“We All Missed Hilden Gibson”
From 1955 to 1966, male KU students hailing from more than a dozen countries on five continents called a co-op located at 1614 Kentucky Street home. Enjoying its low-cost accommodations, rich ethnic diversity and tight-knit community living were Americans from Kansas and elsewhere, as well as citizens of Columbia, Ecuador and Ireland, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands, Turkey and Thailand, Germany and Japan, plus Taiwan, Iraq and Ghana.
Given these demographics, it’s not surprising that throughout its roughly 10-year existence, the home was known informally as the International House. Officially, though, it was called the Hilden Gibson Co-op, named in honor of an exceptionally popular KU political science professor following his untimely death on April 1, 1955.
Once heralded as “the most outstanding lecturer the University of Kansas has ever had,” Dr. Hilden Gibson was arguably the perfect person to be so memorialized by the men of 1614 Kentucky. Possessing strong liberal views on a wide range of social and economic issues, Gibson in many ways embodied the co-op movement’s guiding tenets. He also abhorred racial discrimination, was a committed internationalist, and believed that through rational, good faith negotiations, any dispute could be peacefully resolved.
A longtime supporter of cooperative housing ventures, Gibson educated hundreds of KU students on multi-cultural harmony and the joys and benefits of co-op life during his 17-year professorial tenure at the University. Because of this, the Hilden Gibson moniker upon 1614 Kentucky Street was not only ideologically fitting but also a just recognition of his manifold personal contributions to the betterment of life on Mount Oread.
A native of McPherson, Kansas, Hilden Russell Gibson forged his first ties to the University of Kansas in 1929 when he enrolled as a 19-year-old freshman. He became one of the inaugural recipients of KU’s prestigious Summerfield Scholarships, begun that year by Kansas-born industrialist Solon Summerfield “to give deserving boys a chance to get a college education and ... accomplish more in the world than they otherwise could have done.” Gibson excelled in his chosen field of political science, and in 1933, he earned his AB degree and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
Over the next several years, Gibson pursued graduate studies in political science at California’s Stanford University. In 1938 he returned to KU as an instructor in political science and sociology. He also continued pursuing his doctorate, and in 1940, with a Stanford PhD in hand, was elevated to assistant professor.
Presumably due to the time-consuming responsibilities in this phase of his life, it appears Gibson did not play any direct role in the birth of KU’s student co-op movement, which formally took place in September 1939, when a group of some 20 men rented and moved into a home located at 1614 Kentucky Street. Soon dubbed the Jayhawk Co-op, this residence was organized along the traditional “Rochdale Principles” of cooperation. Among other things, these tenets required the sharing of all household chores and expenses, and promised residents an “economical, cooperative, and fraternal” living experience.
The Jayhawk Co-op enjoyed early success. By 1940, after only one year in operation, the co-op’s members had joined with other students from several Midwestern universities to form the Central League of Campus Co-ops, a body devoted to promoting “the exchange of ideas on the problems of institution, government, administration, finance, accounting, and recreation among member student cooperatives.” Then, in 1941, the Jayhawk Co-op began formulating plans to purchase its Kentucky Street house outright. In this endeavor, the young cooperators found an invaluable advisor in Hilden Gibson.
Although it remains unclear exactly when Gibson first became interested in the cooperative housing movement, his support had certainly crystallized by the early 1940s. As he told the 1941 Jayhawker yearbook, housing co-ops could be “among the most valuable adjuncts to university life. They have made it possible,” he added, “for some students to attend college who otherwise would not have been able to at all, and they have made it possible for many others to live on a more comfortable plane than would have been possible otherwise.”
Yet “beyond these material values,” Gibson continued, “lie other equally important ones. The Co-ops afford training in democracy and responsible living which is of inestimable importance. Students living in them have not only the opportunity, but the necessity, to make their own decisions and to learn how to govern their own lives in relation to one another.”
Gibson was hardly a one-man chorus when it came to singing the praises of campus cooperatives and urging their expansion. In 1941, members of the Jayhawk Co-op joined with John J.O. Moore, head of KU’s YMCA chapter; George Docking, president of the First National Bank of Lawrence (and a future two-term Kansas governor); and Gibson himself to form the University of Kansas Student Housing Association (UKSHA). Through this independent, non-profit entity, Jayhawk Co-op members were able to buy their home at 1614 Kentucky. (In subsequent years, UKSHA assisted many other Mount Oread-area student co-op groups to do the same.)
In recognition of his help with the UKSHA’s incorporation, the organization’s board of directors elected Gibson its first president, a title he would hold continuously until 1955. Docking was named UKSHA treasurer. As KU co-op movement historian John Eberhardt has noted, these two men were the body’s “leading members,” Docking “being the practical leader and Gibson the spiritual leader.”
Further explaining the latter’s contributions, Eberhardt also observed that the political science professor “was the one who created an ideology for the co-ops that went beyond economical living arrangements – a base for a new way of relating to people in a cooperative environment.” From his perch as UKSHA president, Gibson “devoted an inordinate amount of time counseling co-op leaders on various problems they faced [and] was often involved in the selection and organization of new houses.” As Gibson himself once said of his commitment to KU co-ops and their student inhabitants, “I have given them as unsparingly of my time and energy as I possibly could.”
It’s little wonder that Hilden Gibson proved so influential to KU’s co-op community. By all indications, he had been relating to students in unique and powerful ways from the very beginning. Called a “champion of progressive methods of study and education,” and known for his “sharp mind and social concerns,” the “tweed-loving, pipe-smoking” Gibson was famous for his “spell-binding” classroom orations in such courses as political science, sociology and Western Civilization, all of which were “eagerly sought” by KU students on enrollment day. So effective and inspiring was he, in fact, that his undergraduate audiences, which seemingly grew larger and more devoted every year, were known to “break forth into applause following many of his routine class lectures.”
Tragically, this promising professional trajectory was cut short on April 1, 1955, when Gibson died at age 44, succumbing to complications following emergency surgery to remove a brain tumor. Described by KU Chancellor Franklin D. Murphy as a “dedicated, thoughtful and capable member of the University family,” Gibson was survived by his wife Veda and two young children, Carl and Hilda.
Among those University family members particularly affected by Gibson’s passing was KU political science graduate student James A. “Jim” Schellenberg who, in the spring 1955 semester, had been enrolled in the late professor’s “Modern Political Theories” course. “He was well into [the section about] Marxism when his illness interrupted the class,” Schellenberg recalled almost 50 years later. “He always had the complete attention of the class when he talked, and he made sure to respond fully to his students. We were all shocked to hear of his sudden death…. We all missed Hilden Gibson.”
Not content merely to mourn the loss, Schellenberg – a 1954-55 member of the Don Henry Co-op, one of many houses to have benefited from Gibson’s advice over the years – resolved to pay an appropriate tribute to his mentor.
By the time the fall 1955 semester rolled around, Schellenberg and a handful of other former Gibson devotees had hatched a plan. They were organizing a new men’s residential co-op and decided there would be no better way to memorialize their “late beloved leader” than by naming the house in his honor. Fortunately, a residence was readily available, that being the original Jayhawk Co-op at 1614 Kentucky, which, until recently, had been operating as a women's co-op. The UKSHA still owned the property and was all too willing to allow Schellenberg and his friends to move in.
While the timeline of their organizational activities remains a bit murky, Schellenberg remembered that sometime in the fall of 1955 he and a small group of male KU students “called upon Mrs. Gibson to mention the proposal to name the new co-op after her late husband.” As it turned out, “She was most gracious in her encouragement.” With her approval, recruitment began apace and by December of that year, the house, with roughly a dozen members, was officially reestablished and formally named the Hilden Gibson Co-op.
As a “certifiable adult and graduate student,” Schellenberg assumed the role of director – a function akin to house-parent – at 1614 Kentucky Street that first year. This position, he noted, “mainly involved getting a private room for myself [and] at least nominally supervising the morals of [the co-op’s] inhabitants.” But considering that most were serious-minded scholars pursuing advanced degrees in subjects ranging from political science to aerospace engineering, ensuring house discipline at the Hilden Gibson Co-op was rarely a problem throughout its nearly 10-year existence.
As for the residents themselves, “the majority were graduate students and most of them were from foreign countries,” wrote Dan Di Canio (1956-58) in a 2002 retrospective. To many foreign students, in fact, the three-story home – which featured comfortable double-occupancy rooms, plenty of study space and an extensive basement kitchen and dining area – appeared downright idyllic. For example, upon arriving in the fall of 1960, Hans Schmid-Dai, a native of Switzerland, saw its “ridged roof and its gables” and remembered thinking it “looked like a house in a German fairy tale.”
For men like Roger Stover – who, as a “starving architecture student,” admitted he initially joined Hilden Gibson simply for its comparatively low living costs (roughly $50 a month for room and board) – the chance to interact with and learn from foreign students like Schmid-Dai turned out to be “the best part of [my] co-op experience.” Jack Klinknett heartily agreed. “After-dinner talks around the dining room table, and spontaneous discussions at any time,” he recalled, “were shining examples of learning as much or more about the world from outside the classroom and books as I can imagine.”
(According to Klinknett, incidentally, the learning at Hilden Gibson Co-op was hardly limited to academic or culturally specific topics and, moreover, could come from the most unexpected of sources. “My chess game got much improved,” he explained, “due to the patient input of the guy from Iraq – a big…hairy bear of a fellow with the biggest and warmest heart I have ever encountered.”)
That’s not to say, however, that there wasn’t the occasional clash of cultures, particularly when it came to the evening meal, which the men of 1614 Kentucky were assigned to prepare on a rotating basis. More than a few times, for instance, Hans Schmid-Dai offered fellow residents what he considered to be delicious Swiss delicacies. Yet as he recalled, his gourmet rice pudding dish went over like a lead balloon, as did another gastronomic delight whose main ingredient was cow spleen – which Schmid-Dai had personally trekked to a Lawrence slaughterhouse to buy.
Others, though, related far fonder food memories. Dr. Franz R. Semmelmann, a native German, remembered that several “expert cooks” lived at the Hilden Gibson Co-op during his late-1950s stay, men who always delivered “splendid menus.” And even though more than 40 years had passed, “George Michos’ lamb dinner” still excited the palate of resident Ivan F. Mader.
If mealtime, then, was essentially hit-or-miss, so too apparently was how each individual foreign student would mesh with or adapt to life in American society – and conversely, how the American students would adapt to each of them. Sometimes, according to Roger Stover, the requisite culture shock could be disorienting, to say the least. For example, there was the Norwegian graduate student who – in the late-1950s, it must be noted – “shocked [the entire house] by not only bringing his girlfriend to the co-op and actually taking her into his room, but by also locking the door and not coming out until the next morning.”
Regarding one incident in particular, though, the cultural differences among the Hilden Gibson men could be shocking in a far more serious sense. Deeply imprinted in Stover’s memory was the case of the Japanese graduate student who was early on having a terrible time at KU. “He was unhappy because his English was poor and he had been forced by economics to leave his wife and children in Japan. His grades suffered and he felt he had lost face.”
Consequently, “He dressed himself in a ceremonial robe, went down to the kitchen in the basement, turned on the gas, sat cross-legged on the floor and prepared to die. But the gas was weak,” Stover continued, “and the area was far from air-tight. Someone found him unconscious on the floor, turned off the gas and called an ambulance.” Fortunately, in the end, the student suffered no permanent ill effects and Stover was pleased to report that, years later, “I found him happily teaching at a Japanese university.”
No matter the circumstances, wrote Jack Klinknett, “We took good care of each other and the home we shared and of our daily lives together.” During his “priceless” two-year residency in the early 1960s, “There was simply never a significant dispute, feud, personality conflict or disturbance to the peaceful enjoyment of our mutual time at Hilden Gibson.” The same was true for Ivan Mader who had “nothing but praise for the co-op life. I met a lot of guys and learned a lot about living and working together,” he added. “Such a diverse bunch you’ll never see.” “My memories of Hilden Gibson,” Roger Stover plainly said, “are the strongest and dearest in my KU experience.”
The Hilden Gibson Co-op was disbanded at the end of the 1965-66 school year. It was simply “unable to compete,” observed Fred McElhenie, KU’s associate director of student housing, “with the newly built high-rise residence halls or the increasing benefits and opportunities of University Scholarship Halls.”
The house at 1614 Kentucky was subsequently sold and became a private residence, a status it retained for more than 30 years. But in 1998, UKSHA reacquired the dwelling and has since operated it as Olive House, a co-ed student residential co-op named for its striking light green paint job. What’s more, in recognition of its deep, indeed original, roots in KU cooperative housing history, 1614 Kentucky is also known informally as the “Enduring House.”
Yet while the Kentucky Street residence is no longer officially his namesake, it’s nonetheless surely the case that, as long as there are people there who remain faithful to the principles Dr. Hilden Gibson himself so sincerely espoused during his lifetime, his spirit will continue to endure as well.
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas