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Michigan Musings: Anchoring My Sense of Place

“I remember key places on the University campus with remarkable clarity and fondness.”
By Michael Imirie, ’72

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Read time: 4 minutes

I was a student at the University of Michigan between the fall of 1968 and May 1972. I earned my degree and made my way out into the world, but I didn’t completely leave U-M behind. Instead, priceless memories of people and places accompanied me wherever I went, no matter how much time had passed. While the most poignant of these center around people, I remember key places on the University campus with remarkable clarity and fondness. Here, I share some of those memories, anchored by familiar places across campus:

When I arrived at U-M, I joined the track team. We practiced each day in what was then called Yost Field House, which dated back to 1923. It was as big as a football field indoors, but its primary purpose was to house the eight-lane track inside. When we ran that oval, I had the sense that we were running in a tunnel. Yost had a distinctive smell; while I could never identify it conclusively, it struck me as a combination of warm cinders, combusted heating oil, and liniment. The year after I graduated, the Yost Field House was repurposed to be the ice arena.


Class registration took place at Waterman Gymnasium, the University’s first gym. I remember being amazed seeing an elevated running track on the second level of that old barn. In the late summer and early fall, temperatures in Waterman were stifling. The lines we stood in to register for classes seemed interminable, snaking all around and throughout the gym toward the various information tables. In those early days, we used No. 2 pencils to fill out our course preferences. By the time I was an upperclassman, registration took place elsewhere, having become more simplified. As Waterman was being torn down in 1977 to make way for an addition to the chemistry building, I returned to campus and recovered two old Waterman bricks. I later had them painted — maize and blue, of course — and turned into keepsakes.


Most folks don’t get to see inside the home of the university’s president but in Ann Arbor, I did. In 1969, I was taking summer classes and needed employment to support staying in Ann Arbor. The athletic department found work for me as a houseboy in President Fleming’s home. I reported for work three times each week and did all the things that Sally Fleming, Robben Fleming’s, HLLD’67, wife, directed me to do. I remember cleaning out the garage, sweeping the driveway, washing the Flemings’ car, and doing errands of all kinds. My hours were daytime hours, and I recall seeing President Fleming only once or twice. But it was a giggle (and a bit of a thrill) to have the opportunity to toil in the oldest building still standing on U-M’s campus and to work for a family as kind and as well thought of as the Flemings.


Just before my junior year, I bought my first car. It was an oversized, two-door maroon 1941 Dodge. Even in 1970, my old car was a vehicular anomaly as well as an antique. While I enjoyed driving (and turning heads) everywhere in Ann Arbor, my favorite drive was found on a dirt road called Cedar Bend Drive. The most noteworthy section was a narrow, 180-degree switchback known as Horseshoe Bend. Accessible only via a North Campus neighborhood, it was a steep, unpaved road connecting Broadway to Island Park. In my view, it was best traveled by night, for its lack of lighting, slippery gravel surface, and steep grade made it a joyride of the most hair-raising kind. First-time passengers were agog at the thrill factor but very pleased when we once again reached horizontal, paved surfaces where Cedar Bend met the concrete roadway below. This switchback road has — alas! — been taken out of vehicular service by Ann Arbor and now serves as a walking trail.


An illustration of two students riding in a maroon car through an archway at night. One student is holding a graduation cap out the window.
Illustration by Caili Dalian and Deeya Chaturvedi.

In my time, the L-shaped West Hall was called West Engineering. Precisely where those two campus thoroughfares intersect, there’s an arched opening in the building through which students and faculty walk en route to the Central Campus beyond called Denison Archway. It is perhaps 10 feet wide and, more dramatically, it is widely rumored that should U-M couples kiss there at the stroke of midnight, they would one day marry. While I remember my many walks through that portal, I recall much more vividly a different kind of Denison passage: a late-night odyssey that reflected a perhaps too-enthusiastic graduation celebration. Just days ahead of graduation, I jumped the curb and drove through that pedestrian portal with two other celebrating seniors on board. My Dodge was a big car and, in attempting to reach U-M’s Diag to sip celebratory margaritas with my fellow senior celebrants, the clearance between the arch’s inner walls and my Dodge’s outer fenders seemed very, very close. Nonetheless, we made the passage successfully, reached the block M on the Diag at the stroke of midnight, parked for perhaps 10 minutes, toasted each other and our University with high-octane beverages, and made a hasty vehicular retreat the way that we had come in.


Michael Imirie, ’72, enjoyed a 37-year career in communications at Ford Motor Company. He continues to enjoy writing from Troy, Michigan.

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