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Photograph of the Old University Commons

The serving line in the Commons, circa 1960s

The University of Southern Mississippi is now one hundred years old, and for most of the last fifty, the University Commons was a central gathering place on campus that provided two of the great necessities of life: food and fellowship. Before the Commons, students and faculty ate their meals family-style, first in a temporary wood frame Dining Hall and then in a Cafeteria that seated 600. That facility was outgrown in the 1950s. Expanding the existing building was impractical, so plans were made for a new food service facility on campus. With the appropriation of funds for the project by the State Legislature in 1960, the planning began in earnest.

From the beginning, the planners recognized that the function of the cafeteria was to nourish the social lives of the campus community as well as the physical bodies that passed through its doors. The name "Commons" was chosen for its early English associations with both food services and social gathering places.

Location, of course, was a critical decision, and it was important that the building be near the center of campus. A former parking lot on the corner of West Memorial and College Drives just north of Forrest County Hall provided the space, but it was not large enough for a one-story building of adequate size. That led to a design for a two-story building with the main dining areas on the second floor, completely surrounding a central kitchen and serving area. The first floor was planned to include a separate kitchen and flexible dining areas that could be operated by the Division of Home Economics to provide practical experience for its students in institutional management (the Charcoal Room). Long lines in potentially inclement weather were anticipated: plenty of interior space was allocated for the serving lines to wind through the first floor of the building and up the stairs. In addition, the second story was planned to overhang the first, providing additional shelter for lines that might form outside the building.

When the facility was completed in September 1962, the final price tag for construction and equipment was $946,874.32. Though the State of Mississippi provided the land and the building, the Commons had to generate its own operating and maintenance funds through the fees charged for meals there. All students who lived on campus, except those in married student housing, were required to purchase meal tickets. (In 1964, this was at a cost of $75.00 every three months. Students living off campus paid 35 cents for breakfast and 50 cents for lunch or dinner.)

Before the facility was officially completed, the doors were opened to students at the beginning of the 1962-63 school year. Articles in The Student Printz at that time noted the long lines, but lauded the protection from bad weather, the air conditioning, new plastic trays, new silverware, uniformed student helpers, brightly colored molded plastic chairs, and the much larger seating capacity. Since students paid for meals as part of their registration, they merely showed their university identification to the cashier. Moving through the serving lines, they chose one meat, one starch, a salad, two vegetables, bread and butter, drink, and dessert from the food displayed.

The facility was dedicated as the Jennings Burton George Commons on November 10, 1972. (J. B. George graduated from Southern in 1923 and later returned to serve as our institution's third president from July 1933 through June 1945; he was the first to hold a doctorate.)

At least three generations ate and worked in the University Commons before the primary food services functions were moved to the newly constructed Thad Cochran Center in 2006. When the last meal was served to students in the Commons, Kim Busche (then Catering Director of EAGLEDining) reflected:

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      "It would be impossible to guess at the number of feet that have climbed those white stairs . . . . People have come from all over the world to dine. Many have spent hours studying to build a career. Just about everyone has greeted, met, or made a friend here. We have done high level business, serious fund raising, joyful awards ceremonies, tearful memorials, down-right fun food fights, spirit rallies, dates, formal dinners, initiations, recruiting, graduations, even weddings. Our tables have been pulled up to by doctors, lawyers, bakers, candlestick makers, teachers, athletes, musicians, research scientists, military, priests, school children, mommas and daddies, senators, governors, class presidents, policemen, nurses, babies, nuns, writers, farmers, shrimpers, and many others. The cuisine has varied as the times have changed. I would guess that there have been millions of pounds of chicken served. There are years of memories from this square in the center of campus. There is no fanfare this evening. No bells and whistles. Just hungry students eating dinner . . . . Mission accomplished."

After that last meal, there were some ideas for converting the building to other uses. However, renovation costs were too high, and demolition of the building was begun in August 2009. The area has now been converted to a central campus green space which has already served as the setting for more Southern Miss memories.

For more information about the history of The University of Southern Mississippi:

Hickman, Alma. Southern As I Saw It: Personal Remembrances of an Era, 1912-1954. Miss Hickman served as a faculty member at the University from its opening in 1912 until her retirement in 1954. [Miss LD3425 .H5]

Historical Manuscript Collections at McCain Library & Archives (Information about more collections related to the history of Southern Miss): http://www.lib.usm.edu/spcol/collections/manuscripts/lists-of-collections/subjects/subj-usm.

Morgan, Chester M. Dearly Bought, Deeply Treasured: The University of Southern Mississippi, 1912-1987,1987. [Miss LD3425 .M67 1987]

Oral History Interviews (Interviews relating to various facets of the University conducted by the Mississippi Oral History Program from 1971 to the present. This are available in the Brooks Reading Room in McCain Library): http://www.usm.edu/oralhistory/alphandx.html#USM

Sources for the Study of The University of Southern Mississippi (a list of resources): http://www.lib.usm.edu/spcol/collections/msana/ms_indicies/msanapath_main/msanapath_miss_usm

NOTE: The photographs above are from the University Archives Photograph Collection (RG2) held at McCain Library & Archives, University of Southern Mississippi.

Text for this "Item of the Month" prepared by Diane DeCesare Ross.