War Comes to St. Olaf
APRIL 6TH, 1917! A state of war against Germany was declared in Washington! As in every nook and corner of a great nation, life on the campus of St. Olaf was revolutionized. Up went the flag on Old Main never to be taken down until after Armistice Day, except when worn by winds, suns, and rains it was replaced by an untarnished new one! It is customary now, as it was not then, to have the flag flying on Old Main every day that school is in session. And so in a special way those days the flag called forth and gave expression to the deep emotions that stirred us.
There was tension, a restless sense of uncertainty, and an eagerness to do something. There were rallies, parades, and drives of various kinds. One of the most colorful of these was the Red Cross parade. Women students dressed in Red Cross white aprons and head dress with bodices variously red or white or blue were led by the military band. With our towering Richard Hofstad, his height accentuated by his striped Uncle Sam outfit, carrying a huge American flag at the heady the procession marched down St. Olaf Avenue to Division Street. There it was joined by other groups participating in the big community parade on behalf of the Red Cross.
There were not too many activities that could be organized during the remaining weeks of the 1916-1917 school year. During the summer, however, I attended a session at the University of Wisconsin where a course in Red Cross work was offered that would qualify me as director of such work at St. Olaf. By the time that college opened in the fall, we as a people were deeply involved in the war. Friends, relatives, fellow students, teachers had begun to enlist. While every effort was made to impress upon students that doing good work while attending college was also a form of patriotic service, they felt the need for doing something that involved them more directly. Particularly was this felt by the young women who had no opportunity to enlist in military service. As a consequence many of the trivia of extracurricular activities were dispensed with and the young women banded together in the St. Olaf Auxiliary of the Northfield chapter of the Red Cross.
Then the program began in earnest. A room in the west wing of Mohn Hall which had been a piano studio but now served as a reading room was converted into a surgical dressing room in which the young women under the direction of trained student supervisors made some 18,000 surgical dressings. Others learned to knit wristlets, mufflers, helmets, socks, and sweaters. Red Cross courses in first aid were organized. Similarly, courses in home nursing were taught by local R.N.'s. Food conservation classes under the direction of Miss Minnie Anderson, chairman of the home economics department, were required of every senior woman. The certificates awarded upon completion of the course, signed by the then Food Administrator, Herbert Hoover, are still prized by the recipients.
One evening the Boarding Club served a demonstration meatless, wheatless, and sugarless dinner at which the members of the faculty and their wives were guests. There were interesting vegetable dishes, fruit for dessert. But the conversation pieces were the peanut-rice "meat loaf" and the barley bread and gravy. Barley flour was regularly substituted for wheat in the Boarding Club menus "for the duration."
During the year a number of the college organizations gave up their usual winter or spring banquet and contributed the money that would have been spent on this to some war effort. They contributed generously to the various war drives: Red Cross, YMCA, Lutheran Soldiers and Sailors Commission, Victory Bonds, etc. The Women's Student Government Association drew up a voluntary War Time Service Pledge which a large majority of the women signed. Through these simple and unspectacular avenues of service our young women felt that they were doing their bit in helping "to make the world safe for democracy." There was no question as to their earnestness or as to the patriotic fervor that dominated the Hill. Social gatherings had patriotic themes; the new songs "Over There," "Tipperary," "K-K-Katy,' "There's a Long, Long Trail A-Winding" were added to the repertoire of community songs. "A Treasury of War Poetry" and other similar books made such poems as "Flanders Fields" and "I Have a Rendezvous with Death" household familiars. Ever closer and closer to us came the war as successive weekends during the winter and spring of 1918 saw one group after another of our men put aside their books and leave for the training camp. There were few left that June when college closed.
Because the War Service courses offered had been favorably received, a War Service Institute was set up for two-and-a-half weeks in June immediately following the close of school in 1918. This provided intensive training in the various areas of home war service for students going back into their home communities and also to anyone else in town or vicinity who wished to avail themselves of such an opportunity.
President L. A. Vigness, who had kept the course of the college steady during this first year of the war, resigned to accept the position of Executive Secretary of the Board of Education of the then Norwegian Lutheran Church of America, and L. W. Boe succeeded him as president of St. Olaf.
Then came the fall of 1918, never-to-be-forgotten by anyone connected with St. Olaf at that time.
About three weeks before the opening of college, St. Olaf was authorized by the War Department to participate in a new and rather hastily conceived program of organizing a Student Army Training Corps (S.A.T.C.). This meant that the men at the college, if physically fit, would be enrolled in this Corps, in a program combining academic and military training. It was a way to insure a somewhat normal enrollment of men and also to make use of college facilities for training men for military service. The Corps was to be an official Army unit and its members were U.S. soldiers. So now, Ytterboe Hall, the men's dormitory, was to become a barracks, the gym a U.S.O., the co-educational dining room an army mess hall with no girls allowed! How to provide for them? Fortunately when Mohn Hall was built, the plans called for dining facilities for women in the east portion of the ground floor. But this spacious room and adjoining kitchen space had never been equipped for their original purposes. It had been used as a social center and had also served as the women's gymnasium.
The time had now come to put this area to the use for which it was intended. The necessary gas and electric connections had to be made, refrigerators and steam kettles installed. Stoves, kitchen utensils, work tables, dining room tables and chairs, and other equipment of many sorts had to be selected, purchased, delivered, and put in place! A staff had to be secured. Fortunately we were able to retain Miss Carrie Eide, who had been in charge of Ytterboe Hall dining room, and put her in charge of the new Mohn Hall refectory. This is one of the many occasions in the life of the college when one wants to pay tribute to the resourcefulness, drive, and cooperative spirit of P. O. Holland and John Berntsen. On the afternoon of the Sunday before school opened the finishing touches were being put on the dining room; white, crisp, just-finished curtains were being hung in the windows, plants placed on the sills, and Mohn Hall dining room was ready to receive its first contingent of diners.
It was strange at first not to make our usual three-times a day trek to Ytterboe Hall, but our new place was light, cheerful, attractive, and convenient. We liked it. But what it took time to adjust to was the composition of our group. With the exception of ten men we were a group of only girls and women. Of the ten men who ate with us, one was a foreigner, several were on crutches, and the rest were 4-F's.
This segregation at meals was illustrative of most of the college community life for the remainder of 1918. It was certainly a strange and bewildering collegiate world into which the freshmen, men and women alike, entered with no previous experience of a normal college life. In the morning we were awakened by reveille from Ytterboe barracks followed by the staccato roll count by the members of Company B and C drawn up in formation in front of Ytterboe Hall (Company A was at Carleton). During the day there was the "1, 2, 3, Hup" of drill and at night the haunting sound of taps. The men of the S.A.T.C marched in formation from Ytterboe Hall to Old Main for their classes. Classes over, they re-formed on the steps of Old Main and marched back to Ytterboe Hall. Most of their academic courses were such as War Aims, Military Sanitation, Communications, etc. At times the men were so tired from drill that they had difficulty in keeping awake in the classroom. These men were most fortunate in having a man like Dr. C. A. Mellby as their teacher in War Aims and Professor William Benson to serve as their immediate chief officer under Commandant Lieutenant Lord, whose headquarters were at Carleton. I might add that the young women had their classes in Old Main too, but they followed a conventional college program not shared by the men.
Sentries were always on duty outside of Ytterboe Hall, and time and again we would be startled by their sharp "Halt." The turf was worn thin where they walked their beat. No civilian passed that line unchallenged. So literally did some of them take their responsibility that until they learned better they challenged such officials of the college as President Boe and P. O. Holland, the business manager! There was an all-college mixer as I recall the first Saturday night of that school year, but from that time on there was complete segregation in classroom, at meal time, in activities, in chapel seating, in everything. It was as if there were two entirely separate educational institutions occupying the same campus and having some of the same instructors, but otherwise having nothing to do with each other. Just once did we break the barrier when we got the inspiration to convert Mohn Hall parlors into a Y.M.C.A. canteen for the afternoon and secured the permission of the Commandant for the S.A.T.C. men to come for coffee and doughnuts. They came, had their doughnuts and coffee, and most important of all, visits. And that was the co-educational social event of the season!
To make matters even more unnatural for our students that year, there were added to the abnormalities of a campus military camp those of a wide-spreading and frightening epidemic. The Spanish influenza that had been so devastating in Europe had come to America. People were dying by the hundreds. In many small towns and rural areas in the Middle West, exhausted doctors and nurses were unable to keep up with the needs for their services. Many of them became ill themselves. Entire families were stricken. Many were dying in nearby towns, some after only a day or two of illness. People began to make comparisons with the Black Death that centuries ago ravaged Europe.
In view of the fact that so far there were no cases in Northfield and immediate vicinity (although communities not far away were hard hit), the college went into voluntary quarantine in the hopes that we might in this way avoid an epidemic on our campus. That meant that no one from the outside was permitted to come to the campus, no parents or friends, and that no student was allowed to go off-campus or beyond his place of residence if he lived off-campus. For any exception, which had to be a real emergency, a pass had to be secured. The cooperation of the students in maintaining this quarantine was simply superb. We did have a 6th of November (Founders Day) program that year which traditionally was also Homecoming. But the only visitor we had was the Reverend Gustav Stearns, Chaplain in the Army, who gave the address at the morning program and as soon as that was over was whisked off the campus, taken care of until train time, and then departed for his home.
Our quarantine seemed to be paying off well; for all around us came reports of the spread of the flu and its increasing severity, but no case had developed among us. Early in the morning of November 11 came a thundering knock on the front door of Mohn Hall. The major of Northfield, Mr. A. O. Netland, was there to inform us that an armistice had been declared. The word spread through the dormitory. In the joyous exuberance of that moment we had to celebrate in some special way. It was decided that we all go out to the brow of the Hill in front of Old Main and hold an impromptu festive service there. I shall never forget the combined solemnity and joy of those moments and the fervor of the singing of every patriotic song we knew, plus the closing "Now Thank We all Our God" and "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow" in front of Old Main in the "dawn's early light."
In strange contrast to the joy and exaltation of those early morning hours came the harsh fact a few hours later that the Spanish influenza had come to our campus, that fifteen of our S.A.T.C. men were down with it, that our little college hospital was now already filled. What would we do to isolate and care for others who would be taken ill? Beds were set up temporarily in the large laboratory and classroom in the basement of the Chapel and on the rostrum in the Chapel proper. An S.O.S. went out to President Boe who was attending a meeting in New York City. He immediately got busy contacting the Army about doctors and nurses. Meanwhile arrangements were being made for flu vaccination of students and teachers. Our college nurse, Sister Ovidia, also came down with the flu after caring for patients a couple of days. A wonderful nurse, Miss Dora Langem, was secured to be in charge of the Chapel patients. Some of the girls who had taken the Red Cross Home Nursing Course volunteered to serve as aids and some of the boys as orderlies. Meanwhile more and more of the S.A.T.C. men became ill and the basement of the Chapel was one vast ward. Several additional nurses had been recruited by this time. Dr. Erik Giere of Minneapolis, one-time student at St. Olaf and long-time friend of the college, came to assist the local doctors. As a result of his recommendation classes were canceled for the time being, and the well boys moved from Ytterboe barracks to be quartered in the classrooms in Old Main. Ytterboe Hall became a hospital and the sick boys were transferred from Hoyme Chapel to individual rooms in Ytterboe. None of us who witnessed it will ever forget the sight of the sick boys being carried on stretchers from the Chapel to Ytterboe in an almost continuous procession for an entire afternoon.
Everything now centered on the care of the sick and the prevention of further spread of the epidemic. Frantic parents telephoned for their children to come home, but now there were absolute quarantine restrictions. No one was permitted to leave. By this time we had a large emergency staff assembled, an Army doctor from Ft. Leavenworth, Dr. Douglas S. Scrivener, and ten nurses. From that point of view, students who became ill could be far more assured of good care than if they were in their home communities.
The girls were kept busy making flu masks and pneumonia jackets although most of the latter were made by the Northfield Red Cross women. The home economics girls helped the overworked kitchen staff, made soups, cocoa, and other hot drinks for the patients. In between times they wrote letters, tried to work on the assignments given them for the interim, and participated in such out-door sports activities as could be provided. Of wonderful assistance at this time too to the nursing staff and the boys was Mrs. Martin Romstad, mother of one of the most seriously ill, who came just to help and to be a mother to those who were ill.
Four of the boys died from flu complications within a few days of each other and many others hovered between life and death for several days, but recovered. Another picture indelibly etched on one's mind from those days is of a flag-draped coffin in a hearse just outside the Chapel, (we were not allowed to hold any funeral service inside the building), a five-minute sermonette and prayer by President Boe, the slow descent to the foot of the Hill accompanied by the Honor Guard, and then taps.
Four times within a week we gathered for such a farewell service.
As serious and sobering an experience as this epidemic was it did have an occasional humorous aspect. When it broke out there was a flurry to get "flu masks." These were made by the Red Cross girls. Everyone, faculty members and students, was provided with several masks each and told to wear them when in a group. The assemblage at chapel the next day with faculty members seated on the rostrum and students below facing them, all in masks, was an incongruous sight. But the time the group had managed to get through the opening hymn the situation had become almost hilariously funny, the more so because everyone was so serious about it all. Suffice it to say that after that chapel service the masks went off only to be put on by those who for one reason or another might be in contact with someone who was
The administration of the flu vaccination also had its humorous aspects. This was done in Mohn Hall on a mass basis. That fall we were having a great deal of trouble with our lights in that building. Every once in awhile they would go out and candles would temporarily have to be used. It gets dark early in November. Right in the midst of the assembly-line vaccination the lights went out and everything was in darkness. The students were keyed-up and frightened enough anyway and this only added to their tension. In the darkness we heard first one thud and then another, to find when we got our candles lit that several had fainted but fortunately fallen unhurt to the floor.
At length the siege was over and classes were begun again. All this time the flu had been confined to the S.A.T.C. men and to some of the helpers caring for them. Then on December 6th one of the girls in Mohn Hall was reported ill and it was found she had contracted the dread disease. In order to avoid the possibility of another siege of the epidemic it was decided to close school immediately for the Christmas holidays on December 7th, a week before the scheduled date. And so ended, amid intense excitement, the pre-Christmas period of the abnormal school year 1918-1919. No Homecoming festivities, no college parties, no Christmas concert, but on the other hand a serious confrontation with some of life's basic realities that made of those college months a unique maturing experience.