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Wednesday December 6, 2000

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Ding dong, the old student union's dead

Headline Photo


A model of the USS Arizona sits in a display case in the Memorial Student Union among pictures and artifacts from World War II. The display, locate d in the USS Arizona Memorial Lounge, will be removed for preservation during the construction of the new union.

By Irene Hsiao

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Historical memorabilia, art pieces will move to new union

The UA has a weighty piece of American history, thanks to 1927 UA graduate Bill Bowers.

Bowers, 97, credits fate for his discovery in early 1942.

While stationed at Puget Sound Naval Yard for 19 months, he was given the task of finding a bell to serve as a warning gong for the yard.

Bowers says he asked the yard manager if they had any bells, and the manager said, "Since we are talking about bells, let me show you," while pulling out a six-by-six-foot crate.

After Bowers pulled the slat back, he saw a bronze bell weighing almost a ton before his eyes. "U.S.S. Arizona 1916" was inscribed on the bell.

"Is this what I think it is?" he remembers asking excitedly and getting goosebumps on his arms.

"Who would of thought a university graduate would find the Arizona bell in a ship yard?" he asks.

Metals were melted to increase equipment for World War II. When Bowers heard that the manager planned to melt the bell, he said, "The hell you are!"

Actually, Bowers wanted it for his alma mater. He wrote a letter to Dean of Men Louis Slonaker about giving the bell to the university, and then Slonaker wrote the Arizona governor and the U.S. Navy for approval.

After permission was granted, the university had plans for hanging the bell in the Old Main building. However, the bell was too heavy and was moved to the Student Union Memorial building.

And that's how the one of the bells from the fateful U.S.S Arizona ended up in the clock tower at the University of Arizona.

Along with the bell, the U.S.S. Arizona memorabilia in the lounge next to the Student Union Memorial administrative offices, the war memorial plaques and small plaques dedicated to individuals and events, symbols of each military branch next to the current information desk and public artwork are all moving into the new facilities.

"Everything that had an intrinsic value is going to be saved," said Gilbert Davidson, assistant project manager for the student union and bookstore project.

The U.S.S. Arizona artifacts will be displayed in their own lounge like before. However, the new structure will incorporate the curve of the ship's bow in its architecture using textured stone. Dubbed "the canyon," the walkway displays the curve on the east wall with the edge of the wall going beyond the bookstore.

The Memorial Lounge features items on sailors and survivor items. There are artifacts such as such as a petty officer's uniform, scrapbooks and shrapnel pieces. The collection started with two photographs and was formally established in the early 1970s.

Billy Joe Varney, director of the union for about 30 years until 1985, oversaw the formation of the lounge.

"We should have done it earlier," said Varney, also the associate vice president for administrative services in the mid-1980s.

"I finally said this is not right, so we finally did."

He said he was in fourth grade when World War II started and recalls the attitude young men had 60 years ago.

"The guys then couldn't wait to fight for their our country," Varney said.

He said he has emotional ties to the collection and made the lounge happen for the students as well.

"You're not going to get a kid to go to the Arizona State Museum or the fine arts building," he said." I thought, just by osmosis, it'd rub off on you."

The Student Union Memorial was built in 1951, dedicated to all those who fought in wars, especially to those in World War II. Along with other student unions across the United States, they were named "Memorial" in part for families to donate money in memory of their sons.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the day that went down in "infamy." Dec. 7, 1941, was when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and former President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared U.S. entrance into the war.

The war memorial plaques and the small plaques will go in the new Honors Lounge, Davidson said. The public art and sculptures from the galleries are going to be distributed throughout different areas.

The bell will be hung in one of the wall's openings in the canyon. Bowers has plans to attend next year's Homecoming and student union opening. He was at UA's Homecoming last year and climbed up to the bronze bell.

Although the alumni and President Peter Likins were concerned about Bowers' visit to the bell, he clambered up the 20-foot metal ladder before anyone else.

"He (Likins) said he couldn't understand how a 97-year-old beat him," Bower added.

Bowers credits his daily stair climbing to his good health.

Bowers' UA ties run deep. He met his wife, Louise Henderson, also a university graduate, while attending the university in the 1920s. They were married for 69 years before she died three years ago.

Bowers did photojournalism for the Desert Yearbook and is now a photographer in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"I've got to come back next year," he said. "I promised the president that I'd ring it."

Irene Hsiao can be reached at



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