A bombing and a revolution

Kristine Gill

“I don’t know what stopped me from enlisting instantly,” he said. “Maybe a little bit of fear.”

But three years later, when Collins was a senior, he joined the Army.

“I really felt like I had to do my part as an American,” he said. “It was something I was proud to do. I was excited to do it. I wanted to go over and serve.”

Such was the sentiment of thousands of students across the nation on Dec. 7, 1941, with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“I remember when the news came that they had attacked the fleet,” Phillip Shriver, author of the Kent State history book called “The Years of Youth,” who was a student at Yale University at the time. “The attitude had changed 180 degrees on campus.”

Students went from viewing the war as a foreign concern to feeling they had to defend themselves.

“The line from recruiting station on Monday after Peal Harbor was more than a block long of students volunteering to go into the military service,” he said.

While the war would mean economic prosperity for the country as it rallied in war production efforts, it would be disastrous for Kent State.

“Enrollment was at 2,700 before the war,” Shriver said. “That figure dropped to 600 during the war.”

“For the most part college and university attendance went down significantly,” said history professor Bradley Keefer. “The war effort required both men and women power.”

Extension classes, which were still being held at the time, suffered more.

“Many of them virtually dried up,” Keefer said. “They didn’t disappear, but they were cut back to the point where they were at the bare minimum, bare bones.”

If the university escaped a fate as an insane asylum during the Great Depression by the skin of its teeth, it was by an even smaller margin that it escaped a worse fate during World War II.

The devastating dive in enrollment made employing faculty and staff difficult.

The same men in uniform who had rushed to the defense of the country after Pearl Harbor would come to rescue the university.

“It appears to me that the Army was seeking sites on university and college campuses on which Army air cadets could engage in military training, but also take coursework in the classroom,” said Cara Gilgenbach, head of Special Collections. “KSU seems to have applied to be considered as one such site and in March 1943 was informed that it had been selected as an army air cadet training site.”

The KSU Annual Catalog, dated 1943-1944, said the university’s dorms and classrooms were found in excellent condition for the training of aircrew trainees. The recent development of an aerospace program on campus and the newly acquired Stow airport put Kent State over the top.

“Therefore, on April 1, five hundred uniformed men were brought to the campus to study physics, mathematics, English, history, and geography under the civilian university faculty in preparation for their flight training,” the catalog read.

The 336th Training Detachment breathed new life into a crippled school. Its doors remained open despite the almost 5,000 students, faculty and staff who had enrolled in the war effort.

Meanwhile, William Hildebrand, author of “A Most Noble Enterprise: The story of Kent State University 1910-2010,” said the university had stopped most all student activities.

“There was very little activity on campus from 1943 on,” he said. “It was a pretty desolate place.”

Football, theater, fraternity and sorority activities ceased. Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, students had arranged an annual Rowboat Regatta on the Cuyahoga and began the Sadie Hawkins Day and Dance tradition.

Student life may have suffered, but Shriver said the war did much for the school’s reputation. The 336th Training Detachment had become a model for other universities in America, and Kent State found another way to help the war effort.

Shriver writes that the university leased the top floor of McGilvrey Hall to the B.F. Goodrich Company for the development and research of synthetic rubber to aid in the shortage.

“There, a group of Kent State students, most of them chemistry majors, assisted in experiments which led to the development of GRS-10 (Government Rubber, Styrene, Type 10),” he wrote.

Amidst the all-encompassing effect of a world war, the university continued to deal with its own problems.

James Engleman had retired after 10 years as president of the university, and a new man was in charge.

“He finally decided to retire because he stood in the way of rebuilding,” Hildebrand said. “He was tired too.”

Karl Leebrick was chosen to replace him. Leebrick had a background in liberal arts and the trustees were confident he could steer the school in its effort to transition from college to university. He did so, but at the expense of his relationship with the faculty.

“He was prickly, he was suspicious, he was impatient,” Hildebrand said. “He was abrupt, and he was very rude in his behavior toward the education faculty.”

But he had an energy that propelled the school forward.

“He was an outstanding orator,” Shriver said. “He liked being on the stage and the focus of public attention.“

Hildebrand writes in his book that at a pep rally during his first fall semester he “surprised the students by leading cheers with the abandon of an undergraduate cheerleader.”

Engleman had been a conservative man, a Republican in strong opposition to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal. So despite the fact that the school was growing and in need of new dormitories and classrooms, nothing was built during his presidency.

“He hated the New Deal, and he was a man of integrity,” Hildebrand said. “He wasn’t going to be trapped into applying to the New Deal for money.”

Under Leebrick, and with federal and state money, the school added a new science building, which they named after John McGilvrey, new baseball and football fields, a dormitory named after Engleman and parking lots for the students who now regularly drove to campus.

The new president rearranged the curriculum, the colleges and the faculty to fit the liberal arts mold.

As Hildebrand writes, “He moved always boldly, if seldom tactfully, to reconfigure the basic structures, programs, and academic relationships of the school.”

His era was called the “Leebrick Revolution.”

Contact enterprise reporter

Kristine Gill at [email protected].