‘The Golden Years’

Kristine Gill

KSU was poised for greatness after WWII

It was on a Sunday afternoon in 1946 that Roger F. Di Paolo and three fellow veterans decided to visit Kent State.

“They lived in the Ohio Valley and one of them had heard about Kent,” said his son, the current Record-Courier Editor, Roger J. Di Paolo. “None of them had wonderful job prospects in the valley, so they said, ‘Let’s go to college.’”

On the day he went to register for classes, Di Paolo’s father seemed a bit out of place.

“While registering, the woman asked which college he was applying for,” Di Paolo said. “She meant arts and sciences or education. But he said, ‘Well this one of course.’ He said they must have looked like they just came off the farms.”

Di Paolo’s father would later become an attorney and retire as a judge.

“They were older students,” Di Paolo said of the veterans. “They didn’t have time to put up with nonsense. They didn’t come to campus to drink or party. They came because they were older and needed an education. They wanted to apply themselves to their studies, get the degree and move on.”

Di Paolo’s father was able to pursue higher education because of the GI Bill. Di Paolo wrote about the effect of the GI Bill on the Kent campus in a March 24, 1996 “Portage Pathways” column. His columns about the university and the city were compiled in his book “Rooted in Kent: 101 Tales from the Tree City.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the bill in 1944 to provide college or vocational training for the millions of veterans who returned to the United States after the war. Thousands took advantage of the bill at Kent State after WWII and thousands more after the Korean War ended in 1953. In total, 10,000 veterans studied under the bill at Kent State by the time it expired in 1956.

At some points, the number of veterans outnumbered non-veteran students at the university.

“In that period, there was a tremendous leavening effect that the veterans had on campus,” said William Hildebrand, author of “A Most Noble Enterprise: The Story of Kent State University, 1910-2010.” “They had such dedication and energy. They were superb students.”

Phillip Shriver, author of “The Years of Youth,” agreed.

“The veterans, men and women alike, were with rare exception serious-minded and purposeful,” he wrote. “Most were older ­— some many years older ­— than the ‘civilian’ students. Appreciating the fact that they had to ‘make up’ the years spent in the service, the majority were determined to absorb as much of a college education as they could in the shortest possible period of time.”

To accommodate the overwhelming number of students, Wills Gym was converted to temporary living quarters with bed frames and coat racks.

Leftover army barracks were brought to campus to comprise what students called Terrace Lodge. Eventually, Terrace Hall would be constructed to replace the barracks. It would serve as a new dorm for women along with Verder Hall, constructed in 1956, and Johnson Hall, which was for men. Each was named for a faculty member rather than an administrator, which was typical at the time.

Many vets advertised their need for housing in the streets of Kent. The sported sandwich boards, which read “Bed for a Vet,” and many were able to find housing with families in the area.

Di Paolo’s father had to live off campus in what he called “the projects” in Windham, where almost 400 rooms were available for vets.

“It was barrack-style apartment housing erected in early 1940s for the Ravenna Arsenal,” Di Paolo said. “Basically, it was government housing. After the war was over, there was space there. That’s where they put a whole bunch of mostly single male students.”

A shuttle took veterans from the barracks to campus each day.

“If you missed the bus, you basically hitchhiked a 50-mile roundtrip,” Di Paolo said.

Those shuttles would evolve into today’s bus service.

On campus, life was transforming into a vibrant university culture. The overwhelming number of vets not only contributed to overall academic enthusiasm on campus, they also increased the demand for social activities.

“The veterans that came back were very interested in athletics,” Shriver said. “They were the reason for the dynamic growth of the athletic program. They were also interested in fraternities and sororities.”

Hildebrand came to the university in 1948 and recalls his years in the journalism and English departments with fondness. His wife, Ann, who graduated in 1955, was one of the first women to live in Terrace Hall.

“It was quite a time. There was no doubt about it,” he said. “And it’s not just my own nostalgia. Anyone who went there saw it the same way.”

Playful freshmen hazing took place that required “frosh” to wear blue and gold dinks. They were small felt hats that freshmen were to raise and tip at the sight of an upperclassman. Freshmen eventually asked for an end to the tradition, which few followed, in 1956.

“I did see at least one person scrubbing the seal with a toothbrush,” Hildebrand said, referring to the arched entryway on the corner of South Lincoln and East Main streets. “That was typical of the Greek life.”

Hildebrand wrote in his book that for classes “women wore pleated skirts, sweaters (sometimes cashmere) with pearls, bobby sox with saddle shoes or bucks. Men wore sports jackets or sweaters, shirts and ties, argyle socks with saddle shoes or bucks. Glasses were horn rimmed, hair was trim, cigarettes were almost obligatory, though some smoked pipes for the professional look.”

Women were still expected to follow the 10:30 p.m. weeknight curfew. They were not to ride unchaperoned with a man around campus and had later curfews on the weekend.

“There was a feeling of prosperity, not just economic, but psychological,” Hildebrand said. “There was a sense that people coming to college were living apart from the busy world outside. That was something that would change radically in the 1960s.”

Overseeing it all was the new university president, George Bowman. Under the previous president, Karl Leebrick, the school made progress toward full university status. He had rearranged the curriculum and broken the building dry spell, adding McGilvrey and Engleman Halls.

But his personality finally cost him his job. After squabbles with faculty, Shriver said the trustees were ready to dismiss him. He left in 1943, and Bowman was hired.

“He brought a very straight hand to the university,” Hildebrand said of the new president. “He was a master administrator and a great academic leader. He was a very, very fine man.”

Shriver knew Bowman personally. Having been hired in 1947, he grew close to the president who would set the longest presidency with 19 years. Bowman and his wife invited freshmen to their home for Frosh Week during orientation each fall. Hildebrand wrote Mrs. Bowman was nearly as well known as her husband.

They called his time as president ‘The Golden Years.’

“That term fits that period because Kent was a first-rate undergraduate college at that time,” Hildebrand said. “It had the campus atmosphere of a small private campus. There were lots of trees. It was more beautiful even than it is today.”

As the world reached the brink of a new decade, the university was preparing to celebrate a milestone of its own. The semi-centennial celebrations of 1960 would mark 50 years since President John McGilvrey first started extension classes in and around Kent in 1910.

Students and faculty celebrated by bringing guest speakers to campus, making a recording of university songs, presenting special theatrical and music productions, compiling a history of the university in book format and by burying a time capsule to be opened in 2010.

Shriver remembers the year primarily because of his work on “The Years of Youth,” which President Bowman asked him to write.

“He gave me a copy of my book that he inscribed to me,” he said. “He wrote, ‘To a tried and true friend of many years. George A. Bowman.’”

Kent Normal School had gone from training teachers to a full-blown university with 7,554 students, 339 faculty, 33 buildings and at least 50 more years ahead of it.

As Shriver concluded in his book, “The years of youth were over. The years of maturity were now beginning.”

Contact enterprise reporter Kristine Gill at [email protected].

Number of students in 1959: 7,554

Number of WWII veterans in 1950: 2,557

Number of Korean War veterans in 1959: 1,190

Number of campus buildings in 1960: 33

Number of library volumes in 1959: more than 170,000

Number of faculty in 1959: 339

Most popular boys’ names in 1960: David, Michael, John

Most popular girls’ names in 1960: Mary, Susan, Maria

Credit: “The Years of Youth,” “A Most Noble Enterprise,” Infoplease.com