Circle Back, UIC Forward: UIC remembers its roots


Susan Stevens remembers that day in 1965 when she saw Chicago Circle Campus for the first time.

“It was instant love,” said Stevens, a Chicago journalist and ’67 grad who transferred from the Urbana-Champaign campus to attend college closer to home. “I’d get off the Halsted Street bus in the morning and I’d see the skyscrapers in the distance and I’d think, ‘Wow, this isn’t cornfields.'”

UIC celebrates the golden anniversary of its beginnings Sunday with “Circle Back … UIC Forward,” a day of events highlighted by a reenactment of the ribbon-cutting that opened the city’s first four-year public university, located on a striking modern campus designed by architect Walter Netsch.


Navy Pier campus

University of Illinois at Navy Pier, “the only school that could be sunk by a torpedo.” Photo: Special Collections/UIC Daley Library

The University of Illinois’ presence in Chicago began in 1946 at Navy Pier. The university leased Navy Pier for the University of Illinois Chicago Undergraduate Division, a temporary facility to accommodate returning veteran students on the G.I. Bill. Navy Pier students completed their last two undergraduate years at the Urbana campus.

“Navy Pier was probably the most unique institution on earth — the only school that could be sunk by a torpedo,” said Joseph Holtzman, a 1968 grad and Chicago attorney.

“It was called ‘Harvard on the rocks.’ In the middle of the winter when they opened the big overhead doors to unload the ships, it tended to get very cold, a very chill wind going to your locker. But at the same time, because it was a single corridor, five-eighths of a mile long, you saw everybody you knew every day of the week, and it was kind of pleasant to have that small, compact atmosphere.”

Mayor Richard J. Daley pushed for a four-year University of Illinois campus in Chicago and the result, named for the Circle Interchange, officially opened with a ribbon-cutting on Feb. 22, 1965.

Holtzman was there in the back of the crowd, late to the event because he volunteered to stand at the frigid Jackson L stop, directing people to the new campus.


Historical - Circle Campus

The upper walkways, designed by Walter Netsch, were removed in the late 1990s. Photo: Special Collections/UIC Daley Library

“It did give you a certain sense of pride to know that we had made it, that we had a four-year institution, and I felt very much a pioneer,” he said. “Which is why 50 years later I’m still involved and still active. I felt very much involved in the birth of this campus.”

Arlene Norsym, associate chancellor for alumni relations and vice president of the university alumni association, also transferred from Navy Pier to Circle.

“I was very, very fortunate that this campus opened when it did because I was like so many of the other people Mayor Daley called his constituencies — the product of a blue collar family. There were five of us, and if Circle hadn’t opened, I wouldn’t be going to college,” she said.

Although Norsym was at Circle opening day, she missed the ribbon-cutting because she was working at her job as a student employee in the College of Engineering.

“Besides, it was 11 degrees outside,” she said. “I have seen the photograph many, many times, and I wish I had been there, but I’m looking forward to this reenactment.”

Historical - Circle Campus

Circle Campus walkways.

Circle’s 100 acres along Harrison and Halsted Streets was what one graduate calls a “small town in a big city.” In 1982, it merged with the university’s Medical Center campus to become UIC. Today, with more than 28,000 students, UIC is Chicago’s largest university and one of the nation’s most diverse campuses. It is among the top 60 research universities in the U.S. with a $2 billion annual budget and 15 colleges.

“This has always been a great place to be,” said Dick Simpson, professor of political science, who joined the faculty in 1967. “We’re in the middle of a great city, one which has a lot of problems and a lot of possibilities. We’re one of the foremost urban universities in the world.”

More than 300 are registered for Sunday’s events, which begin at 9:30 a.m. with a “Pier to Here” trolley ride/walk that will take alumni from Navy Pier to campus.

The ribbon-cutting reenactment outside the Science and Engineering Laboratories building will include two original participants who were students at the time: Col. William J. Hawes, then an ROTC cadet, who saved a portion of the ribbon; and Washington, D.C., lobbyist Tony Podesta, then student government president.


Circle Campus construction

Circle Campus under construction. Photo: Special Collections/UIC Daley Library

Other events include tours of Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, the Daley Library, UIC’s diversity centers, the Electronic Visualization Laboratory and Stukel Towers residence hall. A complete schedule is online.

Invited dignitaries include Gov. Bruce Rauner, U of I Board of Trustees chair Ed McMillan, U of I President-designate Timothy Killeen, UIC Chancellor-designate Michael Amiridis and former White House chief of staff and commerce secretary William Daley.

“Circle Back … UIC Forward” is an opportunity to remind the city, state and world of the impact that UIC’s faculty and alumni have made over the past 50 years, Norsym said.

“An estimated one in 10 Chicagoans with a college degree is a UIC alumnus,” she said. “Students come from more than 100 countries, and they can select from among 82 bachelor’s, 93 master’s and 66 doctoral programs. One of every six Illinois physicians, more than 40 percent of the state’s dentists, and one-third of Illinois pharmacists are UIC alumni.

“UIC has come a long way in 50 years. Just imagine what the next 50 will bring.”


Circle Campus Ribbon Cutting

The ribbon-cutting to open Circle Campus, Feb. 22, 1965.

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