Many of Hillsdale College’s alumni came to school when the student union was basically an airport. A few rows of metal chairs and a modest-sized TV lined the hallway that now contains the computer lab, next to a smoke-filled snack bar. A renovation in the 1980s earned the student center’s glorified hallway status as the “Ethan Allen Room,” but the improvements paled in comparison with the college’s massive 2008 upgrade: the Grewcock Student Union.
“Going into the new student union was like getting into a new car when your parents have been driving a 20-year-old, beat-up jalopy,” Professor of English Dwight Lindley ’04 said. “I mean, I didn’t know any better when we were in the old union, but in contrast with Grewcock, it was just pretty 70s, and a little stale.”
The Grewcock Student Union was dedicated 10 years ago, in January of 2008, thanks to the generous donation of Nebraska natives Bill and Berniece Grewcock. It replaced the Knorr Student Center as a place for students to congregate, eat meals, play ping-pong, study, or chat. While the old student union certainly had a character some might remember with nostalgia, the Grewcock is, to many alumni, a luxurious upgrade.
Professor of History Mark Kalthoff ’84 attended the college in the Knorr student center’s earlier “greyhound bus depot” stage. He returned after the late 80s renovation to teach at the college, when the old furniture was replaced with some nice sofas and wing-like chairs, and Kalthoff may be part of the reason why the place eventually became known among students as the “EAR,” short for Ethan Allen Room.
“I remember walking in one day saying, ‘Wow, this looks like an Ethan Allen furniture show room,’ and before long, people just started calling it the Ethan Allen Room,” Kalthoff said.
In order to build the Grewcock Student Union, the college tore down the Carr Library, which had been built in 1951 and was replaced by Mossey Library, which was constructed in 1971. Professor of Philosophy Lee Cole said it took him a while to get used to the changes, including the chairs, video games, etc. when he came back to campus to teach.
“When I came back and saw the Grewcock for the first time — frankly the second time and the third time too — I expressed the sentiment that I’m pretty sure was universally held by all my peers from Hillsdale, and that is, our students are really really spoiled now,” Cole said.
Lindley noted that the space was overall much smaller than the Grewcock Student Union and gave the environment a different feel.
“You couldn’t be anonymous in the old student union couch area,” Lindley said.
Besides the EAR, the Knorr also featured a snack bar, now referred to as the “Old Snack Bar,” where students could purchase treats like burgers and fries or a milkshake. It wasn’t frequented nearly as often A.J.’s, according to Cole, and often it was seen as more of a special treat, whereas people now use A.J.’s frequently. Some students also took advantage of the allowance to smoke in the snack bar area.
“It was kind of dank and nicotine was always in the air,” Cole said. “Honestly people who spent the most time in the snack bar were philosophy majors and psychology majors and sociology majors, and you normally didn’t spend long periods of time there unless you were a smoker. I was less hipster than some philosophy majors.”
Professor of English Christopher Busch remembers buying many chocolate milkshakes at the snack bar. He also noted that there was a cigarette vending machine located outside the door and little ash trays lining the walls of the classroom buildings.
“I had come from California where smoking was kind of not encouraged even at that time, so that was kind of surprising, because even from my childhood smoking was more prevalent than later on,” he said.
The Fairfield Society was also “very much a staple” at the time, according to Cole. The group would hold weekly meetings in one of the Knorr Center rooms next to the snack bar. Usually the presentations were on religious or theological topics, which were delivered by either a student or professor, and usually attracted around 15 to 40 students. Members would often bring their trays from the dining hall to eat during the 90-minute presentation.
“You were allowed to have trays — that’s the only way the college was better then,” Cole said.
Lindley also noted that it was a lot easier for students to sneak out food items from the dining hall, sometimes packing their entire dinner so they wouldn’t have to come back later that day. An additional perk for some students was the bowling alley that was later replaced in the basement of the Knorr Center.
The Collegian and Student Activities Board also got new offices with the transition. Assistant Dean of Women Rebekah Dell, who directed the Student Activities Board from the summer of 2006 to the summer of 2010, said SAB has seen “dramatic growth” since its move to the Grewcock from a couple of small offices in the Knorr Center. Not only has the student and adult staff doubled, but SAB now hosts a wide variety of events throughout the year, in contrast with the seven major events it used to do.
Lindley likened the dining hall in the old student union to a 70s-style country club, with its large glass floor-to-ceiling sheet windows. The old dining hall was generally more crowded at meal times than the one in the Grewcock is, which meant students would often have to sit with people they didn’t necessarily know, and professors were more likely to sit together with students instead of separated at their own table.
“The only option for seating was really large round tables, and you didn’t have booths,” Cole said. “Nowadays you can go to the Grewcock at 12 and it may be hard find table, but it’s never hard find seat. When I was student, we could go to the cafeteria and it was just hard to find a seat. It’s a funny way in which it actually contributed to a greater sense of community.”
Jill Smith, who started working in the old student center dining hall in 1995 and is currently employed by Bon Appétit, said she still remembers what it was like watching the Grewcock center being built.
“It was like watching the chapel being built now. You can just imagine it. It just looks huge,” she said. “One day they brought us down on the tour, and it was just overwhelming. It just looked so huge, and the kitchen was just beautiful. It took a little bit for us to get used to it. It’s just great to have all the space and equipment that is up to date.”
A lot of college campuses began updating their student unions, according to Kalthoff after the Baby Boomer generation, of which he was a part, had graduated. The smaller class sizes in subsequent generations caused more competition for students and led to a lot of improved campus amenities.
“Students at 17 or 18 years old, as smart and good as they are, often make decision, sometimes life decisions, based on things that are other than, say, just the curriculum. They come up and see a cool campus, or a fun student union, and they’re often attracted to a college because they like it aesthetically. So lots of colleges try to capitalize on that.”