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Launching the Satellite Union

November 1, 1977


As far back as 1968, students at the University of Kansas began to realize that the steady southward and westward expansion of campus was creating a pressing need for a second student union.

The University community had surely benefited a great deal from the services and resources afforded by the original Kansas Memorial Union, which has stood since 1927 at the north end of Jayhawk Boulevard.

Yet considering the thousands of students, faculty and staff who, in the decades that followed, had moved into the schools, buildings, residence halls and apartments on Daisy Hill, clearly the time had come to bring the conveniences of a student union to the other side of campus. But although the idea played well with the student body, and was shortly thereafter approved by the State Board of Regents, plans for the multi-million-dollar facility were shelved for nearly a decade, due to other, more pressing projects. Not until November 1, 1977, was ground broken for what was then blandly named the Satellite Student Union.

Reflecting student interest and the need for a second facility, the Regents, on October 17, 1969, accepted architectural plans for the proposed $2 million structure that would house a full-service bookstore, restaurant facilities, meeting rooms, study lounges and various other amenities of student life. What was to be a scaled-down version of the Kansas Memorial Union, however, never came to pass, at least in the short run. Students themselves, who would have helped defray the costs of the new union with an activity fee increase, decided by referendum to contribute to the construction of Wescoe Hall and the Watkins Health Center instead. The second union would have to wait.

And wait it did, for the next seven years, until February 1976 when a second referendum asked students whether they would accept a fee increase to help build a new union, now estimated to cost approximately $2.5 million. While the percentage of students who actually cast votes is unclear, the results were striking: 72.8 percent supported the increase, and the long-postponed satellite union seemed finally ready to leave the launching pad. The following January, the Regents accepted the University’s proposal to issue $2 million worth of bonds supported by a student fee increase; these funds, coupled with an additional half-million dollars worth of existing bond surpluses, allowed the project to proceed apace.

To alleviate any possible concern that the satellite union was in any way designed to supplant the Kansas Memorial Union, which had been constructed to honor the 130 KU men and women who died in World War I, the University’s Facilities Advisory Committee issued a statement insisting that “additional union facilities are not intended to replace the present Kansas Union Building.” It would, however, “compliment and expand certain existing sales and services and make these sales and services more accessible to its primary users.” As to its specific location, the three-story, 31,500-square-foot satellite union would be built on Irving Hill Road between Jayhawker Towers and Allen Field House.

The official ground breaking was scheduled for November 1, 1977.  On that day, KU Chancellor Archie R. Dykes heartily thanked the students who had so generously “assessed themselves this financial responsibility so for years to come other students will benefit.” Indeed, the amount of student fees earmarked to retire debt on KU buildings, including the satellite union, was no trifling sum, totaling $23 per student, per semester, something Dykes acknowledged was a “heavy financial burden.” Donations of a sort were not limited to KU students, however, for on June 8, 1979, with the new union roughly ten months from completion, the president of the Fidelity State Bank and Trust Company of Topeka (and president of the University of Kansas Memorial Corporation which governs both KU student union facilities), Anderson Chandler (’48), announced a gift of $8,000 to construct a 3,500-square-foot courtyard on the new union’s south side. The area was promptly dubbed the Chandler Courtyard.

Though it would not actually open for students until August 20, 1979, the Satellite Student Union was ceremonially dedicated on April 27 of that year, featuring remarks by Chancellor Dykes, vice-chancellor of student affairs, David Ambler, and Kansas Union Director Frank R. Burge. The latter had served in his post since 1952, and his leadership was instrumental in getting the satellite union constructed. Following his retirement in December 1982, KU renamed the facility in his honor.

On January 21, 1983, the Regents approved changing the name to the Frank R. Burge Union, which was solidly and enthusiastically endorsed by all who knew and worked with Burge during his thirty years at KU. “I’m extremely pleased that the Board of Regents is honoring this long-time dedicated and totally unselfish public servant of this University,” said Ambler. “He has built the Kansas Memorial Union into one of the finest such programs in the country, both in terms of its outstanding physical plant and its superb program of services for alumni, students, faculty and staff.” He then added: “Frank Burge is the Kansas Union, and the Kansas Union is Frank Burge.”

Since opening in the early 1980s, though, the Burge Union has lost some of its luster. Despite housing the Legal Services and the Career and Employment Services offices, exercise and restaurant facilities, and a full-service bookstore, the facility suffered declining traffic and usage in the 1990s. In 2000, Cameron Popp, Student Union Activities president, told the University Daily Kansan that there was a need to make Burge “a viable resource for the campus.” Popp cited an “aging and fading” interior that looked “dated” and “a very bunker or submarine feel.” A new Burge Union fitness center, opened in fall 2001, appeared to address some of these concerns and as of January 2002, was spurring an increase in traffic as well.

(Editor’s Note) As part of the Central District Project of 2016, the Burge Union was demolished. Plans are underway to replace the structure with another student service oriented building. Whether the new building will be named for Frank Burge has not been determined.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: A wealth of material can be found in the Burge Union Building File and the Frank R. Burge Personal File, located in University Archives, Spencer Research Library, which contain, among others, press releases, architectural plans, dedicatory pamphlets and brochures, and newspaper clippings. Of particular interest are the following: University Daily Kansan: July 23, 1979, p. 1; August 24, 1979, p. 1; March 21, 1983, p. 7; February 9, 2000; February 23, 2000; March 6, 2000; and February 20, 2002, p. 1; Lawrence Journal-World, March 31, 1983, p. 3, and Kansas Alumni (September 1982), p. 10.]