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FIFTY YEARS OF THE HOUSTON FIELD HOUSE



John H. Cunningham Jr. ’56 Middletown, N.J.

There were many, many happy times spent at the Houston Field House during my five undergraduate and graduate school years at Rensselaer in the 1950s. Besides the ice hockey games (I was a cheerleader my first two years and in the band my last two years as well as in graduate school), RPI winning the NCAA ice hockey championship in the spring of 1954, and all of the wonderful formal dances I attended there during my five years at the ’Tute, there are three items indelibly etched in my mind.

In the spring of 1959 (when I was in graduate school), the NCAA ice hockey tournament was held at the Field House. At that time, I was a member of the RPI band and we had the best seats in the house. We were located on the stage at the east end of the ice, looking down upon that goal. As I recall, the University of North Dakota and Michigan State University represented the west in the tournament, with North Dakota winning the championship. But Michigan State had a defenseman that also played offensive or defensive lineman for their football team. He is the largest hockey player that I have seen, then or now. A. Olin Niles, the longtime RPI band director, had written to the band directors at the participating colleges and obtained the music for their fight songs and alma maters. Whenever a team would enter onto the ice, we played their fight song. Then, we played one alma mater before the second period and the other school’s alma mater before the third period. I remember that Mr. Niles was thanked by more than one of the college’s representatives for the band’s hospitable gesture.

I also was involved with the RPI Figure Skating Club. Mary Lou and Skip Butler were the professionals on the Field House staff in charge of the various figure skating programs. My senior year (1956), I was in the Ice Carnival, held in March each year. A friend, Jerry Smith from the Class of ’57, and I put together an ice comedy act (“trying” to imitate Frick and Frack). I can’t remember about Jerry, but I darn near killed myself from the pratfalls, which I took on the ice. My hip was so sore that I had to borrow a football hip pad from the gym to wear under my costume so that I could skate (and fall). The featured skater for that March 1956 Ice Carnival was Dick Button. I will never forget his jumps....the height he could achieve and, for those days, the number of turns that he could make.

But the most “intriguing” experiences that I had were during my junior and senior year when I was the head usher at the Field House for the various concerts and stage events. The manager of the Field House, then, was Jack Garren and he asked me if I would be the head usher, which position I accepted with great pleasure. Of course, I and all of the RPI student ushers were able to see wonderful performances. But two events stick out in my mind. The Boston Pops was scheduled to perform one evening under their famous conductor, Arthur Fiedler. The time of the concert approached and the truck with all of their musical instruments was missing. Fiedler was backstage ranting and raving ... he might even have made a sailor blush that evening. After an announcement was made to the audience as to the problem, the woman who was performing the piano concerto during that evening’s performance was gracious enough to come out on stage and played solo pieces for about 30 to 45 minutes until the truck with the instruments arrived. As I recall, the driver had arrived in Troy early in the day and had checked into a hotel. He had left a wakeup call but he was never called. Police throughout the Tri-City area were looking for the truck. It was finally discovered in downtown Troy, the driver found and awakened, and the performance finally began almost an hour late.

On another evening, the Amsterdam Concertgebow Orchestra was scheduled to perform. The truck with their formal clothes was delayed due to a storm. Except for the conductor, who wore a sports jacket, all members of the orchestra played in their traveling clothes. I was later told that they played one of their best, and most relaxed, concerts of their U.S. tour that night at the Field House.

I last visited the Field House in the early 1990s after it had been rebuilt. No longer were there the columns in front of the stands on the north and south sides to contend with while watching the hockey games. Actually, at the hockey games my first two years, I was down in front of the north stands, behind the RPI bench, as a cheerleader and was able to enjoy “up-close-and-personal” Ned Harkness as he coached the team (and made comments on the refereeing). I heard for the first time “some very interesting French Canadian expressions” spoken by Canadian members of the team. Then my last three years up-on-the-hill, I had a great seat on the center red line with the band. And Irene, my wife (then my fiancee), found out what it was like to be seated between the band’s cymbal player and me, the bass drummer.

The many enjoyable times that I had at the Field House, during my five years at Rensselaer, provided me with some of the happiest moments of my life.

John H. Cunningham Jr. ’56 Middletown, N.J.

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