Former residents of Owasina Hall remember a life of fun, games and fire alarms

The year was 1972.

Volkswagen Beetles patrolled the streets, Pierre Trudeau reigned as prime minister, war raged in Vietnam and SAIT became a residential campus with the opening of Owasina Hall.

The 22-storey high rise provided a home for 491 students each year, in 204 apartment-style rooms with views of downtown and the campus.

For more than 34 years, the ‘hall’ was home to generations of young people.

Now, nine years later, Owasina Hall is set to be torn down, to clear the way for a new residence building SAIT hopes to build in the future. Demolition is to begin in May.

But Owasina will always be a high-rise memory for those who lived there.

Dan Gascon was floor senior in Owasina from 1982-83, and became the SAITSA president in his last year of studies, in 1983-84.

“Smoke of all kinds filled the hallways,” recalls Gascon, who is now a scriptwriting teacher for the Film and Video Production program at SAIT.

Gascon lived at Owasina Hall from 1981-84, when he studied in Business Administration and Broadcast Journalism.

He remembers hallway parties and hockey league games were a regular occurrence in the residence.

The structure of the doors made made them perfect goal posts for roommates wielding hockey sticks.

“It’s not that it was a free-for-all back then, but it was way more liberal and more easy going,” he said.

As floor senior, one of Gascon’s regular duties was to help fellow residents find their ways back to their rooms after long nights of partying.

However, Owasina’s “strange” layout made this job a challenge.

“Different elevators went to different floors, so it was quite a source of calamity on a Saturday night,” Gascon explained.

“You mix in the cabaret and some alcohol and people literally got lost.”

Randy Sportak’s memories of the building had a distinct colour.

“I remember orange,” says Sportak, a former SAIT student who lived in Owasina in 1988-89, “which feels like a million years ago.”

“Small [spaces] and orange seemed to be everywhere,” he said.

Sportak, who now covers the Calgary Flames for the Calgary Sun, said that his time at Owasina was “great.”

“[I] had some pretty great roommates, met some people, and I also met my wife there, so I think it was pretty good,” he said.

Sportak remembered sharing a four-person apartment room, where each roommate had their own bedroom with desks, “which is probably smaller than I remember.”

“We had the kitchen and a bathroom that with four guys was probably never cleaned enough, and it was fine,” Sportak said.

He and his roommates had managed to score a TV and “had a lot of fun…staying up all night playing Nintendo, and having fun going out on the old famous Electric Avenue.”

Electric Avenue, for those who don’t remember, was Calgary’s entertainment district in the ’70s. It consisted of a couple of blocks of bars and restaurants on 11th Avenue S.W. in the Beltline.

Life in Owasina wasn’t all fun and video games, however.

During his term as a floor senior, Gascon remembers that, “There was a huge epidemic with the people pulling the fire alarms as a joke.”

SAIT responded by making pulling the fire alarm when there was no fire a pseudo-felony, punishable by expulsion, because it was the only way to stop students from abusing the situation.

“The fire alarms [went off] about every weekend,” Sportak said.

“I just remember doing quite a few of those walks down the stairs and waiting outside for the fire department to say all clear.”

On one occasion, a student broke their ankle walking down the stairs during one of the false alarms.

“That was terrorism, we were being terrorized,” Gascon said.

According to Gascon, one Saturday night the fire alarm was pulled three times. Gascon said that he and the other floor seniors think they knew who did it but they were never able to find proof.

“I was angry, because now, on a Saturday night I can’t get to sleep because the fire alarm is going off.”

During Gascon’s term as SAITSA President, another fire-related incident happened at Owasina Hall.

He was coming back from a retreat with the SAITSA vice-president, when they saw scorch marks on the outside of one of the rooms in Owasina Hall.

It turned out that a fire in the building had severely burned one of Gascon’s friends and classmates, Mark Schooley.

“Sure enough, he was in the burn ward in the emergency,” said Gascon.

“He almost died.”

Gascon was told by hospital staff that when the fire department got to the floor where the fire had broken out, they assumed that nobody could have been left alive, and didn’t allow anyone back into the building.

“The firemen said [to] stay back, if there is anyone in there they’re dead, and beep beep, the door opens and it’s Mark, and he’s literally smoking,” he said.

Schooley suffered third degree burns over his whole body, but “always the clown,” he couldn’t resist making light of the situation.

“He says, ‘Anybody got a match?’ ” said Gascon.

Sportak recalled a story with less-severe consequences – pulling all-nighters to play Nintendo.

“We would play all night and we’d have sore fingers and sore thumbs and just do the fun things you’re supposed to do in college,” he said.

Owasina Hall hosted events and activities throughout the year for residents, like Rez barbecues, the Rez Rat Race, and cabarets, according to the 1993 yearbook from SAIT Archives.

Gascon said that there were no chain stores or restaurants on campus, and that students cooked in all of the cafeterias.

“The food was outstanding, internationally award-winning, it was such a different time with only one residence,” he said.

According to an oral history obtained through SAIT Archives, Paul Mastalir, a former culinary instructor and department head who worked at SAIT from 1963-86, occasionally taught basic cooking classes to residents at Owasina Hall.

Mastalir said that the cooking classes involved three hours of instruction, and a tour of a grocery store where he would show students how to shop for food.

“They seemed to enjoy that and, you know, there was no compensation for me other than the pleasure of being able to do something for them,” said Mastalir.

Living on campus at SAIT was attractive for students because it was inexpensive to stay there.

“Those students could live in a luxury house for [what they pay now],” he said.

Gascon said it cost approximately $300 per month to stay in the hall, compared to the $800 or more that students pay now.

“It was actually quite a bit of fun looking back on it,” said Sportak.

“It’s weird. I don’t really have any close ties, I don’t stay in touch with any of my old roommates or anything but I have good memories of pretty much all of them.”

Sportak and his wife of 24 years met one another while living next door to each other at Owasina Hall.

History has seemed to repeat itself, as Sportak’s son met his current girlfriend while visiting a friend’s room in residence last year.

“I’m pretty fortunate in meeting my wife, I can’t believe how lucky I was that way,” he said.

Sportak’s experience with college life, however brief, provides fond memories for him.

“Just kind of typical college kid type-stuff that seemed to go by in a blink of an eye, but when you look back it was a lot of fun.”

Gascon shared a similar sentiment on his time spent at Owasina.

“My memories of it are nothing but fond,” said Gascon.

“It’s where I found myself, coming to college, and what life is all about.”

Empty halls: Owasina Hall, the first residence building on the SAIT campus, was closed down in 2006 and has been used since by the RCMP and fire services as an occasional training ground. (Photo from SAIT Archives)
Empty halls: Owasina Hall, the first residence building on the SAIT campus, was closed down in 2006 and has been used since by the RCMP and fire services as an occasional training ground. (Photo from SAIT Archives)
About Sabrina Scarpino 5 Articles
As a writing and communications major in the journalism program at SAIT, Sabrina Scarpino is working as a reporter for The Press during the 2014-2015 academic year.