This month marks the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entrance into World War I. It was a conflict that, according to College Historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana Tom Stamp ’73, resonated locally: The College’s first two Rhodes Scholars, William Webster Sant, class of 1914, and William John Bland, class of 1910, were killed in combat.
But even before the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917, students and faculty alike felt pressure to get involved in the war effort. One of the most prominent campus events in the early months of that year was a College initiative to send an ambulance to France. The project garnered support from students, alums and Kenyon’s 12th president, William Foster Peirce.
Peirce, an ambassador for the Red Cross, first tried to convince the College to fund the project in January of 1917. Buying an ambulance and paying for one year of upkeep would have cost $1,600 — more than $33,000 today, adjusted for inflation.
“The plan must be considered in an entirely unselfish light,” Peirce was quoted saying in the January 19, 1917 issue of the Collegian. “It is perfectly obvious that for its own prestige the College could get more direct returns by some such selfish use of its money as campus improvement. Some sacrifice is required, but it is not beyond the means of the students, and will help them to do their part in the terrible disaster across the seas.”
While it may seem like an odd cause, it was actually not unusual at that time for a university to fund an ambulance. Sponsoring Red Cross initiatives was common, and Peirce used this fact as an incentive to convince people to donate money for the project. He said, “Many colleges and universities have already sent ambulances to France, among them, Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, and many others. Among these is Hamilton College, which is no larger than Kenyon, this furnishing evidence that the financial strain will not be too great if Kenyon’s desire to act is as sincere as that of the other institutions.”
Guy H. Buttolph, class of 1892, of Honolulu, Hawaii, wrote a letter to the May 9, 1917 Collegian, in which he commented, “I see that steps are under way to provide a Kenyon ambulance. Tell the men of Kenyon that the University Club of Honolulu has sent an ambulance, and that a Kenyon man took part in providing it.”
The plan did not take off until March, when Peirce declared he would pay for the ambulance itself if the rest of the community raised the funds for the upkeep by April 1. A single gift of $1,000 was enough to purchase the ambulance, according to the April 21, 1917 Collegian issue. Students and faculty had to raise the remaining $600.
Peirce gave an additional $100 toward the upkeep costs, and Professor of Philosophy Joseph Larwill donated $100. Students, along with other Gambier residents, raised the rest.
“Within an hour after this announcement was made, the ambulance was assured,” that issue of the Collegian reported.
The 1918 issue of Kenyon’s yearbook, Reveille, printed a report on the vehicle itself, stating that the ambulance “has been operating with regularity.”
The yearbook’s opening pages contain a list of more than 200 Kenyon alumni who served in World War I, and it speaks of the ambulance when it praises Kenyon for being the first college west of the Allegheny Mountains “to subscribe in the interests of humanity.”