Alumni lounge opens in historic presidential suite

Furniture maker Jack Kahley drew upon decades of experience when he crafted a series of oak veneer desks in 1944 in the maintenance shop at Thunderbird Field I. The Iowa native, who started working as a carpenter in 1906 at age 16, came to Arizona during the buildup to the Great Depression and never left. He died in 1957 at age 67, but his handiwork survives in the new alumni lounge set aside for campus visitors in historic Founders Hall.

Photographic evidence and other documents show that one of Kahley’s desks made its way to Founders Hall while the building still served as Thunderbird Field I headquarters during World War II.

When U.S. Army Air Forces Commander Lt. Gen. Barton Kyle Yount accepted the challenge of converting the military base into the world’s first international business school, he kept the desk in the presidential suite and used it as his primary workstation.

For the next 46 years, every Thunderbird president from Yount to Roy Herberger sat behind the same desk in the same office in Founders Hall. Today, Thunderbird alumni can take their own turn in the former seat of power. 
Besides the distinctive desk, which features five drawers on each side, the new alumni lounge includes an assortment of photos, archives and mementos covering more than 70 years of history.

“We are bringing the artifacts back to their original context,” says Thunderbird archivist Shannon Walker. “It is powerful because it allows people to place themselves in the same context.”

When Walker arrived at Thunderbird in 2010, she inherited the former executive suite as her office. Dusty filing cabinets full of archives lined the walls, and the private kitchenette and restroom attached to the suite had fallen into disrepair.

“It was surprising to me that the space wasn’t more valued,” Walker says.

Thunderbird Senior Director of Alumni Relations Terri Nissen felt the same way. Although Nissen and her staff worked across campus in a different building, she routinely brought alumni to Founders Hall to start their campus tours.
“They couldn’t get their bearings until we brought them over here,” Nissen says. “This side of campus is what they remember.”

When Founders Hall became available for new occupants in 2013, Nissen lobbied to move her team to the building and reclaim the executive suite as the new alumni lounge. Walker quickly agreed to the project and got involved as a historical consultant.

Already she had set up a Thunderbird museum in the last remaining hangar on campus, but she saw the value in relocating the desk and other items to Founders Hall. Using historical photos as a guide, she worked to reconstruct as many details as possible.

One thing Walker noticed when she looked closely at the photographs was that somebody had altered the executive desk by encasing each leg in wooden sleeves — raising the writing surface by about two inches.
“Working carefully, we removed the sleeves and restored the desk to its original height,” Walker says.

When she has been unable to restore original items, Walker has looked for replicas. During one antiques shopping spree in downtown Glendale, Arizona, she found a telephone, pen holder and ash trays that closely resemble the original items visible in various black-and-white photos.

“That was fun for me to do antiques shopping,” she says. “And I got everything for less than $100.”

Nissen says the response from alumni and other visitors has been positive. Many ask to have their photos taken behind the historic desk, while others flip through old yearbooks to find images of former classmates.
“Founders Hall is where it all began,” Nissen says. “This is the heart of Thunderbird.”

Her statement is somewhat literal. Historic photographs from the 1940s show the airfield laid out in the shape of the mythological Thunderbird, with Founders Hall at the center flanked by barracks forming the wings.

In 1992 when administrative offices moved to the new World Business Building — now called the Roy and Pam Herberger Administration Building — Founders Hall became the home of Thunderbird Executive Education, the Language and Cultural Center, and the Executive MBA.

All of those business units now have new locations, leaving Founders Hall for Nissen and others who work closely with alumni.

“Alumni now have a home base when they visit campus,” Nissen says. “It is a place just for them.” 

Magazine Department: