Bustling during the day, students can be found around every corner in the Memorial Union (MU) at Oregon State University, eating, cramming, or sleeping in any nook or cranny. Silently moving between them are student workers, who are making sure everything is in the right place and that everyone who enters is satisfied. When doing their jobs correctly, the workers are invisible. During the evening, the building quiets down. The hallways are silent, and empty seats are everywhere. This is the MU I know. For over two years now, I have worked at the MU in Guest Services, typically in the evenings, getting rooms ready for the clients, arranging tables and chairs to their needs, and making everything looks nice and organized. My time at the MU has taught me a lot about the place, how it works, what it is for, and how important it is to the OSU community.
Opened in 1928 and dedicated a year later to “the service and inspiration of the living and memory of our immortal dead,” for those in the Spanish-American War and the First World War, the MU was built entirely by private funds and spearheaded by two undergraduates, veterans Warren Daigh and Tony Schille. The MU was started by students for students, and became the first student union in Oregon. My bosses do not take this lightly, and live and breathe the MU. There are very few meetings that go by without the mention of how important the MU is and what it stands for. The current director, Deb Mott, has worked there longer than many of the student workers have been alive. There have only been five directors at the MU, each working for an average of roughly twenty years.
The Main Lounge of the MU is the first thing people notice when walking up the grandiose marble staircase at the front entrance. Large, prominent, and imposing, the impressive lounge has not changed much since it opened. Most of the furniture is the original, built in 1927 by the Kittinger Company, the same one that made much of the furniture in the White House. The fabric can be reupholstered, although it takes a couple of terms, but the wood, now over ninety years old and considered antique, cannot be fixed if it is broken.
The original rug placed in the Main Lounge was woven in England and lasted for 60 years. An exact duplicate was made to replace it in 1987, and it remains the largest single woven carpet in the United States. This rug has caused me a good deal of stress over the years working at the MU. My bosses take the care of the rug very seriously, and scrutinize it routinely to ensure there is no damage. This makes moving the heavy, unwieldy couches a daunting task, although we must do it at least twice a week for Music A La Carte, a musical event that has been a tradition since the MU opened.
The piano in the Main Lounge adds to this pressure, as the heavy instrument likes to cause wrinkles in the carpet. To prevent this, we roll the piano over ‘Fredrick the Third,’ a large, thin piece of Styrofoam that allows the rug to continue lying flat. We have lovingly nicknamed him Fred, although the origins of the name are uncertain. The floor underneath the Main Lounge is old and had to be reinforced in many places. Because of this, we must be careful not to move the piano too far off the rug and onto the unreinforced areas, lest the piano falls through to the Ballroom. This has not helped my stress.
There are no classrooms or dorms in the MU, meaning to serve as the “living room” of campus. The Main Lounge is a common area to see students sleeping in during all hours, especially late in the term. My bosses love this, although administrators at student unions of other campuses do not understand. However, the aim is for students to feel comfortable and sleeping is one of the best ways they can show this.
Aside from moving the furniture in the MU, there are several things we as workers are required to do. For example, we are not allowed to tell a guest or a student “I don’t know,” instead we must help them or refer them to someone who can. I typically do not deal directly with guests, but I cannot count how many people I have sent to the Info Desk, unable to tell them the answer and knowing they will not have an answer either. More often than not, the Info Desk workers just google the questions asked.
There is a high turnaround rate at the MU in guest services. Our working schedule changes every week with little notice, and the hours themselves are often not great, as we can be required to work anytime between 6:30 in the morning to midnight, sometimes later. The latest I have stayed at the MU was until 2:30am. However, what makes the job worthwhile are the coworkers. Everyone is very kind and welcoming, and we have formed a sort of family at the MU. A coworker has even declared us to be “the land of misfit toys.” My bosses, who are always caring and helpful, are very understanding that we are all students who have still have to focus on classes and schoolwork. Even though they work more typical hours, they encourage us to call them when we have questions at work, even if they are asleep at home.
There are many things that we, the employees, know that no one else does. There are several large rooms that are almost always accessible, if you know the right passageways. The service elevator has a not-so-hidden code. If you ever walk in the halls of the MU and hear a “Code Green” over our radios, that means that there is leftover catering in a room after an event and the workers are about scramble to it as calmly as we can. There are many services the MU provides, including massage chairs in the grad room on the second floor, along with Counseling and Psychological Services activities, such as the “Paws to De-stress” every dead week in the Main Lounge. Here you will find dogs you can pet sitting on the aforementioned, one-of-a-kind rug, which has never made sense to me.
Cultural diversity is encouraged at the MU, and many of the events held celebrate this. There is a Flag Ceremony every year on Veterans Day weekend, where about a hundred of flags from all over the world are put up in the concourse in front of the Main Lounge, each accompanied by a student from the represented country and a speech. This year, three Native American tribal flags from the Oregon area were added. The rest of the year, the flags hang proudly down both sides of the concourse, displaying the diversity at Oregon State University. The long hallway looks naked the couple of days a year when they are down, like a vital piece of the MU is missing. There are also numerous cultural nights in the Ballroom, typically during Winter term. These events are long days for us, as there is a rehearsal in the morning, a lunch break, and then the event in the evening, but the show is always worth it.
Halloween is an important time of year at the MU, and the event staff spend months planning and decorating for events like the Silent Disco and the Haunted Maze. No one really knows what to do with the decorations for the maze aside from during late October, so the dismembered baby dolls and disturbing baubles are kept in the Ballroom closet. Currently, there is a ghostly doll with bleeding eyes holding onto one of the shelves in a dark corner I try to avoid when grabbing table skirts.
Rumors circulate through the staff about the MU being haunted. Some say there is a ghost in room 222 who moves the skirts on the tables around, even when all the windows and vents are closed, but only late at night, during closing shifts. Others say that the reason why there is no balcony overlooking the Ballroom anymore, replaced by Pangea (recently renovated to become Off-The-Quad), is because a woman fell tragically to her death over fifty years ago. There have been several reports of seeing her in the Ballroom, gently swaying to a silent tune in a translucent ball gown.
This is my last term at the MU, and I am sad to leave. This job has supplied many opportunities and taught me many life lessons, as well as where I have made some very good friends. I am very thankful for my time at the MU.