Anyone who has spent time at Brigham Young University is familiar with the iconic Maeser building. The oldest building on the main campus, the Maeser building sits alone at the far end of campus, its white façade and classical columns setting it apart from many of the newer brick structures surrounding it. The building is named after Karl G. Maeser, a principal at Brigham Young Academy, first head of the Church Education System, and one of the founding fathers of BYU as it is known today. In front of the building is a statue of Professor Maeser, honoring his role in the founding of the university as well as a famous quote from him that has defined the Honor Code for generations:
“I have been asked what I mean by ‘word of honor.’ I will tell you. Place me behind prison walls–walls of stone ever so high, ever so thick, reaching ever so far into the ground–there is a possibility that in some way or another I may escape; but stand me on the floor and draw a chalk line around me and have me give my word of honor never to cross it. Can I get out of the circle? No. Never! I’d die first!”
I first met the Maeser building sixteen years ago when I came to BYU the week before classes officially started. A friend and I had signed up for a one-week seminar called Late Summer Honors. This was the perfect introduction to college life for me; I only knew one other person on campus, I was unfamiliar with universities in general and BYU in particular, and I was about 2,000 miles away from home. Our first day at Late Summer Honors we met in the assembly hall on the third floor for a devotional about becoming ‘disciple-scholars’. I spent the rest of the week attending a seminar on film and exploring BYU campus as well as Provo. We even had a dance outside on the lawn of the building; I’m not sure how Karl Maeser felt about us dancing around his statue. It was an amazing experience—I fell in love with education, BYU, and the Maeser building.
Just a few weeks later I was back in the Maeser building for College Bowl tryouts. I had participated on my high school’s Knowledge Bowl team for three years and when I saw a demonstration by BYU’s team at my freshman orientation I just knew I had to try out. After my swimming class I hiked up the hill to the Maeser building, my eyes still stinging from chlorine. I filled out the initial trivia test they gave us, but didn’t think I had done well enough to continue to the next phase of try-outs. However, by the time I got back to my dorm across campus the phone was ringing. It turns out that underestimated myself and I had been invited back for another tryout after all. I made the College Bowl team, and for the next three years I spent several nights a week in a classroom at the Maeser building getting my trivia fix. College Bowl was an integral part of my undergraduate experience. Competitive trivia may not be as flashy as football or ballroom dance, but it was my talent and I was happy to have found a group where I could excel in my own area of expertise.
After my freshman year of school I moved from the dorms to an apartment building off-campus. My first Sunday in my new student ward I was delighted to find that we met in the Maeser building. Now I spent nearly every day of the week there. For sacrament meeting we gathered in the elegant assembly hall that occupied the third and fourth floors of the building. We enjoyed plush red velvet chairs, and the balcony was the perfect spot for checking out other ward members down below without being caught. Some of my first experiences with ward leadership and with attending church as an adult took place in the classrooms and offices of the Maeser building.
After spending three years at BYU, including countless hours in the Maeser building, I left to serve a mission. By the time I returned nearly two years later, many things had changed. I lived in a different apartment building and attended church in a windowless lecture hall with a giant copy of the periodic table on one wall. The College Bowl team had been disbanded, and most of my pre-mission friends had moved on to other things. Although I still live in Utah and even visit BYU campus occasionally I have rarely been back to the Maeser building. I wonder if visiting would conjure up more memories of my younger, inexperienced self. Much of my nostalgia is also tied to the fact that the building still exists, relatively unchanged, while most of the other places I lived, worked, or studied in have been torn down or altered. I know that even though the building remains the same, I am not the same person who first set foot in its assembly room sixteen years ago this week. Mostly, I’m glad I have grown and changed and become (at least a little bit) more mature. But sometimes I do wish I could go back in time and live a few of those more innocent days over again.
I hope everyone will forgive me for such a self-indulgent post, since many of our readers have never attended BYU. I’m sure others out there have special places that have impacted their lives in similar ways. Please share yours in the comments.