Now living in Washington D.C., and recently retired as general counsel of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Colorado State University alumnus Jack Dempsey started his "union career" as a student janitor for the old student union at Johnson Hall in 1961.
Dempsey transferred to the new student union, now known as the Lory Student Center, in 1962, later becoming the evening building manager. Dempsey's responsibilities as evening manager included ensuring activities took place, meeting rooms were set up, and the building closed at night. This position gave him the opportunity to witness the impact of the student center on campus firsthand.
“When the student center first opened, it was located directly in the center of the campus, with dorms to the west and classrooms to the east. In short order, students made it a practice to walk through one door and out the other,” said Dempsey. “There was a statistic out there that every student went through the building at least two times every day. It really was the ‘student center.’”
Today, the student center sees thousands of guests, students, staff, faculty, and community members a day. Though the student center was popular among the student body, a few student janitors were sorry to see the student union go, because they had the opportunity to share living quarters in Johnson Hall – a feature left out in the Lory Student Center.
The student center maintains its status as a Fort Collins community fixture, but back in the early days, there were concerns about its impact on the local economy. Every Sunday, the student center hosted a Sunday buffet for parents visiting their children. The buffet also became popular with many Fort Collins residents who began coming to the buffet in ever-increasing numbers. Eventually, it became so popular that the Chamber of Commerce filed a complaint on behalf of local businesses that lost revenue due to the weekly tradition.
“The complaint went all the way to the State Board of Agriculture. It became a real controversy, and we had to have restrictions where community members could no longer come to the student center for the Sunday buffet unless they were accompanied by a student, staff or faculty member,” said Dempsey.
A native of Chicago, Dempsey took a chance on CSU, not knowing much about the campus or Colorado. During his first days on campus, he met Polly Baca, who later became the first Latina woman elected to the Colorado State Senate. Together, they became two of the initial members of the Young Democrats during a time when the party was not highly represented on campus. They have remained close friends for more than 50 years. During the 1980s and ‘90s, they worked together in Washington when Baca became vice chair of the National Democratic Party and later special assistant to President Bill Clinton and director of the United States Office of Consumer Affairs.
After completing both a bachelor’s and master’s degree at CSU, Dempsey completed a juris doctor at Georgetown. As a lawyer, Dempsey specialized in representing public sector labor unions and served as AFSCME's General Counsel for 25 years.
After time away, his ties to the Lory Student Center remain strong: last fall he flew from Washington D.C. to celebrate the building’s 50th birthday. To his delight, though the campus and its student population have grown, the student center has maintained its place as the center of the University.
“It was literally the center of University activity in 1962 and it remains so today. It truly has fulfilled President Bill Morgan's vision of being a unifying structure for the entire University community,” said Dempsey. “It was a beehive of activity from the time the doors opened to the time we closed them up at night.”
This buzz still emanates from the building today. As host to student organizations, campus activities, student media, and several campus food venues, the Lory Student Center remains the center of life for Colorado State University. After the revitalization is completed in Fall 2014, generations of Rams will continue to experience the student center much like Dempsey did in the early 1960s as a place for community, involvement, and growth.