Why Does Every College Have A Memorial Union?

MOORHEAD, Minn. — Memorial Auditorium, Memorial Park, Memorial Bridge. Just about anywhere you look, there’s a place called “memorial,” and nowhere is the name more ubiquitous than on college campuses.

Locally, there’s Memorial Auditorium at Concordia College and memorial unions at both North Dakota State University and Minnesota State University Moorhead.

The union at University of North Dakota is also Memorial Union, as are the unions at St. Cloud State, Bemidji State, and the universities of Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon, New Hampshire, Tennessee and Arizona. To name a few.

Why are there so many memorial unions? The answer dates back to World War II.

A photograph of the Student Memorial Union at North Dakota State University shows it as it appeared in 1953 in Fargo.  Image courtesy NDSU Archives
A photograph of the Student Memorial Union at North Dakota State University shows it as it appeared in 1953 in Fargo.
Image courtesy NDSU Archives

Desire for unions

The end of the war spurred a building boom on college campuses. With funding from the GI Bill, veterans returned to college in droves and campuses had to expand to keep up.

Returning veterans, in particular, advocated for the construction of unions.

“The impetus really was to have something that was theirs, that they had control of,” said Mike Robinson, associate director of libraries and former archivist at NDSU.

At NDSU, then the North Dakota Agricultural College, students had been going to the YMCA for recreation, but by 1947, “they wanted something that was independent and non-religiously affiliated and specific to the university,” Robinson said. “There was nothing on campus here for that, where they could hang out, read a newspaper, play some pool, go bowling, have a dance.”

So the campaign began. Veterans partnered with administrators to create a $5 student activities fee, and the building opened in October 1953. It was about a quarter of the size it is today, but it had a barber shop, a men’s clothing store and a bowling alley.

And it was dedicated to fallen soldiers.

A similar storyline was playing out across the country, said Elizabeth Beltramini, content curator for the Association of College Unions International.

“The student leaders who were pushing for the facility, and even some of the professional staff who had served in World War II, were obviously connected to those who had lost their lives and so wanted to honor them,” Beltramini said. “And this was the way to do it.”

Not all memorial unions are called that to honor veterans. MSUM’s Comstock Memorial Union honors the benefactor who donated the college’s original land. The Coffman Memorial Union at the University of Minnesota was named after a university president.

But the push for unions to be war memorials, led by the ACUI, gained traction nationwide.

“I think the idea of making the student union a war memorial to the students who have died in the war is extremely fitting,” Eleanor Roosevelt said in 1945.

According to an ACUI bulletin from 1948, more than 60 colleges were planning memorial unions, and the association is in the middle of a study to determine how many are still called that.

John Hallberg of North Dakota State University Archives unrolls original architectural drawings of the university’s Student Memorial Union on Thursday, May 21, 2015, in Fargo.  Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
John Hallberg of North Dakota State University Archives unrolls original architectural drawings of the university’s Student Memorial Union on Thursday, May 21, 2015, in Fargo.
Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Desire to remember

The idea of a campus memorial to veterans goes beyond unions, too.

At Concordia, Memorial Auditorium was given its name under similar circumstances, said Carroll Engelhardt, who wrote a book about the first century of Concordia College.

After the war, Concordia’s enrollment soared from 400 students to 1,300 in 1948, Engelhardt said. The student body could no longer fit in the old auditorium for chapel.

“They had wanted a union for a long time, but they had higher priorities,” Engelhardt said.

The campaign for the auditorium began in 1947 with the slogan, “Serve your country and your college.” Concordia wasn’t eligible for federal money, but private donors had savings from the frugal war years. Like many building campaigns of the time, the college tapped into that.

“That sounds a little crass and self-serving, but on the other hand you’re paying tribute to people, you’re remembering people, you’re expressing appreciation for the service they’ve given the nation, and you’re remembering that service by putting up a building, by establishing a park,” Engelhardt said.

The gymnasium auditorium ended up much like a union. After the space opened in 1952, it housed basketball games, the annual Christmas concert and even roller skating parties.

“In all of these ways, they were enhancing the life of the college community, much in the way a student union enhances the life of a college community,” Engelhardt said.

And like many unions of the era, the space was dedicated to veterans of World War II.

Engelhardt said he never gave much thought to the auditorium’s name before he studied Concordia’s history, but at the time, that was important.

“Your peers were going off to the war and some of them weren’t returning,” said John Taylor, CEO of ACUI. “There’d be a lot of emotion tied to wanting to recognize them at that time.”