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Viewpoint: UND buildings must be preserved

By Andrew Alexis Varvel

I grew up in Grand Forks. I attended Lake Agassiz, South, Central and UND. I won the 1997 Merrifield Award for my research paper about UND's President Kane. I was the last violin student of the last faculty member hired by the Wesley College Conservatory.

Miss Elizabeth Lewis was retired, but she accepted me as her student after she heard me play the Allegro from Vivaldi's Concerto in A minor. Soon before she died in 1989, Miss Lewis described the glorious Wesley College Conservatory of Music at Corwin Hall. She spoke of sabotage by the UND Department of Music, of the Klan's rise in Grand Forks, and of the resulting sense of siege. I knew my Catholic classmates at South Junior High knew that sense of siege — stories in Catholic collective memory about a cross burning in front of St. Mary's did that.

I knew from Central High lore that the Klan imposed its curriculum in the 1920s. I couldn't bear to go to Miss Lewis' funeral. I honor her memory by researching what she told me.

In early 1900, President Webster Merrifield of UND hosted a dinner for other college presidents. He told President Edward Robertson of Red River Valley University (Wahpeton), "You should be here with your college. This is where you belong." President Merrifield's efforts resulted in an affiliation agreement that changed American university history.

In 1905, Red River Valley University became Wesley College and accepted credits from UND, while UND recognized credits from Wesley College in religion, music, and expression. Students at a state university took religion classes for the first time in American history. The idea spread far and wide. Wesley College's academically solid faculty taught religion classes that were a precursor to modern religious studies departments. Wesley College focused on promoting tolerance and interfaith dialogue. Corwin Hall hosted the Wesley College Conservatory with illustrious faculty. Its recital hall attracted world class musicians. In the music world, Corwin Hall put Grand Forks on the map. During the 1920s, President Kane encouraged the UND Department of Music to sabotage the Wesley College Conservatory. UND offered free classes and easy grades — and refused to hire the conservatory's faculty. Although the Board of Administration was furious once it was informed in 1926, President Kane stalled.

Finally, university faculty led by Dean of Liberal Arts Vernon Squires worked together with the board to force President Kane to sign an agreement in 1930 to stop the sabotage. Yet, the damage was done. Wesley College's finances suffered. On Sept. 11, 1922, the Grand Forks Knights of the Ku Klux Klan announced their presence in a grand ceremony at Fadden's Grove near Arvilla. The firebrand preacher Halsey Ambrose became widely known as the public face of the Ku Klux Klan and its Exalted Cyclops — and a strong ally of President Kane.

Halsey Ambrose attacked blacks, Jews, Catholics, faculty, and the Grand Forks Herald, and waged a dirty campaign to control Grand Forks. Voters in Grand Forks elected his slate of candidates in 1924, 1926 and 1930. The Klan sacked city employees arbitrarily and imposed its curriculum onto Grand Forks public schools. It is a moral triumph that Rev. George Henry, a member of Wesley College's faculty who became its institutional memory, chaired a mass meeting against the Ku Klux Klan on April 19, 1924.

Wesley College represented religious brotherhood, cultural brilliance and moral backbone in a city that decisively voted against these principles. Rev. Henry failed to stop the Klan's march to power, but at least he tried.

UND presently plans to start demolishing Corwin Hall and Larimore Hall on May 21, and plans to start demolishing Robertson Hall and Sayre Hall on June 1. The Board of Higher Education's next scheduled meeting is May 23.

Corwin Hall, Larimore Hall, Robertson Hall and Sayre Hall are solidly constructed buildings designed for low maintenance. Larimore and Sayre halls would be excellent for musical practice rooms. Corwin Hall's recital hall is excellent. Robertson Hall's vista onto University Drive may be the most photogenic view in university photography. These architectural treasures are part of our common heritage. They must be saved, not destroyed.

Andrew Alexis Varvel is a 1996 graduate of UND who now lives in Bismarck.

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