This past summer, the Indiana University Archives hired me to focus on some of the Archive’s time-based media (i.e., tapes and film) that have gone through the Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative. The goal has been to work on the description of the pieces — some of which had nothing more than “Side A” or “Side B” — and to work with the head of the Libraries’ Copyright Program to determine what level of access we can provide.
Given my background as a PhD student in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, one of the first projects I was tasked with were the recordings digitized from the Department’s records here in the IU Archives. There are a few different chunks of recordings within the records; this post focuses on recorded conversations from a 1998-99 Visions of Place project sponsored by local businesses and the Indiana Humanities Council. A subset of the larger project was Common Ground, a public folklore initiative of which the Indiana University Folklore Department was a partner. This project focused on understanding the meaning of community and neighborhood within Bloomington and Monroe County. Descriptions of the “Photo Days” and story collecting sound quite similar to modern-day “History Harvests” which we sometimes see hosted by local historical societies around the country. Included with these recordings are some from 1996; it seems likely that the interviews and conversations between folklore graduate students and professors at that time influenced the development of the Common Ground public folklore initiative.
The recordings in this collection document weekly summer meetings between professors and a team of six graduate students as they developed plans for a public service folklore project in Bloomington. Ultimately, the group decided to work towards building community between local senior citizens and children through joint folklore programming with the then neighboring community centers, Kid City and Older Citizens Center. The recordings, on audio cassette, capture the group’s discussions about team fieldwork methodologies, ethical concerns in public folklore, and the relationship between Indiana University and the Bloomington community, both historically and at the time of the recording. The topics remain prominent in folklore studies today.
The conversations include IU folklore graduate students and professors Henry Glassie and Phil Stafford, with the latter asked to reflect on his community service work in the Evergreen Project. The Evergreen Project invited a nursing home community in Bloomington to reflect on their sense of place. The team delegated tasks and then reported back on their progress in building connections in the field. They reflected on weekly readings, discussing problems in teamwork, volunteering, and race and class relations in fieldwork and public folklore.
Also included is an interview by folklorists John Cash and Inta Carpenter with Keith Enright. Enright worked on a public folklore project to preserve Indiana folklife and heritage with one of IU’s most prominent folklorists, Dr. Warren Roberts. Their work focused on analysis and preservation on the oldest farmstead in Monroe County, the Mayfield Homestead. Enright’s research and preservation work on the pioneer homestead revealed centuries-old architectural evidence that the design was likely inspired by mystical symmetry invoked by the Freemasons. Enright also discussed the history and future of development in Bloomington and his own family heritage in the Midwest.
Additional recordings include Chancellors’ Professor and anthropologist Anya Peterson Royce on the topics of public folklore, fieldwork relationships, and service learning. Her interviews discuss her experiences with fieldwork, race, and service in Indianapolis and Martinsville, Indiana.
Finally, the Common Ground initiative closed with a group oral history interview with Russell Shaw, a local photographer and photography shop owner who shared information about his extensive collection of historic Bloomington photography.
Although all of the project participants verbally acknowledge they are being recorded, because they could have never imagined they would be streamed online, at this time researchers must contact the Archives staff for access. Further description of all of the recordings can be found within the collection description for the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology records.
Inventorying educational program titles from Indiana University’s former Audio Visual Center’s holdings has revealed a number of humorous, odd, and niche-interest titles. But while combing through programs like “A Nickel for the Movies,” “Guess Who’s Pregnant?” and “Using a Spectrophotometer,” I found the bizarre little 16mm film “Chucky Lou.”
“Chucky Lou: The Story of a Woodchuck” is a short, black and white film running just over ten minutes long which was marketed towards kindergarten and elementary aged children. The 1948 film, one of the best-selling programs produced by the IUAVC, follows the story of a plump little woodchuck from her natural habitat to her relocation and “taming” at a pet house in McCormick’s Creek State Park, just 15 miles northwest of Bloomington.
With cheerful, jangly music accompanying, the film opens on the six-month-old woodchuck in her natural habitat – a meadow- and provides educational background on her diet of grass and clover, and her dwelling in a burrow underground . Chucky Lou is found by a woman on her stroll near the meadow. Deeming the woodchuck sick because she is lying on her back in the sun, the woman catches Chucky Lou and picks her up with her bare hands “carefully” because, as the narrator stresses, Chucky Lou is “wild and had sharp claws and teeth.” The woman’s husband then takes Chucky Lou to the animal caretaker at McCormick’s Creek to be placed in the Park’s Pet House. It is stated in the film that the caretaker was actively seeking a woodchuck for his park, presumably to round out the animals present and attract visitors. This is perhaps due to the emphasis on public engagement in the parks at this time. In the 1930s, McCormick’s Creek had became the first park in the state to conduct school programs. The 1940s saw the creation and adoption of a guide manual for naturalists across all of Indiana’s parks, and the implementation of nature guides at the parks. In 1950, just two years after the production of “Chucky Lou,” McCormick’s Creek would hold the first naturalist training institute.
From a modern perspective, the film appears to be a manual for how NOT to handle wildlife, emphasizing the woodchuck’s transition from wild to tame and celebrating moments where she is dressed up in doll clothes and fed peanut brittle in exchange for tricks to lackluster responses from her child audience. The teacher’s manual which accompanied the film even frames Chucky Lou as “an unusual pet” and encourages teachers to use the film to spark discussion among students about topics like “tricks they have seen animals perform” and “how to train pets.”
The teacher’s manuals also reveal the actual circumstances behind her capture, stating:
“The story is true, with the exception of the sequence about the young woodchuck’s being sick when she was found in the woods. Actually the woodchuck had been orphaned by hunters”
It is curious that this change was made, with the outcome of potentially spreading misinformation to young viewers about the appropriate identification of and response to sick animals.
It is easy to pick apart the flaws in the treatment of Chucky Lou, and I was dismayed that “Chucky Lou’s” documented wide-spread popularity no doubt led to the spread of unethical practices to a lot of children. The application of modern knowledge and standards to actions seventy years in the past, however, is ultimately not productive. While the film may not age well from the perspective of wildlife conservation, “Chucky Lou’s” popularity nevertheless speaks to the human fascination with our animal neighbors, a fascination which, if used responsibly, can have amazing outcomes. This film perhaps can be re-framed as a means to explore ethical practices in wildlife interactions. These explorations can serve to highlight places in Indiana which work to provide safe, ethical care for wild animals and responsible public education, led by trained professionals such as naturalists whose profession began with McCormick’s Creek.
Today, organizations such as the local non-profit Wildcare Inc. provide care to sick, orphaned, or injured wildlife with the foremost goal of rehabilitating the animals back to the wild whenever possible. Guidelines for the appropriate handling of injured or sick animals today are vastly different – providing precautionary measures for both the safety of the intervening human and the animal in question. While Wildcare Inc. stresses that, in the vast majority of cases, animals should in fact be left alone, it provides detailed instructions for the identification and assessment of the condition of animals on their site. In the event an animal is determined to require rescue it is important to remember three guidelines until the animal can be picked up:
Never handle an animal with your bare hands
Keep the animal in a warm, quiet, confined space
Do not feed or water the animal – leave that to the professionals!
While wildlife like Chucky Lou could have been rehabilitated, some animals cannot be candidates for a return to the wild. Some who have been bred in captivity or have been rescued from private ownership may have been maltreated or may lack basic survival instincts and may be taken in by rescue sanctuaries like the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point or the Black Pine Animal Sanctuary in Albion. Other rescued wildlife from nature may have sustained permanent injuries which makes it impossible for them to survive if returned. Frequently these animals become what is known as “ambassadors” for interpretive and educational programming done by organizations which house them. Wildcare utilizes this practice of employing animal ambassadors for public education as does Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis in their programming.
I asked Will Schaust, an old friend, former naturalist at McCormick’s Creek State Park, and the Ornithology Center Manager at Eagle Creek, to answer a few questions about the role of wildlife in education and ethical practices surrounding captive wildlife.
How long have you worked as a naturalist/what is your background/work experience?
I have spent the last 10 years working at different parks throughout Indiana. First, I was a camp counselor for an environmental education camp at Holliday Park, then spent 4 years as a seasonal at McCormick’s Creek SP, and finally ended up at Eagle Creek as Manager of the Ornithology Center. Each of these jobs had direct involvement with working alongside education animals including reptiles, amphibians, and birds of prey.
As someone who works on interpretive programs involving wild animals today, what were your first impressions of “Chucky Lou”?
There’s quite a bit to unpack here for sure. We’ve definitely come a long way in the methods that we care for education animals but also in how we deal with wild animals. It’s incredibly interesting to me that a woman was so compelled to pick up a “sick” animal without knowing much about it. Granted, the golden age of environmentalism didn’t come until the late 60’s/early 70’s so before that the ecologic practices of mankind were well intended but often fell short of their desired goal. We didn’t really consider our environmental footprint until the Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 1969. Additionally, the idea of keeping all of those animals that close together without any visual barriers seems like a poor choice. And peanut brittle should never be given to wild animals.
As someone who has worked at McCormick’s Creek as a naturalist, do you have any information on the pet house where Chucky Lou was housed? I have tried to find any information on it and have been unsuccessful.
From the look of it, that could be the camp store near the Canyon Inn, but it could also be the CCC Rec Hall (I believe that used to be an old nature museum. Wyatt Williams at MCCSP would have more details). Beyond that I don’t have much info.
Do approaches to the use of wild animals in interpretive programs differ today? If so, how?
Without question. Most of the state parks have a rule that during the recreation season (typically May-October) you can keep a wild caught reptile or amphibian on display for 90 days then you must return it back to the wild, for mammals and birds there are stricter regulations. I also think the addition of permits and tighter regulations also lends well to better care and use of education animals. Professional organizations and government agencies are continually coming up with better policies to ensure a higher quality of life for these animals while they are in our care. I will add, nature centers/ambassador animals are among the last group of folks to get on board with these approaches. For years zoos have had a standard evaluation for their exhibit animals but only within the last 3 or so years have applied this to their ambassador animals.
What factors do you think have contributed to the way we view the ethics of wildlife in interpretive programming?
I think the overall quality of life is considered more these days. More specifically, avian trainers are moving strictly to a choice based, positive reinforcement training model in the hopes that we can reduce the overall stress of our education birds as opposed to forcing the animal to participate in programming. There’s a fine line between treating these animals as pets and making them comfortable and stress free during their stay.
What are the goals of the Eagle Creek Ornithology Center when it comes to the management and utilization of captive wildlife?
Eagle Creek Ornithology Center Raptor Program Mission Statement: By providing exemplary care, husbandry, training, and enrichment for our Raptor Ambassadors, we hope to foster a sense of wonder, enthusiasm, and stewardship for the natural world, and to inspire action towards conserving the species that visitors encounter at the Ornithology Center and during our programs.
At the end of the day, our goal is to provide as much of a stress-free environment for our birds as we can. We are working each and every day to ensure that our birds are participating in training and programming because they choose to. We are using operant conditioning and positive reinforcement to build up our trust account with each bird so that when we need to do something stressful (medical treatments, trimming beaks and talons, changing their equipment) they will be quick to recover from that. We understand that a live animal is the best prop you can have in a program, but we also want to convey a message of conservation, responsibility, and provocation our audiences towards helping these species in whatever way they can.
The film seems to reinforce the idea of Chucky Lou as a “pet”. What do you think about the ownership of wild animals as pets?
WILD ANIMALS MAKE TERRIBLE PETS. Thanks to movies about a certain wizard boy people love the idea of having owls as pets. Truth is, owls are not great pets at all. They’re awake when you’re sleeping and vice-versa, you constantly have to clean up after them, and very few vets will treat wild animals if something goes wrong. Aside from that, trying to find resources about the care of that animal like diet, healthy weight range, and behaviors might be really hard to come by. There’s no guarantee that they would get along with other domestic pets. Above all else, it’s also ILLEGAL to have these species without the proper paperwork and permitting.
I know that the DNR lost control of the regulation of privately-owned captive wildlife in 2015, with jurisdiction instead falling to more vague federal guidelines. Do you think this has led to an upswing in the ownership of wild animals as “unusual pets”?
You hope not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case. I personally haven’t seen too many examples of this, but I think that if the opportunity presented itself someone would take that chance.
Lastly, what is your opinion of animal sanctuaries such as Black Pine Animal Sanctuary or the Exotic Feline Rescue Center which serve as potential refuges for animals which have been rescued from private ownership?
I think that they are a Band-Aid on a much bigger issue. The folks are these centers are doing the best job they can to provide these animals a place where they feel safe, well fed, and cared for and this is not to discredit their work. If people let wildlife remain wild then I think many of these issues wouldn’t be as prevalent. It may start out innocent enough, feeding the ducks at a park is a great example. But if you try and interfere with the natural order of things, expect that there will be consequences. We as a population need to understand that we do not need to be a part of every natural function out there. I know the idea of keeping an unusual pet might sound appealing, but without the proper training it usually ends up doing more harm than good. Look at the python epidemic in the Everglades, it began with exotic pet trade operations nearby and once those snakes got too big they were released into the Everglades and now they are completely changing the ecosystem and decimating fauna populations.
For those looking to make a dedicated commitment to our natural resources, the state offers the Indiana Master Naturalist program , an in-demand initiative to educate and accredit volunteers for natural resource management.
Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive is currently working to remaster the University’s copy of “Chucky Lou: The Story of a Woodchuck.” For further information on the archival materials accompanying “Chucky Lou” and other educational programs in the former IU Audio Visual Center’s collection, contact one of our archivists.
Behind the Curtain is a series highlighting IU Archives staff, partners from various departments of the IU Libraries, and students who make all of our work possible.
Title and Role: Michelle Crowe is the IU Libraries Director of Communications. She helps IU Libraries tell our story to students, staff, and faculty as well as coordinates with members of the media who seek to access our expertise and resources.
Educational background: Michelle was a nerdy 7th grader when she was selected for a summer camp at Ball State University focused on the very first forms of desktop publishing. She came back to Owen Valley Middle School (go Patriots) and began working on the student newspaper. It felt natural for her to attend Ball State and major in Journalism, but an internship exposed Michelle to Public Relations and she added that focus. She is currently taking classes at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs for her certificate in Nonprofit Management.
Previous experience: Michelle thinks you are probably less interested in her experience spilling drinks on campers at the Canyon Inn, but during her professional career she has worked almost exclusively for nonprofit organizations. She started in healthcare at St. Francis Hospital in Indianapolis, but then found her dream job – Community Relations Manager at Anderson Public Library. When she moved to Bloomington, she went back into healthcare communications at Bloomington Hospital (now IU Health) before eventually joining the IU Libraries.
Partnership with the IU Archives: According to Michelle, the IU Archives is a dream client for any communicator. Storytelling is the most effective form of communication, and that means the Archives is a golden treasure box – it feels nearly magical to her. When an archivist or other professional comes to her to request help with promoting a pop-up library or because a journalist is seeking to write about one of the collections, she is always certain the experience will be both interesting and efficient. Sharing knowledge comes naturally to everyone at IU Libraries, but according to Michelle it feels like the Archives is even more invested in making sure she has everything she needs and in partnering with her to tell a really engaging story.
Favorite item or collection in the IU Archives: Michelle is the IU Archives photography database’s biggest fan and talks about it all time! She loves the keyword search functionality and the ease with which she can download images to use them in a huge variety of projects, or request large file size versions when needed. She also knows that she’s not the only communicator on campus that feels this way.
Project she’s currently working on: Just this week the Communications Department received a stack of custom bicentennial birthday cards Michelle was able to put together with lots of help from the Archives and the photo database. Imagine her surprise when she searched for “cake” and got back a black-and-white image of a multi-tiered four-foot tall cake with taper candles? She had to know more. And a few search-result pages later she found more photos of cakes. Michelle was able to learn a bit about the history of this brief IU tradition through other Archives resources and ended up with a card that is a stand-alone bicentennial history lesson. It is one of her favorite projects so far this year.
Favorite experience with the IU Archives: In 2016 Michelle was brand new to IU and brand new to higher ed. She says she was confused about what she was doing and where she was going nearly 100% of the time. Carrie Schwier (Outreach and Public Services Archivist) pretended not to notice and gently led Michelle through what she needed for one of the first projects Michelle did here.
Something she’s learned about IU by working in the Archives: Michelle might be native to this area – growing up in Spencer she always told everyone who asked she lived in Bloomington – but she didn’t know much at all about IU. Open-shelf access to the Arbutus year books and back issues of the Alumni magazine have helped her really understand the character of this special place. But, she has to say her biggest surprise was learning IU used to have some kind of river boat show (known as the Showboat Majestic). The Archives has a sign from the vessel in its reading room – you should check it out yourself!
In 1940, Barbara VanFleit’s face appeared in newspapers across the state of Indiana. Headlines read “Garrett Girl is Elected Queen of Indiana Prom,” celebrating her win as an “unorganized” co-ed over Delta Delta Delta sorority president Virginia Austin by just five votes. She was the second consecutive independent to be voted queen by the boys of the junior class in the twenty-two year history of the event at IU. A junior studying home economics at IU, Barbara was no stranger to the Garrett Clipper’s pages. The daughter of an apparently well-respected electrical engineer, Barbara’s activities along with those of her siblings and step siblings were often recorded in the publication’s social pages. Donald Painter, a member of Delta Chi and a chemistry student – the king to Barbara’s prom queen- also frequently appears in these social pages, often in connection with Barbara.
The prom that year was to be themed after the film “Gone With the Wind.” According to that year’s Arbutus:
“The theme was carried out in the decorations by a replica of a Southern mansion, which formed the background for the band. The walls were artistically draped in Spanish moss, and the entrance to the hall was decorated in keeping with the Southern theme.”
A unique opportunity came with the theme of 1940s prom – Barbara VanFleit appears in both the Arbutus and the Collegiate Digest, a national publication which featured the lives of university students in pictures, wearing a tiered, ruffled dress claimed to be an original costume from Gone with the Wind worn by Vivien Leigh during production. Although records have proved difficult to find, the dress was apparently part of an exhibition of items from the film that was held in Chicago that same year and shipped to Bloomington for the occasion. A brief article in the Chicago Tribune entitled “Gone With the Wind Elegance” written in January of 1940 does feature sketches of dresses described as “copies of ‘Gone With the Wind’ gowns now in Chicago,” but no details on the exhibition are given. The dress which most closely resembles the one which Barbara VanFleit would wear to her prom in March of that year is identified as a dress worn by Suellen O’Hara, played by Evelyn Keyes, as opposed to an outfit worn by Vivian Leigh in her role as Scarlett O’Hara. The topic of Gone With the Wind fashion was indeed popular in the spring of 1940, with advertisements for “Gone With the Wind Dresses” selling for between $1.98 and $3.98 appearing in the Chicago papers.
Later that March, Barbara’s name would again appear in the Garret Clipper, however this time next to that of Elmer Louis Houston, a convict at Indiana State Prison. Born the son of a laborer in Wisconsin, Houston is described on his World War I Draft registration card as having dark hair and dark eyes. This card from 1918 lists Houston as being 18 years of age, although information found in the Federal Census suggests that Houston may have actually been as young as 16 at the time of his enlistment. Later census information suggests that Houston only received at most an 8th Grade education. Throughout what can be found of his life, his occupations were listed as farm laborer, roofer, and “motorman”.
By March of 1940, Houston was serving his second sentence at the prison, the state’s Northern facility located in Michigan City. His first crime was one of desperation, carried out in December of 1934. According to an article in the Jeffersonville Evening News, records show that on that cold day in December, Houston’s wife, Velma had given birth to one of their five children. On that day, Houston had tried to sell a gun to buy coal to provide for his family in Indianapolis where they were living. Finding no buyer, Houston attempted to use the gun to hold up a local bus driver in a store. Unsuccessful with the unloaded gun, Houston was apprehended by onlookers until the police arrived. He was paroled in August of the following year by the State Clemency Commission, serving less than a year. Following his parole, however, Houston was again sentenced – this time for between 5 and 21 years in February of 1938, for an undetermined crime.
It was this second sentence that Elmer Houston was serving when he encountered IU Professor of Fine Arts, Harry Engel, who taught fine art to the inmates at Indiana State Prison in the late summer of 1939. Engel had initially been invited by Hans Riemer, the educational supervisor of the prison, to meet artistically inclined inmates, and, excited by the talent he saw, began conducting in person classes in the infirmary of the prison for two weeks. After he had returned to Bloomington for the fall semester, Engel continued to provide feedback and instruction via correspondence. John Grogan, then deputy instructor of the arts program at Indiana State Prison, enthusiastically hoped that the class would serve as a model for arts programs at other prisons throughout the United States as it provided immense therapeutic and rehabilitative value to the inmates, as well as practical training in anticipation of release.
The works of art created by these prisoners would come to be shown at the Mezzanine Gallery (another of Engels efforts) of the Indiana University Bookstore. The show, “Prisoner Art,” featured the work of several inmates, many of whom were considered “lifers” or experiencing psychiatric issues. “Prisoner Art” was heralded as the first of its kind, and the sale of the inmate’s work – for prices ranging between $5 and $25 – went on to fund supplies for the continuation of the educational program.
Several of the pieces sold before the opening had even begun, but one piece, “Heart of a Rose,” was not for sale. Created by Elmer Houston, “Heart of a Rose” was instead to be given to its muse – the 1940 IU junior prom queen, Barbara VanFleit. While no record of the portrait exists, on March 25th of 1940, the Garret Clipper describes it as being made with “rug dyes and paints on a man’s handkerchief”. Houston had taken inspiration for the piece from an article he had seen describing VanFleit’s coronation. One wonders if “Heart of a Rose” featured its subject wearing the enigmatic “Gone With the Wind” dress we now associate that year’s prom.
Like any good tale, the story of Barbara VanFleit, Elmer Houston, and the prom that brought them together ends with a lot of questions. What did “Heart of a Rose” look like? While VanFleit was quoted saying she would take the piece after its exhibition, did she follow through on this? Was VanFleit’s prom dress actually worn by Vivian Leigh? Was it worn by her co-star Evelyn Keyes? Was it even an original movie prop or the subject of creative embellishment?
In the case of Houston, our story also ends with tragedy. Records indicate that Houston may have been drafted while still serving time in 1944, towards the end of World War II. His name would again appear in the paper in 1957, following his death. Several newspapers reported that Houston and his wife Velma had been found by police in their bed with a gallon jug labeled “cider” next to them. Inside the jug was a “green fluid.” This fluid was sent to the IU Medical School for analysis and was later determined to be antifreeze. Houston was dead on discovery, while Velma would later die at the General Hospital.
Barbara went on to marry Donald Scott Painter, her former prom king in 1942, and their son was born 6 years later. She passed away in 1968 in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
When I think back to starting my freshman year of college (in enemy territory at Purdue University), I remember one main feeling: overwhelmed! Even though it has been more than a decade since then, I get butterflies in my stomach when I recall orientation activities, my first meals in the dorms, and meeting classmates for the first time. Though Purdue had a ton of welcome activities for incoming freshmen, the Indiana University traditions of Freshman Convocation and the Freshman Induction Ceremony are utterly charming. This year, the Freshman Induction took place August 21 at Skjodt Assembly Hall. We’ve covered the history of the Freshman Induction Ceremony in the past, so in this post I would like to focus on some wise words spoken at Freshman Convocations over the years. Specifically, this post will highlight Herman B Wells’ resolute and poignant addresses over the World War II years. His advice should be relevant for all freshman coming to Bloomington now, in an uncertain and overwhelming time.
It is well known that our beloved Herman B Wells was a fantastic orator, so it is no surprise that his remarks are still impactful many decades later. During his 1937 speech to incoming freshmen, Wells reminded students of precarious conditions in America and the world:
“It is true that the world is beset with problems of such gravity that they sometimes challenge hope for the future. On the front pages of the newspapers almost every day reference is made to some of these problems—war, assault upon the democracies of the world by the rise of dictatorships, charges that the capitalistic system and the democratic philosophy of government are incompatible—in a word, questions that attack the very foundation of the institutions under which we are living.”
Pretty heavy words for the opening of a Freshman Convocation speech. He continued on to describe the depletion of natural resources and perilous state of natural conservation. He ended this section by saying:
“Wars, rumors of war, political unrest, dissipation of the vitality of our physical and human resources—certainly these create a dismal outlook for the future.”
Though these statements are grave, we can see obvious connections with our contemporary situation. Wells then placed the impetus for changing this outlook on the incoming freshmen:
“You need not be discouraged by the number and seriousness of these problems. They can all be solved, and they will be solved by our people if we are guided by an intelligent and informed leadership…And society, through government and through the sacrifices of individual families, has supported higher education generously in this country largely because we as a people believe that college-trained men and women offer us our best source of social, political, and economic leadership.”
One of Wells’ most extraordinary skills was to turn insurmountable challenges into inspiring moments of change. Against the backdrop of the rise of fascism (the Luftwaffe bombing of Guernica occurred in April of that year), Wells acknowledged the frightening realities of IU freshmen while simultaneously encouraging them to lead the charge for change. I hope the incoming freshman class today can harness this same courage.
In September 1940, one year before the United States officially entered World War II, Wells emphasized the university’s role in defending democracy. He outlined three types of defenses for democracy: physical, intellectual, and spiritual. After summarizing mobilization activities on campus such as Civilian Pilot Training at the Bloomington airstrip and IU’s R.O.T.C. unit, he spoke to intellectual and spiritual defenses:
“You cannot be intellectually lazy and be an effective citizen in democracy. There is no dictator to tell you what is socially desirable and undesirable. Questions of social policy must be thought through for yourself, and you must think with sufficient clarity and originality, if you aspire to be a leader, so that you can win your colleagues to your point of view.”
Although young people today often hear calls to independent thinking, Wells’ thoughtful consideration of how free thought fosters a democratic environment should be especially relevant today. As to spiritual defenses of democracy, Wells spoke these compassionate words:
“Democracy is a way of life in which we are responsible for each other, in which our human relations must be governed, in a very real and practical sense, by self-restraint and mutual respect for the rights of others.”
In an age of rapid-fire and divisive communications I think incoming IU students would do well to embody mutual respect and feel responsibility for one another. We can update Wells’ words to apply to fostering a democratic society online, too.
As the United States officially entered the War, we see a shift in Wells’ tone for incoming freshmen. 1942 was a particularly devastating year—by September of that year mass extermination of Jews had begun at Auschwitz, Sobibór, Treblinka, and Belzec; thousands of lives were lost as Axis powers sunk Allied ships during Second Happy Time; and Executive Order 9066 authorized the United States military to incarcerate Japanese Americans in detention camps. Wells’ 1942 freshman address echoed an atmosphere of severity:
“We hear much just now about the necessity of maintaining morale on the home front. These are days of unusual stress and strain for all of us. Home front morale will depend in no small measure upon our courtesy to each other. Acceptable manners, both public and private, insure proper consideration for the convenience and rights of others. Therefore this subject of good manners, always timely, is of especial significance at the present.”
Even in a dark hour, we see that Wells highlighted freshmen’s responsibility to treat others with respect and dignity. And as we can see from his 1946 address to the incoming class, that attitude continued after World War II as well. That year he remarked:
“The nervous system of the human body is a complex mechanism consisting of millions of cells. Yet a single nerve cell can register pain or pleasure which is felt throughout the entire body. Each person in the campus body, from the youngest student to the oldest professor, has an essential role. Each is, as it were, a cell in the nervous system of the University community.”
Cooperation and mutual respect were truly central to how Wells envisioned a democratic society. As the IU Class of 2023 settles in, I hope we all can exemplify Wells’ ideals to each other on and off campus. Most all of us were overwhelmed and frightened freshmen at one point. If Wells could set an example of strength against the backdrop of World War II, we should be able to pass these virtues on to the Class of 2023.