by Tim Obermiller
From classic cagers (above) to dancing Terrapins, the Memorial Gymnasium was an unforgettable
place for generations of IWU students.
Even now that it’s been renovated to new glory as the Hansen Student Center, memories
of its former life as the Memorial Gymnasium still linger in the 80-year-old building’s
nooks and crannies. Which is exactly as it should be, says Dean of Students Jim Matthews.
"This space is history," says Matthews. "Remarkable things have taken place here.
Institutions are wise not to forget this. It kind of makes you feel good to know that
there are ghosts, very lustrous ghosts, who walk through that space, and we want to
This past spring, reminders of Illinois Wesleyan history graced the center’s mezzanine
level, where a temporary exhibit displayed favorite Memorial Gym memories submitted
to the IWU Alumni Association by alumni, faculty, and friends. Not surprisingly, the
most of those memories were associated with athletics. Fondly recalled among the Titan
athletes who played on the gym floor were Dean Padgett ’58, and future IWU coaches
Jack Horenberger ’36 and Dennie Bridges ’61.
For the Hansen exhibit, Curt Nord ’74 wrote about the joy of watching games in Memorial
Gym as a child, when his older brother Jerry Nord ’62 played for Horenberger, and
Bridges was a teammate. "I remember Coach Horenberger as being a fierce competitor
who hated to lose. Fortunately, he usually had a good team."
Nord vividly recalled how the scoreboard at the gym’s north end "seemed so big, and
I was really fascinated by the large hands on the clock. During the last minute of
each half, the clock was said to ‘be in the red’ [and] the scoreboard clock would
actually turn red." After the games, Nord and other children were invited to play
"out on the floor" with a basketball, and he dreamed of the day he would grow up to
play for the Titans. That dream came true in 1970, when he played for Dennie Bridges,
who took over the coaching reins from Horenberger in 1965.
Although varsity sports didn’t exist until the 1970s for IWU women, many were active
in intramural and club sports played at the gym. "Some of my fondest memories of Memorial
Gym were the intramural sports, especially badminton and volleyball," wrote Marie
Ann Schlemmer Hill ’52. "We didn’t have to wear the baggy green shorts and white blouses,
which we had to wear in gym class."
Another source of alumni memories was the gym’s swimming pool, which Chet Sheldon
’43 recalls as "the little tub in the basement....It was hard to believe how small
it was!" It was in that "tub" that every student had to pass a swimming test before
graduating. Helen McNicol Sheldon ’40 remembered one classmate who "kept putting off
taking her test till the last week, and we were afraid she would run up to get her
diploma dripping wet."
The pool provided a stage for the Terrapins, a synchronized swimming club which held
annual shows. Barbara Krusinski Zukowski ’73 wrote about a solo performance she gave
for one of those shows. "One of my friends choreographed a gymnastic sequence for
me which I performed before entering the water—on the railings that separated the
audience. Can you imagine being allowed to do something like that in today’s liability-conscious
climate? Not likely!"
Like today’s Hansen Center, the Memorial Gym was designed as a place where students
could socialize and let off steam. A boisterous, all-school dance—the first-ever in
university history—was held in the gym on April 18, 1931. The event riled some trustees
enough to consider banning of any future dances, or other assemblies that lowered
the school’s "moral and spiritual plane." Fortunately for Illinois Wesleyan’s fun-loving
students, the motion didn’t pass.
The Annual Grind, a fall mixer that gave freshmen a chance to meet each other and
returning students, was held in Memorial Gym, as was the popular Hobo Dance, where
the price of admission, according to The Argus, was "only one old shoe per person, delivered at the door. And the worse looking
the clothing the better!" Many world-famous musicians performed at the gym, among
them Count Basie in 1958 and Dizzy Gillespie in ’59. In the fall of her freshman year,
Katherine James ’73 recalled that the aging, easy-listening Lettermen played a concert
at Memorial Gym. "By the spring we were walking out of class in solidarity with the
rest of the students in the U.S. in response to the murder of students at Kent State."
James continued: "Memorial Gym will always mean to me a transition from the old world
to the new world—from old men in sweaters [the Lettermen] singing songs to people
who were dressed to the nines, to young men and women singing songs to one another,
wearing the uniforms of those who were trying to make peace."
The Memorial Gymnasium has served as a historical marker on many occasions, but perhaps
none so memorably as in the fall of 1963. Emeritus Chaplain William White, who had
joined IWU’s faculty in the fall of that year, recalled the campus reaction to news
of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. As chaplain, White decided he should
put together "some sort of memorial service for those who care to attend....Within
a few hours it became evident that nearly everyone on campus was planning to be present
for the occasion. The only place that could hold that many people was the Memorial
On Nov. 25, 1963, the Illinois Wesleyan community united in the gym "to come to terms
with shock and grief." White was reminded of the experience in the wake of last September’s
terrorist attacks, "as yet another generation experienced a national tragedy and sought
strength for coping through reflection and community."
Whatever the future brings, the Hansen Student Center will no doubt be as much a breeding
ground for memories as when it was the Memorial Gymnasium. Within the walls of this
grand, old building, a brand-new life has begun.