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“We Were Out to Save the World”

October 9, 1946


Nearly 40 years after it ceased to exist, the Don Henry Co-op, an experiment in communal residential living at the University of Kansas, was still generating a lot of emotion on the part of its former residents.

“It was a truly amazing and important introduction to campus life,” remembered John Hall, a 1955-1956 occupant of the co-op.

“I can’t think of any social organizations to which I have belonged whose members were more tolerant of different beliefs or attitudes,” recalled Jerome Lehnus, a 1964-1965 resident.

And John Eberhardt, an early member of the Don Henry Co-op, saw the experience in simple but universal terms. ”We were out to save the world,” he once reflected. “At least, I was.”

Youthful idealism no doubt animated many of the residents who chose to live in the Don Henry Co-op, which existed from the mid-1940s through the mid-1960s. After all, it was named after a KU undergraduate who lost his life in the Spanish Civil War while in service to the anti-fascist Loyalist side.

However, since the Loyalist government was socialist and accepted aid from the Soviet Union, this tenuous left-wing provenance often made the Don Henry Co-op the target of suspicion and gossip on the part of more orthodox KU students, especially during the early years of the Cold War.

This perception may not have been completely unfounded. In 1948, a reputed member of the Communist Party lived at Don Henry. As a result, it is believed by at least one former resident that the co-op was placed under an FBI mail surveillance order in 1949.

During the 1950s, according to another resident’s reminiscences, “Don Henry was a loose collection of anarchists while I was there.” And for much of its existence, Don Henry residents were often at the forefront of racial integration, a position then considered quite liberal.

Of course, many outsiders saw the entire co-op system at KU as being radical – so much so that the University Daily Kansan reporter assigned to cover the co-ops was said, in jest, to be on the “Red beat.” Ironically, within the KU co-op community, Don Henry members were often regarded as relatively politically conservative.

The Don Henry Co-op was one of several cooperative housing arrangements that existed at KU during the mid-twentieth century. In general terms, these co-ops sought to provide their student residents with low cost room and board and thus make a college education more affordable.

Over time, the co-ops became a form of University-approved housing and were similar to KU’s popular scholarship halls, especially in their organization. Residents performed household maintenance and chores such as cooking in exchange for severely reduced overhead charges. However, the co-ops lacked the same degree of oversight the University exercised over scholarship halls.

Some of the co-op houses were owned and controlled by a non-profit group called the KU Housing Association (now known as the University of Kansas Student Housing Association). KUHA collected the monthly rent from these houses and determined how many individuals could live in each dwelling. There was no formal, direct supervision of the co-op houses by the KUHA, other than its determination of how much rent the co-op members would have to pay.

The University required that either a housemother or house-parents live on-site. Food was purchased in conjunction with the other KU housing co-ops from CCA, another cooperative organization that aimed to benefit farmers and consumers. (CCA eventually evolved into Farmland Industries, once one of the biggest co-ops in America.)

The cooperative idea had been around for more than a century before the Don Henry Co-op was established in the fall of 1946. Benjamin Franklin had founded the first successful cooperative in the United States in 1752, the Philadelphia Contributorship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire. (This organization still exists, and is the oldest continuing cooperative in the US.)

In 1844, the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society of Rochdale, England, began operating a food cooperative under a set of principles that allowed for open and voluntary membership in the co-op, democratic control of resources, autonomy and independent control of the organization, and the equitable distribution of profits.

These tenets, now known as the Rochdale Principles, became the organic laws of cooperation and soon spread around the world. The International Cooperative Alliance was founded in 1895 in London, and the first such trade association in the United States – the Cooperative League of the USA, (CLUSA) – was formed in 1916. Given the economic dislocations of the Industrial Revolution and largely unregulated nineteenth century capitalism, it’s not surprising that co-ops became popular alternatives for small farmers and businessmen, workers, consumers, and urban dwellers.

Because co-ops served group needs, offered economies of scale and were inherently socially progressive organizations, college students were an ideal population to make the cooperative idea work. By the early twentieth century, college students were forming purchasing co-ops for low-cost food buying and residential co-ops for affordable housing.

The economic hardships of the Great Depression led even more students to the co-op movement, as they struggled to pay for, and stay in, school. The 1930s saw student housing co-ops sprout in many places now famous for their residents’ progressive ideas: Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Berkeley, California in the United States, plus Toronto, Canada.

KU was no stranger to these developments. Cooperative-type living arrangements began in the in the early decades of the twentieth century with informal communal residences such as Wita Wentin, Wankanta, and Lakota, followed by the “Men of 1011,” a group of mostly Summerfield Scholars, who formed a “semi-organized house” at 1011 Indiana Street in the mid-1930s that had the same living plan idea. Although not formal co-ops per se, these arrangements were very much in line with the cooperative approach.

The first recognized men’s housing co-op at the University of Kansas was established in 1939. Called the Jayhawk Co-op, it was located at 1614 Kentucky Street. Students contributed their labor to the house by taking care of the cooking, cleaning, and routine maintenance. In return, they received room and board at an extremely cheap rate. Five more KU housing co-ops opened in 1941 and 1942.

The co-op tide on Mount Oread ebbed temporarily during the Second World War, and in 1943-44, four KU housing co-ops were closed. But as World War II veterans on the GI Bill began to flood the University of Kansas in the post-war era. Housing options became scarce and the co-op idea found favor again.

In 1946, a new men’s co-op was chartered. It was to be situated over the photography studios run by Orval Hixon in downtown Lawrence at 721½ Massachusetts Street. The 12 residents, predominantly World War II veterans, chose to name their organization after Don Henry, a KU undergraduate who had supported the ideals of the co-op movement. In fact, Henry’s name had come to be associated not just with high idealism, but also with the terribly high price that living for one’s principles can exact.

Henry had been a KU undergraduate who joined the Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the International Brigade, a unit that fought for the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War against the Nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco. Henry was killed within days of his assignment as a medical corpsman on the Aragon battle lines.

While KU mourned the death of the young idealist, Henry’s support for the Communist-supported Loyalists baffled his grieving father. Ed Henry raised accusations that a left-wing agenda at the University had corrupted his son, and led to his enlistment and eventual death in Spain.

The charges led to a series of investigations on the KU campus into the supposed “communist influences” that had set the affair in motion. Although it was a cause celebre of its day, in the end no charges ever were brought against any KU professor or organization.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Henry came to be seen by some as “the first KU student killed in the war against Fascism.” This made Henry something of a hero to many individuals, regardless of their ideological stripe.

The initial group of residents at the Don Henry Co-op comprised mostly veterans, with one conscientious objector and one foreign national among their number. Most of these men had fought the Axis powers, and were fiercely in favor of baseball, apple pie, and American ideals.

In addition to their war service, many of the Don Henry co-op residents were also native Kansans. These were men who had seen first-hand how agricultural, supply and distribution co-ops had benefited farmers during the Great Depression, and so were open to the idea of cooperative housing. They also appreciated its spectacularly low cost: in 1948, for example, $20.00 a month covered room, board, utilities, and newspaper subscriptions.

The co-op contained residents of virtually every political persuasion; intellectually, the defining characteristics of Don Henry men seem to have been tolerance and an unwavering commitment to First Amendment freedoms. Thus, as John Eberhardt related about the alleged Communist Party member in Don Henry’s ranks during the late 1940s, there was “never any suggestion that he be expelled for his political views.”

This live-and let-live attitude becomes all the more remarkable considering, as Eberhardt also pointed out, “the original members of the co-op were for the most part fairly conservative.” Nonetheless, principled stances like these often meant Don Henry members often were perceived by the University at large as promoting a left-leaning agenda.

Of the first 12 members of the Don Henry Co-op, six had lived in co-ops before. In the first year of the co-op’s existence, the organizers were a little late with some of the preparations and neglected to engage a housemother. That meant that, per University regulations, no freshmen could live there. As a result, the Don Henry Co-op opened as a home for upperclassmen and graduate students. In subsequent years, with a house-parent on board, Don Henry was also open to freshmen.

The reminiscences of Don Henry members run the gamut from horror stories about meals and cooking to pride in academic achievement and social activism.

John Hall lived in the Don Henry Co-op in 1955-56, and was elected purchasing agent for the house. In return for keeping the larder full, he was excused from some routine maintenance duties. His biggest problem in those pre-low carb days was keeping enough bread on the table.

“The previous purchasing agent was an extremely dutiful, conscientious young man who had regularly scoured the town on his bicycle to get the best food bargains and find day-old bread and so forth for the co-op, “ he recalled. “I did not have a bicycle, and in any case, did not take my duties that seriously, I’m afraid. I remember that, as an economy measure, we were limited to one slice of bread with every dinner. This did not seem to create a problem as long as we were supplied with the rather dry day-old bread. But when I took office, and began to have fresh bread delivered daily, the dam broke. The boys could not get enough of it.”

Hall knew that dramatic action would have to be taken to keep the residents from eating their way into a budgetary disaster. “I was not a large and intimidating figure,” he continued, “and in any case, I did not feel that it was my function to act as policeman and guard the bread throughout the meal and lock it up afterwards. If the co-op voted to restrict our consumption, then it was up to the membership to honor that vote and provide the necessary sanctions to enforce the rule, if necessary. As it was, I had to keep increasing the order day after day for weeks, to meet the demand until finally, they began to be satisfied and it declined somewhat again.

“Naturally, this cost us more…and we were faced with the necessity of raising the monthly payment by a dollar or two. That led to all sorts of howls of outrage, mostly directed toward me as purchasing agent. I wasn’t that pinched, financially, and my sympathy for the plight of those who were was somewhat diluted by the fact that they included some of the worst offenders among the bread hogs! Anyway, no one could think of a practical way to enforce the one-slice rule. They really preferred the fresh bread, and we needed to pay our grocery bills, so they finally swallowed the necessity of the increase in our monthly bill.”

George Evans remembered how “one [cooking] crew put two cans of dog food in the chili one night. It was very good.” And Walter Cogswell retained a memory of a menu posting featuring a meal called “SOS,” a term apparently unfamiliar to the housemother. She “asked what that meant and [another house member] didn’t want to disturb her or embarrass himself, and said, ‘Same old stuff.’ I thought it was one of the more tasty meals.”

The Don Henry kitchen wasn’t always the site of complete catastrophe: it also became an impromptu classroom, and a place to forge both friendships and understanding. Resident Robert Laughlin recollected that on holidays when school was not in session, the group cooked up dinners for exchange students that featured “home cooking” from their own cultural traditions.

Another cook, Jerome Lehnus, who lived in the Don Henry in 1964-65, recalled that the distribution of seconds at dinnertime did not always abide by the equality provisions of the Rochdale Principles. “If there were extra pork chops left over,” he explained, “the cooks had first call on the extras (one each). After they had taken theirs, only the cook had the authority to announce that it was time for seconds. This was a signal for a race to the remaining few chops. We were always hungry, and the race for seconds was, in fact, a physical race. I do not recall anyone allowing considerations of dignity or courtesy to slow their progress toward the remaining chops.”

Lehnus finally found a way to eliminate this procedure, at least when it came to spaghetti and meatballs. “After the first week or two, I always managed to make 32 meatballs out of six pounds of hamburger. Thus, there were two meatballs for each person, one extra for each cook, and no race.”

Within two years after its formation, the Don Henry Co-op was prospering. At the beginning of the 1948-1949 academic year, the co-op moved to a large house at 1420 Ohio Street, which had housed KU women in the mid-1940s and was known as “Sleepy Hollow.” This building was far roomier than the Massachusetts Street quarters, and the co-op could now accommodate 36 men.

However, with this growth came a new controversy. The increase in size and closer proximity to campus made Don Henry a more visible University-affiliated group. The co-op now had a chance to take the lead on one of the most important issues facing KU and the nation – the struggle for civil rights and integration.

For many of the men who had been living in Don Henry prior to its relocation, it was imperative that the new, larger incarnation of the co-op be racially integrated. This was in keeping with the co-op approach to things. Wesley Elliott became the first black student admitted to the Jayhawk Co-op, breaking the color barriers for University-sanctioned housing at KU.

At the time of the move to the house at 1420 Ohio, the Don Henry Co-op itself was not integrated. Don Henry resident John Eberhardt claimed that in 1948, he was actively recruiting members for the co-op who were at least agreeable to the idea of integration. Although Eberhardt admitted there were some co-op members who were not overly enthusiastic about the prospect of integrating Don Henry, there was a core group of pro-integration residents who eventually carried the day.

These members effectively integrated Don Henry when they voted to admit Bennie Grigsby, who moved in for the spring semester of 1949. As it turned out, Grigsby only stayed for that one semester, but his membership set a precedent. The Don Henry Co-op became known as a place where black men were welcome to live. Indeed, much anecdotal evidence demonstrates that once the wheels were set into motion, the co-op showed a consistent and sincere commitment to civil rights and diversity.

For example, Charles Haas recalled the entire co-op boycotted the Wagon Wheel Café in 1957 and 1958 until its owners would agree to serve “Mr. Augustine Kyei from Ghana.” Roger Youmans remembered the extreme diversity of Don Henry residents from 1951 to 1955, mentioning “Catholics, Jews, Protestants, agnostics and atheists; some were military veterans, others were pacifists….’bull sessions’ were frequent, often intense and long, with views presented and defended on politics, morality, justice, war, academics, religion, and women.”

But for Youmans, apparently this was not enough. “I became very concerned about racial discrimination, as evidenced by the almost total absence of blacks in the co-ops…and church, town, and almost all social activities,” he reflected. “At the end of my sophomore year, I left the co-op and pledged the (all-black) Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and moved into their chapter house. I was the first white man to ever join Alpha Phi Alpha.”

Eventually, the co-ops would become known for the high proportion of foreign and minority students living there. The co-ops also had a reputation as a place where scholars were welcomed and encouraged. This was particularly the case with the Summerfield Scholars, outstanding male graduates of Kansas high schools who received varying levels of financial aid to attend KU.

At the time, Summerfield scholarships were awarded on merit, but the stipend received was determined by need. The Summerfield committee established an annual budget that would cover all the expenses incurred by an undergraduate, and then grant a percentage of that figure on an individual basis to each Summerfield Scholar. Students whose financial background did not justify financial assistance received a small honorarium.

In some cases, this created a Catch-22 situation, since Summerfield Scholars were not eligible to live in scholarship halls. They were also actively discouraged from living in fraternities, the reasoning being that a student who could afford to live in a fraternity was clearly not in dire financial straits. Indeed, Summerfield stipends were reduced if the students joined a Greek Letter Organization.

These strictures left few affordable housing options for Summerfield Scholars. As a result, a large number of Summerfield Scholars banded together to form semi-organized houses such as the one known as the “Men of 1011” in the mid-1930s, or ended up residing in recognized co-ops such as Don Henry and Jayhawk that subsequently followed.

Even after the rules governing the Summerfield scholarships had changed and the Scholars were subsequently allowed to live wherever they chose, the closely-knit group of young men tended to gravitate toward co-ops. Summerfield Scholars stuck together, both in academic classes and socially. Incoming Summerfield freshmen were encouraged by outgoing Summerfield seniors to consider co-op living. This kept a steady of stream of gifted, intelligent men stocking the co-op applicant pool and “the co-ops became centers of campus intellectual life” according to Eberhardt.

Indeed, a significant proportion of Don Henry residents redeemed their early scholastic promise and went on to high levels of professional achievement, much of it in service to others.

Willard Kaufman earned a medical degree from the KU School of Medicine and performed healthcare relief work with Palestinian refugees in Hebron. Roger Youmans became a thoracic surgeon, and worked as a missionary doctor in the Congo and Ghana. Charles Haas became an oncologist, and Walter Cogswell went on to a 40-year career in clinical social work. Bernard Greenberg was a Fulbright Scholar, earned a PhD, and became a professor of biological sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago as well as a consulting forensic entomologist with three books to his credit.

At least one Don Henry alumnus also made the ultimate sacrifice for his country. Jack Davenport, who enlisted in the Marines and became a corporal, was killed near Songnae-Dong, Korea in 1951 after throwing himself on a hand-grenade to prevent the injury or death of his companion in a foxhole. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service.

Still other members of the co-op went on to distinguished careers as geologists, philosophers, teachers, historians, and business executives.

KU’s original co-op housing system began petering out in the late 1950s-early 1960s. The University had constructed several large dormitories that eased the chronic housing shortage. The general prosperity of the era further reduced the demand for low-cost communal living arrangements and their attendant inconveniences.

By the mid-1960s, the long-term survival outlook for the original co-ops was bleak. As befit its namesake and its members, the Don Henry Co-op went down fighting; it stayed in operation until the spring of 1967, and was one of the very last of the original KU housing co-ops to close.

Laura Lorson
Kansas Public Radio
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source notes: This article could not have been completed without the interest and extensive contributions made by John Eberhardt of Denver, Colorado. He is the seemingly tireless editor of the KU Co-op Alumni Newsletter, “The Rochdale Rag.” He was wonderfully generous with his time and his memories, and is a true scholar and gentleman. Many of the stories related in this article come, as usual, from Fred McElhenie’s wonderful alumni response project, courtesy of the University of Kansas Student Housing department. Of particular use were reminiscences written by Jerome Lehnus, John Hall, Willard Kaufman, Roger Youmans, Walter Cogswell, George Evans, Charles Haas, Frank Timkin, Bernard Greenberg, and Robert Laughlin. Confirmation of the Marion Barry residency comes from The Washington Post article written by Arthur S. Brisbane, titled “Marion Barry Just Wants to Be Loved,” April 26, 1987, page W20.]