12/27/2019 11:24:00 AM SIU discusses future of last military building on its campus
By GABRIEL NEELY-STREIT The Southern Illinoisan
CARBONDALE, Ill. (AP) — When Professor John Jackson arrived at Southern Illinois University Carbondale in 1969, the campus was full of repurposed World War II-era buildings.
He remembers barracks transformed into dorms, classrooms and studios to accommodate a flood of students seeking education through the GI Bill.
Today, what is thought to be the last military building on campus stands just outside his office: A long, domed structure of corrugated sheeting over steel ribs, known as the Quonset Hut.
“It’s really ugly,“ Jackson said, “and really historic.“
Quonset Huts were meant to be temporary, designed to meet the U.S. Army’s need for simple, lightweight structures that could be easily erected, taken down, and transported by moving troops during WWII.
But after the war, the military sold a glut of the structures to the public at about $1,000 each, according to historian John Lienhard.
And some, like SIU’s, were retrofitted to last.
“For years, we asked the university for a new building,” said Bob Wolff, who taught agricultural systems and agricultural mechanics at the university, from 1972 to 2002. “Eventually, when we realized we were never going to get a new building, the students endeared that place. They liked it. They would come back and ask to see the Quonset.”
The Quonset hut was where ag students got their hands dirty.
They studied wood- and metal-working inside the 4,300-square-foot workshop, and built tractors and repaired farm equipment. A group of African exchange students designed new implements to harvest cassava.
Next door was a repurposed barracks, now gone, where students learned carpentry and electrical wiring.
About 30 years ago, Wolff, his student workers and a group of volunteers took it upon themselves to insulate the hut and finish its interior with a plywood ceiling. It’s the last significant maintenance the building ever got, current and former professors say.
Today, the Hut has fallen into disuse and disrepair, and SIU administrators have discussed demolishing it for at least the last nine years, said Karen Jones, chair of the Plant, Soil and Agricultural Systems Department within the College of Agriculture.
To professors like Wolff, the Hut’s obsolescence reflects sad changes in university education.
Today, Wolff said, agricultural problems are solved through computer models, instead of hand-built solutions.
Agriculture training at SIU still includes small-engine mechanics, electrical wiring and hydraulics, taught in a classroom setting. But some of the essential skills needed to build, modify and maintain farm equipment — carpentry, oxy acetylene welding, arc welding, and other kinds of metalwork — are no longer taught, faculty indicated.
At universities around the country, agricultural mechanics programs have “faded into history,” Wolff said.
“Hands-on work at four-year universities, it’s looked down on,” he added. “It’s become a mentality that hands-on learning should occur at the community colleges.”
Professor Seburn Pense feels keenly the need for more agricultural mechanics training at universities. Since 2003, Pense has trained future high school agriculture teachers at SIU Carbondale, as a professor of agricultural education.
Pense’s department is small. This year, it will graduate just six students. But the demand for high school ag educators is growing.
Last year, membership in the Future Farmers Association of Illinois hit 18,453 students, an all-time high, and more Illinois students took a middle school or high school agriculture class than ever before, according to FarmWeek.
Twelve schools around the state added or reopened agriculture programs last fall, including Chester High School, in Southern Illinois.
Meanwhile, Pense’s graduates are increasingly asked to take on responsibilities beyond agriculture, he said, amid a nationwide teacher shortage.
In Illinois, industrial education teachers are acutely lacking, according to McKendree University Researcher Jim Rosborg, who has testified about the teacher shortage to the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
In their absence, many high schools are turning to ag teachers to “fill that void,” in shop and mechanics classes, Pense said.
“They’re being asked to train students to enter the workforce from the high school level ... especially in rural communities,” Pense said. “But we don’t have a facility right now to teach them actual fabrication, metal welding and cutting, woodworking. We need a shop for those things. We need to reinstate agricultural mechanics.”
The need for hands-on skills extends to other areas of ag education, too.
“When I talk to industry reps, they say, ‘We’ve got all the coders in the world.’ They need that technical person that can go on site and fix anything that needs it,” said Jones, the PSAS department chair. “We need to train people who do both.”
The university is beefing up its high-tech ag capabilities with the hire of a new tenure-track professor specializing in “precision agriculture,” this year, Jones said.
To improve its ag mechanics instruction, Jones agrees the university needs a better space.
“The Quonset Hut was multidisciplinary,” she said. “You had engineering students in there getting some design practice. You had students from different areas of agriculture. I think a new space could serve a wide range of students.”
About six months ago, Pense and former colleague Jim Legacy broached the idea of a new workshop with a donor who’s interested to help: A friend and former student named Barry Aycock, who owns two cotton gins and several other agricultural businesses in southeast Missouri.
“Doctors Legacy, Pense and (Professor Emeritus Tom) Stitt are true patriots of the university,” Aycock said. “They go the extra mile, and I want to reward their hard work. If this is a cause for them, it’s a cause for me.”
When Aycock came forward, Legacy and Pense immediately thought of reviving the Quonset Hut, they said. It’s a historical building, placed perfectly, just steps away from the College of Agriculture, to encourage students to spend time there.
“I think if we could polish it up people could see it as a treasure rather than a nuisance,” said Legacy, who taught agricultural education at SIUC from 1977 to 2001. “That may not be feasible, but let’s at least have a discussion instead of saying, ‘It’s ugly, let’s tear it down.”’
But early discussions indicate salvaging the Hut is unlikely.
The preliminary quotes Aycock got from SIUC indicate restoring the Quonset would be about $200,000 more expensive than constructing a new ag workshop near University Farms, he told The Southern.
The last time Jones heard any serious conversation about the Hut, four years ago, staff at the SIU Physical plant estimated it would be as costly to tear down as it would be to repaint, she added.
For their part, Pense and Legacy are doing their own due diligence, talking to experienced Quonset-restorers to seek lower-cost ideas for shoring up the structure.
Both men are willing to say goodbye to the Hut, they said. Their priority for SIUC is quality instruction. But they urge careful and open-minded consideration of the old structure’s potential.
“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” Legacy said. “It’s the last of its kind.”
Source: The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan, https://bit.ly/2OUSaHk
Information from: Southern Illinoisan, http://www.southernillinoisan.com