Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications
The Viking Room, a cherished on-campus hangout for generations of students, is carved deeply into the history of Lawrence University.
The names of students past and present cover the tables and booths, carved with affection, a metaphor of sorts for the deep bonds that alumni have with the place best known as the VR. Tucked in the lower level of Memorial Hall, it has served as a gathering place for students of drinking age — and faculty and staff — for five decades.
The VR is celebrating its 50th year as a bar. It had long existed as an on-campus lounge, but it didn’t serve alcohol until the first beer was tapped on March 7, 1969.
Mark Catron ’69 remembers it well. He was one of the original student bartenders, pouring beers during his senior year while “Bad Moon Rising” and “Sugar, Sugar” blasted from the speakers.
“The response was overwhelming. It was terrific,” said Catron, who visited the VR in early June while back on campus for his 50th class reunion. “People would come in after their afternoon classes and sit around and talk and have a beer or study.
“Fridays and Saturdays were very, very popular. There would be dances and a lot of music.”
The times they are a-changin’
When Lawrence successfully sought a city liquor license and remade the VR into a bar, it was new territory. Not many college campuses featured their own bar. The drinking age was 18 at the time, which meant most every student was a potential customer.
It arrived at a time when college campuses were hotbeds for social change and political demonstrations. There was no shortage of talking points in the spring of ’69 as students gathered in the VR.
“The four years I was here, there were terrific changes in powers, dormitory living and arrangements,” Catron said. “And clearly, this was part of the liberalization of the campus. Between the time we came and the time we left, there was a lot of turmoil, a lot of change going on, a lot of people questioning the way things had always been.”
Introducing a bar on campus amid all that, well, that was either going to prove to be genius or crazy, Catron said.
“From the administration point, maybe it was a sort of experiment to see if the students were capable of handling it in a responsible way,” he said. “I never had the impression there was ever any doubt about that. But I’m sure there had to be some questions among the adults in the room.
“This was the same time we were occupying the dean’s office. Lots of challenges were going on from a social standpoint. … The campus was different when we left from when we arrived, and the bar was just part of that change.”
Susan Jasin ’69 was another of the original student bartenders. When she went to Appleton City Hall to get her bartender’s license, she said the workers there told her she was the first woman in the city to be licensed as a bartender.
“I kind of got a giggle out of that at the time,” she said.
“It was fun to do because it was different and nobody else was doing it. I was just me. I was just Susan. I was doing it because it was fun.”
A new dynamic
While the VR remains a big part of campus life 50 years later, much has changed from its heyday in those early years. When Wisconsin’s drinking age increased to 19 in 1984 and then 21 in 1986, the dynamic in the VR changed, with much of the student body no longer old enough to legally drink.
The VR managers began to more actively market the bar to faculty and staff. A 1988 memo from the then-managers of the VR implored faculty and staff to increase their use of the bar, either as their own hangout or as an alternative classroom space.
“Keep in mind that the room is large, we play tapes upon request, and that our stereo does have a volume control if the music proves to be too loud,” the memo read. “Simply put, we would enjoy seeing more faculty and administrators using the VR on a regular basis, whether you choose to drink or not.”
Thirty years on, some faculty and staff continue to heed those words. And some jump in as guest bartenders, a long VR tradition.
The VR has gone through numerous changes in its management structure over the years. Presently, the bar is again managed by students, with oversight from Greg Griffin, director of the Warch Campus Center.
Jake Yingling ’20 frequents the VR with friends, and works bartending shifts as a student worker. While he understands the crowds in the VR may be smaller now than in the ’70s and ’80s, there are still nights when the place is hopping. And he appreciates it being on campus.
“The busier nights are the better nights,” he said.
“Now being 21, I can come here to do work, I can hang out with friends. It’s a good place to kind of hang out and relax.”
Five decades worth of alumni would raise a glass to that.
Ed Berthiaume is the director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org