Murphy Center Memories

Friday, March 20, 2020
Murphy Center groundbreaking 1940

 

Construction of Murphy Center began in 1940, and the building has been at the center of life at Viterbo University ever since. To mark the 80th anniversary of construction commencement, here are some fond memories shared by people who called the building home for many years.

 

Pat Kerrigan ’05

Pat Kerrigan
Pat Kerrigan

In 1941, a book brigade comprised of nearly 300 Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, and Aquinas and other parochial school students, moved the St. Rose Library, located at St. Rose Convent, to a portion of the third floor of the newly opened Murphy Center. For 50 years, that snug, modest-sized space in Murphy Center was to be the library’s home—that is, until plans were made to organize another book brigade.

On campus, the small student learning center located across from the business office, was bursting at the seams and needed space. The third-floor library was the perfect location to provide much needed tutoring and other academic support resources. So, again, this time on Feb. 28, 1991, the library was on the move via a book brigade. What followed was to be an amazing display of human horsepower.

By the armful and boxful, books were passed along a winding caravan using a long human chain of faculty, staff, and students that extended the length of the hallway and down the stairwell en-route to the brand-new Todd Wehr Memorial Library. Just like a half century earlier, FSPA also were there in plentiful numbers to pitch in.

The library as it was on the third floor of Murphy Center (1941–1991), where the  Academic Resource Center  is now located.
The library as it was on the third floor of Murphy Center (1941–1991), where the Academic Resource Center is now located.

It was a slick operation. The brigade was meticulously ­organized by Frances Claire Mezera, FSPA, who was to serve as Viterbo’s librarian for 44 years. Nary a book or box touched the floor or went into storage as each item was immediately shelved in perfect Dewey Decimal System order by Sr. Mezera’s crew who knew the exact location for every manuscript, paperback, hardcover, and periodical.

The spacious new library would take up the entire lower floor and half of the second floor in space previously occupied by a commuter lounge, an outdated, antiquated tile floor gymnasium (site of the very first theatre department plays), and areas that housed communications, the copy center, the college’s dietetic program, and the just-closed home economics classrooms.

I recall then President Robert Gibbons leading the brigade gingerly carrying a bust of William Shakespeare, a proud possession for a man who possessed a doctorate in English language and literature. He certainly understood the importance of the spoken and written word and, of course, good prose.

Murphy Center library entrance

I recall Celestine Cepress, FSPA, English professor emerita, who was the winner of a campus contest that sought to identify a classic maxim to be etched above the entryway as an inspiration for all seekers of knowledge who would visit the library. She chose the Latin phrase Sapere Aude: Dare to be Wise, the loosely translated phrase from the Age of Enlightenment, meaning, “Dare to think for yourself!”

And, I recall the pride—the Viterbo spirit that was amply displayed by the hundreds of “brigadiers” who pulled together to be part of that memorable move.

In those days, there wasn’t much money to go around. The entire renovation of Murphy Center, which included the new library, and remodeled classrooms and space for the Learning Center, was completed for around $1.4 million. Growing and expanding, many had hoped for and were disappointed that Viterbo wasn’t able to financially support a free-standing library.

However, the modesty of that decision has proven to be the right one for the times. Many years later, the library and the stately Murphy Center stand in contrast to all the new growth that surrounds it. This building remains the anchor of stability and student learning where the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration conjured up the idea of Viterbo College and Murphy Center. It was a grand beginning and to this day, many believe Murphy, located a stone’s throw from St. Rose Convent, remains the heart of the campus.

 

Mary Ann Gschwind, FSPA ’65; Nancy Lafferty, FSPA ’70; and Thea Bowman, FSPA ’65.
Mary Ann Gschwind, FSPA ’65; Nancy Lafferty, FSPA ’70; and Thea Bowman, FSPA ’65.

Mary Ann Gschwind, FSPA
Mary Ann Gschwind, FSPA
Mary Ann Gschwind, FSPA ’65

When we FSPAs were novices, we annually used steel wool to scrub the wooden parquet corridor floors on our hands and knees. Of course, we did this during one of the breaks when school was closed. Then for our snack, the Sister in charge of housekeeping would give us bread with peanut butter to tide us over till lunch time. It was hard work, but many hands made it “light work.”

 

John Hempstead

John Hempstead
John Hempstead

In 1990 massive renovations were taking place in Murphy Center. All of the offices on the “garden level” were razed to create an open space for a library expansion. The tiny old gym was torn up, and all of the rooms of the old home economics department were demolished; home economics transformed into the new nutrition and dietetics department and were moved close to the nursing department.

At this point I was hired as the first non-Sister library director soon after legendary library director Frances Claire ­Mezera, FSPA, stepped down. My responsibility was to oversee the architectural design and renovation. Renovation was to be completed by the end of 1990, but it was not until spring break 1991 that the library was able to move from its small location on third floor, which morphed into a Learning Center.

Transformation continued, preparing the library for students in the 21st century. A library faculty advisory committee had been formed to decide what needed to be done first. The nursing program called loudly for resources.

John Hempstead; Frances Claire Mezera, FSPA, former archivist and library director; and President Bill Medland at an event establishing the Frances Claire Library Endowment in 1998.
John Hempstead; Frances Claire Mezera, FSPA, former archivist and library director; and President Bill Medland at an event establishing the Frances Claire Library Endowment in 1998.

Since the library did not have a budget for purchasing print research subscriptions that were lacking, we skipped right into purchasing databases.

The graduate program in education grew by leaps and bounds and soon the library was serving 500 graduate students in a year. We scrambled and met the needs of the students with much expanded inter-library loan service. We continued to meet print needs as well. Academic Vice President Jack Havertape recognized the need for more funds, and we were able to add expensive literature materials.

The improved library and graduate programs were among the reasons the college became Viterbo University in 2000, and a need for additional library space was recognized. Planning was completed for expansion into the second floor. A new elevator, additional study rooms, a ­library desk, and an information desk just inside the entrance, more classroom space, and other improvements were added. A space was left for a library cafe, which is now served by
Einstein Bros. Bagels.

Library directors changed again following my retirement in 2004, and the next upgrade of the library facility was ­accomplished.

 

Academic Dean, Helen Elsbernd, FSPA,  in her office in Murphy Center.
Academic Dean, Helen Elsbernd, FSPA, in her office in Murphy Center.
Helen Elsbernd, FSPA

Helen Elsbernd, FSPA
Helen Elsbernd, FSPA

When I first came to Murphy Center 65 years ago, the Sisters faculty lived on the fifth floor and the entire student body was able to meet in the tiered fourth floor lecture hall. A museum on the third floor north end housed a collection of Native American artifacts as well as many stuffed animals and birds. Directly below the museum on the second floor, a chapel provided space for prayer and daily Mass. The first floor held the home economics department, the gym, and very importantly, the entrance to the tunnel. The tunnel meant those of us FSPA living at St. Rose Convent could go to classes without going outside—great on rainy days and in winter.

During my first visit to Murphy Center, an FSPA tour guide took my friends and me to the museum on the third floor. In the room with many stuffed animals and birds, a white bear hide rug was on the floor. We noticed a little white mouse sitting on the rug. We thought that was a cute display; that is, until we realized the mouse was breathing. Our FSPA guide simply wrapped a cloth around the mouse and took it back to its home in the biology department at the opposite end of the third floor.

 

Chemistry Professors Lavonne Abts, FSPA, James Larson, and Ron Amel meeting in Murphy Center with  Academic Dean Helen Elsbernd, FSPA.
Chemistry Professors Lavonne Abts, FSPA, James Larson, and Ron Amel, from left, meeting in Murphy Center with Academic Dean Helen Elsbernd, FSPA.
Ron Amel

My first office was at the end of a hall on the fourth floor. It was behind a folding door, and had just room enough for a small bookcase, a small desk and chair, and a second chair. The space also housed a large commercial air-conditioner, which served the adjacent room that housed the chemistry department instruments. In the summer, I was the envy of the department! It was a very creative use of space, and exemplified the Franciscan value of simplicity.

Ron Amel
Ron Amel

There was a small gym where the library is now. A number of faculty and students would gather for pick-up basketball games. The court was shorter than a regulation basketball court, which was fine with me. This fostered friendship and camaraderie among faculty, and was a good way to connect with students. Faculty players included Marv Friedewald, Mike Collins, Bob Richgels, Larry Krajewski, Darrell ­Pofahl, Jim Slock, Steve Bigler, Jim Glasshoff, and Jim Bird. Some of the student players were Tom Knothe ’86, Joe Kotnour ’75, Joe Dunham, Dave Schoonover ’76, Jerry DeBoer ’77, Dave Croell ’75, Bob Taylor ’83, and Terry Steffen ’83.

Before the library was moved to the first floor, there was a mailroom just off the sunken reception area in the foyer of Murphy. It wasn’t just a mailroom, however; it was a place for folks to congregate. There were comfortable chairs and several tables, including a small one that held a telephone (the kind that had a dial!). The daily La Crosse Tribune was available, and there were often goodies for us to enjoy. People would come for their mail and then stop to chat a bit before going on their way. Everyone knew everyone else who came and went.

A basketball game in the  Murphy gymnasium.
A basketball game in the Murphy gymnasium.

 

Tom Knothe ’86

Tom Knothe
Tom Knothe

The wooden parquet floors in the upper floor hallways were very subject to changes in humidity; sometimes in the summer it was like traversing the moon’s surface to go from the elevator to either end of the hallway. The undulations were six to eight inches in some places. The clocks in Murphy all stopped at 4:35 p.m. for most of my junior year. We all joked that our classes began and ended at 4:35 p.m., five minutes after Happy Hour at the Wunderbar across the street. Marv Friedewald mentored all of the accounting and business students. His best advice: “Never, ever take the elevator! If a man my age can climb the stairs to the fifth floor, by golly, students should be able to do the same.” I haven’t ever taken the elevator since receiving Marv’s challenge.

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