Celebrating the decades

Sunday, October 30, 2005

On a late October day bathed in sunshine, four old friends shared a picnic and a peek at the past.

At the Academic Hall terraces, Freeman and Alice Lewis sat on the grass by Irlene and Bill Abram eating bratwurst, coleslaw and cake. Their memories of Southeast Missouri State University stretch back through the years, to when thr school was called Southeast Missouri State Teachers College.

Freeman Lewis graduated in 1949, finishing an education interrupted by the Imperial Japanese Navy. He operated Wimpy's Drive-In in Cape Girardeau after he graduated.

Irlene Abram graduated in 1942, moved to St. Louis County and worked as a kindergarten teacher in Ritenour, while Bill Abram flew military transports.

Homecoming 2005 at the university adopted the theme "Same Places, New Faces," but also focused on the upcoming 100th anniversary of Academic Hall. Participants in the homecoming parade included representatives of the university's past back to 1930.

Campus fraternities and sororities constructed floats celebrating those decades.

For Matthew Parker, standing with sister Lily and parents Donna and Shawn Parker on Broadway near Main Street, the 1950s float was the best. "2 Kool 4 Skool" the float said on the side, and Matthew agreed. "It was cool," he said.

For Leigha and Lori Douglas, viewing the parade with mother Della Douglas and friend Laura Simmons, the color guard waving flags in front of each marching band was the most exciting.

Leigha said that's what she's going to do when she's older. Lori said she will, too. "I'm going to do what my Sissy does," she said.

The top float, according to judges, was the Pi Kappa Alpha and Alpha Chi Omega's 1940s-themed float, which featured Academic Hall and a prop-driven fighter airplane. The small float competition was won by a combined effort of the Student Government Association, the Student Activities Council and the Rowdy Crowd, the campus pep club. The sponsor's pick of the parade, chosen by Southeast Bookstore, was the 1970s-themed float from Sigma Nu and Alpha Delta Pi that featured disco dancers and rollerskaters.

All of the floats included a representation of Academic Hall.

When Academic Hall was under construction, the university was known as the Third District Normal School, an institute for training teachers. All of the operations were combined in the building that replaced the school's first structure following a fire in 1902.

Tour groups got a rare look inside the dome on top of Academic Hall, led by Dr. Frank Nickell, director of the Center for Regional History. The top of the dome is 68 feet above the roof of the building, and makes a statement about the permanency of the school in Cape Girardeau.

"They wanted a building that would make a grand statement," Nickell said. "A building that would stabilize the college and no one could move."

The beams, hewn out of poplar trees from the region, are held together by fitted construction, Nickell said.

The beams bear the marks of past visitors to the dome, with one dating back to 1911, Nickell said.

There would be more marks, Freeman Lewis said, if he and other members of his fraternity hadn't been employed in the fall of 1941 to wipe them away and clean the dome.

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