30 Years at the University Union
It’s a home away from home for the campus community, a place to grab something to eat, cram for an exam, see a show or even take a nap. The University Union is celebrating its 30th year as the hub of campus life at Sac State this spring, and its history mirrors the University’s growth.
“I was hired before it opened,” says Richard Schiffers, retired former assistant director of the Union. “I’m familiar with the openings of a lot of facilities, and what was most unusual about our opening in September of 1975 was that there were no problems, everything worked.” Schiffers credits Donald Hinde, founding director of the Union who died last October, for the success.
Hinde came to Sac State in 1973 charged with creating a University Union for a burgeoning campus then serving around 15,000 students. Known for his fastidiousness, Hinde oversaw nearly every aspect of the 60,000-square-foot building’s construction and furnishing.
When the ribbon was finally cut, the facility featured an ice
cream parlor, the original Hornet’s Nest dining area complete with striking orange booths, and a “rap” room with a sunken octagonal conversation pit. The building’s Redwood Room at 3,200 square feet was the biggest space for campus events outside the gym.
Schiffers hired five custodians, a scheduler and a secretary who along with Schiffers and Hinde made up the original staff.
Hinde oversaw operations of the facility with the same intensity as he oversaw its construction. “Don always carried notecards in his pocket,” says Schiffers. “He’d walk around the Union writing things down like ‘Replace this light bulb’ here or ‘Fix this leaky faucet’ there. It seemed like I’d get hundreds of these little yellow cards a week.”
In 1978 Schiffers recruited 20 student volunteers and started the Union Network for Innovative Quality University Entertainment, known on campus as UNIQUE, to bring in outside acts. The “A Night with…” series was UNIQUE’s initial offering, booking entertainers like Harry Anderson, Dana Carvey and Ellen Degeneres early in their careers.
“We never paid any of those people more than $150,” says
Schiffers. Comedy’s low price tag led to regular offerings. The Redwood Room was transformed into the “Starlight Comedy Café,” complete with intimate tables and candlelight, making it the first comedy club in Sacramento, according to Schiffers.
Through the ‘80s the Union hosted prominent personalities such
as Alex Haley, G. Gordon Liddy, Maya Angelou, Jesse Jackson and Geraldine Ferraro. Hypnotist Tom Deluca made the first of his nowannual appearances in 1980. Funding for many lectures came from the campus’ cultural affairs budget, so speakers came from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.
As the campus grew, the need for a larger Union was felt. The
facility’s South Lawn was often pressed into service to host large events, but with no electrical power or permanent stage, it was a makeshift solution. A push was started to fund expansion, leading to the passage of a student referendum to pay for upgrades in 1991. Construction began the next year on a minor expansion, but real changes happened in 1998.
The facility more than doubled in size to its current 183,000 square feet in ’98, adding a new lobby, an auditorium named for Hinde, the Ballroom and other improvements. “The addition of the Ballroom was huge. It was really the cornerstone of the whole expansion,” says Union Assistant Director of Operations
Donald Tucker. With the capacity for 1,700, it became the
premier venue of the facility. The Hornet’s Nest was updated and the “rap” room became a computer lab.
Food, long a fixture of the Union, was improved as well. “When I first got here, we had a cafeteria serving mashed potatoes
and meatloaf,” Tucker says. Change for the better came when relationships were established with outside vendors — restaurants like Gordito Burrito and Burger King—that brought variety. Java City took over coffee operations in the former ice cream parlor, and in 2000 Round Table began serving pizza in the Hive. There’s also one of two campus Asian food outlets
operated by Sacramento’s own Fat family.
Now a modern, large facility, the Union has been able to host
bands from Greg Kihn to They Might Be Giants, speakers like Molly Ivins, and the highest-profile events to date—the California gubernatorial recall debate in 2003 and the inaugural Green and Gold Gala last fall. UNIQUE grew to a volunteer corps of about 60 students under the direction of Dean Sorensen, Union associate director of programs, and puts on 70 to 100 events annually.
Today the Union is run by a staff of 25 as well as 80 students. Forty to 50 meetings a day happen in its 21 rooms, about 8,000 annually. The Union was also the first campus facility to provide wireless access to the campus computer network, and staff can screen DVDs and provide LCD projectors and wireless microphones for clients. Expansion continues, with a new outdoor seating area off the east walkway near Serna Plaza slated to open this spring.
“The University Union is a community center for the University, for all members of the University family—students, faculty, administration, staff, alumni and guests,” says Leslie Davis, current director of the University Union.
“When I arrived in fall 1999 I was fascinated with the operational prowess of the Union and how focused it was on
serving the community,” Davis says. “The ballroom, the games
area, all the lounges and restaurants were so focused on services and interactive experiences. A building is just bricks, mortar and glass until the people arrive. It is the community using this building that makes it special. Visit other places and you will find out how special our Union really is.”