History lessons from the New England Center

The announcement by the University of New Hampshire that it intends to close the New England Center next year raises a number of questions and also summons up memories.

First, how can a first-class university operate without a facility like the New England Center, with its meeting rooms, food service, charming restaurant and lodging? Also, why can’t UNH find a private hotel company to take over the facility on a contract basis and keep it in service?

I am sure the trustees of the university have thought of both of these questions and have answers for them, but it would be a shame if the New England Center actually is allowed to close.

The memories are of the time in the 1960s when the New England Center was envisioned and built. Prior to its construction, the site where it is located was rocks and woods on the north side of the campus, home to many romantic interludes and parties, I am told.

A beautiful wooded parcel located adjacent to the “fraternity row” at UNH, when the New England Center came along, every effort was made by the world-famous architects to fit the building as close to trees and rocks as possible and, indeed, parts of the building are within a foot of substantial vegetation and the architecture was designed to fit into the site.

The New England Center was built at the University of New Hampshire because UNH is at the geographic center of the six state universities in New England. The Kellogg Foundation funded the Center as an effort to foster cooperation among the universities.

Construction was virtually complete at the beginning of the fall semester of 1969. That was to be the academic year that ended with the student strike in spring 1970, after the Cambodian incursion, one of the most traumatic years in U.S. academic history.

At a pre-opening ceremony at the New England Center, former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, the convocation speaker, joined President John W. McConnell and others at a lunch and then toured the facility. Humphrey strode through, and with great enthusiasm described his vision of what would happen within the halls of the New England Center. Much taller and vibrant than his television image as a kind of “roly-poly” politician, Humphrey was dynamic and spoke at a mile-a-minute pace. I was lucky to be there as president of the UNH student government.

After his visit to the facility, Humphrey went to the UNH field house, where he addressed 5,000 students. The former vice president was between the 1968 election, when he lost narrowly to Richard Nixon, and his re-election to the U.S. States Senate in 1970.

He was confronted by a host of war protestors who carried signs saying things like, “Murderer,” “Baby-Killer” and the like. Nevertheless, on the stage, Humphrey maintained his composure and his smile while expressing his displeasure at the protestors under his breath (to my amusement, sitting next to him).

Once he was introduced (and I had that great pleasure), Humphrey began to speak to the crowd and, without notes, expressed his vision for America and the world and what policies he believed would advance the causes of justice and peace. He did this for almost an hour.

After he was finished, the former vice president received a standing ovation, including one from those protestors who had derided him at the beginning of the event.

Humphrey went on to serve in the Senate until his death and did so with courage, flair and conviction.

Meanwhile, after the New England Center was completed, an opening conference included student government leaders from the six states, along with scholars and administrators. It was a memorable event and a fitting kickoff to a fine facility.

Over the years, the center has hosted hundreds of scholarly conferences, trade associations, alumni and faculty events and has become part of the life of the campus.

At first, seeking to avoid competition with local establishments, private banquets, weddings and similar events were prohibited. Later, after the addition of a second residential tower, the availability of the facilities for such activities became known, and many fond memories were created at such events.

The restaurant at the New England Center has hosted generations of UNH students and their parents. Especially well known is the clam chowder to start a meal and Indian pudding to complete it.

It would be a shame if the New England Center actually stops being part of the University of New Hampshire, with which so much of its history is entwined.

*****

One lesson that has remained with this author from his encounter with Humphrey, as with another political hero, Barry Goldwater, is those politicians who are true to their beliefs are good for their country. Maybe that is why Humphrey and Goldwater were friends.

<p>
Brad Cook is a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He also serves as secretary of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.