Norris University Center celebrates 50th anniversary with tributes, student performances and birthday cake

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Maia Pandey/Daily Senior Staffer

Norris staff wore commemorative shirts for the 50th anniversary celebrations.

Maia Pandey, Senior Staffer

Fifty years to the day after its original dedication, about 100 community members gathered on the ground floor of Norris University Center to celebrate the building’s golden birthday.

Administrators and Norris staff kicked off the Thursday afternoon event with a series of remarks on the building’s history, followed by a rendition of “Happy Birthday” from the Northwestern Undertones, a student a capella group. Community members then helped themselves to birthday cake, ice cream and commemorative pens and mugs.

“(We’re) celebrating the tens of thousands of students and others who have been served by Norris, who worked in Norris, gathered in Norris, marched to Norris, cried in Norris, celebrated in Norris and even made demands of the administration right here in the Norris,” Corbin Symth, the center’s executive director, said at the event.

Smyth added that student centers have been a hallmark of the modern college campus — both for university-organized events and for student activism and expression. 

The University’s student center was originally housed at Scott Hall, before a $2.5 million donation to NU in 1968 spurred plans for a new student center. Five years later, the $8.8 million-dollar building opened its doors to students.

Last fall, NU announced an additional $6 million will go toward a comprehensive redesign of the center’s East Lawn. The lawn makeover will add a plaza and pavilion for events, an outdoor restaurant, locations for food vendors, a game terrace and lounge.

University President Michael Schill said though Norris has “stood the test of time,” he looks forward to the East Lawn revamp.

Construction is set to begin this summer, with the project slated for completion by summer 2024.

“A building’s physical space needs to support what’s done inside of it,” Schill said.

The building is named for Lester J. Norris Jr., one of the youngest members ever to serve on the University’s Board of Trustees. Following his death, Lester Norris’ parents Lester J. Norris Sr. and Dellora Angell Norris — heiress to the American oil brand Texaco — made the original donation to construct the building.

Tracey Gibson-Jackson, director of student organizations and activities, delivered a tribute to the Norris family at the afternoon event.

“I have to say that in my 15 years here at Northwestern, I always talk about Norris and how this is literally the heartbeat of Northwestern,” Gibson Jackson said. “Everything we’ve witnessed through our students, our faculty, our staff happens right here at Norris.”

Gibson Jackson helped plan the anniversary celebrations with Debra Blade (Communication ’79), assistant director of Norris Programs. A former student worker at Norris, Blade is now one of the longest-serving members of the building’s administration and will retire this spring. The crowd paused for a round of applause to honor Blade.

Associated Student Government Vice President and SESP junior Donovan Cusick said Norris has been a regular stop for him at NU — from meeting friends to working with ASG and SOA on the building’s third floor.

Norris was also central to his first months on campus in September 2020, when most buildings were closed due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, Cusick added.

“I actually went back and checked in my camera roll, and the first real memory or experience that I had outside of (Schapiro Hall) was in Norris,” he said. “I was in one of those booths over there, eating a Bavarian pretzel sandwich that I bought from the market right there, and that was really the first thing I did on campus.”

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