By the end of the Second World War, the structure now known as Spooner Hall had served as the main art museum at the University of Kansas for two decades, housing such original masterpieces as Winslow Homer’s “Cloud Shadows,” Robert Henri’s “Laughing Girl” and George Inness’ “The Gleaners.”
Originally opened in 1894 as the University’s first freestanding library, Spooner’s construction had been made possible by a bequest from Boston leather merchant William B. Spooner, an uncle of Francis Huntington Snow, who was one of KU’s first three faculty members, a professor of natural science, and the University’s fifth chancellor. In 1926, after having surrendered its holdings to the recently completed and much larger Watson Library, Spooner became home to the extensive and eclectic art collection presented to KU by Sallie Casey Thayer, and was renamed the Spooner-Thayer Museum of Art.
But in the enrollment flood at KU that followed World War II, this building took on the temporary secondary function of providing on-campus housing for as many as 80 male students at a time. Mostly returned veterans on the GI Bill, and having no place else to stay, they gladly accepted ad hoc quarters fashioned from plywood in the museum's basement.
Retrofitting Spooner-Thayer’s below ground storage areas into emergency postwar dormitory space was an idea that originated in the office of KU Chancellor Deane W. Malott (1939-51). Speaking to the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce shortly after V-J Day in August 1945, Malott had vowed that the University “will not turn down a single [qualified] applicant for enrollment, as long as there is a room, garret, basement, attic, cellar or warehouse left in Lawrence that can be made into a decent place to live.”
As it turned out, Malott meant his words to be taken literally. On January 22, 1946, under a headline announcing “80 Men Students Will Live in Thayer Museum,” the University Daily Kansan reported that the Kansas Board of Regents had approved the Chancellor’s plans to temporarily requisition the building’s basement – then used principally to store those art objects not on public display – and turn it into a subterranean abode for veterans.
To prepare this section of Spooner-Thayer for human occupancy before spring semester classes began on February 13, 1946, the University undertook a thoroughly improvised (and apparently ultra-low-cost) crash renovation program. The first task involved construction of a separate external stairway, attached to Spooner’s south side, which would allow lodgers to enter and leave their underground domain without having to go through the building’s main entrance. (Moreover, to prevent unauthorized, after-hours access to the art museum itself, the internal stairway leading up from the basement was blocked.)
Next, using large sheets of half-inch plywood as the primary building material, workers divided the basement’s interior in two by way of a central north-south partition. On the west side of the plywood divide was a study area complete with – what else? – long plywood tables. Also shoe-horned into this side was a bathroom with shower facilities large enough to accommodate 12 men at a time, plus a recreation room, featuring a number of easy chairs, a coffee and confection table (operated on the honor system) and even a pool table.
On the east side of the partition was what some called “the bunk room,” as former resident Kenneth L. Regenold, then an electrical engineering student and four-year veteran of the US Army Air Corps, recalled. “It was equipped with Navy surplus double bunks, sheets, blankets, clothes racks” and metal lockers. “The appearance,” appropriately enough, “was quite military but neat.”
“It was just like the Army, almost,” agreed Harold “Hal” Sandy, the creator of KU’s present-day “Happy Jayhawk” mascot, who moved into Spooner in the summer of 1946 when he was a 22-year-old junior majoring in journalism and a recently returned veteran. “My year and a half in Europe in the 14th Armored made Spooner feel like heaven! It had steam heat. The fellows were congenial, and like in the Army, all kinds. The adjustment was easy.”
Additionally, noted Regenold, “The dormitory had good window space to let in the outside world, good lighting and newly installed fixtures.” Additionally, given its prime location on Jayhawk Boulevard, Spooner-Thayer was among the most convenient living arrangements anywhere in Lawrence. This was particularly the case when it came to meals, since the Kansas Union – then home to the only cafeteria on campus – was located just across the street.
“On campus and near to classrooms,” as the University’s housing director (and future longtime KU Endowment Association executive secretary) Irvin Youngberg put it, Spooner-Thayer “was popular with veteran occupants who had been accustomed to far less desirable ‘quarters’ in Europe and the Pacific.”
Indeed, the Spooner-Thayer residents, who numbered somewhere between 65 and 80 per semester, were used to a lot worse. Many “had been awarded the Purple Heart and other military decorations” and “some were ex-POWs, ” according to Youngberg. “The men living there,” he added, were “serious in their desire to obtain a University education,” and as a result, the makeshift dormitory “was surprisingly quiet, a quiet enforced in part by the students themselves to ensure good study conditions.”
“We were a band of old guys,” recalled resident James Page, “veterans aged 22 to 25.” (One student, in fact, was even in his 40s.) “Most everyone was on the GI Bill and we appreciated the opportunity of attending KU. We studied hard,” he added, “and enjoyed each other’s company but devoted very little time to extracurricular activities except, of course, KU football.” Aside from the occasional argument over “what records to buy for the phonograph from our community funds,” Page could not remember “there being any problems from living in such close quarters.” “Spooner-Thayer was an active but orderly place,” Regenold affirmed. “I cannot recall of ever having any trouble. The place nearly ran itself.”
Shared wartime experiences and a common postwar purpose certainly contributed immensely to this intra-hall harmony. “While many ranks had been represented in the service,” said Regenold, “there were no ranks in the dorm.” Indeed, whether one had been an infantryman or a tank driver, a submariner or a bomber pilot, an officer or an enlisted grunt, as a group they seemed content to put their respective battlefield exploits behind them and focus instead on the future. As Robert H. Chesky, one of the few non-World War II veterans to have lived in Spooner-Thayer, later remarked, “Most of them had lost 2-4 years out of their lives … and weren’t at KU to waste any more time.”
That’s not to say, however, that the men weren’t “beyond some harmless horseplay or enjoying a good time,” particularly on Saturday nights, Youngberg remembered, “when a few had had one or two too many beers” and there was a general “let down after a week of hard study.” A fond memory of Charles Chitty’s was the “occasional softball game that occurred on the park-like grounds next door. It was especially nice,” he added, “because the girls from Miller Hall would come down and join in the fun, and that, in essence, is how I met my wife of 57 years (and still counting).”
Inside the hall itself, the physical propinquity fostered a communal closeness. One reflection of this was the adoption of a hall mascot, a Boston terrier the residents named “George.” Another was the decision by “some of the brighter members of the dorm” to bestow an extra degree of “status” on themselves and on their new home. As Page recalled, Spooner-Thayer Hall became, in an informal sense, “one of the most exclusive fraternities” on campus after residents re-christened it Sigma Tau Delta, a Greek name of their own invention that corresponded with the S, T, and D of Spooner-Thayer Dormitory and was unconnected with any established fraternal organization.
Yet among the STD “brothers,” the only apparent hard-and-fast house rule – besides rigid adherence to quiet hours, that is – was that war stories were usually unwelcome. “No one wanted to listen” to anymore of those, said Regenold. Everything else under the sun, though, seems to have been fair game. For young Robert Chesky, who described himself as a “17-year-old and very green kid from a tiny hamlet,” this proved quite an education, although not in the conventional sense. “Most of what I learned” there, he admitted decades later, “was non-academic and [generally] unprintable.”
One aspect of the Spooner-Thayer experience that former residents spared no ink warmly reminiscing about was Samuel Steele Elliott, a retired Lawrence postal carrier in his late 70s who served as the dormitory’s “housefather” during the entirety of its seven-semester operation.
Better known simply as “Sam,” he had for many years been working part-time on Mount Oread in several different capacities, serving as everything from the handler of campus mail and custodian of Danforth Chapel, to the unofficial “keeper of the Prairie Acre.” He was also the father of Maude Elliott, a professor of languages at KU.
Despite his advanced age, Elliott was remarkably active, energetic even, when it came to the comfort and well-being of his new charges. As he himself later put it, he always delighted in showing his “boys” that “eighty years is the Golden Age.”
Among Elliott’s chief contributions was catering to the students’ voracious between-meal and late-night appetites. As he recounted in a December 29, 1946, letter to another daughter Jeanette, Elliott’s typical day began around 9:00 a.m. when a taxi dropped him off at the corner of Tenth and Massachusetts Streets.
From there, he walked to several nearby grocery stores and bought “10 or 12 loaves of day-old bread, doughnuts, candy bars, all I can get – 5 or 6 boxes when I can – 3 or 4 doz. tea cakes, as many as ½ lb. of apples [and] 5 or 6 lbs. of lunch meat.” To cover at least partial payment for these purchases, which usually totaled around $10 to $15, Elliott would perform “such odd jobs as straightening up the push-carts and emptying the wastebaskets in the stores,” as Spooner-Thayer alum Richard B. Sheridan, later a KU professor of economics, remembered.
Following a brief rest in the Plymouth Congregational Church, Elliott would return to Spooner-Thayer around 2:30 with his harvest. Everything was “carefully sorted [and] spread out on one of the long study tables,” and sold at cost by Elliott to his ex-GIs, many of whom subsisted at KU solely on their roughly $50-a-month government allowance. “The boys help themselves from the 10 ft. table,” he informed his daughter, “make their sandwiches – meat, cheese, peanut butter, apple butter, etc., [and] make their own change.” This, he noted, “makes the Dorm unique on the campus.”
After putting in a good 12 hours between his shopping trips, his work at Spooner-Thayer and other assorted jobs on campus, at around 10:00 p.m. each evening, as Professor Sheridan related, “Sam made two gallons of coffee in room 402 Fraser Hall. This required climbing five flights of stairs every night except Saturday and Sunday and carrying the pail of coffee” back to the dorm. “By the time he got things put away, it was time to turn the lights low in Danforth Chapel at 11:30.” Elliott then called another taxi and was usually home by midnight.
“Sam Elliott was a grandfatherly type to most,” wrote Regenold. “He was a lovable personality and was held in high respect by everyone. He was forever saying how grateful he was to have such a rare opportunity to serve the great institution of KU.” There was, moreover, no apparent end to his generosity. “I sensed,” Regenold added, “that had one of ‘his boys’ come up short for rent, Sam would have dug the money out of his own pocket.”
Youngberg heartily concurred with this assessment of Elliott’s generous nature. “At his death” – which came in 1957 at the age of 87 – “I am certain that a place in Heaven awaited this good man whose life was guided by the principles ‘Do unto others’ and ‘Love they neighbor.’” “We appreciated our quarters and especially Sam Elliott,” added James Page, “who was always there for us.”
For Kenneth Regenold, another outstanding personality in Spooner-Thayer was fellow student “Hal” Sandy, an accomplished artist who, in 1946, seized upon the idea of “improving the old, awkward and dour-looking KU Jayhawk.” At the time, and since 1941, the acknowledged KU mascot was known as the “Fighting Jayhawk” in keeping with the country’s wartime spirit. But Sandy felt that after America’s victory in World War II, the times called for a cheerier, friendlier bird.
“He was offered plenty of advice about feathers, spurs, shoes and general looks,” remembered Regenold, “but in the end I think Sandy did his own thing.” The end result was the so-called “Happy Jayhawk” – or as it is more commonly known now, the “Smiling Jayhawk” – which the artist initially produced in decal form and retailed on campus and around Lawrence to help finance his own education. Then, in 1947, upon his graduation from KU, Sandy sold the rights to his popular design to the Kansas Union Bookstore for $250, which he then considered a princely sum. It has served as the official University mascot ever since and may well rank as the institution’s single wisest investment.
Indeed, as many former residents saw it, by offering them quarters in Spooner-Thayer, the University of Kansas was, in a way, investing in them, too. According to Regenold, “KU authorities had the foresight, positive attitude and determination to provide housing to a greatly expanded student population,” and showed particular care and concern for those who were military veterans. Most of his fellow basement compatriots seemed to agree. “Spooner provided me with a great introduction to University life,” said Hal Sandy, “and I’ll always be grateful for that.” “If I were starting all over,” added Charles Chitty, “I would gladly return to Spooner Hall – it was a totally good experience.”
Even though Spooner-Thayer proved to be a viable venue for student housing, it was always meant to be nothing more than a temporary stopgap. By the close of the spring 1949 semester, as Youngberg noted, “enough other housing had been cobbled together” in the Mount Oread environs “that Spooner Hall was no longer [needed] as a ‘mother of invention’ facility.” It reverted to serving solely as the University’s art museum, a status it retained until 1979 when the new Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art replaced Spooner-Thayer as KU’s art gallery.
Writing in 2002, Regenold described the Spooner-Thayer Dormitory – or Sigma Tau Delta to its privileged intimates – as a “brilliant but relatively short-lived place” that “was never accorded the proper notice it rightfully deserved.” Granted, noted Youngberg, but to those it served “the good it did was immeasurable.” In its time, “It housed a treasured group of men, fortunate to survive the war, who were ready to enjoy the freedoms they had fought for.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas