Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Bleacher Creature

It was built in 1922 to honor the 129 sons and daughters of the University of Kansas who lost their lives during the First World War. Since that time, it has been the venue for innumerable football games and track meets, and about 90 commencement exercises.

But for a brief period between 1946 and 1959, Memorial Stadium – or more accurately, the cavernous space underneath its east-wing stands – was also a men’s dormitory known as McCook Hall. Named after Col. John J. McCook, an early KU benefactor who had donated $2,500 in the 1890s to help KU build its first football field, McCook Hall surely ranks as one of the more unusual student housing accommodations ever offered by the University of Kansas.

Indeed, “unusual” may be putting it mildly for this barracks-like residence hall that went into service on November 15, 1946 to help meet the extraordinary housing shortage at KU occasioned by the massive post-World War II influx of military veterans attending college on the GI Bill.

One former McCook resident looking back from the vantage point of 50 years recalled these cramped, concrete block-built quarters as a veritable “hell hole” and “a place to forget.” Another, a bit more politely, remembered it as “not a positive environment.” Wrote a third, “Words that come to mind when I think of it are austere, plain and gray.”

Memorial StadiumBut to others, particularly the KU football players and fans that lived there, McCook Hall had its charms and certainly its advantages. Some team members appreciated the convenience of living in the same facility where they practiced and played. As for the hall’s football fans, their pointblank proximity to the gridiron seemed something akin to nirvana, especially during the 1947 season when the Jayhawkers, as the team was then known, scored numerous triumphs on their way to KU’s first-ever Orange Bowl appearance. Still other McCook residents took great pleasure in recalling the rich camaraderie and the wealth of shared intra-hall adventures, such as the operation of an illicit microbrewery by at least one generation of McCook men.

Since 1944, KU “had been engaged in a frenetic series of buying, renting and converting of living space for [its] students,” as Fred McElhenie, KU’s associate director of student housing, has observed. But “the need for housing reached a critical stage in 1946 when the full brunt of the enrollees arrived in numbers that [nearly] doubled those of the prior year.” (By comparison, total enrollment for the 1945-46 academic year was 6,300. By 1946-47, the number had skyrocketed to over 10,000, with more than 60 percent of students being recently discharged veterans.) Clearly, according to McElhenie, the abiding question for KU administrators was “Where to find more space?”

In early 1946, acting on a proposal that presumably emanated from the office of University Chancellor Deane W. Malott, the Kansas Board of Regents authorized an emergency construction project that was equal parts creative and ambitious. For the sum of $53,704, a Topeka contracting firm was hired to transform the vast regions beneath Memorial Stadium’s east wing and northeast curve – areas previously used for a wide variety of storage functions – into livable dormitory space.

While representing perhaps KU’s most innovative response to its 1940s-era housing crisis, the Memorial Stadium dormitory project was actually in line with a number of quite similar ventures then undertaken at colleges and universities nationwide. At virtually every institution, housing directors were engaged in desperate scrambles to place mostly returned veterans literally anywhere they could.

A fairly common solution was to press athletic stadiums – often the largest structures on campus – into makeshift housing service. In addition to KU’s experiment in this vein, Louisiana State University and the Universities of Wisconsin-Madison and Northern Iowa, to name but three, also offered temporary accommodations either underneath or within their respective stadiums during this immediate postwar period.

On Mount Oread specifically, work to transform the bowels of Memorial Stadium into McCook Hall began in May 1946. The architectural plans called for a row of four separate two-story units. Each of these units would house 16 men, giving McCook a total population of 64 men in all.

On the ground floor of each unit was a combination sleeping/dressing room filled with army surplus bunk beds similar in form and function to the ubiquitous “sleeping porches” then found in many KU residence halls. There was also a multi-purpose adjoining room (complete with plywood desks, chests and metal lockers) that could be used for studying and for storing one’s personal belongings. Specially built stairways led up from each unit into a second-floor lavatory and shower room.

In between units one and two, as well as units three and four, were communal lounges, also known as “club rooms.” As related in several accounts, these areas featured easy chairs, card tables, some small cabinets, plus “ping pong tables and other recreational equipment.” Throughout, cemented-together concrete blocks were the principal building materials.

To enable the men to enter their new abodes, workers installed wooden doors beneath four of Memorial Stadium’s exterior stone arches – one for each unit – and filled up the remaining space with (what else?) concrete blocks. Windows were installed in several east-wing and northeast-curve arches; some arches remained open to allow the general public access to the stadium itself; and the rest were completely walled off to the elements. There were a number of interior doors, too, that led from the study rooms into the club rooms and, additionally, a number of wide hallways between the various units that led directly onto the running track and football field.

Initially, the renovations had been scheduled for completion in time for the start fall semester 1946 classes. However, delays of one sort or another prevented even the first unit of McCook Hall from being all set for occupancy until November 15 of that year, when the inaugural group of 16 moved in. The remaining three units, plus a small apartment for the McCook Hall housemother, were ready by the time the spring 1947 semester began.

Of this original McCook complement, it appears the vast majority of the students were military veterans. Some of these individuals had been living in another temporary KU housing arrangement based in the old Robinson Gymnasium (located on part of the site occupied by present-day Wescoe Hall). For these men, their new quarters in McCook were much like their former ones in the old gym, and indeed, not all that dissimilar from what they had experienced during their wartime service.

As such, the crowded conditions and an almost total lack of privacy were of “little concern” to residents like Merl J. Lindburg, an Army Air Force veteran. McCook was “somewhat of an upgrade,” according to Lindburg, who remembered his stadium abode as being warm, well lit and generally comfortable. More to the point, since he and his fellow vets were at KU courtesy of the GI Bill, they saw college primarily “as an opportunity to better ourselves [and] help society.” Where or how they lived came a distant second to completing their education.

Other McCook transplants were a bit more finicky, especially certain KU student-athletes who also had been bunking in Robinson Gymnasium.

“Aw, why couldn’t they let us alone? We were happy,” went a typical complaint ascribed to “several burly athletes” in a November 19, 1946, University Daily Kansan article about the move to McCook. “‘I don’t see a private swimming pool or basketball court around here like we had in the gym,” added one of the unidentified bystanders. “Besides that, I used to roll out of bed every morning and go to class in the same building. Now I’ll have to climb that blasted hill and if you ask me, it’s not worth it.”

According to this UDK story, “others nodded approval” of the anonymous grouser’s objections. These grumbles notwithstanding, the limited documentary evidence that pertains to McCook Hall indicates that by 1950, KU football players had become a large plurality of the residents living in the quarters beneath Memorial Stadium. Most, however, were either freshmen or second-stringers since the starters were increasingly gravitating (voluntarily or otherwise) to “Varsity House,” a University-owned residence at 1043 Indiana Street, some three blocks northeast of the stadium.

Varsity House was also the place where McCook’s football players went to eat all their meals. As for the rest of McCook’s residents, since the hall itself had no dining facilities, “everyone was on his own,” recalled Kenneth Regenold. “Most often it was up the hill to the Union cafeteria.”

For all intents and purposes, though, the men of McCook were pretty much on their own for most every occasion. Granted, every semester there was a University-appointed authority figure living in the three-room apartment on the extreme south end of the stadium’s east wing, the first being Mrs. E. J. Watson in 1946-47. (In later years, married graduate students often lived there free of charge, at times with their wives and children, and were responsible for discipline and general oversight.)

Yet according to James R. Foulks, a football team member and late-40s resident of McCook, the presence of these houseparents was little more than pro forma. While their quarters were not too far removed from the first housing unit, they were progressively further away from all the rest. (Roughly 100 yards, in fact, separated them from the fourth and final 16-man group.) Additionally, none of the McCook units were actually within earshot, much less the line of sight, of the houseparents’ apartment. “We had no supervision from the University,” Foulks said, contending it would have been unnecessary anyway. “We scrupulously followed University policies,” he insisted, “such as no liquor, women or raucous activity.”

Dwayne L. Oglesby, a KU law student who, along with his wife June, served as McCook houseparents for the 1951-52 academic year, confirmed Foulks’ claim regarding adherence to the rules, especially by Jayhawker team members. “The players were closely monitored by the coaches and they were too busy to get into much trouble,” recalled Oglesby. As freshmen, “they knew that if they didn’t behave [Head Coach] J.V. Sikes would have them dropped from the squad.” Not that all was sweetness and light, mind you. “The biggest problem we had as houseparent for McCook Hall,” added Oglesby, “was broken furniture in the dorm rooms – the players were mostly 200-250 lbs.”

Given their location, it was perhaps inevitable that the men would occasionally make their way out onto the field itself and have a little after-hours fun. “Since we were all athletes and the track equipment was stored underneath the stadium,” said Foulks, “we [once] organized a McCook Olympics, each of us selecting a country to represent. All the track events went smoothly,” he noted, “until we got to the pole vault. Ken Morrow was the only one who could jump higher with the vaulting pole than without it, and he wanted too many points for the event.” As a result, “The Olympics broke down.”

Apparently, though, these short-lived games were about as exciting as the men’s leisure activities ever got in those early years. There were marathon card-playing sessions, ping pong competitions and one disastrously short bowling tournament that featured glass Coke-bottle “pins” and a lead shot-put “bowling ball.” But being bereft of financial resources, and generally on their best behavior lest they get booted off the football team, the men of McCook were hardly hell raisers.

That said, the evidence indicates that they were hardly the models of studiousness either. During the 1951-52 academic year, for example, the 38 men then living in McCook Hall registered the second-worst GPA on campus. Their collective 1.0 on a 3.0 scale – basically a “D” average – was exceeded in lowliness that year only by the 34 starting football players living in Varsity House. (They turned in a 0.91/3.0.)

As one former resident put it, with no small amount of understatement, “McCook Hall was probably not the best study hall on campus…the scholastic performance was terrible.”

Despite it all, though, McCook’s residents never seem to have lost their collective sense of humor – something one representative episode in particular brings into focus. “I remember a big freshman tackle from western Kansas,” wrote resident Marvin Kimsey, “who was deeply involved one evening in studying his remedial English course called ‘English Zero.’ He broke us all up when he suddenly said, ‘You know, that there English Zero ain’t no cinch!’”

In the mid-1950s, the immediate post-World War II tidal wave of enrollments receded temporarily. As a result, it appears that McCook Hall was closed for the academic years 1954-55 and 1955-56. But in fall 1956, as the KU student body began to swell again, McCook was reopened. In this second incarnation, it ceased to be home to virtually any KU football players. (Most migrated to the newly completed Carruth-O’Leary Hall; others remained in Varsity House.) Ordinary male undergraduates were now the primary occupants of McCook and would remain so for the next three years.

During this phase, Memorial Stadium took on yet another function never contemplated by its original creators when the cavernous recesses of McCook Hall became the location for a secret – and patently prohibited – microbrewery operation. As McCook resident Roger T. Douglass recounted it, “One of my fellow roommates hailed from north-central Kansas where most families made their own beer. He brought his apparatus with him and set up a brewery” secreted away in one of the upstairs furnace rooms.

McCook resident Raymond J. Mead – like Douglass, another self-confessed imbiber of this surreptitious home brew – described how the amateur brewers “scavenged very large steel kitchen pots from storage lockers under the stadium [and] empty quart beer bottles from the local bars.” To offset the cost of such ingredients as sugar and yeast, Rick Brownlee remembered that McCook residents made regular financial contributions.

Upon completion of the fermentation process, the concoction was finally ready for bottling and, of course, for drinking. “It tasted really great,” Brownlee remembered, “kind of mellow with light carbonation and had quite a kick to it.” This strength, apparently, was among its greatest appeals – not to mention its low production costs. “It [was] a lot cheaper than going to The Wheel or to the Rock Chalk Café,” Brownlee said, and moreover, McCook brew had a much “higher alcohol content” than any beer commercially sold around Lawrence.

Only once, as Douglass remembered it, when the McCook housefather happened to make an exceedingly rare, unscheduled appearance in one of the offending units, did they come close to getting shut down. He “walked in on us at a time when we were drinking beer,” said Douglas, but then “immediately walked out and came back in about three minutes, at which time all signs of the beer had disappeared.” Indeed, Mead admitted, “The whole time we were engaged with this, we lived in [constant] fear of being discovered. I believe that ultimately helped end our brewing days” and all the “hilarious adventures” they entailed. “I’ve recalled these rather amusing incidents often,” Brownlee wrote in 2002, “and wonder if there still may be some of those bottles stuck back in a dusty corner of Memorial Stadium.”

For all the excitement and drama surrounding McCook’s brief tenure as microbrewery, on the whole, according to Mead (1956-58), the hall “was not a positive environment for a relatively naïve group of freshmen.” Being quartered beneath Memorial Stadium, he wrote, “isolated us physically and emotionally from the University community and there was no organization or culture there to encourage/assist us to move closer to that community. Those who finally integrated into that culture,” he added, “did so [strictly] on an individual basis.”

Some, however, were slightly more sanguine. Marvin Pollock, for one, remarked favorably on the “companionship and close relationships” developed while residing in McCook, particularly in its latter years as a housing concern when no more than 30 men at any one time called it home. Others remembered the succession of “pretty fierce” intramural football squads they managed to field. And then there was John R. Noble, whose most vivid reminiscence (outside of the home brewing operation) was of a somewhat gruesome spectator sport – namely one fellow’s insatiable penchant for “reducing McCook’s cat and rat population” with his trusty bow and arrow.

By the end of the spring 1959 semester, McCook Hall also found itself targeted, in this case for permanent closure as a dormitory. Thanks to “federal loan monies” that enabled the University to “build large modern residence halls,” as the housing department’s Fred McElhenie has observed, KU “was able to respond to the overwhelming demands for [student] housing with more appropriate facilities.” Soon after, the now abandoned living quarters were dismantled and the space once called McCook Hall went back to being used simply as general storage.

For the men who lived in McCook, though, their status as onetime stadium dwellers surely grants them a singular place in KU student housing history. Theirs was a collective experience never before shared and one certain never to be repeated. Fully appreciative of this uniqueness, Raymond Mead penned a parting thought in a 2002 reminiscence. “My final memory of McCook,” he wrote, “is receiving my diploma in the graduation ceremony in the backyard of my first dormitory – Memorial Stadium.”

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: Much of the content of this article was made possible by the sizable and invaluable collection of reminiscences compiled by Fred McElhenie of the KU Department of Student Housing for his McCook Hall Retrospectives project. Among the other sources consulted are as follows: Lawrence Journal-World (April 15, 1946); University Daily Kansan (April 23, 1946); University Daily Kansan (May 8, 1946); Lawrence Journal-World (May 18, 1946); University Daily Kansan (November 15, 1946); Lawrence Journal-World (November 16, 1946); University Daily Kansan (November 19, 1946); University Daily Kansan (September 23, 1957). For more information on Memorial Stadium itself, see the Memorial Stadium Building File, located in University Archives, Spencer Research Library.]