There is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees.
Volume 73 | Issue 3
May 2005

From the Executive Director: A forgotten memorial?

Marsha Herman-Betzen

Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, hawk or dove, pro-government or anti-establishment, lover of Bill Mahr, Jon Stewart, or the Fox network's Bill O'Riley, in case you have not noticed everyone has an opinion. No matter where your political allegiance ultimately lies, there are few who would find blame with the young men and women who have chosen to serve their country in the armed services during peace time but especially in war time. That is why this Memorial Day has much greater significance than what has become the typical rite of summer where family and friends are gathered for their initial outdoor grill feast. Nothing can illicit more fond gastronomical memories than hamburgers on the grill, homemade potato salad, fresh strawberry pie, or that unforgettable whir of the ice cream freezer churning out the season's first homemade butterfat-laden frozen treat. Unfortunately, the war in Iraq casts a somber significance to this Memorial Day we all wish did not exist.

What we have come to know as Memorial Day actually began in 1868 (Spinrad & Spinrad, 1979). The event started with the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization of Union Army veterans, doing on a nationwide scale what Southern women in several cities had been doing as a local spring custom--remembering those who died in the Civil War by placing flowers on their graves. The Grand Army of the Republic asked its members to do the same on May 30, wherever its fallen comrades lay interred. Future U.S. President, Gen. James A. Garfield, spoke at this first Memorial Day observance on the sacred ground of Arlington National Cemetery. Garfield said:

We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and virtue. (in Spinrad & Spinrad, 1979, p. 40).

The remembrance of those who have given their life in battle is entrenched in the history of the college union movement as well. During the 1920s there was a significant post-war expansion in enrollment, yet campus life left much to be desired. It was difficult to find any kind of leisure time diversion much less a place to eat. College administrators were keenly familiar with the concept of the war canteen and knew the impact "recreation centers" had played to the servicemen away from home. An equivalent on the campus, the college union emerged as a response to many of the social, recreational, and community challenges of campus life. According to Porter Butts (1971), the answer to the problem of how to create a college union building also came out of the war:

What better type of living memorial to honor those who served in the war? What better way to serve the cause of democracy they served than to create a new campus democracy? The memorial theme was joined to the felt need, and this fund appeal coming in a time of prosperity gave a sudden and successful impetus to the slow-maturing union movement on a wide front. (p. 16)

How war has affected the college union is not particular to the United States. In Canada, "By the end of 1948, more than 60 institutions were planning unions as war memorials. A Canadian Gallup Poll revealed that 9 out of 10 of its respondents, who were veterans, preferred the establishment of cultural centers (some of which were to be considered unions) as war memorials" (Butts, 1948, p. 2).

How many of us in our daily trek into the union to take part in its services and activities have ever thought of why it is a memorial union? At some point, the original intent of unions serving as a permanent memorial to the young men and women who died for their country was lost. Many of these facilities were built and named when the political climate was nationalistic and supportive of the military activity around the world. The Vietnam War brought wide dissent to the college campus--especially the college union. I'll argue that, in an effort to remain the central community meeting place where diverse people of opposing opinions can meet in a safe environment, the original intent to name the building in honor of those who died in military action became a bit obscured. This was not a conscious or intentional decision. Rather, there were other priorities that became more important than positioning the college union as a war memorial.

I have never felt conflicted about unions serving as the community center of the campus and being named for those who have died in military operations. The college union has never had a single purpose like the chemistry or English department. The college union is a generalist organization that professes to be many things to many people--just as Eleanor Roosevelt so eloquently wrote in 1945:

"I think the idea of making the student union a war memorial to the students who have died in this war is extremely fitting. Through the student unions so much can be done to educate young people for living with larger interests and for using their citizenship in the community to make any community in which they live a better and more interesting place. This seems to me a fitting memorial which may be a help in bringing about the better world for which so many of our boys have died. (in McMillan & Davis, 1989, p. 38)"

Separate from political ideology, in times of military conflict we are soberly reminded that Memorial Day is more than hot dogs, ice cream, and a three-day weekend at the end of May. While originally we were honoring those that lost their lives in the Civil War, it has become a chance to honor all who have lost their lives in a growing list of military initiatives around the world. Similarly, as we head to the union to buy coffee, textbooks, bowl, attend a lecture, or just study during peace time, we are not as aware that the community center that means so much to us is also a living memorial to those that have served our community in times of war.

In calling for the observance of the first Memorial Day, Gen. A. Logan, Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, said: "Let no ravages of time testify to coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided Republic"(in Spinrad & Spinrad, 1979, p. 40). Currently our students, faculty, staff, and members of our extended campus community have friends and loved ones or they themselves are involved in military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other parts of our great world. This Memorial Day and as we walk through our campus memorial unions it is fitting for us to recall those who have lost their lives in these conflicts and the ones preceding them in Bosnia, Desert Storm, Vietnam, Korea, the World Wars, and many other crises. For, as U.S. President Abraham Lincoln expressed on an occasion related to Memorial Day, "We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain" (in Spinrad & Spinrad, 1979, p. 40). Whether we support these military actions, we still must respect the love of country, sense of duty, gift of themselves, and honorable service they have given and remember these on this Memorial Day and in our unions.


Butts, P. (1971). The college union idea. Bloomington, IN: Association of College Unions International.
McMillan, A., & Davis, N.T. (Eds.).(1989). College unions:
Seventy-five years. Bloomington, IN: Association of College Unions International.
Spinrad, L., & Spinrad, T. (Eds.).(1979). The special occasion book. Speaker's lifetime library (Vol. 4). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.