A place for students to call home: 75 years of history at the Illini Union

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Photo courtesy of University archive

The Illini Union is celebrating its 75th birthday this year.

By Angelica LaVito, Staff Writer

During the Illini Union’s 75th anniversary celebration on Friday, Earl Finder, 93, sat in the Pine Room before pictures of the building throughout the decades. To one side of him were pictures from the Union’s past and to the other were renditions of what architects hope to build one day.

It was not the first time Finder sat at the center of history.

Finder grew up in Champaign. He remembers going to the arcade building that stood where the Illini Union now stands. He remembers the excitement when the Illini Union opened its doors.

“I spent a lot of time here in the Union, of course,” Finder said. “Studying, lounging, playing bowling and billiards and all that stuff.”

The ballrooms that are now used to hold meetings hosted dances when Finder was a student.

Ballroom dancing was “big in those days,” he said. During World War II, the rooms housed military personnel.

Finder graduated during the war in 1944. He got a job with the University’s auditing department. Then, he was transferred to help with the Illini Union’s accounting.

Finder remembers the Union before it had television.

In 1953, a television station opened in Decatur, according to Finder. He had some radio experience and used it to attach an antenna to the roof. He pointed it toward Decatur and hoped it would receive a signal.

His contraption worked. Students at the Illini Union watched the New York Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers on television for the first time.

In 1960, Finder was named director of the Illini Union. By then, the building had been open for 19 years. More students were attending the University — and going to the Union.

“We had nothing like McDonald’s or fast food restaurants. And it was so busy,” he said. “It was obvious to the administration of the University: We needed more space.”

He oversaw construction of the south building in 1963. As part of the project, the eight existing bowling lanes were removed and 20 new lanes were added in another location, he said. The old lanes were replaced with a billiards room.

Physical changes were not the only ones that the Illini Union underwent in the 1960s. Anti-establishment, anti-Vietnam War protests swept campus.

Finder remembers “radical” students joining the Illini Union Board. He watched the National Guard come to campus to defuse protests.

Finder retired in 1975. He still lives in Urbana, in the same house he and his wife lived in when they were married. 

Finder sat in the Pine Room during the Union’s 75th birthday celebration, surrounded by the 1941 woodwork. People walked up to meet him and to thank him.

Finder reminisced on the Illini Union’s history.

He did not dwell on its past. He complimented its present and approved of its future.

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