Charged with preserving and promoting CU history, the CU Heritage Center is located on the third floor of Old Main. Director Kay Oltmans (MComm ex’75) has been the primary caretaker of everything from a moon rock to the stuffed head of Ralphie I. As she approaches retirement, she shared some university secrets with Coloradan editor Tori Peglar (MJour’00).
What are some of CU’s lost campus traditions?
Many traditions don’t exist anymore. Alums tend to miss them, but most of the time there are good reasons why they no longer exist. Sometimes, it’s because of liability.
For example, there used to be a huge bonfire for Homecoming and a tug-of-war across Varsity Lake in the early fall. If the freshmen won the tug-of-war, they didn’t have to wear their green beanies, which otherwise had to stay on until Homecoming. The beanie tradition started to fizzle after World War II because many vets returned from the war as grown men. Amid the horrors of war, the green beanies seemed a bit silly.
What traditions have lasted?
The Norlin Charge is read to every graduating class, and Ralphie has run around Folsom since the 1960s. The fight song, campus bells, the Holiday Festival in Macky, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and the Conference on World Affairs are others.
The Pearl Street Stampede [the marching band plays on Pearl Street the Friday night before a home game] is a new one [in its sixth year], but it is great because it involves the community.
What is the most unusual object the museum has received?
A Gator Bowl jockstrap. Can you imagine? We don’t have it on display.
Describe some of the museum’s treasures.
Tom Cech’s 1989 Nobel Prize in chemistry was such an important landmark for the university [the first Nobel of four] and represents the highest academic achievement.
The watch, pictured left, given to Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr (A&S’10, Law’12) by Denver’s Japanese American Citizens League is one of the treasures of Colorado history. During World War II, Carr was the only governor in the West who refused to allow the state’s Japanese Americans to be put in internment camps. His stance cost him his political career.
Which character in CU history has impacted you most?
I spent weeks interviewing former CU President Quigg Newton, president from 1956-63, to prepare for an exhibit we did on him. It was one of the biggest privileges of my career.
His administration was extraordinary and it set the course for this institution. Until then, CU had really been a regional university. There are so many things we take for granted — our association with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and other federal labs, inclusion in the Association of American Universities, a lot of buildings on campus and the concept of a design review board to preserve Charles Klauder’s CU design principles of architecture — all of this was initiated under his tenure.
Why is it important to preserve campus history?
First, to increase appreciation of what has been accomplished by the university and its alums.
Second, we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. Often you begin to understand today’s decisions by what happened earlier.
Third, in a history museum you are hoping to help individuals connect with a place, event or person, which enables that person to become a part of the story.