OU makes way for future
By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 5/30/2014
Jan Lee was in the union lunchroom when news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination spread across the Ottawa University campus Nov. 22, 1963.
While Mowbray Student Union has just about disappeared from the OU landscape, memories of the building when it was brand new remain as strong as the brick and mortar it was constructed from for Lee, associate director of library services at OU.
Lee, then an OU senior, recalls singing in the First Baptist Church choir during the dedication ceremony of the University Union in fall 1963 on the campus, 1001 S. Cedar St. The building was renamed Mowbray Student Union in 1982, Lee said, in honor of longtime OU supporters Luke and Edna Mowbray.
“It was state-of-the art,” Lee said of the University Union. “Prior to that, we had eaten our meals in the commons building, which we had really outgrown. When I was a freshman, every evening meal and Sunday noon meal was a sit-down, family-style meal, and we outgrew that space to be able to do that. So they brought the family-style meals back [when the union opened].”
The union’s recreation room featured ping pong and pool tables, which hadn’t been available before, Lee said.
“It had big gathering rooms and some small conference rooms — definitely space we hadn’t had before,” she said.
The new union also ushered in a new activity on campus, Lee fondly recalled as she sat in her office Friday morning at Myers Library.
“We had not been allowed to dance on campus until the union was built, and then the trustees finally said, ‘OK,’” she said, smiling. “Every fall at the beginning of school, the [university] president had a formal reception, and they had a dance in combination with it that year, so that was a big deal.”
While the Mowbray Student Union is being torn down to make room for the new Gangwish Library, the framework of Gibson Student Center is taking shape on the campus. Once constructed, the 43,000-square-foot library and attached student center will serve the university community with state-of-the-art technology, student services, dining and conference amenities, university officials have said.
Demolition of the union began May 20, and Lee was handed one of the building’s bricks as a keepsake, she said. Lee, who went to work in the OU library in 1967, also was an instructor in OU’s education department for nine years. Except for a 16-month stretch in the early 2000s, she has been employed at OU for more than 45 years and is the only staff member who was on campus when the union opened in 1963 — albeit as a senior at the university.
The demolition project should take about two weeks, Mark Farris, project superintendent for Ottawa-based contractor Loyd Builders, said earlier this week. The Gibson Student Center is scheduled for completion Aug. 1, Farris said.
Gangwish Library is slated for completion in late July or early August 2015 in time for OU’s sesquicentennial celebration. The university, which was founded in 1865, is in the midst of planning activities to mark its 150th anniversary next year.
Lee, a Fort Collins, Colorado, native whose parents also went to OU, said she has watched Mowbray Student Union come down with mixed emotions.
“I was in the lunchroom or in line to eat lunch when we heard President Kennedy had been shot,” Lee said. “I was student teaching at Hawthorne [Elementary] School, and we had to come back for lunch.”
She also has fond memories of the building.
“Of course, there have been lots of banquets after I came back [to work at OU],” Lee said. “I know it wasn’t the prettiest building, but some good things happened in the building. But because the library is going to take its place, it’s not too sad. We’ve been waiting for [a new library] for a long time.”
The new library and student center, which represents the largest single building project ever undertaken by the university, also serves as the centerpiece of the university’s $24.3 million Advancing the Vision Capital Campaign, Kevin Eichner, OU president, said in a previous interview.
Lee thinks current OU students will be as excited about the new state-of-the-art Gangwish Library and Gibson Student Center as she and her fellow OU students were about seeing the union open in 1963.
“They’re going to love it,” Lee said.