Two Generations of Spartans

My Grandma attended MSU in the late 50s. Growing up I can remember my family giving my grandma gifts relating to MSU, she loved to show her Spartan pride. One year we got her a bottle opener that played the fight song, another we got her white coasters with the Spartan Green ‘S’ stamped on the front. When I finally came to campus in 2010 I was excited to be attending the same University that an older generation of my family had attended and to know what it’s like to be a Spartan.

Grandma and I never really talked about when she lived on campus until after I had started my freshman year. That winter she sent me two-dozen oranges around finals as an early Christmas gift. I called her to say thank you and she asked how classes were going. They were going as well as could be expected I told her but I was worried about finals (as all students do) and she told me to make sure that I didn’t spend all my time stressing out about exams and to have fun with friends. Asking about why she sent me so many oranges I was told that they were for the people on my floor and, “a good way to make friends.”

Unveiling of Sparty. Via Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections.

That winter break she told me a little more about when she was at MSU. Grandma asked if I had ever heard the legend about the Sparty Statue. This intrigued me because I had never heard of any legend involving Sparty. She started her story by talking about a weekend her parents had come up to visit her. They went on a tour and she took them around where her classes were and her dorm room and at some point they ended up by Sparty. She turned to her Dad and asked if he knew the story about Sparty and his helmet. He replied no. She informed him it was rumored that if a virgin ever walked by Sparty then he would drop his helmet out of shock. According to Grandma, her Dad was laughing but her Mom was not amused by the story.

In 1950 MSU was known as Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science (MSC) and this was the year that my Grandma was on campus. She was excited to tell me that that was the year that Shaw Hall was opened, and was an all guys dormitory.

Postcard of Shaw Hall (1995)
Postcard of Shaw Hall (1995). Via Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections.

Shaw Hall was constructed to house 1,500 men and was considered to be the largest college dorm in the United States at that time. Grandma lived on the second floor of East Yakely, an all girls dorm, and things were very different. If her cousin was to come visit then he had to stay in Shaw with some high school friends that he knew. Boys were not allowed in a girl’s dorm unless it was a parent, even then Grandma says that the father would have to wait at the front desk until his daughter came down to grab him, and then she would have to holler, “Man on the floor!” so that other girls were prepared.  My grandma also says that there were stories of girls who would hang bed sheets out of the window for guys to climb up but the windows were small so she isn’t sure if anyone actually did this or just joked about it.

At the time Yakely had a curfew that all girls had to meet. If you were going out for the night then you had to sign-up on a list by the front desk but this only let you stay out until 10pm, unless you had Special Per. In the event that you were able to get Special Per. (given for reasons like seeing a late movie, going on a date, or attending a dance) then you were allowed to stay out until 1am. At these times the House Mother would inspect each dorm room to make sure that the girls were in bed. Grandma says that she was only ever late once time, and that was because she was babysitting the football coach’s kids and he didn’t get back until past curfew. The only reason why it was excused was because he drove her straight to her dorm and talked to her House Mother himself.

I asked my grandma what night-life was like when she was on Campus. She said that there was a nice café near the front entrance of campus that was good for getting dinner and maybe a drink or two but there were not many places in East Lansing to go out. She said that if you really wanted to have fun then you would have to make your way to Lake Lansing. Girls would wait for their dates to pick them at their Hall. If the guy got there before the girl was ready then he would have to wait at either the front desk or in a sitting room near the front, after he had checked in with the desk receptionist.

Michigan State is always undergoing physical and cultural changes. Some of these changes we can find in the material record that has been left behind but other changes are more apparent when you can get a first hand account of the time. I talked to my Grandma about how State is now offering co-ed housing for those that wish it. She didn’t seem shocked or surprised.  Oral histories such as my Grandma’s help to contextualize and make sense of material records that we find in Campus Archaeology. Archaeologists often rely on these oral histories to reconstruct the past.



Author: Tyler Smart

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