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Haunted history at Gustafson Hall on the University of North Dakota campus

Every old building has its creaks and groans. One of the oldest buildings on the UND campus may have something else -- ghosts.

Gustafson Hall, built in 1908, served as the university's first fraternity house, accommodating the Varsity Bachelors' Club and later Phi Delta Theta.

Located on the banks of the English Coulee, Gustafson now houses the main office of the Continuing Education Program. UND bought the building in 1979 and dedicated it in honor of Continuing Education Dean Ben G. Gustafson in May 1980.

As new students walk through its halls each year, it's said, the ghosts of the past may be walking with them.

"We always thought there was a ghost," said Peg O'Leary, coordinator for the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. O'Leary worked in Gustafson Hall for two years as a program coordinator for the Division of Continuing Education.

Staffers imagine a ghost called "Gus," for the hall, she said. They tell stories of hearing noises or feeling a "presence" while working at night, she said.

A place for the sick

During its time as a fraternity house, Gustafson Hall was called on in 1918 to become an infirmary.

The influenza pandemic of 1918 began in the midst of World War I, infecting millions worldwide. The national Centers for Disease Control estimates that more than 40 million people died of the flu. More than 5,100 North Dakotans were among them.

D. Jerome Tweton, a former Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor emeritus of history, wrote in his book, "Grand Forks: A Pictorial History," that the flu struck in October 1918 and lasted for seven weeks. The campus was placed under quarantine Oct. 9, 1918.

At the time, the university was heavily involved in the national Student Army Training Corps. Gustafson Hall was used as Army headquarters, according to Louis Geiger in his book, "University of the Northern Plains: A History of the University of North Dakota."

Geiger notes that the Gustafson infirmary lacked "all the sickroom necessities, including even sheets and toilet articles."

The situation became grave as more people became sick. There were too few nurses and doctors in Grand Forks to care for the infected.

"... the number of patients increased too rapidly for anyone to receive anything beyond cursory care," Geiger wrote.

In all, 320 of the 470 student trainees on campus became ill, according to Geiger. The numbers were much higher for the Grand Forks area.

"Over three thousand people became seriously ill," Tweton wrote. "The city closed schools, theaters, and pool rooms; teachers became overnight nurses."

Tweton notes that 29 people died at UND, and 166 others died within Grand Forks County.

The lost soldier

Gustafson's tragic history did not end with the influenza pandemic.

According to a Grand Forks Herald report April 29, 1963, the body of Pvt. Dale A. Howes, 19, of Devils Lake, was found in the cloakroom of Gustafson, then the Phi Delta Theta house.

Howes had flown into Grand Forks from Fort Ord, Calif., about 9:40 p.m. on April 28. He and some friends went to a private party that night. Howes said he was not feeling well, went out to a car and lost consciousness. At about 4:30 a.m. his friends stopped at the fraternity house and continued on to a cafe, leaving Howes in the car while they ate.

They returned to the fraternity house about 5 a.m. and placed Howes in the cloakroom. He was alive, they said, when they turned in for the night.

At 10 a.m., Donald Mikkelson of Devils Lake found the body when he went to retrieve his coat from the room.

An article in the May 2, 1963, issue of the Grand Forks Herald reported that, "... [Howes] died of acute alcohol poisoning compounded by a cramped position and cool temperatures while he lay 'passed out' in a car."

"It's a lovely old building that has seen its share of sorrows and shenanigans," O'Leary said. "I suppose there may still be an aura of those times in its halls."