World War II Veterans at Williams

“The College known and loved by the returning remnants of ’42 through ’46, while basically unaltered, has yet so changed its face that it might truly be said that the mountains are all that have resisted the impetus.”

–1946 Gulielmensian

The end of World War II brought significant changes to a College that had been heavily involved in the War. During those years, Williams had to cope with the loss of most of its student body, its staff and professors, and even its President, James Phinney Baxter III. With the return of peace came the return of the faculty, staff, Baxter, and the students who had put their education on hold. However, the College also had to find a way to integrate wives of recently married veterans and new freshmen to whom an education was now available with the GI Plan.

Veterans who wished to return to their alma mater were given priority of enrollment, but the larger than normal student body tested the capacity of the Williams housing system. In many of the larger double rooms on campus–in places like West, Lehman, and Williams–three students were housed instead of two. Another serious question concerned the housing of married veterans and their wives. Unlike other campuses where couples were compelled to rough it in trailers, tents, or Quonset huts, Williams College converted its existing facilities into livable space. Greylock Hall was transformed into twelve apartments, the former military Barracks near Cole Field were fashioned into apartments, and some fraternities provided space for the couples.

This extremely successful accommodation of veterans and their wives brought the College national publicity. The Greylock Hall apartments received the most media attention. In a Record article, one female resident said: “All the wives, including myself, were very surprised at the extent to which the College had gone to make us comfortable and happy in Greylock. There is a kitchenette in every apartment consisting of a brand new frigedere, gas stove, and sink unit.” Greylock Hall interiorThe wives acquired additional furnishings and personal touches from mail-order services, second-hand stores, and from the wives of faculty members who donated their extra furniture. The apartments were featured on an RKO Pathe News reel and articles in Life magazine, the New York Herald Tribune , and the Women’s Home Companion . The radio show “Vox Pop” even did a broadcast from the campus in which the couples were presented with home appliances.

Williams wives also had the unprecedented option of attending classes with their husbands and actually receiving credit for their work. While a number of wives did audit classes, most had already completed their own college education while their husbands were serving in the military. Other wives were content to help their husbands by typing up class notes or assisting with homework. One husband quipped, “As soon as the faculty lets them write our term papers we’ll be all set.” Other wives were employed by the College doing clerical work, performing with Cap and Bells, or contributing to the editorial staff of the Record .

This media attention brought Williams into the “American reconversion spotlight” but alienated some of the other students on campus. They complained that the country was getting a distorted impression of Williams College. One student wrote to the Record :

The big problem, however, was in convincing our parents that Williams really wasn’t coed and that the money we asked for each month was spent on books and not girls . . . All we ask is a Bill of Rights for Bachelors. We ask that all future articles about Williams be removed from the Women’s and Fashion sections of newspapers. We ask that in future press releases some mention be made of the fact that single men do come to Williams occasionally . . . But all is not dark. Today people have a different reaction to the name of Williams College, and perhaps it is a healthier reaction than that which existed before the War. We used to hear, “Williams? Where’s that?” Today it becomes, “Williams? Where’s your wife?”

Much more controversy was generated by the mandatory continuation of a summer session of classes. The College faced the problem of accommodating hundreds of returning veterans and talented high school graduates who wanted to either continue or begin their education at Williams. Enrolled students complained that a compulsory summer term was out of line with Williams traditions, would make excessive demands on “mentally, morally, and physically tired” students, and prevent them from dealing with family issues or from obtaining the resources to finance their education. President Baxter did relent and gave students the option of applying for exemptions. However, each student was urged to consider: “Whoever leaves for the summer is depriving a veteran or a high-caliber civilian of a place at Williams, and he must seriously ask himself first whether he can and should make the sacrifice that others made for him.”

The summer term also put a financial strain on veterans who received money for school calculated at a daily rate, not per semester. Although the summer term was shorter than spring or fall, it earned a full semester’s worth of credit and cost the same amount of money. Deducting the additional costs from their allotted benefits might prove problematic if veterans hoped to attend graduate school. The1949 Gulielmensian hailed Williams’ return to tradition when the first two-semester year of the last five took place.

With the return of the student body came the return of various other Williams institutions suspended during the war. The honor system, dropped due to the government’s restrictions on the College’s naval trainees, was reinstated by a unanimous vote of the student body. To further the revival of sports and other campus activities, the Record called on each student to “assume his individual responsibility and take it upon himself to spend a portion of his time in pursuing some extra curricular activity. If each of us assumes this responsibility then there is no reason why Williams will not function again as before the war.”

The College also began some new organizations, instituting the Air Reserve Officers Training Corps in July 1947. At the completion of the four year Air R.O.T.C. program, the student was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force Reserve. Veterans were given credit for the first two years of instruction. The Williams College Placement Bureau was reorganized, improved, and put under the direction of William O. Wyckoff. Wyckoff explained, “The most important service which the Placement Bureau can now render is to assist in securing suitable positions in civilian life for alumni returning from the armed forces, or war work.” However, the reorganized Placement Bureau would be of service to all career-bound undergraduates.

As much as the students, both veterans and civilians, wanted Williams College to function as it once had, there was also a sense that it could grow into an even more significant institution of higher learning. One Record editorial, from September 1946, voiced this feeling. It announced:

We do not want a return to “normalcy,” if by normalcy is meant the days of carefree irresponsibility and lack of concern for anything beyond the next houseparty, the next drink, or the next trip to Smith. We want the post-war Williams to have its fun, but we want that fun to be a secondary feature in college life.
The post-war Williams must not turn out men who will ask rhetorically, “am I my brother’s keeper?” It must not turn out men subject to blind prejudices or open to emotional appeals devoid of reason. Graduates for decades to come will enter into a world in which democracy as a political form of government will be challenged by those who promise freedom from want. That challenge cannot be answered by patriotic appeals to the symbols of political freedom. It can only be answered by thinking men who will prove that the democratic way can provide economic hope for the people it serves.

By Jaime Margalotti (Williams Class of 2000)

Sources

“Honor System to Be Revived.” Williams Record . 26 September 1945.

“Campus Activities.” Williams Record . 14 November 1945.

Harris, Mrs. Larry. “Wife of Veteran Writes About Living Conditions of Greylock Residents.” Williams Record . 23 November 1945.

Klein, Judith. “Married Ex-Service Men Begin Academic and Domestic Routines.” New York Herald Tribune . 9 December 1945.

Redlich, Norman. “Veterans’ Wives Win Publicity as Bachelors Remain Forgotten Men.” Williams Record . 7 February 1946.

“Williams College Placement Bureau.” Editorial. Williams Record . 15 April 1946.

“Compulsory Summer Term.” Editorial. Williams Record . 3 May 1946.

“Students to Triple in Double Rooms.” Williams Record . 17 May 1946.

“Exemptions from the Summer Term.” Editorial. Williams Record . 17 May 1946.

Sheard, K.C. “G.I. Allowances for Short Semester.” Letter. Williams Record . 2 August 1946.

“No Normalcy.” Editorial Williams Record . 27 September 1946.

Gulielmensian (1946).

Gulielmensian (1947).

Gulielmensian (1949).