The Old Student Union

You come in the south door, clamoring down the curve of steps that lead to the basement. Brushing past the expanse of tidy mailboxes on your right, you quickly jog down a couple more steps where you might turn left into the bookshop, mayhap to toss down a dime in payment for a blue book required for an exam in your next class, or just to roam the few aisles appreciating the scent of ink, reams of white paper, or a raft of sketching pencils. But truly, the quest is not here, but across the small lobby where large doors open into the room full of crowded tables, wonderful aromas of coffee and hamburgers, and the roar of chatter from a hundred voices. For me, this place more than any other embodies the reality of life on campus.

There, to the right, behind tall counters laden with coffee and iced tea urns, stand the women in white aprons and hairnets. They watch each student who approaches. At least two of them tend the grill, a massive flattop of well-worn steel burned black by the incessant demand for another hamburger, another fried egg. An endless task of scraping the surface clean with a large flat spatula occupies any spare moment. You watch as one of those women turns her attention to you, and you place your order, mouth already watering.

For a dollar and a quarter, manna from heaven in the form of a grilled cheese sandwich can be yours. You stand there and watch as she turns to her work, wielding a big floppy brush to spread melted butter onto two slices of bread before slapping it onto that grill. The bread quickly turns golden brown before being flipped over—more butter, more searing heat. Then cheese. Glorious marvelous wonderful cheese is added, and the two slices of bread marry it into a sanctified One.

Suffering a quick angled slice of razor-sharp knife to form two triangles, your bundle of deliciousness sails down the line under the supervision of successive women in white, passing the lighted refrigerated case where a person might choose a slice of cream pie, or a peeled egg, or perhaps a salad. But your eyes follow the rich ooze of cheese that rims the bread crust and threatens to inch onto the heavy white china plate. Along the way, a few slices of dill pickle are added along with a glass of iced tea. Finally the plate makes its way to the lady at the cash register and lands on a tray. You tender your cash and then you were standing there, peering through the roiling clouds of cigarette smoke in search of a place to sit.

Squinting toward the bright light pouring in through big windows and glass-paneled doors leading to the porch, you peruse the tables for someone you might know, or—futilely—for an unoccupied table. If fortune fails to smile, you wander through a door to the left of the cashier into the larger dining area where an empty table is more easily found. Or you might, weather permitting, ease out onto the big porch in search of that gang of friends who usually occupy one of the tables. Most desired is the first room with the grill where the bodies, the flattop and the mingled aromas of food generate more warmth than the building’s heat can supply.

Whatever the case, finally dragging out a chair and with the books, notebooks, and other encumbrances unloaded onto an adjacent chair, you lift the sandwich in trembling hand. With a last swallow of eager saliva, your teeth sink into the crisp-tender concoction that will nourish the rest of your afternoon. The bite of just-enough sharpness in the cheese contrasts with the buttery crunch of the toasted bread still hot from the stalwart grill, and the sandwich begins to disappear. The tang of dill clears the palate for the other half of the sandwich, and then, alas, it is gone.

There’s time yet to sip the iced tea. With a brief glance around, you might leave your table to visit the cigarette machine where a quarter dropped into the slot and a quick jerk of the knob yields a fresh pack of your preferred brand. You stroll back to the table, slam the pack a few times against your palm, then unwrap the shiny cellophane to retrieve one of the perfectly-shaped cylinders. Then, with the smoke filling your lungs briefly before you exhale, there is time to look around, assess the day, ponder the meaning of life. A great lassitude supplants your otherwise fraught existential despair, courtesy of butter, cheese, and the endorphins they bestow.

Yes, an exam in French is coming in a half hour, and you’re not ready. You probably didn’t perform as well as you wished on the algebra exam earlier this morning. But these too shall pass, what’s done is done, and so forth. As you tap ash into the tiny flat metal ashtray and consider the nature of life, the comfort of cheese lingers.

Maple Street side leading into porch area

As do many other memories. I left after my sophomore year to live near Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with my new husband. Two and a half years later when he was transferred to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, I returned to Fayetteville to finish my degree. There were mornings when I’d drive to campus in early morning fog to park in a graveled lot across Maple Street and venture up these steps into the Union for a cup of coffee before my early class. Those too were nostalgic moments thinking of the earlier years, of fellow students and dorm mates, of professors and classes, of ever changing current events.

The student union of those days is gone, sacrificed into other uses for a larger more elaborate facility than what Memorial Hall could ever provide. Built in the early 1970s, the new union seems to us older alumni as somewhat cold and vast compared to the old environs of Memorial Hall. Yes, it was crowded and unquestionably not best suited to more modern needs, but it was our place in our time. In service as a student union only thirty years from its construction in 1940, the facility nevertheless filled a critical role in campus life.

As described in the 1941 yearbook: “The basement floor is made up of the confectionery with a black and chromium soda fountain and cafeteria facilities, and the amusement rooms. Walking down the hall from the confectionery one can go into two rooms equipped with ping-pong tables, and one with large, lively snooker tables. Up the stairs to the main floor, and there one sees the front entrance, from which leads the ballroom and the lounge room. With a lofty ceiling support four huge glass and metal chandeliers and tall arched windows draped with yards and yards of flowing expensive cloth, the ballroom is truly a ‘dream.’ Over the especially designed band shell is a mural depicting all phases of student life at the University, and all around the floor are chairs for chaperones and those who care to sit the dance out. Overlooking the ballroom is a balcony for those who care to watch rather than dance. The chandeliers are all connected with one master switch which changes the lights in the room from red, blue, green, and orange back to natural lighting in a gradual fading process.

“Equipped with heavy leather chairs and divans, the pastel-colored lounge room can compare very well with the lobby of an expensive hotel. Scattered throughout the room are lamps with indirect lighting, and down at the end is a large fireplace topped by a huge square mirror. Here students come to read, talk, or just listen to the radio.” 1941

“The fountain room of the Student Union, where at some time or other, everyone sees everyone, is a happy confusion of coffee lines, bridge games, table-hoppers, and glaring renditions from the juke-box. From 9-11, 2 until 5, it’s the place to see and be seen, grab a late breakfast or a hurried lunch, or just sit and talk.” 1951

Bookstore 1950s:

Open hallway where advocates of one issue or another could interact with students. In my time, it was to sign the petition to save the Buffalo River and then to stop the war in Vietnam.

Note: If you’d like to wander through the Razorback yearbook from your time on campus, here’s the link

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