Jackrabbit Village

Here’s the word that popped into my head when I first read about Jackrabbit Village and the array of amenities being offered as part of residential life for students at South Dakota State University:


If you had guessed “central air,’’ you’d have been close. This was second.

Move-in day (August 28, 2010) at Jackrabbit Village. The new residence halls are in the heart of campus near Mathews Hall (shown on the far left). The new units are, from left, Thorne, Abbott, and Spencer.

Elevators came first, though. I still remember helping my son Andy haul his stuff to the fourth floor of Pierson Hall on an unseasonably hot late-summer day (and aren’t they all unseasonably hot when you’re moving a son or daughter into a dormitory?) Beyond that, I still remember moving my own stuff to 428 Brown Hall in the fall 1963.

I’ll confess my initial reaction to Jackrabbit Village was, “if it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for them.’’ When I feel that attitude coming on, I try to learn more about an issue. That’s what I did this time, through University and alumni publications and information, through College on the Hill by Amy Dunkle and through conversations with officials and alumni.

What I learned about the amenities made me wish I were starting college all over again. What I learned about the naming of the three residence halls that make up the Jackrabbit Village complex made me proud of my alma mater.

A fireplace on every floor

First, the amenities. Yes, the new residence halls have elevators and air conditioning. More than that, each floor has a study room, two restrooms, a living room with a full kitchen, a fireplace, and an electronic gaming area, all of which are standard in residence halls these days. Brown Hall had a hot plate room in the basement, an ironing board, and a milk machine. I could be tempted to live a bit larger than that.

“Some students want to be able to do their own cooking and want laundry facilities available on the floors,’’ Doug Wermedal, assistant vice president for Student Affairs, told me. “Beyond that, these residence halls incorporate more natural light. Even the stairwells have glass.’’

The hallways in my old dorm were narrow, shadowed and a straight shot from stairwell to fire exit. It may be simply dormitory legend, but I was told a gymnast from Sioux Falls was able to put one hand and one foot on each side wall, crab-walk to the hallway ceiling and pounce on a late-returning fellow student. Wider, brighter hallways are a good thing.

“There are none of those long, straight test-tube corridors,’’ Wermedal says. “You never go more than thirty or thirty-five feet before there’s an angle or break.’’

The space in the three new residence halls filled within three days, he says. A great deal of study and thought went into designing a complex that students would find attractive.

Memories preserved through Jackrabbit Village

An equal amount of thought went into naming the individual halls that make up Jackrabbit Village. Each of the residence halls is named for a South Dakotan—Joe Thorne, Velva Lu Spencer, and Cleveland Abbott—who left a mark on the campus. A university campus is all about learning. Current and future students at South Dakota State University could learn a lot from the lives of the individuals for whom the Jackrabbit Village components are named.

Joe Thorne — football, military hero

Josef “Joe” Thorne came to South Dakota State from Beresford. He majored in civil engineering and played fullback for the Jackrabbit football team, earning all-conference honors twice and most valuable player for the 1961 North Central Conference champions coached by the legendary Ralph Ginn.

The Green Bay Packers drafted Thorne, but he entered the Army and served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He was the first South Dakotans to die in that war when his helicopter was shot down in 1965.

Doug Peterson of Rapid City was a sophomore quarterback for the Jackrabbits in 1961. Thorne was a senior. He says his former teammate is deserving of the honor of having a campus building bear his name. Peterson also says current and future students could learn much by studying Thorne’s short life.

“He was totally committed to the things he did,’’ Peterson says. “I never saw anybody fight harder for every yard on a football field.’’

Off the field, Thorne was quiet, not much for parties and “just a really good guy,’’ Peterson says. “He was an easy-going person, unless you were on the other football team and you were trying to tackle him. This is just a great thing for South Dakota State to do.’’

Velva Lu Spencer — Advocate for Native Americans
Velva Lu Spencer earned both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree at South Dakota State University. An enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, she is remembered as an advocate for human rights and for her deep concern for opportunities in higher education for Native American students.

She served as SDSU’s first Native American adviser (1988-2003) and was passionate about increasing retention and graduation rates of Native American students. She died in November 2005.

Roger Campbell, who was commissioner of Indian Affairs for Governor Mike Rounds, says Spencer played an essential role in encouraging him to finish his college education.

“She was almost single-handedly responsible for me getting through the sociology program,’’ Campbell says. “She was an integral part of the support system for a lot of Indian students, yet she was very unassuming and modest.’’

Cleve Abbott — An African-American pioneer

Cleveland “Cleve” Abbott arrived on the Brookings campus from Watertown. The first African-American varsity athlete for the school, he earned fourteen letters in four sports and made a bigger name for himself after he left campus.

He accepted a position in the dairy program at Tuskegee Institute, served with the 336th Infantry in World War I, and then in 1923 returned to Tuskegee Institute as football coach and athletic director, positions he held until his death in 1955.

He was considered a pioneer in development of athletics for female athletes. One of his athletes, Alice Coachman, became the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in the Olympic high jump in 1948.

Although Abbott left Watertown after high school in 1912, his name is recognized by a number of people in the community today, says J.T. Fey of the Watertown Public Opinion. Fey himself first learned of Abbott in 1976, when the newspaper did a number of special sections for the nation’s bicentennial.

“It’s pretty amazing what he accomplished,’’ Fey says. “He did these things at a time where there were probably many more obstacles to success for an African American. I think it’s a great thing that they’re naming that building after him.’’

The selection task force received the names of many deserving individuals, Wermedal says.

“The desire was to select people whose lives truly were examples to others,’’ he says. “I believe these three meet that standard.’’

By Terry Woster ’66

Terry Woster ’66 is a native South Dakotan, growing up near Chamberlain. He used his degree in journalism to ply his trade in this state since graduation. He currently does freelance writing for several South Dakota publications.

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