by Charles Reed
If there is one thing that tends to define a college, at least in the eyes of the students, it is the student union or student center. Across the country there are thousands of student unions which provide food, club space, computer terminals and so on down the line. For the University of Nebraska at Omaha, this building is the Milo Bail Student Center and located, appropriately enough, at the center of North Campus.
However, in 1946, what served as the student union was a place called the “Snack Shack” and operated out of a southern addition to the Arts and Sciences building where the parking garage now stands, facing the football field.
The Snack Shack served as a gathering place where many of Omaha University’s students could do what many students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha do today – drink coffee, buy school books, play cards, and eat food. The only difference today is that you could also buy cigarettes from the Snack Shack. In fact, a 1950 issue of the Gateway asked the Snack Shack’s head of services Eva Bruner, and she indicated that Lucky Strike-brand cigarettes outsold all other brands. Today, if you asked Wally Welch, the director of the Milo Bail Student Center, he might be able to tell you that Mountain Dew outsells Pepsi.
However, as the campus expanded in the post-WWII era, the ‘Shack’ was soon exchanged for a much larger student center building just west of what was then the Gene Eppley Library.
The first meeting of the “Student Center Planning Committee” was held in September 1953 and included faculty and student representatives. Three years later plans for a new student center building were underway thanks, in part, to an impressive $850,000 donation to the university from Eugene C. Eppley, a hotel magnate and well-known philanthropist from Omaha, that had freed up funds originally designated for building what would become the Gene Eppley Library. Construction began in earnest sometime between 1957 and 1958 with an official open house in February 1960.
An early description of the new student center in The Gateway indicated that the building would contain “game rooms which are completely furnished with lounge furniture, card tables and six pool tables,” a “bookstore with complete self-service and two check-out counters,” a “snack bar with a capacity for seating 380 persons” and, in the future, “an eight-lane bowling alley.”
Around the same time that the building was completed, a petition had started among the students to name the building after Dean of Students Dr. Jay B. MacGregor – collecting 2,000 signatures to show to then-campus president Milo Bail. It would only be four years later that Dr. Bail would retire and the Student Center would be renamed in his honor.
Meanwhile, it was 1962 when the student center’s bowling alley was open for business. Located on the north side of the building where Student Health Services was located until 2010 and where the Gateway offices are currently located, the alley featured four lanes which could be used at the cost of 40 cents a game and 15 cents for shoes. The alley lasted for just over a decade before, in the mid-1970s, it was closed to make room for office spaces despite protests from students due to the fact that it had been operating at a loss for quite some time.
Originating as a two-level structure, renovations and the addition of a third level and an outdoor mall were introduced in the late 1960s and finished by 1971. One of the biggest losses in the renovation was the Ouampi Room, the go-to spot for students who just wanted to sit and talk. In its place there was now a record shop, a coffee house and television lounge among other additions. But these were not necessarily fixtures in the student center, which underwent renovations again in 1975, 1989, 1991, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2007, and, most recently, in 2009.
Today, the Milo Bail Student Center might not be the hub of campus activity it once was in the 60s and 70s, but it still serves as a central location for students, parents, and staff.
Whether it’s the wide range of food choices in the Food Court, the special events held in the Ballroom, the classroom materials available in the Bookstore, the computer labs, MavCard services, Maverick Productions, SOLP, MavRadio, or Student Government – it is highly unlikely that any of UNO’s 15,000+ students hasn’t spent at least some time in the student center. What the term ‘student center’ may mean five, ten, or even fifty years down the line – you can bet it will be as vital to the campus as it always has been.
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