A Building, a Memorial, a Fund
by Erik Nordberg
Since 1952, the Memorial Union Building has stood as a memorial to fallen students, as well as a safe and comfortable spot to grab a cup of coffee or hunker down to study. Yet many folks may not realize that it also represents the philanthropic commitment of our alumni, friends, faculty, and staff. The MUB was the first significant fundraising effort the institution had ever mounted, and its construction planted the seed for what we know as the Michigan Tech Fund.
The June 1941 issue of the Bulletin of the Michigan College of Mining and Technology (the forerunner of today's Michigan Tech Magazine) included details of the summer alumni reunion activities. Amidst the fun and frivolity, Wilbur Van Evera 1907, president of the alumni association, indicated his plan to discuss "establishment of an Alumni Foundation which will facilitate the reception and use of bequests by the college."
The topic appears to have been received favorably, and the Alumni Foundation of the Michigan College of Mining and Technology was incorporated on August 8, 1941. The first group of trustees included Van Evera, faculty members James Fisher 1893 and Roy Drier '26, and local leaders from the mining industry (most of whom held degrees from the College, either earned or honorary).
Initial work with the foundation was interrupted, however, by the United States' entry into World War II in December 1941. The war and its aftermath would, however, provide inspiration for the group's work. The first postwar announcement from the foundation was a June 1947 booklet which proposed fundraising for "a much needed Memorial Union Building" for the campus. "Because it fits so closely the purpose for which the Alumni Foundation was formed, the Trustees have adopted the project as the initial and immediate objective of the Foundation."
It was not necessarily an easy row to hoe. Numerous publications from the College alumni association and foundation office detail the elaborate bending of elbows, shaming of alumni, and general browbeating of donors that the foundation undertook to raise $300,000 in support of the project.
"Frankly, we alumni are not doing too well," one newsletter reported in January 1948. "At the current rate of fund collections the Memorial Union building is a castle-in-the-air proposition." Another full-page plea to alumni ended with a simple statement: "What the hell, Engineers!"
Fundraising events were held throughout the country and around the world. Alumni chapters in Chicago and Mexico City called meetings of their local members.
Back home in Houghton, local groups also made an effort to gather funding for the project. The Faculty Women's Club undertook several events, including card parties, a "style show," and a performance of the play Angel Street. A separate group, the Veterans' Wives Club, held a bake sale and rummage sale. The local chapter of the alumni association also organized a concert of the Copper Country Choral Club in support of the building fund.
As money began to fill the coffers, administrators began some of the real work necessary for the building. Houses on the proposed site were purchased from private owners (a prelude to the demise of George's Confectionery, also known as the "Miner's Hangout"). Drillings were made to determine the bearing capacity of the soil, and Detroit architect Ralph Calder was commissioned to complete drawings for the building. Michigan Tech's student council sponsored construction of a scale model of the building for display in the library and at fundraising events.
Another campaign secured pledges for $50,000 from "businessmen and concerns of the Copper Country." In addition to a cash pledge, the Copper Range mining company donated a large oil painting of former company vice president (and former faculty member) F. Ward Paine to hang in some place of prominence.
By spring 1950, the Alumni Foundation's pledges reached the $300,000 mark, and a self-liquidating loan of $850,000 was secured for the project. The general construction contract was awarded to Herman Gundlach Inc. of Houghton, and on July 15, 1950, ceremonial shovels turned over the first soil at the site.
Design of the building also involved a variety of inputs from students, staff, and faculty. One group did a circuit of colleges and universities in the Midwest, assessing their student union buildings, the activities contained therein, and the management structures needed for smooth operation. Another group of students journeyed to the J. L. Hudson store in Detroit to review furniture and other equipment for the building.
Heavy snows over the winter of 1950–51 slowed construction, but everyone was beginning to see the building take shape. The 1951 alumni reunion was cancelled so that returning alumni might repurpose their travel money for a grand opening the following year.
The attention of the foundation trustees, however, turned to future projects. "With the accomplishment of the first objective in sight," noted a letter in January 1951, "the trustees of the Alumni Foundation feel that it should not rest on its laurels, but that it should develop soon a plan for a future long-term program."
A final push in spring 1952 addressed last-minute needs. Alumni clubs around the country were asked to pledge additional monies to help furnish specific rooms. A non-alumni Committee for the Finnish Room, composed of forty local people, raised money "from people of Finnish stock in twenty-six states and one foreign country."
Perhaps most importantly, a set of floor-to-ceiling mahogany memorial panels was installed. James Hayes, a calligrapher from Evanston, Illinois, designed and John Torrell, a noted artist and wood carver of Palatine, Illinois, completed the incising of letters and numbers for more than one hundred alumni and students who gave their lives in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. An additional panel included names of those who contributed to the building fund.
The Memorial Union Building opened its doors to the student body on May 5, 1952, to rave reviews. Formal dedication occurred at the time of Spring Commencement ceremonies, and the August alumni gathering included a third formal acknowledgement of the building's completion.
The foundation trustees continued to discuss priorities and needs for the College. Some felt money should be directed to a wholly new "research institute" within the College; others argued for endowments for professors and graduate students; one department head even suggested funding a mining museum "to record for posterity the continuing chapter in history of the world's premier mining region."
All agreed, however, that a sustained program of fundraising and development was of critical importance. In 1956, the name of the organization was changed from the Alumni Foundation to The Michigan Tech Foundation, and in 1965 it was officially incorporated into a stand-alone nonprofit. A later change shortened it to simply The Michigan Tech Fund.
Likewise, the MUB itself has experienced a few changes. The building was closed from June 1988 to October 1989 for major renovations which transformed the structure. Other smaller projects—such as refurbishment of the bowling alleys in 1996—occur regularly. More recently, the ballroom floor had a complete makeover, including wall and ceiling finishes, high-tech wired podiums, drop-down plasma screens, and new furniture.
Many specific things are gone—the Finnish Room, the faculty lounge, the "hippy mural," numerous smoking lounges, and even the portrait of F. Ward Paine. (Rest easy, gentle reader: the painting is safely preserved in your Michigan Tech Archives.)
Yet one important thing remains. On the building's top floor, the carved wooden panels remain a silent testament to the Michigan Tech alumni and students in whose memory the Alumni Foundation raised money for this building.
As we work through the Generations of Discovery capital campaign, one wonders what equally important and lasting initiatives our current generation of alumni, friends, faculty, and staff will create.