitan figure on the Wesley College campus, of which it was a part for much of its history. UND Archival photo.

Sayre Hall functioned as a men’s dormitory for most of its life along University Avenue. Designed by prominent New York City architect, A. Wallace McRae, in the Beaux Arts style, it cut a sophisticated and cosmopolitan figure on the Wesley College campus, of which it was a part for much of its history. UND Archival photo.

Connections abound

Harold Holden Sayre was not a UND alum, rather he was born in Hutchinson, Minn. He spent most of his time on the East or West Coast and attended Stanford, where he played on its undefeated 1915 rugby team. Still, his name has been engraved in the history of the UND campus since 1919.

Harold Holden Sayre

Harold Holden Sayre

Sayre Hall functioned as a men’s dormitory for most of its life along University Avenue. As a student residence hall, Sayre Hall served as home to such famous UND figures as Maxwell Anderson (award-winning playwright) and Carl Ben Eielson (aviation pioneer).

Designed by prominent New York City architect A. Wallace McRae in the Beaux Arts style, Sayre Hall cut a sophisticated and cosmopolitan figure on Wesley College, which was founded in 1905 in a unique co-institutional arrangement with and alongside UND. Wesley College students, who lived in Sayre and nearby Larimore Halls, took classes in music and religion, and could also earn credits at UND. UND students also could take music and religion classes at Wesley College.

The arrangement continued until 1965, when the struggling Wesley College finally sold its property to UND.

UND Assistant Professor of English Sheila Liming, a talented bagpiper, set an appropriately somber tone at Thursday’s Sayre memorial event with two World War I era songs. Speaker after speaker followed describing various connections to Sayre and Sayre Hall, some more direct than others, but all were meaningful in their own ways.

Col. Benjamin Spencer, commander at the Grand Forks Air Force Base, talked about Sayer’s warrior spirit as a member of the Army Air Service, a precursor to the Air Force of today.

“We could not have gotten where we are without folks like Lieutenant Sayre as well as the constant support of the people of the Grand Forks community,” Spencer said.

UND History Professor Kim Porter also told tales of soldiers and airman from past generations with connections to UND and Grand Forks and who served and fought in World War I and World War II, including one man who died in the former and whose son gave his life in the latter.

Redlin recalled taking Honors classes in Sayre Hall during his freshman year and thinking at the time that it was just another campus building full of classrooms.

“We go by these buildings every day and seldom do students realize that a hundred years of history have taken place within their walls,” he said.

On right track

William Caraher

William Caraher

Over the course of the spring semester, Redlin and the rest of the Wesley College Documentation Project team worked with UND Facilities to conduct in-depth reviews of nearly every inch of Sayre Hall and other former Wesley College structures.

Brian Larson, UND associate director of construction management, said that he’s partnered with consultants and contractors for the technical side of the historical documentation effort. This included 3-D sub-centimeter laser scans of the structures as well as drone flyovers, thanks to the expertise of Skyskopes, a UND-spun UAS business. In the process, more than 4,000 images were collected.

The entire effort, including the class project, was spurred by UND History Professor William Caraher not long after first learning that Sayre Hall and the other Wesley College structures soon would be razed. He commended UND for its willingness to work with students and to provide resources for historic documentation and preservation.

“UND has done everything right,” Caraher said. “If all schools in the state would do what UND has done – we’d be on the right track.”