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Harrisonburg: EMU bids adieu to residence hall

Item by Jim Bishop

A wreath placed on the entrance door read “R.I.P.” but few tears were shed at the “funeral” for an Eastern Mennonite University icon, Oakwood residence hall, age 39-plus.

Former residents of the fabled building that has housed some 2,800 men between 1969 and 2008 paid their last respects to the hallowed halls and shared memories during an open “visitation” on Labor Day, Sept. 1. Around 75 alumni and current students toured the structure, which has been largely stripped of furniture and salvageable material, some of which will be recycled and some which will be used in constructing the new facility.

A new 120-room residence hall will replace Oakwood at the same location on the “quad” facing Maplewood and Elmwood residence halls, completed in 1963.

Members of the EMU advancement division, along with Ken L. Nafziger, vice president for student life, and C. Eldon Kurtz, director of physical plant – both former Oakwood residents – welcomed the visitors.

Among those who came was Kenton T. Derstine, a 1972 graduate and now director of clinical pastoral education at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Kenton, who lived in Oakwood its inaugural year, remembers the “intense discussions” held on politics and peace and justice issues as the Vietnam War escalated.

“It really was a formative year for me in that dorm,” Kenton said.

“I had an incredible hall [in Oakwood] my first year,” said Nathan T. Derstine, Kenton’s son and a resident of Oakwood last year. “We had people willing to give up sleep to have ‘amazing conversations’ at two in the morning.”

The “indelible moment” for Nathan – Apr. 13, 2007, when six Oakwood students attempted to place a stuffed bison from the Suter Science Center on the roof of the three-story building. One student fell off the roof in the process and, miraculously, escaped lasting major injuries.

Thomas S. (Tom) Baker of Harrisonburg, who probably holds the record as the residence hall’s longest occupant, said it was “a bit nostalgic to come back one last time.” He lived in Oakwood as a student 1978-81, then served as residence director for six years.

Baker recalled on only his second day in Oakwood, he flushed a urinal and “a stream of water hit him in the chest.” The “adjustment” to the bathroom fixture “was part of the initiation process” for newcomers, he said.

He also remembered bottle rockets being launched between Oakwood and Elmwood, and the main culprits turned out to be residence assistants – “my own staff.”

Kurtz, a 1976 graduate and an Oakwood residence director while a student, remembered with fondness the annual “Toilet Bowl” flag football game held between Oakwood and other dorms, the winner having the dubious honor of receiving the porcelain trophy with a dieffenbachia plant.

Kurtz noted that old furniture from the building has been sold or donated to Gift and Thrift for auction later this fall to benefit Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). Interior doors, mirrors, towel racks and other miscellaneous items have been shipped to Ethiopia for use at the Meserete Kristos College near Addis Ababa.

A blog has been set up on the EMU web site at for persons to post Oakwood memories. A web cam will be set up to watch demolition and construction progress on a new facility at the same web address.

Some visitors signed up to receive a brick from Oakwood with a small bronze plaque (“Oakwood 1969-2008”) that will be available at fall homecoming and family weekend, Oct. 10-11, for a suggested $25 donation. Memorial bricks can be ordered and paid for on-line at

EMU plans to seek LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification at the silver level for the Oakwood demolition and construction process. All materials in the original building are being carefully assessed for re-usability. Debris from the demolition will be ground into fill for the new project. Unusable waste will be sorted for recycling. Ultimately, very little waste from the original building will go to the landfill.

EMU anticipates the new, $6 million, three-story residence hall will be ready for occupancy the fall of 2009.

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