A Bunch Of SOBs
Sometimes, a clever acronym is just too hard to resist. That apparently was the case at the University of Kansas from 1949 through 1955 for the young men who roomed in two short-lived scholarship halls, now virtually forgotten, called Sterling and Oliver.
These facing residences were formerly private homes on either side of Louisiana Street just south of Corbin Hall. Organized administratively as a single entity under the supervision of one housemother, this two-building set-up became known as Sterling-Oliver Hall following KU’s decision, on October 8, 1949, to name the latter house after the University’s first chancellor, Robert W. Oliver.
But boys will be, well, boys, and it didn’t take long for the Sterling-Oliver Boys to adopt the acronym SOB as the moniker for the residence and their shared identity.
Although it appears they delighted in this rascally nickname, the approximately 50 young men who occupied Sterling-Oliver every year were hardly fulltime pranksters.
Indeed, records and anecdotal evidence indicate the SOBs as a group regularly earned among the highest grade point averages on campus, while their intramural teams often excelled in a full range of sports. (On this latter score, one of the biggest SOBs, so to speak, was a 200-meter sprinter from Luxembourg named Robert Schaeffer, who would go to represent his country at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.)
These pillars of academic and athletic prowess seem to have supported and enlivened the Sterling-Oliver experience. They also appear to have served as useful palliatives, because the houses themselves were nothing to write home about. Old and overcrowded, the conditions at Sterling-Oliver were, at least for some residents, a source of aggravation, irritation, and occasionally even shame.
KU had acquired both Sterling and Oliver in the late-1940s amid a severe post-World War II student housing shortage in Lawrence. This was a period when the University was scrambling to pull together a variety of ad-hoc housing arrangements to fill the extraordinary demand for room and board caused by ballooning enrollments. Sterling-Oliver was one in a series of these “temporary” solutions.
Oliver Hall, located at 1126 Louisiana, was named in honor of the Reverend Robert W. Oliver, who had served as KU’s first chancellor from 1865 to 1867. The house itself had been constructed in 1897 for a Lawrence resident named Rachel Pugh, and it remained in her family for the next 47 years.
In 1944, a Lawrence feed merchant had purchased the house, but four years later, he put it on the market. With $15,000 from the KU Endowment Association, the University acquired the property in the summer of 1949 and proceeded to spend an additional $5,000 to remodel the residence as a men’s scholarship hall and make it ready for occupancy in time for the 1949-50 school year.
Sterling Hall, directly across the street at 1129 Louisiana, had been the home of Miles W. Sterling, a longtime professor of Greek at KU. The University purchased it in July 1948, and in the fall 1948 semester, this 13-room house served as a residence hall for 22 women students. But for the spring 1949 semester, the women moved out and Sterling became a men’s scholarship hall, which is what it would remain for the rest of its existence.
Thus, by the fall of 1949, the united Sterling-Oliver arrangement was a going concern. Although living in two separate structures, Sterling-Oliver residents shared a single kitchen (located in Sterling Hall) and a sole resident housemother. Like the other scholarship halls at KU, cost of living expenses were kept low because the self-supporting students lived cooperatively, sharing all the cooking and cleaning duties.
Under this formula, Sterling-Oliver residents paid about $30 a month for room and board. As to what their money bought them in terms of accommodations, more than a few former SOBs echoed the rather caustic indictment of Ron Reifel. “Sterling-Oliver,” he said, “was physically the most crowded and worst scholarship hall” on campus. “It appeared the Dean assigned most of the least affluent and sophisticated students there as we could not complain or would not know or expect any better.”
On this last point, SOB resident Roy Gridley, later a professor of English at KU, agreed that he and his housemates were not only “poor,” but also an “unsophisticated, socially rough bunch.” He added, though, that they were “passionately studious [and] intellectually energetic.”
Indeed, although University records are rather thin on Sterling-Oliver, what does emerge from the available material is a deep sense of hall pride. Notwithstanding their private gripes about the cramped, overcrowded digs, the sweltering summers without air-conditioning and the frigid winters without adequate heat, the scholarship students were proud to be SOBs.
“We at Sterling-Oliver were dedicated to getting an education,” noted resident James Lovett a half-century after the experience, “not to having fun for four years.” Maybe so, but fun seemed to have a way of finding them, despite their high reputation for academic achievement. Many SOBs were heavily into intramural sports, joining up to represent their fellow housemates in everything from softball to basketball and doing surprisingly well. As often and as long as they could get away with it, emblazoned across their homemade jerseys were the bold letters SOB.
“I played intramural basketball on the House 2nd team,” said Reifel, “and still have the House S.O.B. jersey. Needless to say the jerseys were a big joke and bad enough to get a picture or two in the Daily Kansan.”
“The Dean of Men raised hell about it,” recalled Gridley, and eventually put a stop to this apparent affront to decency, “but not until after we had displayed the obscenity in several games on the hallowed court of old Naismith Hall.”
Another vivid memory of Sterling-Oliver sporting life was of the “touch football games we had on our front yard.” But as Ivan L. Henman explained, this activity evinced less a love of athletics and more a lust for the ladies. “We were showing off for all the pretty girls who had to walk by our house to [the] Corbin freshman girl dormitories.”
In fact, outside of Sterling-Oliver’s close proximity to campus, it seems, the best aspect of living in these structures was that they occupied perhaps the prime vantage point for ogling passing co-eds who lived in Corbin Hall. “Every day at lunch 600 women had to walk past Sterling-Oliver,” remembered Lovett, “and it was an extremely sophisticated freshman [woman] who could survive a dozen men whistling in unison without blushing. We didn’t do it much,” he hastened to add in his recollection of these decidedly un-PC times, “but it was fun when we did.”
Checking their descent into an uncouth rabble was the apparent civilizing influence of the Sterling-Oliver housemother, Mrs. Sestos Hughes, remembered fondly by many as “Mother Hughes.” She was “wonderful,” said Sherman Nichols, “and helped us in our transition from the farm to the fast lane.” Part of her job was to instill basic table manners “and she succeeded for the most part,” remembered George Fosmire. “We learned to cook, clean the house and to keep raucous stories and language out of the meal-time.”
Indeed, a key element of her instruction was the highly formalized dinner ritual that, in addition to teaching table etiquette, nightly involved one unlucky diner learning the lesson of patience the hard way. “The housemother was escorted to the dining table,” recalled Art Burnham, “and her escort sat to her left. The food was blessed and the escort started serving by passing food to the housemother first. After her serving, food was passed from left to right around the table,” meaning the escort was served last, and often found slim pickings. “We called that position at the table the ‘Starvation Corner’ – to be avoided if at all possible.”
Another custom, recalled Fosmire, “was to have one’s roommate announce your engagement to be married at mealtime and Al Nanninga did the honors for me with a poem and replies and comments from the other guys. It was a ‘Big Deal’ to me and I still remember it fondly.”
For Burnham, his most vivid recollection of Sterling-Oliver camaraderie was the time, before Thanksgiving break, when “the entire dorm was invited to our room for fellowship. About two-three dozen boys were present. We formed a circle, joined hands and offered prayers for the safe journey of each student during the break. This display of affection and concern,” he added, “was unique to our dorm life experience. I think of it often.”
One aspect that probably was not unique to the Sterling-Oliver experience involved smuggling alcoholic beverages into the hall while managing to elude the watchful eye of the housemother. Once consumed, explained Thomas Pearson Jr., the SOBs discovered how to make the incriminating evidence disappear. “Several of the students’ rooms had somehow gotten holes punched in the walls. When members brought in forbidden cans of brew they disposed of said cans by placing them in the core of the walls. As a result,” he continued, “the cans would rattle down to wherever the current level of cans was located. Mother Hughes often commented on the strange sounds she would hear at night. Like metal rats roaming the halls.”
Though she might have had her suspicions, the SOBs’ clandestine imbibing seemed to have occurred without the housemother’s notice. Once they were even praised for their remarkable sobriety! “I remember the Monday lunch after the first time we had a dance at Sterling Hall,” Lovett said. “The housemother took occasion to express her pleasure (and not a little surprise) that this was the first dance she had ever chaperoned where no one tried to sneak in a bottle or sneak a girl upstairs.” In this instance, either they were completely innocent or, perhaps, their collective high intelligence, manifested in the classroom, also extended to craftiness at home.
For all the shared experiences as SOBs, as might be expected there was a certain degree of sibling rivalry between the occupants of Sterling and Oliver Halls. (One prank in particular, immortalized photographically, saw the Sterling boys repaint their neighbors’ house sign to read “Oliver Hell.”)
This competitive spirit manifested itself in slightly more productive ways when it came to the annual Homecoming house decorating contests. “In the fall of 1949,” recalled Lovett, Oliver Hall bested its neighbor by taking a University-wide award for its “paper mache Missouri Tiger roasting on a spit.” An elaborate mechanical apparatus allowed a giant Jayhawk, carving knife in hand and chef's hat on head, to barbeque its feline victim.
And while they might have roasted each other from time to time, the Sterling-Oliver residents were all united under the SOB banner. Fifty years later, almost to a man these former SOBs looked back on their KU days with great fondness, relishing the good times and good friends, and thankful for the opportunities the scholarship halls afforded.
“It was a great venue to learn from other people during midnight debates in smoke-filled rooms,” wrote Wayne Blount, “and it enabled me to get through college nearly debt free.” For Morton Yeomans, Sterling-Oliver “was one large family. We lived, ate, worked and played together. It was an excellent experience and served as a firm base for my growth from that time on.” Indeed, for every complaint about the cramped houses being veritable “iceboxes,” as one former SOB recalled, there were many more who seconded Dale Anderson: “I would not trade my year in Sterling-Oliver for any other experience you can name.”
Yet the University, it seemed, was all too eager to trade in or otherwise dispose of both Sterling and Oliver Halls at its earliest convenience. Considering their age and somewhat dilapidated conditions, coupled with the prolific campus-wide dormitory construction projects, December 1955 marked the last month the halls would be used as student residences, the final time (at least from the standpoint of an unofficially sanctioned acronym) that SOBs would inhabit Mount Oread.
On the evening of Sunday, December 4th of that year, the last residents of Sterling-Oliver became the first male occupants of Foster Hall, located less than a block away at 1200 Louisiana. (Foster had been a “temporary” women’s residence for the preceding 12 years; its final female occupants moved into the newly completed Gertrude Sellards Pearson dormitory.) “Mother” Hughes joined her relocated SOBs and remained the Foster housemother for several years thereafter.
As for the homes themselves, Sterling Hall was simply abandoned at this point; it was later sold to private interests and demolished. An apartment complex was raised over its ruins. Oliver Hall eventually would suffer the same fate, but in its twilight years it housed the Department of Human Development and Family Life’s Infant Study Center.
The name of Sterling Hall lives on in the “Sterling House” floor of the Olin Templin Residence Hall on Daisy Hill. Present-day Oliver Residence Hall that opened in 1966 is located at 19th and Naismith Drive.
A mere six years as a residence hall, the Sterling-Oliver arrangement was in many ways KU’s child that never lived to see adulthood. Yet while many no doubt mourned its passing, few were surprised when it happened. “As a facility,” James Crosby recalled, “Sterling-Oliver rated poorly by any standard, but it made a college education possible for those of us who lived there. I was (and am) grateful to the University of Kansas for the support it provided.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas