The Gym Dorm

Athletes had their own place in basement of Barn

Old-timers fondly recall the excitement at the Barn, the gymnasium at SDSU until Frost Arena opened in 1973.

Those memories are filled with exciting basketball games and capacity crowds, the taunting of rivals, and the smuggling of frozen coyotes. But for those who lived in the Gym Dorm, the excitement didn’t end when the game clock expired.

The Gym Dorm opened in 1946 in response to overcrowding at State with World War II veterans returning.

A men’s dorm holding thirty-six student-athletes, the Gym Dorm wasn’t for the faint of heart. “Hardly anybody dared to go down there,” says John Sterner, a football player and wrestler who lived there his freshman and sophomore years, 1958-60.

“Coaches never ever came down there,” Sterner says of the downstairs quarters on the east end of the Barn.

When thirty-six young men are left unsupervised, one can imagine the antics. “It was an experience that was very different than any college experience. What you did is what you did. What I remember most is most of the guys that lived in there were kind of half crazy,” Sterner says.

The stories they tell

When alums from that era return, the stories they tell of the Gym Dorm are incredulous.

Stories like track star Judd Cooney throwing his javelin the length of the long hallway with the javelin sticking in the end room door. Or a pet cat being shot on the spot when it left a spot in his roommate’s area. Or Cooney keeping a pet fox there.

Of course, hunting was even more part of the South Dakota culture then than it is now.

LaMoine Torgerson ’63 recalls the simple quarters having a large shower facility with “several shower heads protruding from the wall and never all working at the same time nor same water pressure. . . . The floor drains worked quite well as it also served as the place to clean ducks, pheasants, and other game come fall.

“Jocks loved the outdoors and bringing their game back to clean and brag about while listening to music on KOMA from Oklahoma City with reception only after 10 p.m.”

In the winter, the guys hunted jackrabbits, and in the spring it was fishing, Sterner ’63/’64 recalls.

Neither Sterner or his twin brother, Mike, were hunters, but Mike says one of his strongest Gym Dorm memories involved hunting.

“I also remember during hunting season that the top of our dorm stunk. I asked my friends what was the source of the odor. They said while hunting they shot some skunks and when they got back to the dorm they threw them on the roof. Whew!!!”

Roger Wiltz ’64 grew up in Chicago, but became a hunter after being recruited to play football and now writes an outdoors column.

“We’d go out at night when the snow geese were flying during spring migration,” says Wiltz, who now lives in Wagner. Flying low over the Barn proved fatal for the geese. “I remember retrieving dead snow geese from the roof of the Barn.”

In the fall, “Jerry Ochs and I got to skipping chemistry lab to go pheasant hunting. One afternoon we went to our room and our guns were gone. We learned they had been confiscated by [football coach] Ralph Ginn. It was a while before we got our guns back.

“I can say the Gym Dorm was very well armed,” Wiltz says.

No place for bookworms

Whatever the season, “There was always time to have fun” and not much time for studying, John Sterner says. “It wasn’t academic. At the end of two years you had to have a 2.0 GPA to be eligible [for athletics]. I just made it. It wasn’t what you call the grade point average you would like.”

“I learned how to study after I got out of there,” says Sterner, who became an almost straight-A student in grad school.

The dorm had eight four-person rooms and two two-person rooms with concrete floors, narrow windows, a restroom that was up a set of wooden stairs, and the shower facility. There was no dining room or lounge and certainly no study room.

“If you wanted private study time, you went to the library,” says Torgerson, who lived there in 1959-60.

Les Hansen, a football and basketball player from Tyler, Minnesota, who also lived there in 1959-60, says of his room, “I suspect there were some tables for study but I don’t remember using it very often, and I had the grade point average to show for it.”

An opposing perspective

Mike Sterner says, “I can still see some of our roommates spending a lot of time studying on the tables. I asked them why they spent so much time there and they replied, ‘We want to become engineer students and we have to have good grades.’”

Terry Slattery ’62, a basketball player from Salem and an economics major, says, there was more studying than card playing. “People would say, ‘Hey, hold it down, we’re trying to study.’  I don’t remember any real rowdy problem at all.”

Frank Kurtenbach ’61/’69, who lived in the Gym Dorm during his freshman and sophomore years, credited dorm proctor Tommy Fitzgibbons, a grad student and former military man, for creating a different atmosphere than what existed later.

The students needed to do a once-a-week cleanup to pass Fitzgibbons’ inspection, Kurtenbach says.

“The dorm deteriorated pretty fast after my two years. . . . When the proctors weren’t strong, with thirty-two men it just went to hell in a handbasket,” says Kurtenbach, adding that the study environment was best on the weekends because “there wasn’t anybody around.”

Simple accommodations

Slattery remembers that the Gym Dorm had a community telephone at the foot of the entrance steps. “It would ring. Somebody would answer and they would say ‘Hey Crothers’” or whoever the call was for.

John Sterner recalls the beds being a little bigger than a cot.

A dresser accompanied each bed. Torgerson recalls when he first arrived in 1959. “I unpacked my suitcase, which contained a couple pair of jeans [one was new], a few shirts, Converse tennis shoes, underwear, and, of course, a fairly new pair of penny loafer shoes with two pair of white athletic socks stuffed inside.”

The Sterner twins didn’t own a suit. “So when we went on football trips, we borrowed our teammates’ extra suits,” John Sterner says.

Living frugally

Living in the Gym Dorm was part of the athletes’ scholarship, so the price was right. Hansen says, “A lot of us, our parents anyway, weren’t that far removed from the Depression. Our folks didn’t have much money at all. . . . My folks didn’t make $2,000.”

He supplemented his scholarship by washing clothes for equipment manager Johnny Johnson on the other end of the Barn basement.

The Sterners boarded at Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska, during their high school years, and at college earned a few extra bucks by setting up bleachers for football and basketball games. They were privileged to have a record player given to them by their mom.

Part of the program at Boys Town was to listen to classical music for an hour a couple days a week.

Consequently, “Mike would put on Caruso and Mario Lanza, Beethoven. It would just drive those guys nuts. Back then rock ‘n’ roll was pretty popular. Ray Coniff was about as close as we got to the pop songs. We caught a lot crap because we played it loud,” John Sterner says.

“You had to be tough to survive. With our career in Boys Town and in the Army, we knew how to take care of ourselves,” he says.

Frank the barber

The Sterners were six months active duty in the Army in 1957 and then part of the Federal Reserve, having weekend duties. So they were used to discipline and short haircuts. But in the six months between Army duty and reporting to State, they let their hair grow.

“The first thing Warren Williamson [assistant football and head wrestling coach] said was give them guys a buzz,” Sterner recalls.

That duty was executed by Kurtenbach, who cut many an athletes’ hair in the Gym Dorm. “I had long wavy hair and Mike did too. The next thing you know, we had flattops,” Sterner says.

Soon after, the Gym Dorm became like the flattop haircut, a distant memory of another era.

Now holds old desks, memories

The basement of the Barn ceased being used as the Gym Dorm after the 1960-61 school year. It was converted to offices for the Athletic Department staff. Wiltz remembers that his old room became the office of legendary football coach Ralph Ginn.

Shortly afterwards, it became the campus weightlifting room. Hansen, a grad assistant in 1968-69, remembers overseeing workouts there.

Even after Frost Arena was open, the area remained a weight room, though its use gradually decreased.

About three years ago the remaining weightlifting equipment was carted out of the building by the football team and placed in the University’s surplus auction. Now dust-covered desks and chairs are stored in the seldom-visited downstairs quarters.

The construction of Brown Hall (1960), holding 400 students, eliminated the need for Gym Dorm.

Torgerson, originally of Forestburg, wasn’t expecting the Holiday Inn when he arrived on campus, but says the Gym Dorm struck him like a dungeon. Hansen observes, “Gym Dorm may not have been the perfect place but the price was right. Like anything else, it was what you make of it.”

For some fifteen years, a bunch of college guys made it the place where engrained memories were created.

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