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Willis Sweet Hall: 1936-1980s
By Alexiss Turner
When Richard Johnston came to the University of Idaho in 1950, there were four men to every woman on campus, and only one of those men owned a car. Having a set of wheels didn’t ensure your Friday night date, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
“I used to say, there’s only a girl for every guy with a car … and I don’t have a car,” he said.
Add his 192 housemates, and competition got steeper. Johnston lived in campus’ then largest all-male dormitory - Willis Sweet Hall.
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Rooms had a large study room and and separate sleeping area with bunkbeds. Each also had a sink. Priority room choice was given to seniors, and most lived on the fourth floor. Rooms 300 and 400 were larger, 4-man dorms that quickly became the most popular hangouts.
Room 200 was designated for the hall’s proctor and his spouse. The proctor, much like a house mother in a women’s dorm, oversaw house activities.
The hall was so large it dominated intramural sports, and its annual dances were some of the most popular on campus. Frank Wheelock ’53 said decorations were extensive, including mirror balls and dozens upon dozens of roses.
“Other living groups envied them,” he said.
Boys will be BoysThe dining area and lounge saw the most traffic in the years of Willis Sweet. John McAvoy ’54 said weekend visitors would oftentimes come across an early-morning impasse. Partiers from the night before found the task of stacking the lounge furniture at the bottom of the stairway challenging but worth the effort. McAvoy said the untangling the mess was significantly less entertaining that morning.
The men of Willis Sweet were always up to something. Using sheep troughs from the nearby agriculture building, students would celebrate the engagement of a fellow hall member by throwing him in a trough filled with cold water until his fiancée came to the rescue.
Wheelock remembers needing his girlfriend’s assistance when he was locked in the hall. Those with dates to the weekend dance were often barricaded in by less fortunate fellows.
Expanding HorizonsIn 1968, Johnston, who was living in Los Angeles, was asked to help coordinate one of several campaign events President Ernest Hartung (1965-1977) was hosting to raise money for a new performing arts facility on the Moscow campus, now known as the Hartung Theater.
There, alumni director Jim Lyle (1946-1969) approached Johnston. Noting the event’s success, Lyle said he would be soon retiring and Johnston should apply for the position. Johnston did and served on campus for 11 years.
The Willis Sweet Hall lounge is currently receiving new entryway doors. The view is different from the above photo taken in 1937.
Meals at Willis Sweet were prepared by the building’s kitchen staff and served by hashers, often student-workers looking for extra cash and free meals. Meals were served to tables of six in the dining area next to the lounge five nights a week.
Formal dinners were a weekly occurrence. Like most places on campus, that meant neckties and dress pants were required. Ken Deal ’56 was an employee of the College of Agriculture across the way (Morrill Hall). He said his white uniform was definitely not appropriate for formal dinner – and he was often scolded when the buttons of his trousers scratched the seats.
After dinner, students could get some extra studying in before bed. But if sleep didn’t sound appealing, the commissary underneath Willis Sweet’s southeast entrance was open for business. Students could purchase sandwiches, candy bars and other late-night snacks. Johnston said business was so booming, a student could easily pay for their schooling with money earned from the commissary job.
The commissary was the place to get to know other students. Johnston said small-town students like himself had the chance to learn about others from “foreign countries” like New Jersey and Illinois.
“Talking until midnight - we got a lot of education that way. Our horizons were expanded,” he said.
A Life-Changing ExperienceDeal said the grandeur of Willis Sweet couldn’t be denied. Good food was served, the place was well kept and rooms were painted each year whether they needed it or not. Its inhabitants are quick to express how lucky they were to live there.
“The fact that I went to the UI changed my life forever,” Deal said. “I was the first in my family to go to college. As result of that, I am a retired colonel in the Air Force, and I had 12 years working with Continental Airlines as instructor. Both jobs I would have never thought of as a boy on a ranch on the farm.”
The construction of large co-ed dorms like the Wallace Residence Center and Theophilus Tower in the '60s led to a change in campus housing. Willis Sweet moved to what is now McConnell Hall, originally a single-student and all-male dorm. In 1988, the hall was moved again to Sweet Hall, which currently resides in Theophilus Tower. Dorm rooms in Willis Sweet were converted to offices and the name was changed to Faculty Office Complex East and finally to Carol Ryrie Brink Hall.
Today, Brink Hall is home to the English Department and a multitude of grad student offices. The lounge area holds weekly UI Faculty Senate meetings, among other events. It is currently receiving refurbishments including new entryway doors. The dining and kitchen area of Willis Sweet now houses the university’s POLYA lab, where students go to study and test in mathematics courses.