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Maeser and Me

By Jessie Christensen

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.

About Jessie Christensen

Jessie served a mission in Spain and graduated from BYU with bachelor's degrees in Spanish Translation and English, as well as a master's in Spanish Literature. She currently works full-time at a university library and nurtures her three children, one cat, and a fluctuating number of fish. She relaxes by reading, baking, canning fruit, and putting together jigsaw puzzles.

16 thoughts on “Maeser and Me”

  1. How lucky to have had church in an elegant building like the Maeser. One year my ward met in the Smith Fieldhouse. That was…interesting!

    I also started my BYU experience with the late summer honors program. I don't remember much about the experience, but it was nice to arrive to campus a week early and meet my roommate, who was also doing the program.

    As a humanities major, I spent a lot of time in the JKHB. I was really sad that I graduated just in time to miss the opening of the new humanities building.

  2. Jessie, I do think that buildings influence our experience and our memories. I often dream of walking up and down the stairs of the JKHB a la Escher's staircase drawings. I'm looking for former professors' offices or current professors who where my classmates "back in the day." I took classes there and worked there as a tutor, a grad student, and a one-year faculty appointment. I think that made about 7 years total.

    I recently dreamed that someone destroyed my grandfather's home (located in Lehi, Utah where I have had relatives live since the 1860s; 3 generations of Webbs lived in it). I woke up feeling very distressed. The farm house where my mother grew up (on the road to Saratoga, which is also altered) was razed to build a retirement home. Sigh.

  3. My first year at BYU, I worked as a janitor in the early mornings. One of my spots was the Maeser building! I dusted and emptied trash cans. Wow…reading this made my brain suddenly recall this obscure fact. One year, I had sacrament meeting there, too. Weird, huh?

    I miss my grandparents' houses. One was destroyed in a fire just as I became an adult and the other was sold to strangers. I had such great times visiting them there. I wish I could have let my own children explore and play like I did in their vastness.(One really was huge, the other just seemed that way because I was small.) Both houses were big, really old and full of hidden mysteries.

  4. Fun memories of shameless flirting during a class in the Maeser assembly room are coming back to me! And taking naps on the chaise in the women's bathroom.

    The chapel I went to as a small child always brings back memories whenever I've gone back to it.

    The Provo Temple is a building that holds many special memories and feelings for me. It wasn't until the last couple of years, me having left Provo 17 years ago, that I have finally replaced another temple as My Temple in my heart.

  5. I love the Maeser building too. I had Comp Lit for two semesters there. I also love that it is (as far as I know) relatively unchanged. It is distressing to me that nearly every building I attended school in at BYU has been torn down/radically altered. It is like my memories have been torn down too.

  6. Actually, the Maesar Building was changed–it was chopped up into a rabbit warren of cubicle-sized offices, and it wasn't until after my time at BYU (ending in 1977) that the building was restored to the original.

    When my father joined the faculty in 1956, the University administration offices were in the Maesar Building. So it was there that he was introduced to President Wilkinson, who came out of his rabbit-warren office, short and gnome-like as usual. It all seemed to fit.

  7. I love the Maeser Building, and all of campus. I have fond small-childhood memories (my Grandma worked on campus) as well as memories from attending.

    I also miss the old buildings that have been remodeled, especially the old Wilk, for some reason. Still I love campus, and the time I've spent there. It's the only place I feel a pang when I drive past.

  8. Thanks to everyone for sharing so many great comments about time at BYU. I was an English and Spanish major, so I also spent a lot of time in the basement of the JKHB. They've remodeled the building since then and it just doesn't feel the same. A few buildings I had classes in have been completely torn down; sometimes it's hard to imagine that events in my life happened when all tangible evidence of their occurence has been erased.

  9. Ahhh, the practice rooms down in the belly of the Harris Fine Arts Center! As a violinist, there were days when I would reach my musical cubicle before dawn, and between my music classes, rehearsals and more individual practice, it would be night-time before I left. I would have no idea if it had been sunny, cloudy, rainy, or snowy that day! But oh!, what lessons I learned in the HFAC, and particularly in my practice room. I wept as I struggled to improve, I hit my forehead on a piano or two in frustration, gave myself goose-bumps when I finally nailed a particularly difficult passage, and said many, many prayers. Now there are days, as I watch my children sit on the piano bench or raise their bow to the string, I sigh, nostalgic for my time in the practice room.

  10. Lately I've been nostalgic for BYU and wish I could have a do over! Every time I'm in Utah I visit campus but it is all so different. Jessie they tore down heritage!

    For me my really special place though is a town. It is St. Johns, Arizona where my grandfather was born, my grandparents married and my cousins and I gathered in the summers! That is my maeser building!

  11. I went to school on the west coast so I don't have Maeser memories but I agree that it is a lovely building and you are fortunate to have memories tied to it.

    My favorite old memory building right now is the house we raised our children in. Lots of creativity and growing and learning memories tied to that home. A new job moved us out of it a few years ago and my memories of it are fond ones.

  12. I'm with Rachel–it's gotta be the Harris Fine Arts Center. Six years of my life passed in that building. The practice rooms and the the noises blending together from them, the hall outside the practice rooms where I formed so many friendships, the five flights of stairs, the "tunnel", the soft benches on the fourth floor where I'd doze or try to get some studying done… Every time I go back to BYU and to the HFAC in particular, I feel transported back to another time.

  13. I did late summer honors at BYU 16 years ago as well. I was in the economics seminar – the only economics class I took in all of my college career.

    For me, it was the bell tower and sitting on the stairs next to it that was a sacred spot for me.

    There are certain places in the world that just feel like home to me, where I know I belong. That bell tower is one of those places for me.

  14. Jessie! I love the Maeser building. I have so many stories.

    I was in the Freshman Honors Colloquium back in Fall of 1985 with Ted Lyon, Ron Leavitt and (not Eugene, but can't remember his name) England! I loved the class and the people and the building.

    Two quick stories: my friend, Robert, and I would leave notes for each other in "The Prince of Rasselas" book in the Maeser Library. No one ever checked that book out so we were safe. Last time I was in the Maeser building I was tempted to go check for a note.

    And my bigger, funnier story that I've wanted to maybe write up for the BYU alumni magazine is that I hid in a mechanical closet til the building was closed one Friday night and then let my friends in for an all night party! We respected the building and so we were careful. But we had great fun dancing, drinking soda, and having philosophical discussions (we were nerdy like that). Then my friend somehow got stuck in the elevator. This was around 4 or 5 am. We all prayed for her to get out. We finally decided to all leave and let her call on the emergency phone. She made up a story about falling asleep in there. At least she had her backpack so it looked like she was doing her homework.

    Sounds pretty rebellious all written out, but we had fun and left the place clean!


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