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On a roll: For decades, the Union Underground has been a place for fun and friendship

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Photo by Evan L'Roy.

Beneath the rumbling of student traffic in the Texas Union, wooden pins crash and billiard balls collide. 

Here in the basement, 12 bowling lanes, 13 billiard tables, three air hockey tables and one foosball table are open to the campus community and the public. Year-round, different departments, student organizations and teams gather to have fun and relax in this recreational space. 

Kevin Ray, the Union Underground’s senior retail manager, became a University Unions staff member when he was an undergraduate in 1999 and has worked in the Underground for the past 13 years.

“It wasn’t the plan, but it’s the way it went, and I enjoy it,” Ray says. “I enjoy working with students. I enjoy being here. This is a fun place to be.”

The Underground still looks much as it did when the bowling lanes were installed in 1960. Neon signs on the walls were installed during renovations in 1993. And since the mid-’80s, university employees have been meeting in the Underground for their bowling league. 

From left to right: Neon signs give the alley a classic feel. Kevin Ray is the Union Underground’s senior retail manager and has worked in the Underground for the past 13 years. Louise and Matthew Nelson bowl together on March 10. Photos by Evan L'Roy.

Tuesday through Friday every semester, staff and faculty members trickle into the Underground to spend an afternoon hour in the alley. Teams of two bowl head-to-head each week and gain or lose points over the course of the semester. At the end of the season, awards are given to winning teams and individual scorers.

On Wednesdays, Phil Gavenda arrives early with his lunch from the food court on the main floor. The IT professional says he has been bowling in the Underground since he was a student in the 1970s. When he began working for the university, he joined a colleague on a team called Twisted Pair. The team has rotated in several staff members, but Gavenda has kept its legacy going for about two decades.

“I like it,” Gavenda says. “We get to contact new friends from across campus that we would’ve never met otherwise.”

Across the room, senior software developer/analyst Alejandro Correa practices his left-handed technique — he had to switch throwing arms due to an injury. A few lanes over, newcomer Beth Rutter, a senior business analyst, ties her shoes and picks out a ball.

Since 2001, Louise Nelson, a principal software developer/analyst, has spent her Tuesday lunches bowling with the Underground league. Her current bowling partner is her husband, Matthew Nelson, who works in the Office of the President. She says she has always loved this break in her day.

“It’s nice to do something that doesn’t involve having to think,” Louise Nelson says. “I have a job that requires a lot of deep analysis, and sometimes stepping away and doing something else will help me come back refreshed.”

Nelson comes to the Underground for a quiet lunch every once in a while, too. In the summers, she says, the space is “one of the coldest places on campus, bar none.” She also says she enjoys the company of the longtime staffers of the Underground.

Technician Robert Waters has been keeping the lanes running since 1987. Since then, he has become an unofficial secretary for the league, preparing the lanes for members every day before they come to play.

Ray, who also bowls in the league, says the point of the friendly competition is to “blow off steam and have fun.”

In his time as manager, he says he has been working to increase staff, faculty and student involvement in the space. Recently, he also has been involved in plans to update the Underground with a new look and new technology. Work started this spring, and Waters and Ray say they are looking forward to seeing how it all turns out.

“I’ve been in the Underground through several different changes,” Ray says. “I’m excited to be here for this, as well. This will be the biggest one I’ve been involved in.”

Editor’s note: At the time of publication, the Union Underground was closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Find out more here.