Memory Lane: Not Your Dad’s Rec Room

For some 50 years, the basement of Illini Hall was a lively proving ground for student journalists

Daily Illini Newsroom Everything was shared in The Daily Illini newsroom, from assignments and ideas to desks and phones. (Image courtesy of Illini Media/The Daily Illini.)
For some 50 years, the basement of Illini Hall was a lively proving ground for student journalists

It was an underground scene like no other. Young people, by the dozens—over time, by the hundreds and the thousands—stopping by between classes, skipping classes entirely to be there. Flowing in at all times of the day, staying long hours into the night. Talking, planning, arguing, laughing. And engaging in relentless combat with daily deadlines. So it went in the basement of Illini Hall, where the offices of The Daily Illini were situated for half a century. 

Daily Illini Staffers

Student journalists David Allen (left) and Rob MacDonald head out, possibly for a slice at nearby Garcia’s Pizza. (Image courtesy of Illini Media/The Daily Illini)

The place was a launchpad that boosted student journalists into the world of mass media, rocketing some to fame. The dungeon-like warren of corridors and rooms gave rise to film critics Roger Ebert, ’64 MEDIA, and Gene Shalit, ’49 LAS; Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Ingrassia, ’72 MEDIA; best-selling author Roger Simon, ’70 LAS; comedy writer Larry Doyle, LAS ’80, MS ’83 MEDIA; novelist and publisher Dave Eggers, ’02 MEDIA; and many other success stories. 

“We learned more about journalism because the DI was a student-run newspaper, not a J-school lab operation,” recalls Terry Carnes Sowka, ’77 MEDIA, who went on to work at the Chicago Sun-Times. “I spent more time at the DI office than I did at my dorm or apartment.”

Illini Hall debuted in 1907 as a YMCA and was subsequently pressed into service by the University as a temporary student union. In 1923, the building opened its nether regions to an enormous hot-type press donated by the Chicago Tribune. For more than 50 years, that machine gobbled lead slugs and produced the DI. The editorial and photography offices moved in alongside the press in 1938.

“The darkroom was really gross but we loved it,” recalls Jean Lachat, ’89 MEDIA, who became a photographer for the Chicago Sun-Times. “The cockroaches sometimes surprised us by running out of the film canisters.” 

DI photographer Jean Lachat

DI photographer Jean Lachat (Image courtesy of Illini Media/The Daily Illini)

Life has scrolled on for the DI. Today, the longtime daily appears twice a week in print, supplemented by a robust web presence. After a series of moves begun in 1988 by parent company Illini Media, the newspaper’s offices have moved once again to a basement at the current University YMCA (built in 1938). While student staffers still flow in and out, most also work remotely. And Illini Hall is scheduled to be razed and replaced with a high-tech learning and research center by 2023. 

“We’ve come full circle,” says Illini Media co-publisher and board member Kit Henley Donahue, ’81 FAA, who started with the DI as a student graphic designer and went on to supervise generations of student staffers. “I started in a basement and I’m ending in a basement.”

When the hot-type press was decommissioned in 1971, printing of the DI moved to an offset printing facility in Rantoul, Ill. “I liberated a slug with my byline on it,” recalls Michael Rosenbaum, ’74 MEDIA, president of Quadrant Five, a strategic communications firm based in Chicago. The press was torn down, its two-story metal skeleton left behind and covered in concrete. The razing of Illini Hall may yet uncover this enormous fossil from “life down under” at the University of Illinois Daily Illini.

Pressmen at work

Pressmen work the hot-type press that produced the paper for almost half a century. (Image courtesy of Illini Media/The Daily Illini)

Note: Thanks to the DI alumni who also contributed to this story: Jeff Brody, ’75 MEDIA, MA ’87 UIS; Louise Gilmore Donahue, ’76 MEDIA; Audrey Lee, ’79 MEDIA; Michael Rosenbaum, ’74 MEDIA; Carl Schwartz, ’71 MEDIA; Barbara Dembski Schwartz; Sue Treiman, ’74 MEDIA; and Paul Wood, ’77 LAS.