By Clinton Dick
Staff reporter

It stands, masking the freshly built football and track facilities with its massive, ancient structure. Inside are not only the school’s coaches, trainers and athletes, but a rich history.

Stewart Field House was built in 1922 as the home for Moundbuilder basketball. Both the men and women’s basketball teams have played there since. It is currently the oldest basketball facility that is still used for its original purpose west of the Mississippi River.

From the first game played Jan. 18, 1924, to the men’s National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball Championship in 1939, to the major renovations in the 1980s, Stewart Field House has been through triumphs and struggles.

“It has changed a lot,” said Bill Stephens, former head men’s basketball coach and athletic director at Southwestern. “I have always felt that Stewart Field House was the most unique facility on campus.”

Stephens got his degree in history and political science in 1963 at SC. As a student, he participated in participated in basketball, football and track and field. After coaching at Coldwater High School and Friends University, he returned to his alma mater in 1969 to coach men’s basketball. Robert Hower, athletic director, was killed in a car accident in 1972. Stephens to took his place. He kept his position until his full retirement in 2002 and through his years has been through a great deal with the building.

“I had the unique advantage of having an appreciation for all sports,” said Stephens. “That is why I enjoyed being athletic director.”

Stephens had many memories with Hower from his time as a student. Stephens was a member of two conference championship teams during both his sophomore and senior year, Hower lead them as head coach.

“We had some good players,” said Stephens. “Senior year, Don Turner was the leading scorer and an All-American. He got drafted by the San Francisco pro team and although he never made it, at least he had that opportunity.”

Stephens recalls Stewart being a major factor in the team’s success.

“There were less distractions like TV for students back then, so there was a lot higher student turnout for the games. The townspeople also supported us a lot so the building was always packed full when we played. There also used to be a balcony that surrounded the gym before we renovated. It was intimidating to opponents because it almost came out to the edge of the court.”

Looking back through photos in old Moundbuilder yearbooks taken long before Stephens was a college student, he remembers seeing that even in the 30s the gym was filled up with fans.

“I remember how crowded it was,” said Stephens. “The men even wore suit and ties to the games back then.”

Though the building’s main purpose was to host basketball games, Stewart Field House had other purposes as well. For years it housed the campus library in the basement and classes were held in different rooms throughout the building. It has also been host to college graduations in past years.

Arguably the most unique object is the wooden track that runs entirely around the top part of the building above the court. It was built at the same time as the building itself and even today is still utilized when needed.

“It is obviously a basketball facility,” said Jim Helmer, head men’s track coach. “But to have an indoor track up there is pretty unique. We run on the track upstairs on days when it is cold and the weather will not let us run outside.”

The indoor track is not the most runner-friendly surface.

“Some runners find that it is hard on their legs,” said Helmer. “We can go up there and run fast for relatively short distances.”

Brae Wood, class of 2007, played basketball and ran track in her days at SC. She enjoyed days running on the wooden track.

“Whenever coach said we were running inside we got excited because we couldn’t run as long up there, so it was a shorter practice.”

Wood also had her fair share of stunts with the track.

“I remember practicing for basketball and the runners would be running up there,” said Wood. “They would kick down dust so we would get dust in our eyes during practice.”

Humans are not the only ones to utilize the facility. For many years now, Stewart has been home to the Jinx Cat as well as other creatures.

Stephens still remembers Jinx from his days as athletic director.

“Debbie Pearce, who was my secretary at the time, came to me and asked if it would be all right if she brought a black cat in,” said Stephens. “I said it was fine as long as she took care of it. I remember sitting in my office and the cat would come in carrying a dead mouse to show us he was doing his job.”

Up in the rafters, other critters found the building’s hospitality.

“We would go on away basketball games and get back really late,” said Wood. “We would walk in the gym at night and there would be bats up there flying around.”

Whoever, whenever and however Stewart Field House was used, it continues to stand as a place of tradition for the school.

“As time goes on we tend to not remember the past or what was accomplished then,” said Stephens. “I think it is very important to remember those things.”

Clinton Dick is a sophomore majoring in convergent journalism. You may e-mail him at clinton.dick@sckans.edu.

This story is part 1 in a series. To read part 2, click here. To read part 3, click here.