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Bouncing Back
Sprinklers watering Cummings Field in 1911. Historical photos courtesy Special Collections, Marriott Library, The University of Utah

December 9, 2008:

Continuum just learned that Parry D. Sorensen BS’36 passed away at the age of 92. He had been living in a retirement home in Salt Lake City, not far from his beloved U of U campus, and he kept in touch regularly with his five adult children who are spread around the country. He was very proud of them and wished to acknowledge their achievements in his biography, included here: Four of Sorensen’s children attended Harvard on scholarships, and his oldest son, Richard, was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. His son Dan received a doctorate at the University of Michigan, and his daughter Holly a master’s degree at Stanford. Son Mike BS’78 is sports editor at the Deseret News, and his youngest son, Bill, is a television producer in New York.

Parry D. Sorensen was a Utah Man to the core. Our sincere condolences to his family.

A brief history of Cummings Field, the U’s first stadium.

By Parry D. Sorensen

Byron Cummings
Professor Byron Cummings, who arrived at the U from Rutgers University in 1893.

There aren’t very many of us still alive who ever saw a football game on Cummings Field, which served as the University of Utah’s football stadium for a quarter of a century. It was located north of Rice-Eccles Stadium, where the chemistry building and Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse now stand.

The board of Regents named the field in grateful recognition of the efforts of a young professor of Greek and Latin—Byron Cummings—who arrived at the U from Rutgers University in 1893. Within a year he had organized a group to raise funds for U of U athletics. In 1897 he even coached the football team to an undistinguished 1-6 record. After that, he put all his efforts into raising money and teaching his classes.

Before moving to “the hill” (its present location) in 1900, the University of Utah campus was located on the current site of Salt Lake City’s West High School. Games were played on a field near 900 South and Main. Since there were no stands, spectators were scattered around the sidelines. Cummings moved among the audience, soliciting funds to support the team.

According to Prof. Walter A. Kerr, who wrote a history of Utah athletics, “Byron Cummings believed that athletics were an important part of our culture, not a luxury. He considered development of one’s body vital to the development of a person’s intellect.”

When the campus moved up the hill at the turn of the 20th century, Cummings and two other faculty members surveyed the site and picked out the spot for the football field. He then organized a group, mostly of students, who cleared the sagebrush and hauled in loads of sand and soil.

Before moving to “the hill” (its present location) in 1900, the University of Utah campus was located on the current site of Salt Lake City’s West High School. Games were played on a field near 900 South and Main. Since there were no stands, spectators were scattered around the sidelines. Cummings moved among the audience, soliciting funds to support the team.

From then on, Cummings had a hand in all the future development of the field. He directed a group of engineering students in surveying and installing a sprinkling system, and led another project involving layout of a quarter-mile track around the field. He recruited faculty members to serve as timers and judges at track and field events, and would even sometimes shorten class periods so that students could help workers on projects like installing a high board fence to make sure everyone paid for their entry into a game. The growing popularity of football meant adding more seats every year until by 1910 the red-painted wooden stands could hold 5,000 spectators.

The University of Utah football team circa the early 1900s.

Cummings’ efforts on behalf of athletics didn’t interfere with his academic life. On the contrary, he became dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and was acting dean of the medical program for two years. In civic affairs, he was elected to the Salt Lake City Board of Education. He spent summers in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona collecting artifacts, eventually being recognized as an anthropologist in addition to a professor of languages.

In 1915, after 23 years on the U of U faculty, Cummings left for a prestigious professorship at the University of Arizona, and later became president there.

Besides varsity football and intercollegiate track and field meetings, Cummings Field was used for outdoor physical education classes. Several East High School games were played there every season, and it was for many years the permanent site of the state high school track and field meets. There were no dressing rooms, so teams had to use the U’s gym about 75 yards away.

The last game played on Cummings Field was the traditional Utah-Aggie game on Thanksgiving, 1926. Both teams were undefeated, and the championship of the Rocky Mountain Conference was at stake. Tension was high. To meet the demand for tickets, three rows of folding chairs were placed on the track, and bleachers were added to each end zone. The Utes won 34 to 0.

That convinced everyone that Utah needed a bigger stadium. Thanks to the combined efforts of town and gown, the Utes opened the 1927 season in their new 20,000-seat stadium. Over the following 75 years, there were numerous additions and improvements, including 10,000 seats at the north end, where commencements were held and summer entertainment events were presented.

The cost to build the stadium in 1927 was $155,000. The price tag for expanding Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2002 was $55 million.

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Heavenly Days
By Linda Marion

Parry D. Sorensen BS’36 probably holds the record for longest-ever affiliation with the University of Utah. His association has lasted roughly 80 years, beginning when he was 10 years old and continuing well past his retirement from the U in spring 1993.

Young Parry grew up three blocks from campus and spent much of his childhood at the U—attending football games, selling hot dogs in the “new” (post-Cummings Field) stadium, and riding his bike across campus to caddy at the Fort Douglas Golf Club (75 cents for 18 holes). In 1932, during the height of the Great Depression, he enrolled at the U, along with about 3,000 other students. Tuition then was $30 a quarter. As a freshman, he began working at the Chrony as a sports writer, and then in his junior year, as editor.

After college, Sorensen went off to graduate school at Northwestern, where he received a master’s in journalism in 1940. He then freelanced, writing for the Deseret News, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Examiner, among other newspapers; he also spent four years with the FBI as a “special agent.”

In the fall of 1946, Sorensen was enticed back to the U as public relations director, a new position created to handle the postwar doubling of enrollment as soldiers returning from World War II took advantage of the GI Bill. Over the next 46 years, he founded and became the director of the PR Department and taught at least one journalism course every quarter, serving as a role model and mentor to thousands of students. In 1969-70, he was elected president and board chair of the American College Public Relations Association. In recognition of his many contributions, the U’s Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) became the Parry D. Sorensen chapter, and the Communication Department established a lectureship in his name. 

During his long tenure, Sorensen amassed numerous other accolades and awards, among them, the PRSSA’s 1986 Outstanding Teacher Award. At the 1990 U of U Commencement, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree.

Over the years, Sorensen worked under six University presidents and came to know more about the U than anyone else on campus. He witnessed the U evolve “from a good college to a great research and teaching institution,” and student enrollment grow from 3,000 to almost 30,000.

Sorensen describes his time at the U as “46 years in heaven.”

Communications Professor Robert Avery sums up Sorensen’s legacy thus: “Parry Sorensen is one of those rare faculty colleagues who seems larger than life. During his long and distinguished career at the University, Parry touched the lives of countless students who have never forgotten what he did to teach them their journalistic and public relations skills and to help launch their careers. He has left an indelible imprint on the U’s Department of Communication and the students we serve.”

Special thanks to Mike Sorensen for the photo of his father and for his assistance with this article.

—Linda Marion BFA’67 MFA’71 is managing editor of Continuum.

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