The campanile affair: MSUM student activism from 1958 to be featured in homecoming event

By: Amy Dalrymple, INFORUM

The bell tower never went up.

A Minnesota State University Moorhead president went down.

And a student body united to pave the way for what is now Comstock Memorial Union.

That 1958 story will be featured in a panel discussion Friday about student activism with alumni from that era.

“We always like to think the rebellious students were in the 1960s,” said university archivist Terry Shoptaugh. “I’ve got news for you: There was some rebellion in the 1950s.”

During the 1957-58 school year, President Arthur Knoblauch led what was then known as Moorhead State College and had a reputation for being authoritarian.

“Dr. Knoblauch ruled the campus with an iron fist,” said Marvel Froemming, who graduated in 1959 and was a reporter for the student newspaper, The MiSTiC.

Knoblauch wanted to erect a campanile or bell tower in the center of campus and found an architect to design it for free.

The idea was kept under wraps until Knoblauch ordered the Dragon yearbook staff to put the plans for the bell tower in the 1958 edition.

“This structure was basically an igloo with spiders coming out of it. It was to be some symbol of unity,” recalled Froemming, 74, Moorhead. “According to him, people for a mile around would be able to hear the bells of this thing.”

But students strongly opposed the idea, even more so when they found out Knoblauch planned to charge students a fee to help pay for the bell tower.

“We felt there were better places to spend money,” said 1958 graduate Harlan Shuck, who is now 80 and lives in Erhard. “It was going to be a monument to Knoblauch.”

In what he described as “half prank, half protest,” Shuck and some of his friends went into the country where a schoolhouse had been recently torn down and found an old bell tower.

In the middle of the night, they hauled the wooden steeple to the center of campus. The next day students put flowers on it and faculty posed for photos with it.

“It pretty much made the campanile issue the laughingstock of the campus,” Froemming said.

A few days later, someone set the tower on fire, prompting students to celebrate.

Who started the fire remains a mystery. One theory is that it was the Owls fraternity, Froemming said.

Another theory is that the janitorial staff burned it down because they had been complaining about getting stuck removing it from campus, Shuck said.

Reporters from the student newspaper, including Froemming, wrote everything they knew about Knoblauch and the bell tower in an issue of the MiSTiC.

But administrators went to the print shop and seized the copies.

The print shop staff saved a few papers and they were widely circulated, including some that were mailed to legislators.

Students also organized to walk out of classes at a prearranged time and gathered in the campus circle ringing bells. The students then confronted Knoblauch’s assistant about using student money for the bell tower.

The student pressure and an investigation from St. Paul led to Knoblauch’s quick resignation. When students returned the following fall, President John Neumaier was leading campus.

“After that, the whole idea of the campanile was dead,” Froemming said.

But the issue of the student fee didn’t die.

The students, who didn’t have anywhere on campus to gather, held a vote to determine if they should go ahead with the fee with the funds earmarked for a student union. It passed almost unanimously, Froemming said.

“Out of the ashes of the campanile grew the student union building,” Froemming said.

About a decade later, the union was constructed. Froemming said she still gets tears in her eyes sometimes when she’s in the union.

“The fact that we turned it into something positive was really indicative about the way we felt about the school, and the people who were to come,” Froemming said. “For many years those fees were paid by people who would never use Comstock Memorial Union.”

  • Minnesota State University Moorhead homecoming panel discussion “They Think: Student Activism Through the Ages.”
  • When: 1 p.m. Friday.
  • Where: MSUM Weld Hall Auditorium.
  • Info: At 3 p.m. Friday in Weld Hall, there will be a ceremony to bury a 1915 time capsule that was discovered last year.