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Remembering Old Main

Alumni Share Their Memories of Knox's Most Beloved Building

If there is one building on campus that connects Knox alumni across the years, it is Old Main. Since it opened its doors in 1857, Knox students have been studying in its classrooms, walking up its stairs, or simply basking in its history. To celebrate its 150th anniversary, Knox Magazine asked alumni to share their favorite memories of Old Main.

The magazine?s many responses?in prose, poetry, and photographs?are below.

Share your favorite memory of Old Main on the Knox Online Community message board!

Charles Baker '47
"I have washed every window, swept every floor, dumped every wastebasket (including the latrines) in that building. I would not consider that a favorite memory, but it did help get me through." (Charles served as a janitor in Old Main, 1940-1943.)

Neva Sebert Wallace '51
Red Bricks rise above the prairie soil.
Morning mist surrounds familiar walls.
What is it about the magic of this building
standing decades deep in memorabilia? . . .

Homecoming warms the heart and you will find
the magic of this building plain to see
for Old Main is the heart of our Knox College
and it's the heart of this place that calls us home. 
?An excerpt from the poem "Old Main"

Celebrating the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Centennial in 1958 are Vernon M. Welsh, chair of the Board of Trustees, Carl Sandburg, and Kellogg McClelland, former treasurer of Knox. Submitted by Sallie Welsh Van Arsdale, daughter of Vernon Welsh.

Rex Brown '52
"The following story is really only indirectly related to Old Main; however, as a freshman in the fall of 1948 and a pledge of Phi Sigma Kappa, my assignment was to paint '1952' on the dome of the observatory, which sat, as I recall, south and somewhat west of Old Main. I did paint the dome with light green paint, and I painted it 'Yeh Class of 52.' In the first quarter of the 1948 class year, I took a writing course with John Lars Johnson in one of the rooms on the second or third floors of the east end of Old Main. In one of the papers, which I turned in to Professor Johnson, I used the word 'yeh' again, instead of using 'yea.' The professor asked me into his office, looked out the window, and pointed out to me that there was presumably a misspelled word on the dome. I got caught 'green-handed.'"

John Norton '58
"I've had the pleasure of helping Lance Factor uncover some of the facts surrounding Swedish-American architect (and Mason!) Charles Ulricson of Peoria, designer of 'Old Main.' His architectural practice outside a couple of key historic structures like Old Main and the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church at Andover, Illinois, remains largely forgotten, as is his personal history. Lance has done a fine job of researching Ulricson and the building itself. I look forward to his publication of that story.

My fondest memories of Old Main lie, of course, in my classroom experience of devoted faculty like Dr. Newcomb and Dr. Muelder, who brought history to life for all of us. Highlights were, of course, attending four graduations as a member of the Knox Choir, 1954-58, then seeing reprints of my late father Paul Norton's pencil rendering 'Old Main' used to help the choir raise funds for its first European tour in 1958, as U.S. representatives to the Brussels World's Fair. What a great graduation gift that was!"

Mary Kent Knight '60
"When I was at Knox, Old Main really WAS the main building for all but science classes. I remember studying in Seymour Lounge (I THINK that's what it was called); gathering around the large conference table as part of the Midwest Seminar in the first-floor room (the name escapes me); the stairs with the indentations made by generations of students tromping up and down; President Umbeck's office hidden in the first floor corner; the window through which Lincoln and Douglas stepped for their debate; the bell atop the building which would ring out whenever we beat Monmouth; the beautiful elm-lined brick walkway that was known as 'The Way to Knox;' my graduation ceremony on the lawn; and many happy hours spent listening to English, foreign language, and history professors in those old high-ceilinged rooms. There was a charm, a feeling of solidarity, and the wonderful realization that once one stepped inside Old Main one was a part of Knox's history. I hope someone (not I, for sure!) will be around to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the building that is the heart of the College."

Cynthia Brown '64
"My father, Dr. Sherman W. Brown, head of the modern languages department, had his office on the east side of Old Main, immediately above the exit door. He worked in that office from 1938 until about 1973, year 'round, especially after he initiated the summer language lab instititutes. I remember when I was a little girl he would take me to that office on week-ends when he would prepare lessons and grade papers that he had not finished at home.

In the fall of 1958, there was a Centennial Parade that passed directly under his office window. I was supposed to ride in it side-saddle in costume but became ill with the flu and had to watch the parade from his office window."

Claudia Cole Gross '66
"In December 1964, when my enthusiasm for Knox College was waning, my best friend wanted me to have positive memories of Old Main. So he chose the South steps as the spot to propose marriage."

Sarah Elizabeth Boydstun Ross '75
"Thank you for honoring this great building. I had no idea I carried such strong memories until I sat down to let them out! My father was Willard C. Ross, and he taught mathematics at Knox until his death in 1959."

I will be a better person
For the rest of my life
Because of this building
And the rich heritage
That floats through its halls.

I carry the dreams of my father
And all those who came before
And all who have come since.
In my mind's eye
We are all smiling In the shadow of the building
With the castle on top.
?An excerpt from the poem "Old Main"

Carol Brown Lukemeyer '76
"I remember a particular English class with Howie Wilson in a corner classroom on the top floor. We were studying a poem or story about the maypole. A storm was rolling in and just as Howie began talking about the maypole's pagan origins and the Puritans' condemnation of the celebration, a huge bolt of lightning struck nearby. A perfect atmosphere for the occasion."

Jim Foley '78
"The year was 1977. Barney Sellers '78 and I went to Old Main with security to have the bell rung, but the activator switch would not work! There we were at 4:00 a.m. and no way to wake up the campus. It was obvious what we needed to do. We had security open the door to the roof, and we climbed up and manually rang the bell!"

Ann Elfline Davie '83
"There is footage of me as a baby on the steps of Old Main from my parents' class movie (Bob '62 and Gerry Smith Elfline '62). Towards the end of the movie, the narrator says something about me being a future alumna, which, of course, I was. When my parents returned for their 20th Reunion, I sat with them and watched the movie. For them, it most likely seemed like yesterday. For me, it was a surreal moment to realize that I was looking at myself.

I have wonderful memories of classes held in Old Main. The windows open up to let in a gentle breeze when classes first resumed at the beginning of the year. The cold, driving rain plastering leaves over the worn steps in autumn and winter. The promises held by blue, warm skies in spring as we dreamed of being outside. How marvellous it was to walk the same steps as so many others throughout the years. What wouldn't I give to step back at least for a few moments and have the luxury of learning in such an historic environment.

Alana Papernik Stein'01 took this photo of an Old Main classroom for Beginning Photography with Professor Michael Godsil in spring 2001.

Danita Fleck '83
"I recall the magical feeling of climbing the old staircases with the rood railings and risers. The old woodgrain was so lovely and warm to the touch?and in warm weather?even sticky. The shiny, black slate stair steps were worn away from decades, nay generations, of students, teachers, alumni, and honored guests. . . . When I was a student at Knox, wood-soled clogs were in fashion. It was a death-defying act to climb those misshapen old stairs daily to the third floor!"

Lynn Chasson '84
"My Old Main memory is of my first day of Spanish 101 with Jorge Prats. He wrote the vowels on the board and proceeded to lead the class through a series of noises reminiscent of the soundtrack of a bad porn movie: OOOOOO, AHHHHHH, EEEEEEEE, OHHHHHHHH, EHHHHHHH. Definitely caught our attention . . . It took us until lesson three to get up the nerve to ask him why he spoke 'with a lisp' in Spanish but not in English; welcome to the Castillian accent! Jorge (or Jordi as he's now known) and the Barcelona Program have had a HUGE influence on my career both at Knox and afterwards, so my memories of Old Main are always linked to him."

Susan Bantz-Gustafson '86
"There are so many things to enjoy about Old Main as both a piece of architecture and as a window to the past. It was awe-inspiring to study history in a building that is itself such an important part of the history of our country. The beautiful windows, those heavy but decorative doors, and the warmth of the Common Room always made me feel as though it was a friend as much as a place to learn. I loved the little surprises, too?that tiny kitchen off the Common Room where I helped prepare snacks for Caxton Club; the pigeons I watched as they tried to figure out a way around the various metal barriers set up on the ledges to keep them from roosting outside the ladies' room lounge; the glorious views of the campus I could enjoy from virtually any window. But the best thing about Old Main was?and is?the stairs.

Not a time did I climb those flights without feeling the hollowed, worn sections in the middle of each tread that reminded me I was not the first, nor would I be the last, to follow them upward in search of learning. I was a part of the tradition, the history, and the community that is Knox College. It touches me to know that today, others climb those stairs seeking knowledge, walking in the hollows my own footsteps helped deepen 20 years ago. I wonder if they will think of those who came before them, those who will follow, and what they will bring back down to share with others. That is, after all, as much as part of the Knox Experience as is Old Main."

Kenneth Peve '87
"A specific memory I have regarding Old Main dates to the fall of 1983, my freshman year at Knox. I was working for a campus job as an archives assistant in the Knox College Archives in the basement of Seymour Library. Since that was the time Knox was celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, it was decided to duplicate the 'Knox College for Lincoln' banner that hung east side of Old Main during the original debates in 1858. Myself and two other archives assistant reproduced the banner with the aid of an overhead projector, a transparency, and black paint. Now, whenever I see that banner from 1983 photos, I remeber how and when it was created and it makes me smile to remember those memories."

Shawn Fielding '97
"I guess my best memories should be doing a presentation in the Lincoln room or listening to a historiography lesson,which changed my thoughts forever . . . . but, no, my best memories have to do with bathrooms.

My best memory is getting frisky in the secret bathroom with my future wife on the second floor, while some sort of function was happening in the big room.

My second best was when I graffitied the men?s bathroom stall in ballpoint ink with the words 'Marx was right!' after a fiery philosophy class. I went back months later and saw that someone inserted a 'Groucho' in front of Marx and a ?Honk!? at the end. Whoever did that . . . genius.

Oh, and then, of course, accidentally getting part of Old Main's historic first door lock thrown away, while working at the archives and putting a display together honoring the building."

Photo collage of Old Main by Zac Skinner '09.

Maddie Stapleton Fay '98
"What I always remember about Old Main is the fact that all of the steps are so worn down in the middle that you keep climbing and climbing and feel like you're getting nowhere! Still, to this day, when I think about those steps, I smile. Here's to another 150 years, Old Main!"

Natalie Bus Hoskins '99
"I have a lot of memories of Old Main, most of them pretty common: lining up for Pumphandle, taking classes, guiding campus tours and telling Lincoln anecdotes, etc. But the most specific, lasting, and unusual memory I have is from graduation. I was a student Commencement speaker for the Class of '99, which was a tradition from the past we revived that year. It was a very hot day, and I tried to stay hydrated all morning long to prepare for speaking. I even brought a bottle of water on stage with me. The combination of the heat, the water, and my nerves made me have to go to the bathroom. I had to, as discreetly as possible, exit the stage, run into the Old Main bathroom, and try to make it back in time for my speech, which I did. My parents bought a copy of the videotape of Commencement because of my speech, and you can watch me leave and come back; owever, I was glad I had to decided to run in to Old Main. I felt much better for delivering my speech!"

Dan Chibnall '03
"Frank Elliott '04, Mike Stowers '03, and I were driving down South Street when we looked up and noticed the bell tower did not look right. One of the side beams was just waving in the wind, as if it was broken. We slowed down and stared at it for a minute, but then drove on. Later, Frank ran into President Taylor and mentioned what we saw. President Taylor noted what we saw to Scott Maust (director of facilities), and the repairs on the bell tower began. From then on, the bell was used to signal the beginning and end of classes during the day. Whenver I'm back on campus and I hear the bell, I smile and think that we played a small, yet important role in the history of Old Main."

Jenna Boostrom '04
"I was taking Home and Exile in Jewish Literature my senior year. The course was taught by Zali Gurevich, a visiting scholar from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Class was held on the third floor of Old Main, and, every day, Zali would walk in with a look of triumph at having braved the worn flights of stairs yet again. The end of class was always signaled by the loud grinding of the bell tower. We couldn't hear the bells from where we were, just the loud whir, and it sort drove him crazy.

One day Zali brought a CD player/boom box to class. At the end of class he told us that he loved listening to music, so he borrowed a CD player from another professor. The problem was that he had no idea how to make it work, and he confessed to being too embarrassed to admit that to his colleague. Sitting at his desk, he placed the boom box on top, and asked, 'How do I open this? And when I get it open, how do I make it play?' So one student got up and pressed the top, which made the CD part open slowly, like they do. He told Zali to press the arrow button to make the CD play. Zali nodded his thanks, and the student sat down.

Zali kept staring at the boom box, and everyone was silent. Finally, he reached over, pressed the top, and watched as the cover opened. He probably opened and closed it four times, brow furrowed. He suddenly looked up at all of us and said, 'It looks like a spaceship, don't you think? Like it could take-off any second.' Just then, the whirring began. Without skipping a beat, Zali picked up the CD player with both hands and made it hover over his desk to the tune of grinding bells."

T. Willard Hunter, son of Louise Willard Hunter, Knox Class of 1914
"In the summer of 1936, I had just graduated from Carleton College and was a seed salesman weekending in Burlington, Iowa. I took the opprtunity of driving over to Galesburg to see my good friend, Carter Davidson, who at age 31 had become the new president of Knox. He and my father had been colleagues on the Carleton English faculty, and I had been one of Davidson's students. Old Main had just been restored, and the new president was proud to show me around."