A Little Bit of Thunderbird Campus History

By Nash Wills, Co-Editor

Thunderbird really is a historic institution. Obviously in the grand scheme of things 71 years isn’t all that old, but we aren’t comparing this place to the Sistine Chapel. Age is relative. We are comparing it to the In ‘N’ Out Burger on Bell Road; to pretty much every building that you see any time you open your eyes in Phoenix. Compared to those places, the American Institute of Foreign Trade is ancient. After seven decades, while the school has changed dramatically, it is still integrally intertwined with its historical roots. New buildings have come and gone, some have stood the test of time, and the surrounding desert has transformed into arguably the greatest expanse of suburban sprawl that the world has every seen. As a student of history, Thunderbird’s past has always fascinated me. The more I learn about it, the more my appreciation and admiration for the school grows, and the more I realize how truly unique this place is amongst U.S. universities.

Thunderbird Balloon Classic 1975; courtesy of Thunderbird.edu
Thunderbird Balloon Classic 1975; courtesy of Thunderbird.edu

After having conducted numerous alumni interviews and reading just about every copy of the school paper from the past 50 years, you would think that I’d know pretty much everything worth knowing about this place. But alas, my historical hubris both blinds and humbles me. Just when I think I know it all, something new that has been right in front of me all along reveals itself. The other night, just one such incident occurred, and it all started with my roommate on campus, Jake Strickler. If there is any current student who’s a bigger T-bird history buff than myself, it’s definitely Jake. So when he asked if I had ever been to President William Voris’s old house or the Barry Goldwater Lounge on campus, I knew I had to go check them out. These discoveries gave me the idea to write this article, and in what follows I want to share with you some places on campus that may have eluded you thus far.

The Empty Desert Field: When Lieutenant Barton Kyle Yount purchased the desert oasis that we call campus for a dollar in 1946, who knows if he ever had plans to build on all of it. Whether or not he did, the astute observer may notice that around half of our land remains unused. Oh, lovely giant desert field next to the Y and on the other side of the road from us, what is your purpose? What mysteries do you hold? Truth be told, the answer is quite a few. Even though no one uses it nowadays, both Glendale and Thunderbird used to be quite different places with more lenient laws and fewer neighbors. True to its roots, it turns out that the field is a pretty good spot for taking off and landing a plane. These characteristics didn’t go unnoticed either, and, back in the late 50s and early 60s, President Arthur Peterson, in authentic Thunderbird fashion, used to fly his private plane to and from his house on campus. Old copies of Das Tor also tell tales of drunken car races and late night parties. For years the annual Paella in the Desert party was held in this lot. Hundreds of T-birds would gather en masse around a huge bonfire to celebrate the uniquely Thunderbird tradition, but this debauchery all ended in the early 2000s though when locals started to complain and the county deemed the event a fire hazard—only in America…

President Arthur Peterson with his plane; courtesy of thunderbird.edu
President Arthur Peterson with his plane; courtesy of thunderbird.edu

During my time here, I’ve always pondered why we still have the property. If we can’t use it for anything anymore, why not sell it? It’s probably worth a lot of money. Couldn’t we have used that money to help relieve the debt that led to our current merger? Well according to oral history, yeah, we could have. In my quest to answer these questions, I’ve always heard of 2 prevailing theories. I don’t know how much truth there is to them, or many details, but they did come from reliable sources…

The first, which is admittedly a bit more outlandish than the second, goes a little something like this: During the late 1990s and spanning into the early 2000s, the US and Canadian men’s under-20 national rugby teams would come to Thunderbird for a week over the school’s Christmas break. During their stay, they would partake in joint training exercises that would eventually culminate in a scrimmage at the end of the week. They would stay on campus and allegedly draw fairly decent sized crowds. Rumor has it that, due to a number of factors including Glendale’s incredible winter temperatures, Thunderbird’s rugby traditions, and the hospitality of the school, they eventually made the school an offer. They would pay the school a sizeable fee in order to rent the empty lot for something like a 30 year period, during which time they would construct a training facility on the land, rebuild Thunderbird’s rugby field, provide the rugby team with a coach, and help the school with international student recruiting. The school would still own the rights to the land and could elect to not renew the contract at its end. Obviously the school didn’t feel that it needed to make the deal at the time, and now it’s 2016 and the lot is still empty.

Barry Goldwater with students; courtesy of thunderbird.edu
Barry Goldwater with students; courtesy of thunderbird.edu

The second theory takes place right before the 2008 Financial cCisis, and the tale is enough to make any T-Bird cringe with frustration. Apparently a real estate group made the school an offer on the land for around $20 million, which they then planned on using to build commercial facilities to rent to businesses. Being that we were right at $20 million in debt at the time, the deal had the potential to wipe our financial slate clean, ultimately allowing us to remain a private institution. Right around that same time though, the school was expecting to receive a $60 million donation from an alumni who was soon selling his lucrative business. To make a long story short, the school decided they didn’t need to sell the land because of the pending donation, so they turned down the offer. In the months that followed, the sale of the alumni’s business went south and he didn’t receive near the amount of money he was originally expecting. Therefore, he couldn’t donate anywhere close to the amount of money originally promised. Shortly after this unfortunate series of events, the 2008 Crisis hit and there were no longer any prospective buyers in the market for real estate development, and…almost a decade later there is still an empty lot and now we are no longer a private institution. Did I mention the story was cringe-worthy?

img_1166Barry Goldwater Lounge: A 5-term US Senator from Arizona and the Republican Party nominee in the 1964 presidential election, Barry Goldwater was a lifelong supporter of Thunderbird. Goldwater was a good friend of Barton Kyle Yount’s, having flown with him in the Air Force. In early 1994, a few lucky Das Tor writers took the initiative to head on over to Barry’s house and interview him. His comments are priceless:

“General Barton Kyle Yount called me one day, just a few days before he died. He told me that he’d started an international trade school, and had bought old Thunderbird Field #1 to train Americans to work abroad. That’s when I knew he’d lost his marbles. He wanted to know if I’d be interested in being on the Board of Directors. I said sure. So that’s how the school got started, and it’s going very well…You have a great school out there. [Then Prez] Dr. Herberger is a good leader. I get a lot of requests for letters of recommendation…It’s the way to go to school. In fact, if it weren’t 35 miles out there, I’d go out and take a language, relearn Spanish, which I spoke before I spoke English. You’ve assembled a great faculty. A hell of a faculty.”

Goldwater spoke at school commencement ceremonies in 1955, 1962, and 1984, served on the Board of Directors throughout the ’70s, received an honorary degree in 1984, and was well know for frequently mingling with students on campus. Believe it or not, his legacy still lives on here. Connected to one of the buildings used by the Executive Inn, the Goldwater Lounge is an admittedly anticlimactic testimony to the Senator’s goodwill towards the school. Rumor has it that the Senator, a prolific photographer, donated a number of his photographs to the school before his death, but they’re not hanging in the Lounge, which the Exec Inn staff said is now mainly used for traffic school.  Jake is likely to lose his own marbles trying to figure out which closet of which building they’ve been jammed into, and whether the feral cats have gotten to them yet.

Faculty Residencies 1964; courtesy of thunderbird.edu
Faculty Residencies 1964; courtesy of thunderbird.edu

Presidential House: Back when Lieutenant Yount bought the school in 1946 there was absolutely nothing surrounding it. In fact, it wasn’t until relatively recently that modern conveniences began springing up around the intersection of 59th and Greenway. Because of this, faculty, like students, also needed a place to live while school was in session. While there used to be an entire faculty housing community over where the Y currently stands, nowadays there is only one house remaining: The Presidential House. If you’re ever driving over to the Y, it’s the one that is right off the road behind the tennis courts. I went by to check it out the other day and apparently the Y uses it for storage and offices now. Nevertheless, it comes as somewhat of a surprise to know that throughout most of Thunderbird’s history, that house has accommodated our presidents

4 thoughts on “A Little Bit of Thunderbird Campus History

  1. Ah! If only we would have closed the business deal with the real estate company! You weren’t kidding when you said the story was cringe worthy!

    Oh, and I think my cohort and I will have to take a field trip to the President’s House next to the Y!

  2. Those Goldwater photographs are still here on campus. I think they are in the Herberger Administration building. They are stunning portraits of the Native American community in the Southwest.

  3. Thank you for highlighting Thunderbird history, Nash! Coincidentally, the Thunderbird Archives will have an open house this Thursday, October 27th from 1:00-8:00 PM. Come by and see more historic photos and memorabilia, documenting the history of the school and Thunderbird Field for over 75 years.

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