A Co-ed, a Convict, and the Prom That Brought Them Together

This is a black and white newspaper clippings which includes the following text and includes a picture of a college woman with short curls. GARRETT GIRL IS ELECTED QUEEN OF INDIANA U. PROM: Barbara VanFleit Honored by Junior Class Miss Barbara VanFleit of East King street and a junior at Indiana University, Thursday night was elected junior prom queen in the closest contest ever held for the honor on the campus. Miss VanFleit, an independent coed, defeated Miss Virginia Austin of Zionsville, president of Delta Delta Delta sorority and the “coalition” candidate of the Greek letter social organizations by a vote of 256 to 245. Miss VanFleit represented the Independent Students’ Association. Only men of the junior class were eligible to ballot. The prom, which is the annual spring dance of the junior class, will be held Friday night in Alumni Hall in the Union building on campus with 400 couples in attendance. The decorative scheme in the hall will depict scenes from the motion picture “Gone with the Wind.” The interior of the room will resemble an old southern mansion. Ticket sales for this dance are restricted to juniors for the first week and then are offered for general sale. Miss VanFleit will wear a formal gown worn by Vivien Leigh in “Gone with the Wind” and will be escorted by Donald Painter, son of Mr. and Mrs. W.S. Painter of South Walsh street, a member of the Delta Chi fraternity. Mr. and Mrs. VanFleit have been invited to attend the ball as chaperones. Miss VanFleit is 5 feet 2 and a brunette. She is a member of the YWCA, secretary of the Home Economics club, a member of the Women’s Athletic Association and of the Association of Independents Students, which sponsored her candidacy.
Article on VanFleit in the Garrett Clipper,
Monday, March 4, 1940

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.”

This is a black and white page spread from the Arbutus yearbook. Photographs show college couples dining over formal dinner, dancing, and 2 images show Barbara VanFleit and her date Donald Painter dancing.
Page from the 1940 Arbutus showing the year’s Junior Prom activities
Black and white photograph shows Barbara VanFleit wearing a lace, tiered ballgown and holding a bouquet of flowers.
Barbara VanFleit wears dress from Gone With The Wind, March 8, 1940. IU Archives image no. P0024613

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”.

This is a black and white newspaper clipping including the following text: Mercy Bandit Given Parole by Commission: Staged Holdup on Day Baby was Born Elmer Houston, who held up an Indianapolis bus driver in December to get money so he could by coal to keep his family warm, was granted a parole by the State Clemency Commission Tuesday. He was sentenced Dec. 19 in Criminal court to serve one to five years in the state prison. The record of his case shoed that a baby was born to his wife on the day of the holdup. There was no coal in the house. He attempted to sell a gun which he owned, but he could find no purchased, so he used the gun in the holdup. Persons in the store, where he tried to sell the weapon, knowing it was not loaded, ran after Houston, caught him and held him for the police.
Article in The Jeffersonville Evening News, August 28, 1935, detailing Houston’s parole

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.

This is a brochure for the exhibit "Prisoner Art" which ran from March 1-30. The artwork shows 6 hands holding paintbrush and easel, yet bound by chains.
Cover of the 1940 exhibition pamphlet for “Prisoner Art”

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.

India Remixed : Indian Independence in Indiana

On August 15, 1947, India, one of the oldest and most populated nations in the world, gained independence from Great Britain. The British East India Company controlled India, from the 1700s until the Indian rebellion of 1857. After the suppression of the revolt, the British Crown took control of the region from the Company. In the years after 1857 and during British rule of the region, calls for reform and Indian self-rule grew. But it wasn’t until 1947, after years of growing movements, the rise of Gandhi’s non-violent civil disobedience movement, the “Quit India” movement of the Indian National Congress Party, and after revolts and mass strikes, that India gained its independence. After 90 years of fighting against British Raj (British Rule) and calls for Indian Self-Rule, the Indian Independence Act of 1947 was signed.

Students, professors, and other members of the IU community were certainly aware of the struggles of Indians well before the 1940s. One faculty member, Cecilia Hennel Hendricks, Associate Professor of English, wrote to her family members about a lecture regarding India that she attended at IU in 1931. In her letter, Cecilia describes meeting a man who had met Gandhi and learned why he opposed British rule:

Letter from Cecilia, 1931, Cecilia Hennel Hendricks family papers, Collection C413, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington.

“He told of some conversations he had with Ghandi, and said when he asked Ghandi why he opposed the British rule, Ghandi answered that after all India was the country of the Indians, who had owned and ruled it for centuries before England ever existed, and that there were thousands of Indian people as well educated and trained as any English people, and fully able to manage their own government.”

Letter from Cecilia, 1931, Cecilia Hennel Hendricks family papers, Collection C413, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington.

Independence Day is now one of only three national holidays in India. It’s celebrated on August 15 and is commemorated with a speech from the Prime Minister, references to the Indian Independence Movement, and celebration through cultural events. Flag hoisting events and kite flying in some areas are also hosted around India as a part of the celebration. Around the world, Indian emigrants celebrate with parades and events of their own, sometimes referring to the day as ‘India Day.’

Indian Students Invite President Bryan to attend Independence Celebration. C69, Box 3.

At Indiana University, Indian Independence was celebrated as early as 1948. Indian student Ramnarase Panday was particularly active while attending Indiana University. He and another student, Raghubir Bhatia, organized that first Indian Independence Day celebration at IU. They asked President Wells to speak at the event at Alumni Hall, and invited others from around campus, including President Emeritus William Lowe Bryan, to attend the celebration.

Panday was from Beharr, India and attended the College of Arts and Sciences at IU. He earned his A.B. in Government in 1950 and his M.A. in History in 1952. He was a very active member of the college community. As an undergraduate, Panday was in the Cosmopolitan Club, a student organization for international students and cultures, and once in graduate school, he joined Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity.

Ramnarase Panday with President Wells, July 28, 1948. IU Archives image no. P0073656.

The celebration of India’s first Independence Day at IU must have been a momentous occasion for everyone who attended. While we have been unable to find further records documenting the event or information on additional students who assisted with the celebration, we suspect that Panday and Bhatia were likely the only two students organizing the event.

President Herman B Wells spoke at the inaugural celebration in Alumni Hall:

“Birthdays are happy occasions whether they mark the passing of a year in the life of an individual or a nation. We are met tonight to celebrate an unusually significant birthday which marks the end of the first year of independence for one of the world’s oldest and largest nations – a nation rich in physical resources, in manpower, and in cultural acheivement. It is a privilege therefore to join with you in extending our congratulations and good wishes to the Indiana University students from India and through them to the great nation which they so ably represent.”

C137 Wells’ Speech on India Independence Day at IU, August 8, 1948 – click on image to read Wells’ full speech

This celebration marking India’s independence was significant and marked the growing diversity of the university.

Behind the Curtain: Julia Kilgore, Bicentennial Oral History Intern

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. Continue to follow over the coming months to read how and who make the magic happen!

Role: Bicentennial Oral History Intern

Educational Background: BA in History, BA in Art from Hillsdale College; Current MLS student with a specialization in archives and records management.

How she got here: Julia started working in archives as an undergraduate at Hillsdale College. At the College, she mainly worked in special collections as the caretaker of the campus Library’s coin collection, but she occasionally helped the college Archivist with various projects. One particular project she enjoyed was helping to rearrange documents from the Winston Churchill Project.  She also had the pleasure of working with and organizing an entire archives collection at a local historic house, the Grosvenor House Museum.

When Julia volunteered for the Grosvenor House Museum, she never knew what to expect.  It was like Christmas every day! One afternoon she would be flipping through a pile of graduation announcements from the local schools and the next she would be trying to identify individuals in a stack of nameless photos. There were old maps, rail road tickets, letters, articles on local war heroes…one time she and a friend found a military commission from King George III for a local townsman with its wax seal still intact! Meanwhile at the College, Julia would sift through and rehouse tons of letters between Winston Churchill and his wife, secretary notes from meetings, letters to dignitaries from around the world, and other great documents. After working with these collections, Julia knew that she wanted to work in an environment where she could interact with archives and special collections in some way, whether it be in a library, museum, or a similar institution.

Julia began her dual MLS/Art History degree in the fall of 2015 and found work as a Public Services Assistant in Wells Library. In the spring of 2016, she began processing collections for the IU Archives and transitioned into her current position as Bicentennial Oral History Intern the following semester.

Favorite item in the collection: One of Julia’s favorite items in the archives is Volume 5 of the Sycamore Logbook from 1944-1945 from the IU Women’s Residence Halls scrapbooks (see more info about the scrapbooks in her posts titled “Snippets from Dorm Life” and “Mail Call“). She was reordering all of IU’s women’s dorm scrapbooks when she decided to flip through a few to get an idea of what these ladies were like. As she turned page after page of unidentified photographs, she wondered if she would find anything that would tell her their names or what their lives were like at IU. She turned a page and saw the headline “Mail Call.” She was immediately drawn to it because she knew the book was from around the end of World War II, meaning it had to be something about soldiers during the war.

It turned out to be a really great piece describing a typical morning in Sycamore Hall where the ladies would dash downstairs immediately after waking up to see if there was news from the front lines. It really struck a chord with Julia and reminded her yet again the amazing things you get to discover while working in archives (and purely by accident too!).

Current project: Julia interviews staff and alumni for the Oral History Project about their time here at IU.

Favorite experience in the IU Archives: Julia loves when she is interviewing someone for the Oral History project and they talk about old student hangouts or past events.  It’s really great because she can research these places and events after the interview and she always finds great things in our collections on them.  Sitting there listening to them talk about these things really helps her to connect with our collections on a different level.  It makes it all the more real to her.

What she’s learned from working here: Restaurants, bookstores, and other places downtown have such a rich and wonderful history that are so interconnected to IU and its students. The best thing about it? Many of them still exist.  It is wonderful to go into places Nick’s or the Gables after hearing about all of these different experiences and think about what it was like then versus now.

The Marching Hundred at the Kentucky Derby

Derby Day is almost upon us! This year, May 6th is the day to place your bets and take a sip of the traditional mint julep served at the track. The Kentucky Derby is not just an occasion for triumphant horse races and rose blankets; it is also a day for celebrating American culture through art, food, and music. This year, attendees of the Derby will get to see Grammy-winning musical artist Harry Connick Jr. perform the National Anthem, as well as the dozens of other influential and famous celebrities who will be walking down the red carpet. But there was a time that the spectacle of the event was IU’s own Marching Hundred, who were asked to perform before the race every year from 1938-1941.

Marching Hundred at the Kentucky Derby, 1940. IU Archives Photograph Collection P0033385

Indiana University was the first state university to be chosen to play at the track on Derby Day, and were so widely praised that Derby officials asked them to come again and again– and again, four years in a row. They were also the first band that was asked to return more than once. Col. Matt J. Winn, the president of Churchill Downs racetrack where the Derby is held, had hundreds of letters pouring into his office, all of them asking for IU to return for encore performances. An article in the IDS described the 13-minute drill they would perform, opening with a “clock chimes fanfare” and executing “merry-go-round” turns, counter-marches, and a formation that spells out “Dixie” (below). They also managed to get into the formation of the Derby trademark and ended with the IU monogram.

Marching Hundred at Kentucky Derby, 1939. IU Archives Photograph Collection P0030687

These days, the marching band from the University of Louisville plays the traditional song “My Old Kentucky Home” before the race every year. That, too, was in the 13-minute drill played by the IU Marching Hundred back in their years at the Derby. Lieutenant Frederick E. Green directed the band and Major Roy N. Hagerty was the drill instructor for the group of musicians (which was more than a hundred).

Indiana University President Herman B Wells at the Derby in 1939. IU Archives Photograph Collection P0030683

A lot was different from today’s Derby, but the pressure the musicians felt had to be very similar. Several important people watched from the crowds as the band performed. In 1939, IU president Herman B Wells attended the Derby, pictured to the left with a group of other Derby-goers. In 1940, screen actor Walter Connolly (who died only a few weeks following the Derby that year) passed his compliments onto the band after their performance. Gerald Swope, a multi-millionaire and chairman of the New York racing commission, sent a letter to the band that commended them highly. The IDS article from 1940 that reported these and other compliments stated that the Marching Hundred kept letters like this to be framed and kept as souvenirs of their time at the Derby. I can’t help but wonder what happened to those framed letters.

The Marching Hundred has since gained more national fame for being one of the best university marching bands in the country, playing at all sorts of major events throughout the decades. Like the Kentucky Derby, they’ve held onto a few unique traditions of their own.

IU Archives Photograph Collection P0030655 1939
2011

The John and Hilda Jay Family Papers

Doubtless, you’ve at least once wondered what historians would assume about your historical setting based on something you’ve left behind. Every day, we write something down, we send an e-mail, we file away something important, or we send a quick text to a friend. Our habits of communication–perhaps unknowingly– document specific snapshots of the world at the time of creation. And this has always been the case, although we’re much more digitized in today’s age than we used to be. So imagine you’ve written a letter to your sweetheart every day over a span of quite a few years. You may not realize it, but the subtle trends of history may have been written into your words.

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This is what makes a collection like the John and Hilda Jay family papers so priceless: its ability to provide a series of snapshots through which we can study history, while also revealing the rich, fascinating details of a unique family. The collection, donated to the archives by Ms. Ellen Jay, consists primarily of a series of letters, the bulk of which were written between her parents, John and Hilda Jay, between the years of 1939-1946. John and Hilda were both IU alumni, John graduating in 1941 and Hilda graduating in 1945.  They began their relationship during their time together at school, and married in 1942– a union that was hastened due to the country’s new involvement in World War II and the potential of John being called to duty.

That particular chapter of their story began on December 7th, 1941, when the Japanese attacked by bombing Pearl Harbor. At the time, the couple was separated; Hilda continued her schoolwork at IU, and John was in Connecticut beginning his career at the Remington Arms Company. Their letters suggest that they did, eventually, intend to marry, but more than likely not until after Hilda had completed her degree. Then, the news of the bombing sent waves of media response across the country.

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On December 7th, 1941, Hilda wrote to her sweetheart: “I hardly know what to write you tonight. Just as we all came out from the concert we were encountered by news boys shouting “Extra-etc.” There was a rush to get the papers, then a grim, determined calmness evident…I wonder what the result of this will be so far as we are concerned.”

And the day after, John responded: “Well, we’re actually in it now. It has happened so fast I can hardly get over the shock. I had begun to feel that we wouldn’t get into war for at least 6 months yet, and possibly a year, when, bingo, the radio flashes word that Japan was bombing Hawaii.…The thing that hurts worst now is what’s going to happen to us. I hope we can pull through it, but gad, what a lot of faith it takes to think about even pulling through it.”

Evidence from their letters suggests that the entire family was trying to approach the question of what to do– postpone the marriage until after the war is over, or hurry it along before John is called away? There were unquestionably thousands of young couples in the same predicament across the country at that time. Plans had to be put on hold or rushed. Hilda’s mother suggested that she wait until “after this is all over.” Hilda, however, confided in a letter to John on December 13th that she didn’t see that happening: “Now as for how I look at it. This thing is going on for years–plenty of them…I’m not sure it would be wise to say ‘after this is all over’ for I think that is never…I think it all depends on what sort of service you get yourself into.” The uncertainty of the situation gripped tightly onto their plans for the future.

As it turns out, they decided to get married in July of 1942. Hilda would give up, or at least postpone, her education for the sake of their new marriage and move to Connecticut with her husband. This situation lasted for about a year before John was enlisted into the U.S. Navy in 1944. They stationed him at the Portsmouth Navy Shipyard, where he remained until boarding the U.S.S. Washington. With her husband off serving, Hilda returned to school at I.U. and was able to complete her degree by 1945.

The letters from John’s time aboard the U.S.S. Washington reveal telling anecdotes about Navy life during World War II. For instance, read below a description that John wrote after finding out about Hitler’s suicide and Germany’s surrender in May 1945:

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This excerpt illustrates John’s personal feelings on the matter, as well as the discourse between Navy men immediately following the announcement.

The Jay family papers has more to offer than just a glimpse at life during World War II; the entirety of the collection spans from the early 20th century to the early 21st century, featuring letters written by several members of the Jay family, including their children, Ellen and Sarah. Ellen and Sarah also attended IU during the 1960s, and much like their parents, maintained correspondence with their own parents during their time apart. This extensive, interesting collection is brimming with both local and global history throughout crucial moments in the past.

Contact the IU Archives, to schedule a visit to view the John and Hilda Jay family papers.