Since the late-nineteenth century, the words “Rock Chalk” have been synonymous with the University of Kansas. Forming the core of the stirring chant that Theodore Roosevelt once reputedly called “the greatest college cheer ever devised,” these two words have echoed in field houses and stadiums and, indeed, anywhere else KU partisans have ever gathered to exhibit their Jayhawk pride.
Less well known, however, is the “Rock Chalk” association with a series of men’s cooperative residences that dotted the Mount Oread environs during the mid-twentieth century. Known as the Rock Chalk Co-op, the first such house to bear this name was located at 1409 Rhode Island Street. It was established in time for the start of the 1941 spring semester classes by a group of some 25 male KU students, all of whom desired an economical living arrangement within the community-minded environment that cooperatives offered.
While this original iteration of the co-op ended up lasting only five semesters – closed down because so many of its occupants had either enlisted or been drafted for service in World War II – the Rock Chalk Co-op name was not a permanent residential casualty of war. Reorganized in 1948, this men’s co-op would continue operating – first at 721½ Massachusetts Street, and then at 912 Alabama Street – until the close of the 1955-56 school year. This collective, albeit intermittent, 21-semester life span ranks the Rock Chalk Co-op as among the longest-lasting student housing cooperatives in KU history.
Longevity aside, equally notable is that many of the onetime Rock Chalk denizens retained fond memories of their co-op association even after, in some cases, the passage of more than six decades. From the illicit basement brewery and the ill-fated “possum stew” to the home’s reputation as “the most radical co-op on campus,” reminiscences are replete, as one former resident put it, with “crazy goings-on that could fill up a small book.”
Similarly well remembered were the learning opportunities the men gained from living with fellow students from all walks of life. Whether native- or foreign-born, ROTC member or conscientious objector, each was welcomed, by all accounts, into an open-minded, tolerant and intellectually stimulating atmosphere that redounded to the lasting benefit of all.
Like many of the approximately one dozen KU student cooperatives that appeared during a period spanning the late 1930s to the mid 1960s, the Rock Chalk Co-op was not so much founded as it was colonized. While the specific date of its settlement, so to speak, is unclear, the impetus came from 11 former members of the Jayhawk Co-op, a men’s residence then situated at 1614 Kentucky Street. Established in 1939, the Jayhawk Co-op was the first formal student housing cooperative to be organized at KU. Two years later, thanks to the efforts of this 11-man contingent, by the time spring semester classes began on February 4, 1941, the Rock Chalk Co-op would be the second.
Although the KU co-op movement was, by this point, still in its infancy, the migration from Jayhawk into Rock Chalk is evidence that this unique housing arrangement was growing in popularity. In addition to the initial colonizers with prior co-op experience, as many as 14 other KU men were recruited to become inaugural members of the Rock Chalk Co-op, which was originally headquartered in a rented house at 1409 Rhode Island Street.
Formed around the “Rochdale Principles” of cooperation, both residences strictly adhered to such foundational tenets as democratic governance, open membership, and a determination to share all household chores and expenses equitably, the goal being to live as frugally as possible. Beyond this was the duty of veteran co-op members to share their knowledge and experiences, both good and bad, with the uninitiated – and toward this end, the Jayhawk and Rock Chalk Co-ops held joint house meetings during the latter’s spring 1941 maiden semester.
In other areas, though, their relationship was even more collaborative. As KU co-op movement historian John Eberhardt has explained, “One significant point regarding the organization of the original Rock Chalk was the search for a structure or umbrella group to connect [the two houses].” They did not, however, need to search or cogitate too long.
During that same spring, the combined memberships of the two co-ops – working alongside KU political science professor Dr. Hilden Gibson, plus John J.O. Moore, head of KU’s YMCA chapter, and George Docking, a KU alumnus (and future Kansas governor) then serving as a senior executive at the First National Bank of Lawrence – succeeded in incorporating the University of Kansas Student Housing Association (UKSHA). This independent non-profit entity would empower KU’s budding cooperative movement.
According to Fred McElhenie, KU’s associate director of student housing, the UKSHA would prove to be “a godsend,” not merely to the Jayhawk and Rock Chalk residences, but also to subsequent co-op units, many of which flourished under the organization’s “guidelines, experience and financial support.” Indeed, perhaps UKSHA’s most valuable role was its ability to obtain mortgages and thereby acquire Mount Oread-area homes – including, incidentally, the original Jayhawk Co-op at 1614 Kentucky – and rent them on favorable terms to cost-conscious student cooperators. “All these intertwined, sometimes confusing, alliances,” McElhenie added, “helped the co-op movement [at KU] gain prominence and historical respectability.”
During its first few semesters of operation, though, the roughly 25 men who lived in the Rock Chalk Co-op were less concerned with the kind of legacy they would one day leave, and more with the ordinary rudiments of running their home and attending to their studies. Yet on both these scores, it seems, they were quite successful.
“We had a well organized house,” recalled former Rock Chalk resident Jack M. Werts (1941-42), “exceptionally clean and comfortable. We were organized into two- three- and four-man work crews” and assigned such tasks as cooking, cleaning, dishwashing, floor scrubbing and the like. “I was recognized early on as not being a cook prospect,” Werts admitted, “so I served on [general] housekeeping duties.” In Richard Pfister’s account of his fall 1942 semester at 1409 Rhode Island, he further noted that the men themselves often mirrored the co-op’s spic-and-span appearance. “We always wore ties and coats to dinner,” Pfister wrote some 60 years later, a practice, he added, that “seems strange by today’s dress codes.”
With such manners and amid such sartorial splendor, it may come as little surprise that the men of Rock Chalk Co-op were apparently serious young scholars as well. Referring to the University’s most prestigious scholastic award, Dr. Lafe W. Bauer (an original spring 1941 resident), remembered that “the house seemed to be overrun with Summerfield Scholars,” making up as many as a quarter of the 25 members in his recollection.
Whatever the exact number, Pfister agreed that “there was a strong intellectual atmosphere” at Rock Chalk. In fact, of the men he knew and lived among, “the proportion who went on to get higher degrees” was quite impressive. (Pfister, too, would eventually complete his own PhD in economics and later embark on a 30-year professorial career at Dartmouth and Indiana Universities.) “Individuals whom I’ve been able to keep track of,” added Jack Werts, “all went on to find success in various fields. All of them.”
In Werts’ estimation, much of the credit for Rock Chalk being a smooth-running, academically oriented residence should go to the co-op’s first house parents (1941-42), a married couple named Reece and Jessie Sailer. Succeeding the Sailers as Rock Chalk house parents was another young married couple, Bill and Alta May Miller (fall semester 1942), who were recent KU graduates.
According to Alta May, their 24 charges were “a great bunch” of guys. Among her most vivid memories were how the “boys loved to play with [our] white Eskimo Spitz named Micky” and, more generally – and, indeed, more importantly – how serious the discussions often got. Of the two dozen residents, Mrs. Miller wrote six decades hence, “there were six ROTC boys who were graduating that semester [spring 1942] and six conscientious objectors. They sometimes would gather in the living room just outside our apartment and argue the pros and cons of the military until all hours of the morning.”
By the time these men did graduate, of course, the United States was deeply immersed in the Second World War. House father Bill Miller would soon leave to join the US Army Air Forces, as would resident Jack Werts, who went on to fly some 30 missions over Europe as a B-24 bombardier, eventually rising to the rank of captain by war’s end.
The war’s impact was also felt in other ways. In March 1943, the UKSHA closed the pioneering Jayhawk Co-op owing to the enlistment or drafting of so many of the co-op’s members. The Rock Chalk Co-op, for the same reasons, followed closely in its predecessor’s wake, shutting down itself just a couple months later at the end of the 1942-43 academic year.
By the time fall semester 1943 classes began at KU, there may not have been a Rock Chalk Co-op any longer, but there was still a cooperative living arrangement at its recently-vacated Rhode Island digs. This was because those few former Jayhawk and Rock Chalk remnants who were still enrolled – along with a group of men from the John Moore Co-op (previously located at 1537½ Tennessee) – had regrouped to organize a single men’s co-op at 1409 Rhode Island Street. Numbering 19 residents in all, this successor house officially retained the John Moore moniker since that co-op’s members represented a slight plurality and accordingly won the naming rights.
Another five years would pass before the Rock Chalk Co-op was re-established. This occurred in the fall of 1948. The revived Rock Chalk Co-op opened with a significantly smaller membership (not more than a dozen men) and was situated in correspondingly smaller quarters on the second floor of 721½ Massachusetts Street. This apartment, which formerly housed the Don Henry Co-op, was located above Orval Hixon’s downtown Lawrence photography studios and served the Rock Chalk Co-op for a single year. In the fall of 1949, the men, still numbering around 12 or so, moved into a house at 912 Alabama Street, which had been recently bought by the UKSHA. The Rock Chalk Co-op would spend its final seven years of existence at this address.
During the 1949-50 school year, Robert and Sue Eichhorn were the co-op’s house-parents. As Eichhorn described the engagement, “Sue was to advise on menus, raise the level of conversation at table, etc., and I was essentially ‘consort-in-residence.” He also “paid the standard $35/month room and board fee.” Moving into 912 Alabama was not without a few difficulties. “The fall semester started before the house was ready for occupancy,” added Eichhorn. “Everyone was sleeping on floors while the members built a second floor extension to serve as a bunk house. Then they turned to installing a bathroom for our use.”
Home remodeling aside, the post-World War II world was markedly different from the one into which the original Rock Chalk Co-op was born. For this second generation of Rock Chalk cooperators, though, very little had changed, at least in terms of the overall broad-minded, multiethnic environment and the members’ ability to pursue their college educations unburdened by high-priced room and board.
A pre-med, early-1950s transfer from Parsons (Kansas) Junior College, Dr. George P. Fosmire recalled the remarkable “cultural gap” he bridged when he entered Rock Chalk Co-op, a home of “mostly graduate students from all over the US!” In fact, of the dozen “very intelligent and mature” men Cyrus B. Samii lived with while he was in residence (1954-55), a total of seven – including himself, a political science grad student – “were working toward a PhD.”
Having moved in initially as a 17-year-old freshman, Arthur A. Mountain remarked that his “most valuable experience while at Rock Chalk was learning to live with 11 other people from diverse backgrounds and sharing in the responsibilities of cooking and cleaning along with being a good neighbor.” Added Jordan D. Johnson: “My experiences … were extremely helpful in making the adjustment from a very small town [Bonner Springs] to the University of Kansas.”
Such diversity and personal growth potential were also primary attractants to Robert E. “Bob” Duffy. Equally alluring was that the price was definitely right. “Each member of Rock Chalk (in my first year 1953-54) was charged 25 dollars per month with a monthly rebate of two-to-five dollars.” For this, he went on, “Each [member] was required to put in four hours of work per week at various tasks [such as] cleaning, cooking, dishwashing, yard work, treasurer, food purchaser and menu maker.” Looking back, Duffy concluded, “I couldn’t have survived economically without Rock Chalk…. Let’s face it, a bed, a desk, three meals and snacks, free beer and an exciting intellectual atmosphere for $25 per month was an incredible bargain.”
With respect to the “free beer” issue, Fosmire explained that, for the residents themselves, it was not technically complimentary as much as it was ultra-low-cost, given that it was illegally made on the Alabama Street premises. “Who could forget,” he asked rhetorically, “the Rock Chalk ‘brewery’ in the basement?” In “3.2 Kansas” of the early 1950s, Fosmire elaborated, “3.2 percent was the maximum alcohol content of commercial beer in our fair state.” Wanting or perhaps even needing a stronger ale, “our guys were the only ones [in town] buying empty brown colored beer bottles at the local stores in which to decant their brew instead of turning them in for the one- or two-cent value.”
The son of a Methodist minister, and devoutly religious himself, Fosmire maintained he neither touched the brew nor “went out with girls who did.” Others, however, apparently had less scruples on this score. As Bob Duffy wrote in a 2002 reminiscence, the Rock Chalk men held frequent parties in their Alabama residence, soirées that were mostly attended by “down-at-the-heels graduate students who came for free beer and conversation/arguments on history, politics, art, philosophy, sex, etc.” Notwithstanding the alcoholic refreshments, these bashes were obviously not your typical frat house free-for-all. That said, as Duffy did admit, “In the background the classical music was sometimes loud.”
Indeed, according to former Rock Chalk denizen Otto Payton (1954-55), “Every time we had a party, the couple next door called the police because of the noise. So, we thought we would solve that problem by inviting them to our next party.” As it happened, “They came, stayed for a couple hours and seemed to have a good time.” But appearances can be deceiving, as Payton soon found out. “Then, they went home and called the cops!”
Beer was not, however, the only source of nourishment at the 1950s-era Rock Chalk Co-op. “We all took turns cooking,” Arthur Mountain recalled, “each one responsible for preparing the supper for one week at a time.” While generally preparing the standard single-male, undergraduate fare, occasionally the men did get inventive in the kitchen, a fact former resident Dr. Vernon M. Diel (1950-51) felt compelled to share in all its gory detail with present-day readers.
One day, Diel recounted, “Someone caught a [live] possum and it was decided to have ‘possum stew’ for dinner.” The macabre ringleader, in Diel’s story, was a fellow Rock Chalk dweller he remembered as “Steve” from Raytown, Missouri, who was also unforgettably nicknamed “the Mad Scientist.” Steve “rigged up an electrical harness” and prepared to “electrocute the poor beast,” the reason being, as Diel explained, because “someone” judged “this was the most humane method of killing the animal.” In any event, “When the circuit was closed it did kill the possum but also blew out a fuse.” Undaunted, the men went ahead with their supper plans. What resulted, perhaps not surprisingly, was hardly a gastronomic delight. It was “definitely not,” Diel reported, “a tasty meal.”
Another bizarre Rock Chalk food experiment, apparently far more successful, was performed during the co-op’s days back on Rhode Island Street. “One time,” Lafe Bauer recalled, “when we were on the kitchen detail preparing supper, [the cook] decided to give the meat loaf a special flavor [and thus] dumped a full package of Bull Durham tobacco into the mix.” This finished product, Bauer wrote, was “pronounced to be outstanding.”
During the Eichhorns’ year at 912 Alabama, “food was purchased in bulk from a failing co-op store downtown. Between the store’s limited supplies, a small budget, and…the decisions of an inexperienced purchasing agent, the challenge of putting a meal on the table was formidable. I remember eating a lot of canned mackerel and reconstituted potatoes.”
These and other culinary adventures certainly spiced up life at the Rock Chalk Co-op. Yet for many residents, what appears to have made living there truly satisfying was its earned reputation as a local center of liberal thought and activism. This was especially the case with Bob Duffy who wrote that his time there had a “marked influence on me in terms of community service, peace, brotherhood and a just distribution of the earth’s riches.”
As Duffy further explained, “I chaired a committee that included Rock Chalk members that brought speakers and writers to the campus” to counter what he called “the oppressive conformity of the 1950s Cold War America.” Among his favorites was Edgar Snow, a Kansas City, Missouri-born journalist whose books on (and sympathies toward) Mao Tse-Tung’s Chinese communist dictatorship were controversial to say the least. On another occasion, Duffy helped bring the early-1950s film “Salt of the Earth” to campus. This movie, “made by blacklisted Hollywood people,” spotlighted the prejudice directed against Mexican-American laborers. “Of course,” Duffy noted, “it is now a classic.”
As much as he and his fellow Rock Chalk members might have railed against the American “establishment,” Duffy was, however, quick to praise the University of Kansas for its tolerance of divergent viewpoints during a period that some refer to as the “McCarthy Era.”. KU administrators – such as Chancellor Franklin D. Murphy (1951-60) – “never interfered and always gave us a theater or hall large enough to accommodate the audience. I can only imagine,” he added, “how much pressure [they were] under to prohibit these things.”
Most 1950s-era residents of the Rock Chalk Co-op were “liberal/left,” according to Duffy. Indeed, in his reminiscence, he termed the residence “the most radical co-op on campus.” This ideological affinity notwithstanding, there were nonetheless, as Duffy also noted, “a few moderate/conservatives who were warmly accepted into the community.”
This embrace of diversity was apparently not enough to keep the Rock Chalk Co-op as a going concern, and it closed at the end of the 1955-56 academic year. Most observers agree that the dawn of the high-rise dormitory age played some role in the precipitous, mid-1950s decline of KU’s cooperative housing movement. Other factors also played a part, such as the untimely death of longtime KU co-op booster Dr. Hilden Gibson in 1955, as well as the University’s decision to integrate its residence halls, which eliminated the co-ops’ distinction as being the only non-segregated student living options.
Yet whatever the reason for the demise of Rock Chalk and its many cooperative brethren, the memories of its former residents are not so easily swept away. In fact, as long as they endure – and, indeed, as long as the “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk, KU” chant is heard – there will be constant reminders, in Lyle C. Wolfrom’s words, of the “wonderful experiences” scores of men once shared. Perhaps this outcome is not surprising. As Fred McElhenie once put it, the Rock Chalk Co-op was “as much a state of mind as [it was] a tangible entity.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas