Willard Residential College: A Tradition at Risk

By Claire Fahey, Isabella Soto and Juliette Johnson

Willardites c. 1970

Northwestern University, a campus settled right along Lake Michigan in the quiet suburb of Evanston, Illinois, has a long history of valuing tradition, to the point that student identity and success is driven more by religious dedication to these traditions than by academics. One shouldn’t walk through “The Arch” during finals week. One has to guard “The Rock”, nestled in between Harris and University Hall, on campus for 24 hours before getting the honor of painting it. Northwestern’s nature is embedded in these quirky, unspoken rules that define the campus’ culture, but “The Rock” and “The Arch” are not the only thing contributing to the legacy of traditions of the school.

“The Rock” and “The Arch”

Hidden on the Southwestern-most tip of campus, Willard Residential College is home to possibly the most eclectic mix of people on campus. From its celebrity alumni such as Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Stephen Colbert to beloved events such as the Woo-Shep Olympics, an annual showdown against Willard’s rival residential college, Sheppard, Willard allows for people of all different majors and backgrounds to come together and continue to celebrate the customs that help embed Willard’s identity within the Northwestern community.

A Portait of Willard in the Northwestern University Archives

Willard Residential College is named after the formidable Frances Willard, Northwestern University’s first Dean of Women. The life of Frances Willard in some strange way has very much set the tone for the residential college’s unique community and its culture of “social innovation”. Willard was a key player for temperance, which most people know led to prohibition but was instrumental to early women’s rights. Her involvement with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was lovingly mocked by Willardites through parties involving heavy drinking on the anniversary of her death (they were finally stopped in 2002). Willard’s quirky residents find a great deal of joy in their namesake, often cracking jokes about the ghost of Frances Willard or gathering in the Common Room to take selfies with her portrait.

Willardites on the roof of Willard Hall c. 1970

However, Willard’s playful and creative nature faces a great opponent: Northwestern’s Housing Master Plan. Willard will be under renovation for the 2016–2017 school year and the residential college will be operating out of 1835 Hinman, a residential hall. While it may be “Willard East” for the following school year, many residents worry that the distinctive character that the building and Willardites hold together will be lost.

The physical building of Willard holds a great deal of tradition. Each room is constructed differently, some with broad, slanted walls that make one wonder what posters have hung there in the past. Old lounges that have been repurposed into triples are found on each floor, some given funny names such as “Paradise”. The common spaces have names that only a Willardite could come up with: the TivLounge (TV Lounge), the Rat Trap (the basement), the Clounge (computer lounge), to name a few. From floor to floor, each part of the Willard building exudes the quintessential quirk and charisma that its residents do.

Yoko Kohmoto, Willard’s current president, believes that while Willard’s traditions and culture will be moving to Hinman for a year, the building is inextricably tied to its identity and customs.

“A lot of the furniture and things are moving over to Hinman and the new executive board will handle the continuing of the events, but I think things will be different,” Kohmoto said. “It’s a unique situation to be living in because all the lounges have weird names… and that becomes a part of our language which shapes the community into something that is special on campus.”

Hale McSharry, who lived in Willard in his freshman and sophomore year, discussed the excitement that came with living in a dorm rich with history.

“My sophomore year I lived down the hall from where Stephen Colbert lived, and someone once told me that the fifth floor was a tuberculosis quarantine,” McSharry said. He also echoed concerns about how the buildings structural differences would change the way Willard residents would interact with each other in 1835 Hinman.

“Hinman is a weird building. I had friends who lived in Hinman and because they had the suite-style living, and the way they talked about the people that they lived with was much different,” McSharry said. “I miss the energy that just comes from so many people living on top of each other.”

The direct attachment to Willard as a building and as a community extends well beyond graduation, and Willard alums fondly recall their time spent in the Residential College. Jack Hynes, Northwestern ’76, commuted from his home in Chicago’s northern suburbs his first year, then lived in Willard for his sophomore and junior years of college. To him, Willard has always been a coveted place to live that cultivates close relationships.

Faculty Chair Gary Saul Morson and Willard resident Drew Johnson enjoy a conversation together in the Common Room, accompanied by Frances Willard’s portrait.

“There was a housing shortage at the time and I got the last room in Willard. They converted a lounge into a quad, so I lived with three other men,” Hynes said.

Hynes also discussed Willard’s spontaneous nature and college antics. When retelling some of his and his roommates stories, Hynes said “it was because we had become such great friends the year before that we had all come back… Willard was a really nice place to live, and there was a lot of social activity. It had just become a residential college and pretty much every week, there was some type of event going on.”

Willard continues to be a place where diverse experiences and perspectives converge and particularly strong friendships, and even some student groups, are forged. For instance, Dial Up, a bi-weekly radio show that broadcasts on WNUR, Northwestern’s student-run radio station, was the result of a tight knit community of friends who all met Willard.

Tucker Johnson is a student currently living in Willard. His father and his uncle both lived in the dorm and encouraged Johnson to do the same when housing selection came around. Tucker lives on the third floor in room 336, which has unofficially been dubbed “The Chateau,” complete with a sign that has been passed down for several years.

Johnson, however, has decided he will be holding onto the sign throughout Willard’s remodeling because “Willard won’t be Willard next year.” Many students share this concern and claim that with its relocation, Willard will be fundamentally different. After an informal survey put out by the executive board, Kohmoto says that only about 15 to 20 sophomores will be returning to “Willard East”, which pales in comparison to the 51 students who returned to live in Willard for the 2015–16 school year. With less than ten percent of students returning to live in “Willard East,” it’s natural to question the amount to which Willard’s traditions will continue.

Some people, however, believe that the culture of Willard will continue to thrive, so long as Willardites, no matter their number, continue to uphold its traditions. Gary Saul Morson is a Professor of Russian Literature and has been the Faculty Chair of Willard Residential College for 13 years. With the move to Hinman, Morson has insisted on keeping up the little things that make Willard special, such as moving the posters that hang in Willard as well as the staff of Fran’s Cafe, an immensely popular late night dining option in Willard’s dining hall.

“The staff makes a real difference and people underestimate that for setting a tone and making a difference and making it feel like home,” Morson said.

Alex Millinazo, Willard’s secretary, also believes that though the move might be a little rough, Willard’s rich culture and history will be maintained.

“There might be a few things that unfortunately might get lost in translation, but all of the major things that I think keep Willard what it is will be held up consistently,” Millinazo said.

Current Exterior of Willard Residential College (via northwestern.edu)