This week a University of Southern Mississippi landmark comes down when demolition work starts on the J.B. George University Commons, long the primary dining facility for students at the Hattiesburg campus.
But the memories remain fresh for those who took their meals, attended luncheons, were honored at awards banquets, danced the night away or studied late for finals over coffee and donuts at the building located near the center of campus.
Constructed in 1962, it was named for Southern Miss’s third president, Jennings Burton George, in a dedication ceremony 10 years later. After dining services vacated the building three years ago, plans were made for converting it to other uses until it was determined the cost to renovate it was prohibitive.
“It served its purpose for many years,” said Southern Miss Physical Plant Director Rusty Postlewate. “But upon investigation we found that it would have been too costly to retrofit for a different use. Its configuration isn’t conducive for other purposes, and many of its utility systems have also failed and would have needed replacing.”
Taking its name from the English term meaning 'meeting place' or 'common meeting place, the facility lived up to its name, said former university student activities and public relations director William E. “Bud” Kirkpatrick.
“In addition to being the main dining hall, the second floor was often used for dances and the downstairs dining rooms were used for many functions, including special luncheons and banquets, alumni meetings and awards ceremonies,” he said.
The building included the president's dining room and foyer and was named the Jessie Morrison Suite, in honor of the longtime president’s secretary, affectionately known as “Miss Jessie.” The two worked together decorating for the many official functions held at the building, Kirkpatrick said.
Kirkpatrick recalled a visit from Robyn Leach, host of the television program “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” who was so impressed with Oseola McCarty's gift (the retired washer woman who gave her life savings to the university in 1995) that he came to the campus and served her lunch in the Commons.
“We set the dining room up with a buffet, and Miss McCarty sat at the head table. Robyn put a towel over his arm in true waiter style, and served her lunch. It was a real hoot.”
Former Southern Miss students Jim Whorton and Andrea Hewitt-Gibson, both of whom received bachelor’s degrees from the university in 1989, recalled with fondness the many meals shared over conversation with friends at the Commons.
"The Commons was the center of campus when I attended USM, both literally and figuratively,” Hewitt-Gibson said. “I remember that the cafeteria workers always had a smile for you, no matter how early or late you showed up to eat.”
Whorton remembers how good the fried chicken was at the Commons. “I ate a lot of fried chicken there,” he said. “I gave up vegetarianism because of the fried chicken at the Commons.”
Bob Lowe served as director of food services at Southern Miss from 1984 to 2005. He said a lot of people were fed at the Commons during his time at the university, including students, faculty and staff and even community members, many of whom liked to have lunch there after church on Sundays.
“What I miss the most from having worked there are the students and the staff,” Lowe said. “A lot of good students came through there, and a lot of really good people worked there.
“We had a great deal of camaraderie among the staff. A lot of people worked at and retired from the Commons. We had as many as three generations of families that worked there over the years.”
“I only lived on campus for a semester but I distinctly remember going to the Commons each day for three squares and the food was quite good. In fact, I continued going there for an occasional meal after I moved off campus,” said 1997 alumnus Terrance Dickson. “It was just a good place to eat, visit with friends and if need be, do some last minute cramming before a test. I'm sorry to see it go.”
Jimmy Morgan prepares fencing around the J.B. George University Commons Tuesday in preparation for demolition work on the facility. (Southern Miss photo by David Tisdale)
The University of Southern Mississippi’s J.B. George Commons, pictured here from outside and inside during the 1960s, served as the university’s primary dining facility for decades. (Southern Miss photos courtesy of University Archives)
About The University of Southern Mississippi
The University of Southern Mississippi, founded in 1910, is a comprehensive doctoral and research-extensive university fulfilling its mission of being a leading university in engaging and empowering individuals to transform lives and communities. In a tradition of leadership for student development, Southern Miss is educating a 21st century work force providing intellectual capital, cultural enrichment and innovation to Mississippi and the world. Southern Miss is located in Hattiesburg, Miss., with an additional campus and teaching and research sites on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; further information is found at www.usm.edu.