Section: Features

Kenyon in 1918: A world war, a pandemic and an academic term like no other

Kenyon in 1918: A world war, a pandemic and an academic term like no other


Kenyon, the oldest private school in Ohio, has a history marked by continuity. School has been in session since 1823, the Collegian has been around since 1856 and Old Kenyon has been the College’s most recognizable building since 1829. This otherwise consistent history, though, is broken up by infrequent interruptions that significantly alter what it means to be a Kenyon student. The most profound of these occurred in 1918, when even Gambier, Ohio fell under the shadow of a world war and a global pandemic. Much like in the current spring of 2020, life as a Kenyon student in the fall of 1918 was unlike any other time in history—and not only because of influenza.

As an influenza outbreak forced communities around the country into quarantine, the government turned colleges for training for the war effort. The Students’ Army Training Corps (SATC) was a program at approximately 600 colleges and universities. At the time, Gambier was not only home to Kenyon’s undergraduate program but also the affiliated Bexley Seminary, which trained Episcopal clergy in Bexley Hall. When including the Bexley students, Kenyon barely met the program’s 150-student requirement. It is unknown how many students participated, but according to College Historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana Thomas Stamp ’73, it is likely that a majority of Kenyon’s tiny, all-male undergraduate population of the time counted themselves among the SATC’s ranks.

In the fall of 1918, an undergraduate population of 127 put regular student life on hold to prepare for World War I. The SATC at Kenyon, in the words of Stamp, “played havoc with everything on campus:” The entire campus was turned into an officer training ground, while the west wing of Old Kenyon was converted into an infirmary to care for sick students, two of whom would die from the so-called Spanish flu.

As college life was put on hold, the Kenyon Collegian did not publish a single issue over the course of the fall 1918 semester, finally coming back into circulation on January 29, 1919. With the school newspaper and other mainstays of campus life on hold, there was nearly nothing written on campus at the time to document the period. Very little, therefore, is known about Verner Lee Hulse and Neal Jones, the two students who died.

In part because of the SATC, campus conditions were especially conducive to the spread of the flu. Students not only shared bathrooms and a dining hall, but were also required to be in close proximity from morning to night, from sunrise marches to mandatory study hall.

The 1920 Reveille, Kenyon’s yearbook, recounted the impact of the flu and the war effort, which defined the semester of fall 1918. Much like contemporary student discourse about the “Kenyon Crud,” the authors speak of the amazing rapidity with which the disease spread, something they attributed to the crowds of students in the Philomathesian and Nu Pi Kappa reading rooms for nightly two-hour study sessions. Furthermore, the Kenyon of yore was not without its occupancy problems; at the time, there were an average of four students to a room.

With the disease laying claim to Kenyon’s campus, the College converted the west wing of Old Kenyon into an infirmary. According to the Reveille, this did little to slow the spread of a disease that, unlike COVID-19, was known for its particular lethality among younger people.

“Every day for almost a week, men would be seized with the disease and faint while standing in ranks,” says the Reveille. “Ultimately, the West Wing was converted into a hospital and the ‘flu’ victims were there isolated, but not until they had had time to pass the germs onto others.”

By the winter, though, the disease had subsided on campus and the Great War had come to an end. With the end of the war came the end of the SATC: The government demobilized the roughly 600 collegiate training corps around the country on December 14, 1918. According to the Reveille, the College’s students, faculty and staff celebrated this day, which they believed marked the return of normalcy. With the end of both quarantine and daily marches, students celebrated their newfound freedom.

After the lifting of quarantine, which came just weeks after Armistice Day, the College organized a dance. The Reveille’s recollection of the night, filled with slang of the era, suggests that students partied into the late hours of the night.

“On Friday, December 6, Rosse Hall was a veritable fairyland for the men who had been kept under the quarantine for so long and they ‘tripped the light fantastic’ until the wee, sma’ hours to music furnished by Parker’s orchestra,” according to the Reveille.

With the fog of war also lifted that year, students spent the spring of 1919 returning to the Kenyon they knew.

The Reveille is particularly tongue-in-cheek in documenting the differences between student life during the previous fall and what “Kenyon men” were accustomed to. Dramatically, they say the SATC arrived on campus by “smashing every precedent and tradition that Kenyon ever boasted,” lamenting the loss of tablecloths and napkins in the dining hall. The writers remark incredulously on Kenyon students waking up at 5:45 a.m. and marching, making their beds, and cleaning the “barracks,” as the SATC called dorms, all before breakfast.

“Truly the government turned things topsy-turvy,” writes the Reveille.

In addition to smashing traditions, turning Kenyon into a makeshift training ground for soldiers meant that coursework was delivered in a different format.

“Academic work was practically useless, as it was constantly being interrupted when the military establishment ‘ranked’ the college authorities,” wrote then-students in the Reveille, “and whatever academic work was done was of a negligible quantity.”

While the flu took two of Kenyon’s students, Kenyon lost other graduates to the war that the College dropped everything for in 1918.

According to George Franklin Smythe’s Kenyon College, Its First Century, eight Kenyon graduates died in World War I. Their names are now inscribed on a bronze tablet in the Church of the Holy Spirit. Major William John Bland ’10 was one of two Kenyon graduates killed in battle and was also Kenyon’s first Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, where he served as president of the Oxford Union. At the time, he was the only foreigner to have held that position.

Despite the tragedy of war and pandemic, life went on at Kenyon and the years after the 1918-19 academic year saw the resumption of the proper academic rigor, the Collegian, napkins, tablecloths, and, one might wager to guess, less marches and more parties.

As Smythe writes in his history, published in 1924, the College retained its defining ethos despite the oddities of the 1918-19 academic year. He writes that one can learn physics and Latin or make friends at any college, but Kenyon’s character is all its own.

“And this is her excuse for being, this gives her a place such as no other college can exactly fill, and which could not be empty without loss,” Smythe writes. “This unique character and influence justify all the labors and sacrifices and gifts which for a hundred years devoted men have made for her.”

Kenyon’s students, faculty and staff, facing strange times then and now, look forward to tripping the light fantastic on the Hill again soon.

Becca Foley contributed reporting.

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