In January of 1959, one of Mississippi State’s – then Mississippi A&M’s – greatest icons fell. The burning of Old Main dormitory was the end of one of the largest places of student living in the country. As Old Main smoked and charred, it released the memories of the thousands on thousands of Bulldogs who had lived within its now-crumbled walls.
At one time considered even the largest dormitory in the world, Old Main stretched from the front of where the Colvard Student Union stands now, to about halfway through what is currently McCool Hall. Four stories, with over 500 rooms, its fall may be what it took for those of us now to appreciate its importance.
On Memorial Day, a time for remembrance of those whose lives were lost in duty, serving and defending our country, we go to the Chapel of Memories, built from the bricks of Old Main, erected to honor the historic building and those who lived inside.
Construction on Old Main began in 1880, just two years after the school was founded, and its life ran through 1959, less than a year following the institution’s new christening as Mississippi State University. It was home to thousands of heroes, not because they were football players, future leaders, business owners or farmers, but because they fought in every war America entered in Old Main’s nearly 80-year reign on campus.
From its conception, Mississippi State was a largely military school. The Drill Field laid next to Old Main was named, to the state the obvious, because it was the home of military drills and practice.
In 1942, following what remain two of the most successful football seasons in MSU history in 1940 and 1941, the Aggies, as they were known didn’t play a game. There was no probation, nor was there a loss of funding.
Team captains of the 1941 team, offensive lineman Bill Arnold and Harold Grove hung up their cleats after graduation in the spring of ’42 and signed up for the Naval Reserve.
The MSU yearbook from the following year said they “continue to show the fine spirit and sportsmanship for Uncle Sam that they have shown for the past four years at State.”
Arnold and Grove are examples of the young men who inhabited the storied walls of Old Main. Men who, in the midst of chemistry classes, English homework and baseball practice, awoke for early mornings and the Drill Field, training for battle across the world, determined to protect the ground their beloved Old Main rested on.
A plaque hangs to the side one of the chapel’s three doors, asking for remembrance of those who came before us.
“Old Main was a magnificent building, said at one time to be the world’s largest dormitory under a single roof,” the plaque reads. “Its importance, however, lay in the men it housed. This chapel, built in part of the brick of Old Main, is dedicated to those men and their memories. Its origin is the past; its orientation, the future: toward a greater, finer Mississippi State University.”
Now home to weddings, church services, choirs and stray pianists wandering campus grounds, the Chapel of Memories is place of reflection and happiness, of life and its many blessings, a dedication the very things those who lived in Old Main fought for.
Even across campus, veiled vestiges of Old Main remain. The arched brick entrance to Perry Cafeteria is inviting on its own, sure, but is also a nod to the arches welcoming students into Old Main at that same spot over 100 years ago.
On Memorial Day, we honor, remember and thank those both alive and passed who have served our country, protected our freedoms and offered us the chance to live, learn and grow, unfettered by any who would wish to cause harm.
Because of their selfless sacrifice and tributes, Mississippi State remains.
Beneath the plaque in the Chapel of Memories honoring the men who walked the halls of Old Main, one verse is inscribed on a gold plate, Proverbs 23:12.
“Apply your hearts to instruction and your ears to words of knowledge.”
Thank you to every individual who has given us that opportunity.