A Century in Service
Memorial Hall celebrates 100 years
With the official end of World War I still months away, the dark clouds of war remained over Europe’s skies. Yet thousands of miles away in Amherst, Massachusetts, students and alumni were already taking stock of their fallen friends, classmates, and soldiers. How best to remember them?
Dean Edward M. Lewis invited a group of alumni to envision a campus building that would honor those who served—while also serving those who lived. The vision for Memorial Hall was soon born: an Italian Renaissance-style structure that would stand in remembrance to those lost and become a vibrant hub of campus activity. As planned, the structure would occupy a central place on campus, both culturally and physically. Located along a tree-lined road running past the Old Chapel and Campus Pond, Memorial Hall would become a de facto campus center, hosting concerts, theatrical performances, and dances for students and alumni alike.
For the construction to be viable, approximately $150,000 needed to be raised, which challenged students and alumni to show their financial support. The response was effusive—in a single day in 1919, students raised nearly 20% of the funds needed. The class of 1905 boasted a 100% donation rate. Alumni held fundraising dinners across the country and leaned on their colleagues in deliciously direct appeal letters: “It isn’t the fact that you haven’t pledged $500 toward our Memorial that hurts,” reads one, “it’s the fact that you haven’t pledged a cent … At least do break the silence and write us something.” (A $500 donation in 1919 translates to roughly $7,600 in 2021 dollars.)
The story of Memorial Hall’s founding serves as a bookend to where we find ourselves today
According to Kim Sherman ’87BA, ’15PhD, outgoing president of the UMass Amherst Alumni Association, these early fundraising efforts represent the scrappy spirit that has come to define the university’s student body and alumni to the present day. “These were significant amounts they needed to raise and there was a sense that, as an alum, you have a duty to support this effort,” says Sherman.
Just two years after the idea for Memorial Hall was born, the building opened its doors to students, alumni, and the public in 1921. A century later, it has closed due to years of wear and tear, including a recent flood. In response, the Alumni Association and the university as a whole are working on plans to restore and reimagine Memorial Hall, to once again make it a hub of activity for alumni and students alike. “The story of Memorial Hall’s founding serves as a bookend to where we find ourselves today,” says Sherman. “Looking back on those early accomplishments, I realized that our alumni really haven’t changed that much, in terms of their tenacity and drive to get things done. In so many ways, the story of this building is the story of the UMass spirit.”
A Century of Distinguished Guests
True to its founding mission, Memorial Hall has hosted countless thinkers and luminaries, including economists, politicians, performers, and world-renowned writers. From the Eleanor Bateman Alumni Scholar in Residence program that brings notable alumni back to campus for lectures and workshops to the Master of Fine Arts program’s Juniper Literary Festival and Visiting Writers Series, Memorial Hall has provided a welcoming venue for a range of notable visitors over the years. Below are just a few of the building’s distinguished guests.
Dwight Eisenhower, 1950: U.S. president and general. Reviewed proposed plans for expansion of Memorial Hall during his visit.
John McCloy, 1962: U.S. Assistant Secretary of War and World Bank President. Visited Memorial Hall in receipt of an honorary degree from the university.
Bill Pullman ’80, 2001: American film actor, best known for starring roles in Independence Day, The Accidental Tourist, and Sleepless in Seattle.
Jeff Corwin ’02G, 2002: American biologist and conservationist. Host of Disney’s Going Wild with Jeff Corwin and The Jeff Corwin Experience on Animal Planet.
Shan Shan Sheng ’87G, 2005: American visual artist with works in four of the world’s ten tallest buildings. Sheng received the Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2005.
Charles Simic, 2005: Pulitzer Prize-winning Serbian American poet and 15th U.S. Poet Laureate.
Grace Paley, 2006: American poet and writer, best known for her three collections of short stories and political activism.
Tomaž Šalamun, 2007: Slovenian poet and author of more than 40 collections, known for surrealist and neo-avant-garde works.
John Ashbery, 2008: American poet, Pulitzer Prize winner, and art critic. Best known for experimental style and influence on 20th-century American poetry and art.
Ocean Vuong, 2017: Vietnamese American poet and writer. Published in The New Yorker, The Nation, and The New Republic, this future UMass MFA professor spoke to a standing-room only crowd at Memorial Hall.
Sally Wen Mao, 2018: Poet, writer, and 2017 Pushcart Prize winner. Received critical acclaim for her 2019 collection, Oculus.