Fond farewell to Memorial Union — ‘Heart of UND’

At most recent Founders Day, associate dean of students Cassie Gerhardt captured what Memorial Union meant to many

Celebrating 136 years of UND, this year’s Founders Day honored faculty, staff and the Memorial Union. The storied building in the heart of campus soon will be replaced by a new campus hub for students. Archival image.

The following is an excerpt from a speech that Cassie Gerhardt, associate dean of students and director of student involvement & parent programs, delivered on the night of Feb. 28, 2019, during the annual UND Founders Day observance. It was one of the last major events to be held in the Memorial Union. Gerhardt, who spent time in the union as a UND student and later as a student administrator, whose longtime office sat on the third floor, proved to be the perfect spokeswoman for the storied building:

Cassie Gerhardt

Cassie Gerhardt

When (UND Director of Ceremonies & University Events) Fred Wittmann shared with me that the Memorial Union would be celebrated at this year’s Founder’s Day, I couldn’t have been more excited given my love and passion for this facility. When he asked me to share my reflections, I did hesitate to say yes yes, for those who know me, believe it or not, I did hesitate to have the mic time.

I hesitated because there are countless individuals, many of whom are in this room tonight, who could provide reflections on the Memorial Union. Unlike so many campus buildings, the Memorial Union isn’t home to a single academic college or unit the Memorial Union is home to a variety of departments, it’s the location of events as diverse as the institution… it is truly, the ‘Heart of UND.’

So, tonight, I am here as a representative of all the students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends for whom the Memorial Union has been a significant part of their UND experience.

21 memories

Likely many of you have a fond memory  or two or 22  that you could share about the Memorial Union. As we move forward with plans to retire this facility in order to build a new Memorial Union, I’ve thought about the stories people have shared with me about their Memorial Union memories. Some of these may resonate with you …

  • You probably have memories of a meeting or two or 2,000 that you’ve attended in the Memorial Union  perhaps some are even memories of worthwhile and productive meetings.
  • Many of you have attended countless events in the Memorial Union the Writer’s Conference, lectures, the Craft Fair, the Clothesline Project, academic pinning and commissioning ceremonies, award ceremonies, and of course Founder’s Day and maybe, like (former University Ceremonies & Events Coordinator) Dawn Botsford, you’ve helped plan some of those events.
  • It’s possible that you bowled at the bowling alley that used to be downstairs, but there are probably few of you who practiced there as a member of the UND Bowling Team as did my friend, Rob Carolin from the Law School.
  • Some of you have regularly visited the Memorial Union to grab a bag of popcorn for a snack or lunch  it’s at the popcorn machine that I often run into my friends and colleagues, like Harmon Abrahamson (professor of chemistry).
  • Maybe you shared a memorable lunch or coffee with a friend in the Centennial Dining Room, or perhaps you met the person who would become your best friend in the Terrace Dining Center like I did in 1992.
  • Perchance part of the interview process for your position at UND was held in the Memorial Union.
  • Did you ever purchase your textbooks or a UND sweatshirt from the Bookstore when it was located on the first floor?
  • Maybe you’ve presented a lecture in the Memorial Union or if you’re Mike Blake (professor of music), you’ve performed a concert or two in this room.
  • Maybe you took your Billiards class in the lower level when pool tables were part of the décor.
  • Did you learn to sew or tie dye or use the dark room in the University Craft Center that once occupied the third floor?
  • Maybe your office was once in the Memorial Union  Marsha Nelson’s (former associate director) office was in this building for 47 years, from 1968 – 2015.
  • For many, memories of the Memorial Union come in the form of involvement during college whether it was involvement in student organizations, a Greek organization or Student Government, or attendance at events hosted in the Memorial Union … before Facebook, Instagram and Snap Chat, the Memorial Union was THE place to be, and be seen, for so many. As an undergraduate, I dreamed of having an office in this building for that very reason.
  • I won’t ask you to raise your hands, but some of you may have taken a nap or two somewhere in the building when you should have been in class or in the office.
  • Perhaps you remember the North Dakota Museum of Art being in this building before it relocated across campus  maybe your artwork hangs in this building  if you’re Don Miller (professor of art), it hangs in the River Valley Room.
  • Your memories may be of the fire in April 1988 that started in the storage room of the Bookstore and caused significant smoke damage throughout the building  if you’re Bonnie Solberg, you were in the building and had to evacuate before you could grab your purse from your office.
  • Or, fast forward to 1997 and your memories may be of the Flood that brought 2 feet of raw sewage and storm sewer water to the lower level, causing significant damage which forced the beloved bowling lanes to be cemented in and ended the era of bowling in the Memorial Union.
  • Maybe your memories are of a haircut at Tom & Jerry’s Campus Barbershop, which holds the record of having been the longest Memorial Union tenant at over 50 years.
  • Perhaps your memories are of water coming through the floor in the middle of the Terrace Dining Center when the down leader exploded as Welcome Weekend was beginning that one may ring a bell for Orlynn Rosaasen (head of dining services) and Cheryl Grew-Gillen (Memorial Union director).
  • It’s possible you skipped a class in order to spend time with a friend in the Memorial Union if you’re (Vice President for Student Affairs & Diversity) Cara Halgren, the class was physical geography and it was your friend, Al.
  • Maybe you hung out and watched TV in the Memorial Union between classes, or maybe you waited on the first floor for the nice freshman co-ed from Wisconsin to get off work so that you could carry her books back to her residence hall like Fred Wittmann (director of ceremonies and University events) did when Mary Lou Jerome (now Wittmann and former adjunct lecturer at occupational therapy) worked at the Info Desk.
  • Maybe a visit to campus and a walk through the Memorial Union impacted your decision to come to UND that was the case for my dad. In the spring of 1966, while on campus for the State High School Boys Basketball Tournament, my dad visited the Memorial Union, which was a hub of activity and excitement and it confirmed his plans to attend UND. I came to UND because my dad made me  to be fair, he didn’t MAKE me come here, he said I could go to college anywhere I wanted, but that he would only send tuition support to UND, so basically, he made me anyway, without the Memorial Union influencing his decision to attend UND, I may never have had my own UND story.

This 1967 image shows the Memorial Union after then-recent additions to the original construction. Archival image.

About the students

Some of you may be thinking, “But the Union is just a building, and we have numerous buildings around campus filled with memories and stories.” Yes, all of our facilities have stories to share; but the union is unlike other campus buildings. In defining the role of the College Union, the Association of College Unions International states:

The union is an integral part of the educational mission of the college. As the center of community life, the union complements the academic experience through an extensive variety of programs which serve to balance course work and free time as cooperative factors in education. The union’s goal is the development of persons as well as intellects.

The Memorial Union is the heart of campus it’s often seen as the social hub of campus, or the campus living room. It is where the campus community gathers, and it is where the campus community learns. When I was an undergraduate student, the Memorial Union was my learning commons, and the experiences I had in this building, especially the River Valley Room, were critical components of my UND education.

My undergraduate academic endeavors were in the social sciences, and the Memorial Union was the laboratory that fostered my learning  it was here that I practiced the skills and concepts I learned about in Gamble, and Merrifield, and Old Science, Gillette and the Education Building. It was through involvement in various activities associated with the Memorial Union that I honed communication skills and leadership skills. It was in this building that I met and learned from individuals who had different backgrounds and experiences than me. This is where I learned to collaborate and compromise. It’s where my beliefs and thoughts were challenged and in some cases changed, and others confirmed. It is where I figured out what I believed and who I was. The Memorial Union was not just the center of my social life; it was, quite honestly, the center of my learning.

The thing I have always appreciated and loved most about the Memorial Union is the fact that the Memorial Union has always been about the students. This building, and the one we are preparing to build to continue its legacy, are gifts from our student body.

The Memorial Union is a physical testament to the passion and appreciation students have for UND, even before they’ve earned their degrees and transitioned to alumni.

Student conversations about the desire to have a “student space” began in the 1920s and in 1946, students voted to accept a semester fee of $5 per student (which in today’s dollars is about $65) to support the construction of a student union.

In addition to the student fee, the Alumni Association contributed $150,000 as the initial pledge toward the $350,000 in bonds that, in 1947, were authorized by the Legislature for the construction of the Memorial Union. The student union received no state funds in its construction or operation.

The Memorial Union was dedicated on May 18, 1951, at the annual Junior Senior Prom. And, according to the historical information I reviewed, the entire union was decorated in the school colors of pink and green  similar to the Ballroom this evening. This building stands as a memorial to the 172 UND students and alumni who gave their lives in service during World War II.

With students central to the Memorial Union since its founding, it did not surprise me that former Vice President for Student Affairs Gordon Henry’s fondest memory of the Memorial Union was students  in particular, the student managers who have taken care of this building and its events after professional staff have gone home for the day. Gordon, who at one time served as the acting director of the Memorial Union, fondly remembers Gov. Art Link visiting campus for an event in the Memorial Union for which the student staff were responsible for all the logistics. Following the event, the governor commented to Gordon that he had never been treated better anywhere else.

It is not the bricks and mortar of the Memorial Union as a structure that brings fond memories. It is the people students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends who have made the Memorial Union such an important part of this campus community and our UND experiences.

It is the faculty and staff who serve as advisers to student organizations and support students and their learning and development into Leaders in Action.

It is the staff members who are here all day and often late into the evening  who go above and beyond to facilitate student engagement and support activities. They prepare meals, cater events, remove snow, clean and reset rooms, and do whatever else is needed to make sure the Memorial Union is ready to support student success each and every day.

And, it is our students who bring excitement, spirit, passion, and purpose to our campus; they are what it’s all about. It takes the entire campus community to make the Memorial Union what it is, “The Heart of UND.”

In closing, if you have an interesting story or memory about the Memorial Union, I hope you will drop me an email, or stop me on campus and share it. Stories are how we keep the rich tradition, legacy and spirit of our University alive.

Congratulations to all the individuals and departments who will be recognized with awards this evening. My thanks and appreciation to the retirees and those marking 25 years of service your dedication to our campus and our students is to be celebrated and commended  you are what truly makes this campus such a special place.

And, to everyone here tonight, thanks for everything you have done to make the Memorial Union such a wonderful aspect of our UND community.

Thank you and Go Hawks!