When the United States formally became a nation in 1787, everyone involved, from George Washington down, knew there was a piece missing. The nation might be bound together by a Constitution, but it actually remained a conglomeration of states, religions, ethnicities, regions and cultures. The lack of national unity was a serious threat, as the Civil War would demonstrate.
But how do you create national feeling? As twentieth-century philosopher Allen Bloom put it: “How do you get from individuals to a people, that is, from persons who care only for their particular good to a community of citizens who subordinate their good to the common good?”
One solution turned out to be the campuses of American colleges. A campus where the future leadership of the nation gathered was a likely place to raise a student’s gaze to the larger picture. Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell, at his inauguration in 1909, spoke for most American college presidents of the time when he said Harvard’s purpose would not be to “produce hermits, each imprisoned in a cell of his own intellectual pursuits.” Human beings are first and foremost social animals, he said, “and it is in order to develop his powers as a social being that American colleges exist.”
That was the belief of Ernest O. Holland through his 29 years as president of Washington State College. In a weekly address to students in 1925, he said that the graduate who served society “has been true to his college ideals.”
Nothing unified the campus like interest in the school’s athletic teams. This peaked in the excitement of the WSC victory in the Rose Bowl in 1916. In the next few years students adopted the cougar as the school mascot and two students, Phyllis Sayles and Zella Melcher, wrote the fight song. Students managed to round up a stuffed cougar for a mascot.
But what really tested student “spirit” were difficult years. Weeks after the stuffed cougar was obtained, a band of marauders from the University of Washington stole it from Bryan Library and carried it to Seattle.
It was like a curse. The football team started a series of losing seasons. Whitman College, a harmless liberal arts institution in Walla Walla, beat the Cougars. To paraphrase Tom Paine, these were the times that tried men’s—and women’s—souls. The Evergreen exhorted students to back the players through the difficult times. It was a duty. The whole campus was responsible for a turnaround.
In 1925, the Cougars won the season opener, but then suffered four losses in a row. And the final game of the 1925 season was against the West Coast powerhouse, the University of Southern California.
The few radios on campus were tuned to the game and heralds shouted out the latest events. In the final quarter the score was 12-10 and WSC students were buoyed by the knowledge that they were going to lose to a national power by just a few points. Then WSC quarterback Butch Meeker took the hike and flicked it to halfback Bill Sweet, who was about to be toppled by two or three USC defenders when he planted his left foot and threw a long pass down the sidelines to a waiting John Parkhill. Parkhill tucked the ball against his ribs and sprinted to the goal line.
The Cougars beat USC!
Once students on campus were able to calm down, they realized now they had a responsibility. The students had to put together a welcome for the players commensurate with their accomplishment toppling one of the best teams in the nation.
Leaders called a meeting and Bohler Gymnasium was packed with students. There followed a debate about what kind of celebration the returning football players should find when they returned to campus.
One problem was that the team would be arriving on a weekday morning, when students normally were in class. President Holland was in Olympia at the time so students went to his chief assistant, Vice President O.L. “Dad” Waller, and put this question to him: Wasn’t it true every student was allowed three absences per semester? Yes, Waller said, that was true.
The problem was solved. Students could just spend one of their three allowed absences. Students spread the message that they could attend the ceremonies and only lose one of their three unexcused absences. There were no students in class and practically everyone jammed the trackside as the heroes of Los Angeles arrived.
Unfortunately, the calls to newspapers to advertise the big event prompted reporters to ask President Holland in Olympia if it was true that the college had released students from their studies to celebrate a football game. Of course not, Holland said. The headlines said WSC students had “walked out” on classes.
When he returned to Pullman, President Holland directed the faculty committee on student discipline to investigate what had caused this embarrassment. The committee called in student leaders one-by-one and a stenographer recorded the interrogations.
Student Harry Rymond admitted there was a mix-up in signals. But he asked if the college was going to regard it a “walk out,” why hadn’t the vice president told students that? A faculty committee member answered, “Vice President Waller was waiting for word from President Holland.” Rymond might have pointed out, but didn’t, that in the time it took the two administrators to clarify their policy, the students had called a campus-wide meeting, debated the matter, voted, organized four huge celebrations, with bands, and notified newspapers all over the Northwest.
Another student called before the committee was Sally Jo Walker. She was something of a character on campus. She led an all-girl band that was much in demand and earned her way through college by fetching students and their luggage at the train station with a horse-drawn wagon.
Walker told the committee she had not made up her own mind until she attended the mass meeting in Bohler gym. She decided to take part because she detected “a spirit of dissatisfaction that needed helping.”
When a committee member asked her to explain why, if students were going to break rules, the college and the state should allow them to remain in the state college, Sally Jo—who was studying to be a teacher herself—responded with a very wise observation. People who made mistakes were the very ones who should be in school because that’s where they could learn to do better.
No professor could have designed a better discussion of ethics and duty than that which followed the 1925 event. Students had demonstrated leadership in a larger cause. They were motivated by a sense of obligation. They set out to organize an orderly and memorable celebration and they did so. “As a matter of fact,” one member of the faculty discipline committee said, “better leadership than in most things we have had on campus this year.” These students were the forerunners of what would later be called “The Greatest Generation.”
The 1925 rally stood as the greatest demonstration of spirit until it was displaced by the event in 1932, when students devised and executed a plan to retrieve that cougar mascot stolen by the Huskies in 1919. That involved thousands of students, about equally divided between Huskies and Cougars, and made the national newsreels. But that’s another story.