After World War II, Bill Fitch left the Army, packed his duffel in Seattle and, with the U.S. government’s guarantee of free college tuition, headed to Pullman. When he and Al Smith, a fellow veteran and high school classmate, arrived at Washington State College, they found themselves on a campus crowded with thousands of GIs.
Spurred by unprecedented growth in student numbers from the “GI bulge” in the late 1940s, the small rural state college was becoming a modern higher education institution, and a decade later would bloom into a full-blown university. Wave after wave of student-veterans, a faculty newly empowered to govern itself, and a surge of married students triggered a cultural shift on the campus. As the nation was redefining itself after the war, so was WSC.
The changes wiped away remnants of old hierarchies among the students and pulled the school into an era of growth, academic achievement, and new focus on science and technology. Under the guidance of Wilson M. Compton, Washington State’s fifth president, the burgeoning college entered a new era.
“They converted the school from a small college to a true university,” wrote historian George Frykman in Creating the People’s University. Seizing the opportunity to modernize not only the buildings on campus, but the instructors who filled them, “Compton greatly increased the stature of the faculty and gave them a voice in university governance.”
Seventy years later, echoes of that era surround Washington State University as it reaches new levels of student enrollment, enlarges and refocuses its campuses, and continues to be seen as a military-friendly school.
“Crowded, Isn’t It?”
As World War II ended in 1945, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944—commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights—offered opportunity for the scores of soldiers returning to the United States with a guarantee of free tuition and weekly stipends for living expenses. The bill helped millions pursue degrees, and by giving them an option besides hitting the streets to look for work, steered the country away from an unemployment crisis. In the peak year of 1947, veterans accounted for 49 percent of college admissions nationwide.
The effect on Washington State was profound. President Compton set a policy in early 1945 that no academically qualified veteran would be denied admission. Subsequently, enrollment skyrocketed from 2,700 to 7,000. The 1947 Chinook opened with a series of student-filled photos of the campus, with the caption “Crowded, Isn’t It?”
Many of the GIs “arrived on campus wearing uniform remnants—a warm sailor’s peacoat, army tan pants, or unpolished government-issue boots,” wrote William L. Stimson in Going to Washington State: A Century of Student Life. These new-style students were more serious and mature than their traditional classmates, intent on receiving an education, and not afraid to challenge the administration and faculty. And they needed places to live.
At first the surplus of new students found bunks and hammocks in the Women’s Gym and berths in the Temporary Union Building (TUB). Then the college bought migrant housing in Oregon and had it dismantled and moved to Pullman. The wood sections became four big GI dorms: North House (on the site of the future French Administration building), South House (across Farm Way from North House), East House, and West House (below the current Fine Arts Building). The long, two-story buildings looked and felt like familiar barracks for the veterans, down to the thin bunks, poor heating, and squeaky floors.
Built for 385 residents, the structures were bursting with nearly 500 at one point. The landscape around the new dorms conjured memories of slogging through battlefields; it became known as “Mud Hollow,” as the mushy farmland around the buildings splattered the shoes and pants of students making their way up the hill to class.
“We had to take our meals up on campus, so we strapped on our mukluks and galoshes to get there,” says Fitch ’50, who lived in West House where they bunked three to a room with a single bathroom and shower for the whole floor. His situation significantly improved when he moved to the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity in 1947.
Outside of the new halls, GI students filled basements, attics, and spare rooms all over town. The fraternities opened up mid-year recruitment to accommodate the influx of new students. Yet all the housing for former soldiers couldn’t address another major change in the population: families.
Unlike the pre-war college that had just a handful of married students, a large contingent of GIs arrived with wives, some with children. Scrambling to house those families, the college administration brought wartime housing from Vancouver and Richland. The small homes along Fairway by the golf course and others near the old hospital served this generation of students and several generations more until the last of them were razed in 1982.
Fitch met his wife Alice (Broderick) ’49 while he was sports editor and she was a managing editor at The Evergreen. They married in 1949 and Alice moved out of Delta Gamma sorority. “We lived in a Pullman house with three other families. [Married student housing] was crammed all over town,” says Alice Fitch.
A huge trailer court along the banks of Paradise Creek below campus became home to 304 married students (many of them veterans), spouses, and children. Known as “Trailerville” it became the scene of one of the most dramatic events of the post-war period.
On January 7, 1948, the creek swelled and threatened to swamp Trailerville with a surge three feet higher than the trailer court’s ground level. Around 500 students and Pullman residents built a dike of 20,000 “sandbags” filled with split peas from the Klemgard Pea Processing Plant and sand from the nearby Doten Trans-Mix Plant. The dike, extending into Pullman, diverted the extra water over what is now Bishop Boulevard. It was reportedly the highest level the creek had ever reached.
“Unfortunately, that day’s record as ‘worst ever flood’ was short lived, and a month and a half later, on February 21, the creek’s waters rose up and threatened the camp again, this time a full foot deeper than January’s flood,” writes University archivist Mark O’English. The students and townspeople built an even larger dike, and once again saved the trailer court.
Four days later, the waters of Paradise Creek rose one more time, only higher than the previous two floods, overwhelming the sandbag dam, swamping the trailers, and trapping many of the sleeping residents. “A human chain was formed across a narrow crossing (waist deep) and the victims were passed along and out to safety,” reported the student paper.
President Compton opened a cafeteria to flood victims and offered his house as a staging center for displaced students. Within 12 hours, all had found places to stay. The crisis response not only showed the civic spirit of the college and town, but it highlighted the discipline and training of the former GIs.
“It is a miracle no lives were lost. If it had not been that we had a group of war trained veterans, there must surely have been a loss of life,” trailer court owner Loyd Bury ’28 told the Evergreen.
The GIs take over
The GIs and the married students of Trailerville and Fairway represented not just a housing conundrum, they created a cultural shift on campus. The old codes of conduct and the hierarchical systems among students (such as forcing freshmen to wear beanies) did not suit the more worldly young men who had seen the horrors of war or had lost friends and family. As Stimson wrote, “A letterman’s taunting of ‘Come here, frosh!’ too often ended in a fist fight.” The new GI students challenged the old rules. The beanies disappeared, as did harassment of underclassmen. Drinking became an accepted part of campus life, especially at the American Legion.
The new students’ independence emerged even in matters as simple as physical education uniforms. In September 1947 letters to the Evergreen, J.H. McLerran ’50 and Don Ross ’50 railed against the requisite red shorts and Cougar t-shirt. “We thought the days that we could be told what to wear and when to wear it were over. … Doesn’t this person realize that uniformity is the one thing we don’t want? If we liked uniformity, we would have re-enlisted,” wrote McLerran.
This generation of students brought maturity and focus to the classrooms, too. Professors, as well as women students who had enrolled during the war, noted not only the desire of the veterans to learn, but also their willingness to ask questions in their classes, many of which, incidentally, were held in Quonset huts because of a paucity of available space.
Even as they prioritized their studies, a number of veterans stepped into student politics. Before the war, fraternities had dominated student government, but the overwhelming number of independent GIs changed the dynamic. The 1947 student president Dick Downing, for example, was a married veteran with two children. The independents promoted practical interests: better food, more housing, less mud around the dorms. They also took a firm position on cross-campus issues like the need for a permanent student union building.
The TUB, a converted gymnasium, was large enough for dances and dinners, and had a smaller hangout space in its basement called “The Drain.” While the students adapted the space with a jukebox playing Frank Sinatra and Perry Como, and Saturday dances, coffee, and burgers, the TUB just wasn’t big enough to meet the needs of everyone. In 1949, a student delegation lobbied the legislature in Olympia for money to build a new, larger student union.
“We had two or three carloads of kids who went to Olympia,” says Bill Fitch. “In those days, we had an activist, ‘get it done’ attitude.”
For the first time, students from Pullman involved themselves in the political efforts of the college around financial support. The state leaders rewarded them with the Compton Union Building, the CUB, which, even today, remains the heart of the Pullman campus.
The Compton Era
President Wilson Compton, namesake of the student union, wasn’t seen as a students’ president when he took the reins of Washington State in 1945. Nonetheless, and in spite of his short tenure, he came to be identified with the changing student body and the metamorphosis of the campus.
An economist and 25-year timber industry lobbyist, Compton hailed from a prominent family of education leaders and scholars. His father, Elias Compton, was president of Wooster College in Ohio. Brother Karl, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, was president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other brother Arthur was president of Washington University in St. Louis. The Compton brothers were featured in a Life magazine photo weeks before Wilson Compton’s inauguration as WSC president. Princeton University, where all three had attained graduate degrees, named a quadrangle for them.
The Washington State College Board of Regents chose Compton for his business acumen and political connections. Many newspaper editorials applauded the selection and declared him a practical man who could lead the college in a new direction. But the enthusiasm was not universal. Gubernatorial candidate and eventual governor Mon Wallgren blasted Compton for his lack of connections to the state and agriculture.
Compton’s wife Helen stirred up some reactions of her own through her contact with students and behaviors in town. “Helen Compton served as an unofficial inspector general, constantly searching the campus for problems that needed to be fixed,” wrote Stimson in Going to Washington State. No detail was too small. She ordered Todd Hall walls to be painted in pastels and was known to drop in unexpectedly on students. A 1949 cartoon in the WSC student humor magazine Fo Paws showed Helen Compton telling a bird how to build a nest.
Compton’s quick and colorful six-year tenure was one of the most important periods in the history of the school, wrote Frykman. In that time, he not only oversaw the enrollment surge, he implemented a “Council of 40” faculty members, precursor to the faculty senate, and brought professors into the governance of the college. He also standardized faculty evaluation, started a faculty manual with written employment regulations and rights, and improved retirement and pension plans for faculty and staff.
“For the first time the faculty was given a voice in the running of the school, and it was a critical step in the direction of the college becoming a true university,” Frykman said in a 1990 interview.
Compton shepherded increased student autonomy as well, moving the archaic administrative positions like dean of women into a student counseling service, and pushing for more student self-governance.
Many remembered him not just for these efforts, but as a man who cared about students. The Comptons hosted big picnics at the president’s residence, where the president would play his guitar and sing with the students. After Compton was asked to resign from WSC, Life printed a letter from George Goudy, who would be student body president in 1952, and Keith Jackson (of future sports broadcasting fame), student president in 1954. They claimed Compton’s greatest achievement was not new buildings “but the personal fatherly touch he has maintained with the students.”
Compton retired at the insistence of the Board of Regents in 1951, after causing a stir with his reforms in faculty governance and college administration. His philosophical differences with deans, regents, and even some faculty and alumni led to his dismissal. Life magazine weighed in again with an article titled “Picture of a Good Man Who is Getting the Ax” and a number of photographs of Compton with his famous family and in front of buildings constructed during his time at Washington State.
“I was disappointed when Wilson Compton left,” says Bill Fitch. “He put WSU on the map at a pivotal, developmental point.”
Compton’s greater vision for Washington State ultimately came to be. In his January 1946 inauguration, Compton said by 1960 “I see a great center of industrial and agricultural technologies with modern laboratories, housing great scientists; a library which has it and can find it when you want it; a Student Union, the congenial campus meeting place of 10,000 young men and women … a place for married students … a busy airport, a few more Vince Hansons [a student athlete who excelled in baseball, basketball, and track], and a great rush for seats on the 50-yard line.”
The president left in his wake the makings of Holland Library, a new student union, improved married student housing, and an increased research presence in laboratories filled with military surplus equipment. He had even proposed a Spokane campus for the college on the site of Fort George Wright. A group from Spokane secured the fort from the Army as a reserve depot just as Compton was lobbying in Washington, D.C. for what would have been Washington State’s first branch campus.
Today, the patterns of those pivotal GI and Compton years persist. The Spokane campus, along with Tri-Cities, Vancouver, Everett, and a WSU presence in every county, continues to grow. The changes he made to the faculty governance system and other modernizations in the operation of the University continue to the present. Though the number of veterans enrolled today hasn’t reached the thousands as it did after World War II, WSU is still ranked among the military-friendly universities in the country. Enrollment at all campuses hit record numbers for the 2014–15 year.
As they did a half century ago, the sounds of construction fill Pullman as new buildings to house students and expanded classrooms and laboratories come to be. Those same sounds emanate from WSU sites around the state. The progress today has roots in that critical period in the late 1940s when the college started to grow into a university.
A Nagasaki letter :: WSU manuscript librarian Cheryl Gunselman tracked down a WWII-era letter for archivists at Los Alamo. The letter withstood the second and, to date, last nuclear attack in war.