All those boys

September 7, 2021

Back Then

Campus is exuding renewed energy as we inch closer to more normal routines after last year’s significant but necessary precautions. An earlier generation of Spiders would recognize the buzz. Seventy-five years ago, UR roared back to life after a worldwide crisis.
By Matthew Dewald

The odds were not in their favor. In the fall of 1946, a student’s chance of getting a seat to eat in the dining spot that everyone called “the slop shop” was 0.06666 — “in round figures,” added Bob Mundy, R’47, the student who calculated it.

The problem was too many students. Seventy-five years ago, UR enrolled a then-record 3,330 students, blowing past the previous high-water mark of 2,174, according to The Collegian. They crowded classrooms and the registration windows in Millhiser gymnasium, caused long lines for textbooks and coffee, and prompted the university to hire 21 additional faculty.

UR’s sharp enrollment increase was part of a tidal wave of higher education matriculation across the country as college-age men returned from Europe and the Pacific after World War II. With GI Bill benefits in hand — the legislation had passed quietly in June 1944, as D-Day dominated the news — veterans went to college in unprecedented numbers. (America’s young adults were also getting busy in other ways. Census figures show that about 600,000 more babies were born in the U.S. in 1946 than in 1945, marking the beginning of the baby boom generation.)

At Richmond, the impacts of the enrollment surge were evident across campus, if contemporary coverage in The Collegian is any guide. Football coaches welcomed back bigger, stronger players “after three years with Uncle Sam,” as one reporter put it. Another reporter wrote that a theater professor “saw the light” when he discovered that “the old playhouse, veteran of two world wars and still standing, will never be the same again. ... The windows have been washed” to spruce up the place for additional faculty office space. In the Sept. 20, 1946, issue, the editorial board could not contain its glee for “a movement that is definitely under way to meet one of the greatest needs of the university ... : the organization of a 60-piece marching band.”

Not everything was quite so light-hearted. Serious traffic issues emerged, including a dangerous near-miss involving a student driver and a child at a local school. There was also a temporary textbook shortage, soon sorted out by the campus bookstore through urgent telephone calls and telegrams to weary publishers trying to meet the increased demand.

The returning men also caused a severe gender imbalance, as Richmond College’s enrollment surged to nearly three times Westhampton’s enrollment. Student perspectives varied on this aspect of campus life. The male students generally complained, but from a Westhampton columnist came this refrain: “Men, men, men around campus.” She then quoted a classmate: “You should have seen all the boys who danced with me.”

One of the most significant challenges was housing, and gender again played a role. For the men, the university repurposed some surplus army barracks from a nearby base. A faculty member greeted this solution with the suggestion that the university also make use of surplus camouflage paint to obscure the “monstrosity.” The women, meanwhile, scored construction of a new brick dormitory — today’s South Court.

One or more pranksters submitted anonymous name suggestions for the new residences. For Richmond College’s secondhand barracks: Paradise Lost. For Westhampton’s sparkling new dorm: Paradise Regained.