Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in The Enterprise on Feb. 24, 2003.
By Crystal Ross O’Hara
Most locals are well aware of Robert and Margrit Mondavi. In September 2001, the vintner and his wife announced the largest gift in UC Davis’ history: $35 million to name UCD’s performing arts center and to establish the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.
But what about other buildings on campus, whose names — whether established through financial, academic or administrative donations — have faded from our memory? The Enterprise has chosen to explore some of the more well-known buildings on campus to learn more about their history and namesakes.
Walter A. Buehler Alumni and Visitors Center
When it officially opened on Picnic Day in 1992, this building seemed oddly out of place and facing the wrong direction.
But the 21,000-square-foot building now seems more at home nestled among the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts and the UCD Hotel and Conference Center. It is a key piece in making the corner of Old Davis Road and Mrak Hall Drive the south-facing entrance to the campus.
The $4.8 million Walter A. Buehler Alumni and Visitors Center was built almost entirely from private contributions, including a $1 million gift from Walter D. and Carol L. Buehler. The center was named in honor of Walter’s late father, a structural engineer who worked on many of the buildings on campus.
The building houses the Cal Aggie Alumni Association — which uses a likeness of the building as its logo — the International Agricultural Visitors Program and the Visitors Services Department.
“This center, with its inviting openness and many services, will be a point of entry for many — from alumni and longtime friends to first-time visitors, new students and their families, potential employers of our students and guests from overseas,” former UCD Chancellor Ted Hullar said during an opening day speech.
Asmundson Hall, which houses the department of vegetable crops, was once home to the department of avian sciences. It was built in 1954. The building is named in honor of Vigfus Samundur Asmundson, a pioneer in poultry research. His work included research into turkey and chicken genetics and egg formation.
He was born in Iceland in 1895 and died in 1974 after 42 years at UCD. But his legacy goes beyond research and academics. He was the father of the late Vigfus Asmundson, who served as mayor of Davis in the early 1970s and was married to former Davis City Councilwoman Ruth Asmundson.
Before the grand Mondavi Center, the campus community would gather in Freeborn Hall for entertainment, lectures and the chancellor’s annual convocation. This 52,000-square-foot auditorium is named for Stanley Barron Freeborn. Freeborn Hall opened in 1961, a year after the death of its namesake at the age of 69. It continues to be a major gathering place for campus activities.
Freeborn became the Davis campus’ first provost in 1952 and was named chancellor in 1958. According to “Windows on the Past: A Personal History of Campus Buildings,” a book written and published by the Prytanean Honor Society in 1984, Freeborn gained recognition as an authority on malaria and malaria carrying mosquitos. The medical entomologist even has a mosquito named after him, the Anopheles freeborni.
Freeborn retired in 1959 at the age of 68. “Windows on the Past” notes that upon his death, former University of California President Clark Kerr commented, “In all his contributions to so many people and in so many ways, he was as friendly as he was wise.”
A man of many talents, Vernard B. Hickey led a full life. An athlete at Washington State University, Hickey was a halfback in the first East-West Shrine game in 1925. He later went on to coach a wide variety of sports, including serving as football coach for UCD from 1937 to 1948. He served as athletic director at Davis from 1961 until he retired in 1967.
Somehow, according to “Windows on the Past,” Hickey also managed to find time to serve as a Davis City Council member, mayor (1954-58), police commissioner, county head of the Red Cross and chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. Hickey was named Citizen of the Year in 1962.
The storied Hickey Gym was built in two stages. The first part was built in 1938 and the second portion of the building was completed in 1963. It was named after Hickey in 1972. He died in 1987 at the age of 87.
For 18 years, James H. Meyer was chancellor at UCD, taking the helm in 1969, at the beginning of some of the most turbulent times in U.S. history. Through marches and protests, Meyer gained a reputation as a man who students could trust as they expressed their anger over the Vietnam War. By the time he retired in 1987, Meyer had also seen the campus almost double in population.
An Idaho native, Meyer came to UCD in 1951. In a 1994 interview, he told The Enterprise that he had always assumed he would be a farmer, like his father. But his time at the University of Wisconsin changed his mind.
“I admired some of the faculty and what they did,” he said. “The university is an exciting place, I thought. That’s where ideas are born and taught.”
Long after his retirement, Meyer could still be found creating and teaching ideas. He was fortunate enough to work in an office in a building named in his honor. In 1988, UCD’s Food and Agricultural Sciences Building was named Meyer Hall.
On Oct. 12, 2002 Meyer died at the age of 80. At a memorial that December, then-Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef said of him, “He was the best mentor and one of the most loyal friends I’ve ever had.”
Home of the UCD administration, Mrak Hall was completed in 1966 and named in honor of Emil Mrak, the university’s second chancellor. He served from 1959 to 1969.
Mrak was renowned for his work on the preservation of foods and was one of the world’s authorities on the biology of yeasts. A California native, Mrak received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from UC Berkeley, where he became chairman of the food science and technology department in 1948. In 1951, he and the department moved to Davis.
Many of the campus’ buildings were constructed during Mrak’s era as chancellor. This includes Olson, Sproul, Wellman, Kerr, Briggs, Bainer, Roessler, Kleiber and Mrak halls.
“He led UCD during the most rapid growth period this campus has ever seen,” Meyer told The Enterprise in a 1994 interview. “He provided the character and foundation that has led to the university’s present stature.”
Nearly 1,300 people attended a memorial service for Mrak after his death in April 1987.
Known as the “Father of the University Farm,” Peter J. Shields is credited with starting the school that later became UCD.
According to Alyce Williams Jewett’s “Saga of UCD,” Shields conceived of the idea at the 1899 State Fair after inquiring how a judge there knew how to evaluate the quality of butter. When he discovered that California had no such school for learning these techniques, he set out to establish one.
He spent the next few years convincing the Legislature of the need for a state dairy and experimental farm.
On March 18, 1905, Shields’ work paid off, when his bill to establish a school became a law.
“This was a day of solemn satisfaction to those of us who sensed what it would mean to California and the golden future which we felt fate had in store for her,” Shields said.
In 1909, his wife celebrated the campus’ first year by holding a Basket Picnic, the precursor to today’s Picnic Day.
Shields served almost 50 years as a Superior Court judge, but maintained an interest in the Davis campus. He died in 1962 at the age of 100.
The original library was named for Shields in 1972. The current, four-story 386,000-square-foot building is the result of several years of remodeling, completed in 1993.
Every UC campus has a Sproul Hall.
At UCD, Sproul Hall houses the departments of comparative literature, religious studies and foreign languages. At nine stories tall, it is the tallest building in Yolo County.
Named for former UC President Robert Gordon Sproul, it was completed in 1963. A San Francisco native, Sproul attended UC Berkeley and became the first UC graduate to become a UC president. He served from 1930 to 1958, overseeing vast expansion of the university.
According to “The Centennial Record of the University of California,” “Sproul’s outstanding contribution during his 28-year administration was the multiple-campus expansion of the university to meet the demands for higher education in widely separated parts of the state, while maintaining one institution governed by one board of regents and one president.” Sproul died in 1975 at the age of 84.
Dedicated in 1969, the six-story Storer Hall is home to Evolution and Ecology, formerly known as Zoology, and the Center for Population Biology.
In 1923, Tracy I. Storer came to UCD as an assistant professor of zoology. He later went on to become the founding chairman of the Department of Zoology. But Storer brought more to Davis than his own academic strengths. His wife, Ruth Storer, was the only female graduate in UC Berkeley’s medical school class of 1913 and was the first female pediatrician in Yolo County.
In 1960, the Storers established an endowed lectureship in the life sciences, which brings prominent biologists to UCD from other institutions.
Tracy Storer died in 1973 at the age of 84. His wife remained active in the Davis community until her death in 1986.
The colorful Celeste Turner Wright Hall houses a 500-seat main theater used for a variety of performances. In 1997, at the age of 91, the pioneering Wright became one of only a handful of women to have campus buildings named in their honor.
Wright came to UCD in 1928 to become, as she said, “a refining influence on the farm boys.” She was the first tenured female faculty member at UCD. Her academic career spanned more than 50 years and included work as a teacher of English, Latin, German and dramatic arts.
Upon her death in 1999 at the age of 93, Vanderhoef said, “Celeste Turner Wright was a pioneer in women’s search for professional recognition in the academy, an untiring advocate of the humanities and a person who never missed an opportunity to strengthen our community bonds.”