When everyone registered in Waterman Gym

“If you can do better, go to it”

Women students confer with an orientation adviser before registration. (Image courtesy of Bentley Historical Library)

Women students confer with an orientation adviser before registration. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

Once upon a time, in the 1800s, Michigan students in a certain school or college all took the same courses. So registration was easy. The faculty handled it. For a time, President James Burrill Angell registered all the students in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) himself.

But as Angell’s elective system took hold and the number of students grew — 4,500 in 1910, 8,500 in 1920, 9,500 by 1930 — the job of collecting their vital statistics and sorting them into courses became laborious. Students would slog from one office and department to another to register for courses, record their addresses, fill out forms, and pay fees, often after standing in multiple outdoor lines in September rain or January snow.

Then Daniel L. Rich, professor of physics and associate registrar, had the idea of weaving all the lines together in a single location.

He took the idea to John Effinger, dean of LSA, who told Rich: “If you can do better, go to it. I’ll make you czar of the whole thing.” It worked well enough for LSA that other units soon followed suit.

A chicken-wire maze

Waterman Gym, completed in 1894, met student demands for recreation space. (Image courtesy of Bentley Historical Library)

Waterman Gym, completed in 1894, met student demands for recreation space. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

Rich chose Waterman Gymnasium, at the corner of North University and East University, for its massive, barn-like interior. Built in 1894 to meet rising student demands for recreation space (and added onto in the 1910s and ‘20s), it was funded in part by a matching gift of $20,000 from Joshua W. Waterman, a well-to-do Detroiter and patron of athletics. With the additions, it was 248 feet long and 90 feet wide. By the 1930s, the new Intramural Building on Hoover Street had stolen much of Waterman’s popularity. The interior, though lit by skylights, was devoid of grace. But it was big enough to suit Rich’s needs.

On the eve of every semester, Rich and his helpers concocted a maze of chicken-wire channels to guide crowds of students into single-file lines to registration stations. Workers hauled in hundreds of tables, chairs, and telephones. On big bulletin boards strung from the elevated running track overhead, courses and sections were listed, with helpers ready to show how many spaces remained in a given section. As ever, 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. sections were spurned until they were the only ones left.

Bewildered freshmen could follow their orientation leaders into the fray and rely on them for guidance. After that, you were on your own. Only law students and medical students could escape the melee, since their academic calendars were different from the main body of students.

For a while in the 1930s, the schedule started first thing Thursday and lasted until noon on Saturday. Then another day was added. In the beginning, the rule was first-come, first-served. You could show up at any time and register. Then, in 1935, students were given time slots designated by last name — 1 p.m.-1:30 p.m., He to Hof; 1:30 p.m.-1:45 p.m., Hog to Hz, etc. The order of letter groups rotated semester by semester.

Tickets to ride

Registration days weren’t always sunny, like this one in 1951. Students are snaked around a building in a huge long line to register for classes at Waterman Gym at U-M. (Image courtesy of Bentley Historical Library)

Registration days weren’t always sunny, like this one in 1951. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

To record all the necessary facts and figures from every student, the University contracted with printers to create a standard registration form of magnificent dimensions and complexity, soon dubbed “railroad tickets.” Each consisted of 10 cardboard coupons (later the number grew to 14) connected by perforations. Students had to engrave their names in at least nine places and fill out other lines with more information. Writer’s cramp spread like a virus.

The lines at Waterman registration became legendary. One alumnus reported there was enough time one year for him to get to know the woman he would later marry. Throngs of slow-moving students made easy targets for promoters and recruiters from student organizations, and in election years, the Waterman line was a good place to poll students on their presidential preferences.

Not that people didn’t try, but there was no escaping the lines. Rules abounded. You couldn’t beg (or pay) a roommate or friend to register on your behalf. You couldn’t jump to a different letter of the alphabet; if your name was Terwilliger, you couldn’t present yourself in the time slot allotted to names from Ba through Br, and “gatekeepers are not authorized to make exceptions.” If you goofed off and just didn’t show up, there were late fees — $1 a day, $6 maximum.

“Difficult and discouraged”

Color image, overhead, shows the front of a Waterman line in 1964. (Image courtesy of U-M Alumni Association and Karen W. Morse)

The front of a Waterman line in 1964. (Image courtesy of U-M Alumni Association and Karen W. Morse.)

The system groaned on through World War II. Then came hordes of veterans on the G.I. Bill. Men bunked in barracks in the basements of East and West Quads. The manager of the Union said: “About the best way to be sure of a place to eat regularly is to get a job there.” At Waterman, registration became a test of sheer endurance, with 1,000 students processed every hour, and there was less flexibility in the system than ever. A new sign hung from the gym’s overhead running track: “Changes in election will be difficult and discouraged.”

By the 1950s, students were filling out computer cards instead of the old “railroad tickets,” and IBM computers were assisting the registrars. But the lines still formed in and out of Waterman every semester, and 125 students would be hired and trained each time to help. For hours on end, the wishful would stare up at the board where a desirable course was listed, waiting for a digit to change and a space to open up.

The early 1960s brought a small improvement — a slim new form called the “registrationnaire.” It was part of a pre-registration process that allowed students to hold places in courses they wanted. But they still had to register to ensure their spots. In 1967, Waterman lines were longer than ever — up to five hours, students reported, often after lengthy waits to speak with academic advisers. A Michigan Daily reporter tracked one line that stretched the length of the Diag to South University and beyond. On some days, 1,500 students might be waiting. But as one of them said, “It’s either stand in a line now or go to a bunch of 8 o’clocks.”

“…in spite of problems”

The end of Waterman in 1977 after 80 years. Big construction zone. (Image courtesy of Bentley Historical Library)

The end of Waterman in 1977 after 80 years. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

Meanwhile, the leaky old gym was well into its dotage. One student wrote to the Daily: “The sight of Waterman Gym brings thoughts of the next Daily headline reading ‘4,000 KILLED AS GYM COLLAPSES DURING REGISTRATION.’”

Finally, in 1975, the Waterman regime ended with the dawn of a computerized system called CRISP. It was developed in a course taught by the computer science professor Bernard Galler, who said the acronym meant “Computer Registration in Spite of Problems.” The official title was “…Involving Student Participation” — as if students hadn’t been participating to the point of exhaustion for decades. And you still had to stand in line to register.

Waterman Gym was torn down in 1977, making way for the Willard Henry Dow addition to the Chemistry Building.
Sources included the Michigan Daily; The University of Michigan: An Encyclopedic Survey; “Registration Incarnations,” LSA Magazine, spring 2013; “History Lessons: Registration Flashback,” Michigan Alumnus, August 2021; and “History Lessons: In Spite of Problems,” Michigan Alumnus, August 2018. Lead image is of Waterman Gym interior during a registration session, courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.


  1. Andrew Nason - 1975

    I loved Waterman Gym. The elevated running track covered in cork allowed barefoot running. I could watch the pick-up basketball games. The pulleys and bars evoked phys ed past. The exterior was so classy. Registration leveled everyone to the same lines — hot during fall registration and cold for winter term. It is sad that it no longer exists.


    • Janice Schmidt - 1975 BSN

      I, too, loved Waterman Gym, especially the narrow headboard walls at the entrance. I never ran on the track, but watched plenty of pick-up BB games, and could envision women in bloomers doing calisthenics in days gone by. And after the Evon building fire, it was the last really evocative old building left on Main campus. But as a nursing student, I only remember marathon queueing once or twice. Didn’t they go to registering by graduation classes when we were juniors or before?


  2. Dennis Palmieri - '78 (BS), '80 MPH

    I had the questionable pleasure of participating in the last Waterman Gym registration cattle call in 1975. I don’t recall too much about it except that you had to be alert and nimble to make sure you got the classes you wanted. One thing you learned quickly was to compromise and be prepared with options and find the lines that moved the quickest. And yes it was a pretty decrepit building. I remember using CRISP the next term and it seemed like the gods had blessed the University. Thanks, once again, Mr. Tobin for another well-researched and well-written jaunt back into Michigan history.


  3. Jo Shaw - 1950

    The picture brought back memories. I started school in 1946 with the wave of veterans. I remember registration being somewhat of a chore, but not too bad. I don’t remember not getting the classes I wanted. I’m sure it would be harder for me to do it on line, but for today’s students it’s a breeze.


  4. Robert Wilensky - 1962, 1966, 1975

    I remember Waterman well. It should be noted that there were ways to “game” the system. If you acted as a freshman advisor or guide, you could register on the first day. If you “worked” registration you could register first day. If you could get into Waterman, you could register. The trick was to find a way in. It was fun and frustrating at the same time.


    • Jen Bellot - 2000, 2002

      Robert, this is funny to read “from the other side.” I am an administrator in higher ed and it seems that it doesn’t matter what the system is, there is always a way to game it! We are forever trying to stay one step ahead of the sneaky ones!


    • Tom Gardner - 1971, 1974

      In the fall, I claimed to be in the marching band and had practice. I was let in the side door, avoiding the lines.


  5. Cheryl McNabb - 1972

    I registered at Waterman as a transfer student. The lines weren’t too long but my memory of the building brings to mind the words old, dark, cavernous and musty. It seemed to be a pretty primitive for a place like Michigan. And then we were all hustled off for a chest X-ray!


  6. Barbara Stark-Nemon - 1971, 1978

    I do remember those lines… and how hot it got May and August….


  7. Lynn Swansnon - 1976

    Waterman is dear to me. I had to register for classes there in 1974. I was a dance major who danced with Phyliss Lamhut from nyc there when the weather was 98 degrees the summer of 1974. I took modern and ballet classes each semester in Waterman/Barbour. It was a short walk across the street to have a good lunch at The League.


  8. Jen (Seamon) Bellot - 2000, 2002

    Thank you for this niche history! In the mid-90’s to early 00’s I saw the advancement of CRISP from a phone-based registration application to computer-based. We were assigned a registration time based on number of credits we had (ie. seniors registered before sophomores) and GPA…I think. It was always kind of a mystery to be honest. Flash forward 22 years and I am in higher ed administration. One of my “signature innovations” in this role was to permit our students to select register for their own clinical sections (I work in nursing). You would have thought I had 3 heads the first time I suggested it! My supposition was that a student knows what they need (timing, location, area of interest) far more than a faculty randomly assigning groups. I quickly found out that CRISP was farrrr more advanced than anything I had at my fingertips. Overall, opening up a means of students selecting their own clinical rotations has been positive. It’s NEVER perfect…and, believe me, the students will let you know when they aren’t happy! But, it’s far better than the time-intensive lift our faculty had to put in previously, not to mention dealing with the sour grapes afterward. Honestly, I rely on a very basic, not-so-pretty sign up website to facilitate the process. I’m astounded that something more sophisticated hasn’t been developed and I’m forever in search of better technology. (cough, could you sell CRISP, cough)


  9. Chris Campbell - Rackham '72; Law '75

    I was a grad student in the early ’70s and remember what a nightmare registration was. If one class filled up, it could upset the whole schedule and require re-engineering the term’s classes altogether. It was a source of much anxiety.


  10. Robert Sander - 1969

    Vendors were on the diag offering small packs of cigarettes with about 4 cigarettes per box. All paper process, the pc hadn’t been invented yet. But the process of signing up for classes led me to choose my career path. Everyone had to do it so i just did it. Waterman was hot inside.


  11. Glen Zatz - 1976

    Many a fond memory running on the second floor track as it slightly shook around the turns. The lower level fitness room was reminiscent of a dungeon, though. Not like today’s modern health clubs, but what memories.


  12. Joel Martin - 78, 93

    I was was also a member of the last incoming class to register with punch cards in Waterman in the fall of 74. I remember it being stressful but also thinking that the old gym had a certain character that you don’t find in the new buildings. Later, I took computer science from none other than Bernie Galler, the inventor of CRISP. Registration still wasn’t easy and, based on my daughter’s experience (BSE ‘18) it’s still stressful.


    • James Tobin - 1978, 1986

      “The more things change….” My students at Miami of Ohio complain every term about the rigors of waking up early for their assigned times to register….online…FROM THEIR BEDS!!!


      • Jean Jackman - 1975

        Great article Jim Tobin! A welcome blast from the past. My memories of registering at Waterman, a bewildering and competitive and rewarding experience, are some of my favorites.


  13. Joan Spiegelman - 1960

    Who can forget registration in the 50’s. Will never forget getting an 8am English class on Saturday my freshman year and thinking my world had collapsed. How would I get to THE GAME? Also if I are recall correctly I took bowling for physical Ed and we had to reset our own pins in Waterman. Thanks for bringing back these memories.


  14. Terry Ray - 1968

    When I registered as a freshman in 1955 male students were diverted upstairs to the indoor track which was curtained off, handed a paper bag and told to get ready for a physical exam performed by med students. Only after which were you allowed downstairs to the chaos of registering for classes.


    • David Karns - 1963, 1974

      I started in the Fall of 1957 and have no recollection of physical exams. I do remember that we used both us and train tickets for different parts of registration.


  15. Tim Bartholow - 1973, 1974, 1979

    I was an undergrad back in the days of a two-trimester phys ed requirement for undergrads. I received credit for one trimester since I was in the Marching Band, but I had to take another trimester of phys ed. As a music major, I lived and schooled on North Campus, so trips to the Diag were only as required. I found a BOWLING class to meet my requirements which met in the Union immediately after the end of a central-campus English class. Perfect! At registration, I stepped into Waterman and found the line for bowling. Sadly, it ran the entire length of the gym, doubled back again, and then turned to form part of a third column. What are the chances that the 11AM bowling class I wanted would be available for me after the 1,500 students in front of me went through the line? As I studied the lines, looking for other options, I noticed another resident of my dorm floor in the line at the table immediately adjacent to bowling, for weightlifting! He was perhaps third out of six students in that line. Thinking quickly, I went up to stand next to him. “Hi Scott! How are you this morning?”, etc., etc. — SCOOT LEFT!! I cut 1,500 other students in the line for bowling and registered for my desired class time! Sorry for my cheating…


  16. Richard Bennett - 1962

    Not only did I register in the gym, I regularly played pickup basketball with my friends there


  17. Drew Paterson - '66

    It was the cacophony of student organizations with their card tables lining the exit that I remember most. I got my SDS card and had a nice conversation about the organization. Every registration introduced me to another student organization. What a wonderful recruiting location. How do they do it now?


  18. Richard Bond - 1972

    Great memories, renewed each day as I sit at my desk and glance at the brick that serves as a book end. A bright brass plate tells that the brick was formerly a part of Waterman Gymnasium, 1894-1977. Most remember it because of registration, but few know that it was used as an indoor practice facility by Fielding Yost in preparation for the first Rose Bowl game.


  19. Thomas Templin - 1978

    Thanks for the article, Mr. Tobin. I started my PhD studies in Kinesiology in 1974 under Professor Shirley Cooper.. We were housed in the Waterman-Barbour gymnasiums (W-B). In1976, Kinesiology moved to the CCRB and other locations on campus. Ironically, the “new” School of Kinesiology Building is now located at the opposite end of of North U from where W-B buidlings were located. Nearly 50 years ago,my campus life was centered in those grand old “gyms”. I remember may experience standing in those long registration lines and wondering if I would get the graduate classes I needed for my “plan of study”. It was an “eye-opening” experience (survival?), but fortunately, it turned out well and thankfully, CRISP entered the scene in 1975. I left campus in the summer of 1977 for a professorship at Purdue University and I will alway have fond memories of those buidlings. Every time I walk pass the Chemistry buidling on the U of M campus, I thinik of my time in time in W-B and how meaningful they were in my life – even registration.. In fact, I was fortunate to walk that way often upon my return to the U of M in 2015 as a Professor and Associate Dean in the School of Kinesiology until my retirement in 2022. Thanks again for this article and reminding us of our time in W-B! Go Blue!!


  20. David Burhenn - 1975, 1982 (Law)

    I hope that you shame them with stories of Waterman, and of walking uphill five miles for that 8:00 class at the MLB, and then uphill another five miles to get to the Daily.


  21. Steve Rauworth - 1970

    I don’t remember seeing it as a problem. It was necessary, so you did it, and used strategic thinking to get what you wanted. And there was a camaraderie about the shared experience. Sharing weird/tragic/fun notes about it afterward with friends was great.


  22. Linda Wallace - !962

    I was a very naive 17 year old as I entered Waterman registration for the Fall semester of 1960. To my surprise everything was going well, until I hit my last class. The student doing freshman English gleefully said “Sorry, that’s filled, you’ll have to find another class. I looked at him wide-eyed and told him “I have to have it! I have all my other classes and there is nowhere to put anything else! Is there anywhere I can call Dr. Hard, our Dean? (Dental Hygiene was a very packed schedule.) Immediately his attitude changed. Oh, your one of Dr. Hards girls,let me see…no problem! I was amazed at what her name could do. She always had our backs. Yes, she was what her name infered but she was also known to be one be of the fairest. I wonder,when she decided to allow a sixteen year old apply for admittance, did she realize I would spend 55 years practicing Dental Hygiene.


  23. MICHAEL BAILEY - 1973

    The Waterman Gym was a treasure, even in it’s last days. The registration lines were a traditional nightmare , but ones that I “almost” enjoyed. One of my most cherrished momentos is a Michigan Daily photo of me running on the elevated track in the early 1970’s. I used the track every lunch hour when working my way through college as a janitor at the Michigan Union. Great memories!!


  24. Phillip Shepard - 1968

    I was on pre-med and had to register for a set 90 hours of classes in 1961-64. Phys. Ed. or ROTC was required so I took badminton and swimming. The former at Waterman, the latter at the Matt Mann Pool in the old Athletics Building. I was bad at both. The wooden overhead track at Waterman creaked and had a couple holes in it. A future Med School Classmate always beat me at badminton. I was allergic to the Ivory Soap that the school suppled in the showers. Swimming at the pool and the Michigan Union pool was sans suits. While playing water polo I got my eye hooked from behind. Walking back to the main campus I was seeing double terrified that the injury was permanent. It got better on its own. One thing that Coach Gus Stager taught was “drown proofing”. Something that everyone should learn.


  25. Barbara Bloom - 1982

    If it weren’t for CRISP, I might not have read Moby-Dick. There was a young woman in line in front of me; she was reading and occasionally laughing out loud. When I asked her what she was reading, she showed me the Melville novel. I subsequently read Moby-Dick and loved it. (I think I even got all the classes I wanted during that registration in the old A & D building.) Thanks for that enlightening look back.


  26. Thomas Luk - 1976Rackham

    I broke my kneecap playing basketball there on 1976, when I was supposed to lay off for a longer period of time. As a result, I was laid aside at the UM hospital for hours before being attended! Those were good times and the Friday international volleyball evenings!


  27. Ted Hall - 1979 (B.S.); 1981 (M.Arch.); 1994 (Arch.D.)

    I arrived at U-M as an Architecture undergrad in September ’77. Waterman Gym was recently demolished, and we stood in CRISP lines at Lorch Hall. Sometime later I learned that Lorch had been the home of Architecture and Design before those programs moved to the Art & Architecture Building on North Campus a few years earlier. I reckon the CRISP lines were in what had been a design studio.


  28. Tish Lehman - 1968

    Having just graduated from the University of Texas in 1971, I was impressed by the clarity and efficiency of the IBM card system. It made sense, and the long time in line provided lots of time to make friends and get helpful advice about living in Ann Arbor. When phone registration came along, I regretted the loss of opportunities to meet people. The only negative was getting my student ID picture taken, bright red after 7 sweaty hours in Waterman.

    My mother in law, at UM in the 40s, despised Waterman, since it took her until senior year to pass the swimming requirement for graduation. When they tore it down, I stole her a brick.


  29. Dean Kypke - 1957 - 1962

    My first registration in the fall of 1957 was an ORDEAL. I recall over 8 hours of frustration with the “railroad ticket”as long as my arm. A terrible schedule with early and late classes and a Saturday class resulted. Experience prevailed and following sessions were easier and more successful ending with a BSE in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. Our small group – 14 – made things a lot easier also. Otherwise Waterman gym was the spot for phys ed.


  30. Brad Kuster - 77 (BS) 81(JD)

    As a last minute admission from the wait list, this first experience with UM was a nightmare. My greatest disappointment was learning that the only option for the mandatory freshman writing class was Shakespeare. WOW, what a revelation! I still enjoy a good performance of Shakespeare, thanks to this crazy system.


  31. Gerri Parks - 1960

    I remember taking a course called “Posture, Figure and Carriage” in Waterman gym as a freshman for my Phys Ed requirement. I think they even took photos of our bodies.


  32. Frederick More - 1967, 1972

    The first three years (1960-1963) I attended UM in LSA took me to Waterman to register. I remember upper class people telling me how to game the system. True to this essay, it never worked for me. It was one of the ugly rites of passage. Yet, despite my annual whining, I got the courses I wanted at times I’d never have chosen. I enjoyed this essay and the memories it brought back.


  33. Michael Montgomery - 1983 - MA

    With multi-generation family ties to UM, I knew Waterman Gym to see it but it was gone by the time I actually enrolled at UM (I didn’t go to Ann Arbor until grad school). Registration there, however, sounds just like where I went to undergrad – we registered in the surviving portion of an 1892-vintage gym (the rest had burned down before WW I).


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