‘Fraught with adventure’

Kristine Gill

The university’s first students blazed a trail for Kent Staters to follow.

Freshman Cori Verba remembers her first seven weeks at Kent State pretty well. After all, finding out you have three roommates isn’t the kind of thing you forget.


“At first it was kind of hectic,” the secondary education major said. “People were always coming in and out. It was also kind of awkward. We didn’t know each other at all.”


But the four girls living in a fourth floor lounge in Fletcher Hall were in good company. Verba started at the university in the fall of 2009 and was one of 259 students who lived in lounges or tripled up in dorms for the first few weeks.


It wasn’t the greatest first impression the school could have offered, but history does tend to repeat itself.


In 1913, just days before the first classes were to start on the Kent Normal School campus, the first student showed up to a school unprepared for her arrival.


Phillip Shriver, author of “The Years of Youth,” the book which chronicles the first 50 years of Kent State history, cited a 1933 Kent Stater article, which read, “Lowry’s first student slept on a mattress, in a room where the plaster was hardly dry, covered by several of Mrs. Johnson’s blankets.”


Lowry Hall was the first women’s dormitory, and Mr. Johnson was dean at the school and ran the show in the first few weeks while President John McGilvrey was sick with typhoid fever. The day after the first student’s arrival, Johnson had to find dishwashers for the breakfast rush and deal with various other complaints from students.


William Hildebrand, author of “A Most Noble Enterprise: The Story of Kent State University, 1910-2010,” writes, “One angry delegation of women students complained that the pies were cut into too many pieces; another that chirping birds kept them awake.”


But the beds came that day, and the school’s first students began to make the place their home.


So did Verba, and her lounge became a place where other students gathered.


“We made the floor,” she said.


The Lowry girls bonded, too.


Having been constructed in a clearing patch of dense thicket and underbrush, Lowry Hall stood seemingly alone in a wilderness. The nearby pond and dirt paths leading between buildings made for a campus that Hildebrand writes was “a place fraught with adventure.”


The first women to live in the dorms likened the scene to something out of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” a novel about the author’s experiment with living in the wild.


“The book is about him embracing real, crude living conditions,” said English instructor Ted Lyons. “So I assume that’s what they must have all been joking about; living in the backwoods.


“The idea that they’d be making jokes about Walden and about Thoreau is interesting. They were really in some ways closer to ‘Walden’ than they are to us.”


“Walden Hill,” as the women called it, would only resemble a piece of that wilderness for a few more years.


The growing number of students on campus prompted the president to build a temporary pavilion where classes could be held outdoors; it had only a thin layer of canvas separating studious pupils from the often-distracting elements. Heat and rain made it difficult to study in what they called the Tabernacle. By 1923, a women’s gymnasium, Moulton Hall, Kent Hall and a power and heating plant were constructed, as well as an administration building. Students who couldn’t fit on campus rented rooms in homes throughout Kent, Brady Lakes, Twin Lakes and Silver Lakes. Because women made up the majority of the school’s student body, the few men who attended lived off campus.


A smaller population of men created two problems. The first was the lack of available young bachelors. “Tree skinners,” apprentice Davey Tree surgeons living in Kent, were the solution.


“They supplied handy dates for the young women,” Hildebrand said. “I don’t think the young women were ever heard to complain.”


The second problem came on the football field.


“They didn’t have enough to make up a team,” Hildebrand said. “People thought they’d never win a game.”


The school’s first baseball team was comprised of both Kent Normal boys and high school students. By the 1920s when the men’s health and business courses were offered, more men were coming to the school and could join sports teams.


Meanwhile, the Roaring ‘20s and the Age of Jazz were sweeping the nation.


“The tremendous change toward sexuality affected the culture, especially in women’s fashion,” Hildebrand said.


“Women wore their skirts up high, and they danced on table tops.”


Hildebrand wrote, “Women started wearing their skirts shorter and shorter and bobbing their hair, painting their faces, smoking cigarettes, and riding, unescorted, in motorcars driven by men.”


Codes of conduct were difficult to enforce.


“They didn’t have much luck imposing them on those rebellious spirits,” Hildebrand said, adding that such codes continued through the 1950s.


At one point, a women’s adviser tried to impose a modest rule for her students.


“She insisted that the girls turn framed pictures of their boyfriends backwards so they wouldn’t be looking at them when they were dressing,” Shriver said.


In the meantime, the first on-campus newspaper began. The Kentonian was a small booklet printed weekly and produced by students. It would later evolve into a literary publication, and The Searchlight would emerge as the next news publication.


“The student newspaper, beginning with the Kentonian, was avidly read by students,” Shriver said. “It was their means of keeping up with what was going on on campus because there wasn’t radio, there wasn’t TV.”


While a community developed at the school, its president was facing more difficulties with the state.


Having successfully lobbied for the school’s name to be changed to Kent Normal College, he was even more determined to push for his goal of transitioning to a university. He would face roadblocks and opposition the whole way, eventually losing favor with the Board of Trustees.


But he maintained it with students. To prevent the suitcase campus effect, he brought in theater groups and singers and hosted Stunt Days and May Days to keep students active and happy.


“Their student body came primarily out of Northeast Ohio so there was a temptation for many of them to go home on the weekends,” Shriver said. “If Kent was going to be more of a national university, it had to provide activity over the weekends for those students who wouldn’t be able to go home.”


The students thrived, and McGilvrey pushed forward with the same energy he’d always possessed. But things would take a turn in 1926 when the college lost its leader.


Contact enterprise reporter Kristine Gill at [email protected].