Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Principle Residence

Within a few years following the end of the Second World War, about a dozen student housing cooperatives had taken root at the University of Kansas.

Typically located in large former single-family residences near the KU campus and segregated by sex, the co-ops were organized under the “Rochdale Principles,” the foundation of modern cooperation first enunciated by a group of nineteenth-century textile weavers from the British town of Rochdale as a response to the economic dislocations of the Industrial Revolution.

Following the Rochdale precepts, these KU housing co-ops offered living arrangements that featured democratic governance, shared household responsibilities and collective purchasing to keep expenses as low as possible. In the process, the co-ops allowed many KU students in the mid-twentieth century to obtain a college education that otherwise might have been unaffordable. By all accounts, these houses also provided a stimulating, collegial and culturally diverse environment.

The life spans of KU’s housing co-ops varied. Some lasted for just a few semesters before being disbanded or moved to another location. Others existed for more than a decade. In the latter category – with a name that harkened back to the very foundations of the cooperative movement – was the Rochdale Co-op.

During its 29-semester existence, which officially began on February 1, 1951, with the start of spring term classes, and through the 1964-65 academic year, the co-op occupied two separate homes, one at 1244 Ohio Street, the other at 1537½ Tennessee. Each locale housed a wide variety of occupants, everyone from Korean War veterans and Kansas-born undergraduates to foreign students hailing from as far away as Pakistan and from as nearby as Canada.

One former Rochdale dweller, a British citizen who earned a Master’s degree from KU, eventually attained a seat in the United Kingdom’s House of Lords. Another brief Rochdale resident was an African American graduate student in chemistry who went on to become the longest serving mayor – and perhaps, the most notorious one as well – in the history of the District of Columbia.

As with many other KU student housing concerns of the immediate post-World War II era, the documentary records pertaining to the Rochdale Co-op are rather thin. What does remain, however, are smatterings of still-vivid memories from one-time residents. And whether the reminiscence is of the 200-proof lemonade the men once concocted, the movie star looks of one particular housemother, or the all-around invigorating intellectual atmosphere, most would likely agree with Arlen Schroeder that living in the Rochdale Co-op was “an awesome, life-shaping experience.”

This experience began in earnest in early 1951 when some 20 male students moved into 1244 Ohio Street, in a home that had just been vacated by the like-minded members of the Twin Pines Co-op. The inaugural Rochdale residents consisted predominantly of graduate students majoring in chemistry, according to John Eberhardt, an historian of KU’s cooperative movement. And as chemical engineering student Basil T. Papahronis remembered, he and his fellow Rochdale-residing chemists did not limit their “research,” as he termed it, to campus laboratories.

“One summer,” as Papahronis recollected in a retrospective written in 2002, “we made lemonade to ward off the heat. It had an added ingredient – 2 liters of grain alcohol – to make it smoother…. Since we had so many chemists in those years,” he added, scholars with easy access to gallons of the 200-proof alcohol stored in University labs, “each was assigned the duty to provide a required amount for our Saturday night punch bowl. The assignments were on a schedule,” Papahronis explained, “to prevent the faculty from becoming suspicious [regarding] the consumption of alcohol for experimental purposes. This was the only way we could afford to entertain our guests with refreshments.”

As Papahronis recalled, one Rochdale guest in particular gave the super-charged lemonade rave reviews. “As we drank it on the porch [one day],” he wrote, “the mailman arrived and we offered him some. He thought it was the best ever and had a couple more. I don’t know if he finished his deliveries or not, but we never told him of the secret ingredient.”

According, to another Rochdale resident, William F. Casteen – who would go on to earn his MD from the KU School of Medicine – the cost-cutting measures at 1244 Ohio involved not merely homemade hard liquor cocktails but also extended to an elaborate basement home brew operation as well. Due to this kind of economy – but primarily to the overarching cooperative principles that enabled the men to live communally for less than $50 a month – it was possible, Casteen said, “for me to continue [and ultimately complete] my education.”

By the time Leavenworth native Arlen Schroeder arrived in the fall of 1955, the Rochdale Co-op had moved to its second location at 1537½ Tennessee Street. Occupying this larger and more spacious residence, it was now home apparently to a much more disparate KU student complement.

“I mostly remember,” Schroeder wrote almost 50 years hence, “being a boy from a small town and being immediately exposed to Korean [War] vets, exchange students (Guatemala, India, Pakistan, Canada), divergent views and freedom all at one time. Some of this I handled,” he added, “because of the diversity of the situation, some of it I handled in spite of the diversity.” All of it, though, “became part of my life experience and contributed to what I have become.” Larry “Max” Klamm also expressed “fond memories of the international community we had” at the Rochdale Co-op.

Among the foreign students who shared their own memories of Rochdale life was Elio Schaechter. An Ecuadorian used to balmy South American climes, Schaechter quickly discovered that any culture shock he may have felt in the co-op was nothing compared to the atmospheric shock he encountered outside courtesy of those bone-chilling Kansas winters. “In time,” he recalled, “I learned to adapt to such magic as walking, nay, crawling up Mt. Oread after an ice storm.” Concerning the Rochdale Co-op specifically, Schaechter further remarked that it was a perfect match for “my financial status (pauper) and for my political beliefs (leftist).”

In an ideological sense, the same was true, it seems, for another of Rochdale’s international brethren, that being British-born Pratap Chitnis. After completing a Master’s degree at KU, Chitnis returned to England and began his career as a self-described “professional centre-left politician” in the Liberal (and later Liberal Democrat) Party. “All my memories of Rochdale are good,” he said, especially those of Doris Ferguson, whom he described as “by far the youngest and prettiest housemother in Lawrence.” To the apparent disappointment of many Rochdale residents, the woman was already spoken for. She and her husband, KU student Ken Ferguson, jointly served as the co-op’s house parents during at least the 1957-58 academic year.

Some two decades later, Chitnis’ extensive work in a variety of political and philanthropic causes resulted in his elevation to the peerage. Named the Baron Chitnis in 1977, he currently holds a lifetime seat in the House of Lords.

Another former Rochdale member turned liberal politico was Marion S. Barry. As a KU graduate student in chemistry, he lived in the co-op for one semester in 1960. Barry left KU in 1961 for the University of Tennessee. He would go on to win three consecutive elections to the mayoralty of the District of Columbia (1978, 1982, and 1986), suffer disgrace in a crack-cocaine bust, and come back to redeem himself with a fourth electoral victory to the mayor’s office in 1994. Barry’s problems with the law and his flamboyant political rhetoric have in some measure eclipsed his legacy as a tireless worker for civil rights. Barry was the first national chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, which was committed to registering African-American voters in the South at a very volatile time in the nation’s history.

With respect to the Rochdale Co-op’s own history, it came to an official end following the 1964-65 academic year. “The construction of the large residence halls,” noted Fred McElhenie, KU’s associate director of student housing, “sounded the death knell for many of the smaller living units” in the Mount Oread area. In this, the Rochdale Co-op was no exception. It was disbanded in 1965. As for the home itself at 1537½ Tennessee Street, it entered private hands and, except for a brief period, remained unoccupied until destroyed by fire in the late 1960s.

According to McElhenie, though, the true “legacy of the co-ops” is not to be found in physical remains but rather endures in the “hardships overcome, the friendships formed and cultured, and the achievements of the members.” This was true for the Rochdale weavers of the mid-nineteenth century and remains so for their Mount Oread namesakes of mid-twentieth.

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 Rochdale Co-op Retrospectives project (2002). Also helpful was the research done by KU co-op movement historian John Eberhardt. Other sources consulted are as follows: Jayhawker yearbook (1958), p. 160, and Jayhawker (1959), p. 173.]