Houston Hall was Mesa Junior College back in 1940
Many ghosts from the early 1940s still roam the corridors of Mesa State College’s Houston Hall, now in its 71st year of existence.
It wasn’t Houston Hall in spring 1940 but simply Mesa Junior College. It didn’t need a special name because it was the only building on what was then the college campus along North Avenue, from 11th to 12th Street and north a block or two.
It was a time when the thought of American participation in World War II was only an evil nightmare. Conscription for men between 21 and 45 was established in September that year, but it wouldn’t immediately impact the majority of male students, few of whom had reached their 21st birthdays.
Classes had moved to the new college from a two-story, down-in-the-mouth, former grade school, which was too hot in the spring and too cold in the winter. Rooms were tiny there, and at least one room had to be heated by a stove because the furnace did an inadequate job.
The school’s saving grace was that, located at Fifth Street and Rood Avenue, it was only a block from downtown Grand Junction and the corner drug store at Fifth and Main streets. That store’s soda fountain was the gathering place for students needing five-cent Coke pickups during free periods, and there was always a steady stream of kids running up and down Fifth Street.
With the new campus, students were moving to an airy — although not air-conditioned — modern building with a huge, all-purpose gymnasium-auditorium on the main floor, a large library on the second floor, an office complex, many classrooms and a big laboratory space. There was no on-campus place for informal socialization, but the College Inn across 12th Street quickly became the “in” place to spend free time, and the Cokes were adequate.
Modest by today’s standards, the new college building seemed almost magnificent to its new students, with a main hallway which appeared to stretch nearly to infinity.
The gymnasium-auditorium took care of most social needs. Friday afternoon “tea” dances were held, although there was never any tea served. The two big formal dances, homecoming and soiree, took place there. Men’s and women’s gym classes, basketball and wrestling, theater performances, orientation classes and assemblies were on the schedule.
The gymnasium-auditorium boasted an adequate stage for the era, and Frank Toothaker was an overnight star in the title role as “Charley’s Aunt.”
When it wasn’t in use, the stage was closed off with a black drape, and someone put a ping-pong table there. The table received good usage, especially from tennis pro and part-time student, Mont Carlsen, who claimed to be the Utah state table tennis champion. He always let his opponent take the first 17 or 18 points in a 21-point game, after which he would sharpen up and quickly rack 21 points in a row to win. There was a rumor that one of the male students had once beaten him but, since he was practically unbeatable, no one believed it.
It was an era of teas and after-concert receptions for the two social sororities, Kappa Gamma and Zeta Chi. The “little black dress” with heels, hat and gloves, was de rigueur for sorority social events, and most women students had two or three such dresses.
Sorority members donned formal gowns to act as ushers for concerts conducted by Lawrence Sardoni. The concerts were often followed by receptions at the North Seventh Street home of Mr. and Mrs. Mark Schmidt. Gracious, poised Melba Schmidt, doing her best to make polished ladies from gauche 18- and 19-year olds, almost always invited sorority members to assist her in hostess duties.
At least three of the male members of the sophomore and freshmen classes in that pre-war era returned to Mesa to join the faculty after service in World War II — James L. Daily, Alfred Goffredi and Lloyd Jones.
Mesa students, far from the war that had been under way in Europe since 1937, weren’t inclined to spend much time worrying about the plight of Jewish people in Germany and Austria. However, it was brought vividly home to them when Margarethe (Gretel) Waldapfel became their classmate primarily to improve her English. According to people who knew her story, Gretel and her husband, Dr. Richard Waldapfel, had fled Austria to escape persecution, after turning their money into jewelry and sewing it inside a chair cushion.
Then there was Elmer “Pop” Houston, building and grounds superintendent. Pop had two sons of this own, Clifton, an early-day dean of the college, and Byron, the city’s leading professional photographer for many years.
Pop oversaw football and basketball team members who served as the college cleanup crew to pay their tuition in those waning years of the Great Depression. He alternately cosseted them and acted as their personal drill sergeant, depending on their needs. Even women students used Pop as a sounding board, and he was as tough or tender on them as he felt they deserved.
Houston Hall, on the Mesa campus, was reportedly named for both Pop and his son, Clifton.
The cost of this gem of a new college building? According to the flashy spring 1941 college yearbook, “News Mag,” construction costs were $300,000, a fairly hefty sum for that era, but less than the construction cost of many of today’s homes.
The grand opening for the renovated and expanded Houston Hall — which cost $15 million — will be this Tuesday evening.
Mary Louise Giblin Henderson is a former political reporter for The Daily Sentinel who now lives in California. She was a freshman at Mesa Junior College in the spring of 1940.