Fall 1997

Bluestone Journal

The Afternoon That Broke the Rules-
Madison's WWII Years

When word of Japan's dawn attack on Pearl Harbor arrived in Harrisonburg, it was 2:30 in the afternoon on Dec. 7, 1941.

Madison College students had returned to their rooms after Sunday's midday dinner and were changing from the dresses, heels and hose they had worn to church services.

Radios, just approved for student use in dorms the year before, were tuned, as college rules required, to soft music. But as agitated, urgent news bulletins of Japan's attack burst from their radios, stunned and excited girls rushed to turn up the volume and clustered to hear. That afternoon broke the rules. Their insular world was about to change.

Overt patriotism soon swept the campus. In January, President Samuel Duke warned the faculty to expect "restlessness." He appointed Bernice Varner to head a Civilian Defense Committee. Soon, classes in first aid, home nursing, canteen work, Signal Corps training, airplane spotting and knitting supplemented the usual college offerings.

Girls who could distinguish a DC-3 from a P-48 were allowed to leave for the local aircraft spotting center at 6 a.m. to report flyovers. Girls practiced Morse code across the desk tops and semaphore between dorm windows. Professors who once demanded attentive silence accepted the rhythmic click of knitting needles in the classroom. Girls rolling gauze in the dining hall produced thousands of bandages. Victory gardens sprang up on faculty lawns and behind the college library. Paper collection bins marked each dorm. Gov. Colgate Darden even visited to see the "corps" of girls who volunteered for the short-lived military drill pass in review wearing sweaters, skirts and saddle shoes.

War projects boomed - especially the canteens, social hours at downtown churches for convoys of soldiers passing through town. Miraculously, the girls, whose dates had to be on a parent-approved list, were allowed to attend "under proper chaperonage and with a representative of student government present."

Circumstances dictated social adjustments, including a more liberal policy on student marriage. Senior Minni Lee McLelland ('44), for instance, wed Warren Branch on Nov. 15, 1943. She received "Dr. Duke's permission to marry," she recalled 50 years later, "to visit Warren in Texas (he was a cadet in the Air Corps), and to return to Madison to graduate with my class after he left for England."

War reduced the faculty. Edgar Anderson, Anson Barber, E.N. McWhite, Melvin Pittman, Argus Tressider, Glenn Smith and Leland Schubert joined the service. Joseph Schneider had been tapped for special war work. As members left for duty elsewhere, Duke was grateful for long-timers. From the early decades, John Wayland was on leave and Elizabeth Cleveland retired in June 1943, but other remained: Althea Johnston, 1909; Margaret Hoffman, 1911; Henry Converse, 1912; Mary Louise Seeger, 1913; and Edna Shaeffer, 1915. All at home gave extra hours plus "Dollars for Defense."

And students followed suit, filling books of defense stamps at 10 or 25 cents to exchange for bonds starting at $18.75. The Breeze urged everyone to "Save ... and Save America." It also reported that faculty members Ruth Phillips and Myrtle Wilson's Scottish terrier, Bobby, "bought" defense stamps to aid the war effort, and that President Roosevelt's own Scottie, Fala, "wrote" to Bobby to commend his effort.

Meat, of course, was rationed along with sugar, and students brought ration books to school. Few complained about meatless days, sugarless cookies and eggless cakes. One shortage was cheered: The hated stockings mandated whenever girls left campus or went to dinner almost disappeared. Nylon and silk had gone to war. Lena Ritchie ('44) recalls, "Sometimes these were 'made' by drawing a brown line down the backs of our legs since we wore Bobby socks over them anyway."

Uniformed dates on campus added glamour to traditional cotillions, yet Nancy Gibson-Geiger ('44) cherished the memory of "our graduation prom with the men consisting of 4-Fs and dads. We were grateful to have them." Ellen Britton ('45) remembers a guest lecturer's horror stories: "Dr. Snyder had escaped from Czechoslovakia and told us how the German soldiers made them line up in the snow in their PJs."

Yet girls moved to tears by wartime films like Mrs. Minerva and Casablanca and by singing White Cliffs of Dover still managed a sit-down strike against the rules requiring that they wear hats and gloves downtown. They commiserated with the starving overseas, but relished treats at Friddles or Julia's, especially "having toasted pound cake with ice cream after the movies," says Jean Raup Grady ('45).

Since Dec. 7, 1941, the girls at Madison College had grown up. They asserted their independence, participated in the world around them and even managed to party in the midst of privation, worrying all the while about their brothers, boyfriends, husbands and professors fighting overseas.

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