Herman B Wells Speeches to Incoming Freshmen, during World War II and Today

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.

Black and white photograph of Freshman convocation - a large crowd of seated students surrounds a central stage.
Freshman Convocation, September 15, 1938. IU Archives image no. P0031218

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.

Black and white photograph of the Freshman Induction ceremony. Robed faculty and staff including President Wells stand on the front steps of the Student Building.
Freshman Induction (Herman B Wells can be seen just to the right of the microphone), September 19, 1940. IU Archives image no. P0033994

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.

Black and white photograph of President Herman B Wells standing underneath the Service Flag. Uniformed male students stand in the foreground listening.
President Wells Speaking at Dedication of the Indiana University Service Flag, August 22, 1943. IU Archives image no. P0039468

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.”

Black and white photograph of President Herman Wells greeting students with suitcases in hand at the entrance to Bryan Hall.
Herman B Wells welcoming World War II veterans who lived in the board room / conference room of the Administration Building during the postwar housing shortage, October 1946. IU Archives image no. P0023889

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.

To see more transcripts of Herman B Wells’ speeches, check out the finding aid for Collection C137 or contact an archivist.

Sincerely Yours: Ernie Pyle Day

Individual photo portrait of Ernie Pyle
Ernie Pyle’s 1923 yearbook photo

This Friday, August 3rd, Indiana University celebrates an adopted hometown hero on National Ernie Pyle Day! Did you know, however, that Pyle did not receive an IU degree until twelve years after he left Bloomington? The Vermillion County native began his studies here in 1919, but left a year before completing his degree in order to take a position with the La Porte Herald. Bittersweet personal circumstances also surrounded his IU departure: he had recently experienced a bad run-in with some Department of Journalism faculty, and a love interest gave him back his going-steady pin. Despite this, Pyle remained close with companions from IU his entire life. In 1941, at the height of his fame, he waxed longingly to his friend “Hermie” (yes, that one: Herman B Wells) about planning a chance to “escape” to Monroe and Brown Counties. So it was with anticipation, nostalgia, and some nerves that Ernie Pyle returned to IU in November 1944 to receive an honorary degree.

Two letters at the IU Archives show Pyle’s trademark wit and authenticity regarding his prodigal return. In a letter to his friend and IU Alumni Association secretary George “Dixie” Heighway the day after the honorary degree luncheon, Pyle wrote:

It was a wonderful day, Dixie. Instead of hating it, as I had anticipated, I’d almost like to do it again. You couldn’t have arranged it any better for my pleasure. I am deeply appreciative.

Dad and Aunt Mary will be talking about it for years. And so will I (I hope!).

In addition to his thanks, Pyle asks Heighway to send along some information, including the full name and address for University Comptroller Ward Biddle, the man who initially proposed Pyle’s honorary degree to President Wells. Most interesting though, is this request: “The name + street address of Harriett Davidson, Tri-Delt of ’24, now married to a Dr. Martin + living in Bedford, Ind.” This is the same Harriett Davidson who returned Pyle’s pin all those years ago! Perhaps Pyle was moved by the nostalgia of being in Bloomington, and wrote to Davidson to catch up with her after all those years.

Black and white photograph of Ernie Pyle and Patricia Krieghbaum in the IDS office, November 1944
Ernie Pyle visits the Indiana Daily Student office during his return to campus in November 1944.

As we read this letter today, it’s impossible not to feel a little sentimental. We know that Pyle was struck by sniper fire and died during the Battle of Okinawa in April 1945—just months after he wrote this letter. His humorous jab of hoping to talk about the honorary degree for years becomes a sad foreshadowing when we know this context. A follow-up letter Pyle wrote Heighway on November 28, 1944 includes another such line in the postscript: “I’ll be leaving here for good in about two weeks.” Pyle meant only that he would be off to cover World War II’s Pacific theater, but the permanence of the statement is eerie in hindsight.

These two letters, however, should be read for their joyful moments too.  In his November 28 letter, Pyle is especially touching:

After the luncheon that day, a red-headed gal from the Bloomington High School paper tagged me and wanted an interview. Our schedule was so tight and everybody was pulling at me so that I had to leave her standing there, and later had Jack Hastings go back and apologize and say it was impossible, since she seemed to want a lot of time.

I’ve felt badly about it, for I know how kids can be hurt by failing in an assignment like that. I’d like to send her an autographed book in recognition of a good try. Could you find out who she was?

The no-nonsense writing style and humanizing approach is all Pyle. The generosity to this student evinces his deep roots to Bloomington. Heighway or another colleague jotted down the student’s name and address: Gladys Lillian Morrison. Some genealogical research shows that as of 2016, Morrison was still living in Bloomington. She and her late husband both worked at IU. It seems that, like Pyle himself, many people keep these close ties Bloomington and the university.

To see these letters and other University Archives material related to Ernie Pyle, contact an archivist. The IU Libraries Lilly Library also holds a number of Pyle-related collections–contact our friends there for further information!

Scan of original letter from Ernie Pyle to George "Dixie" Heighway, November 28, 1944

Transcription of November 28, 1944 letter from Ernie Pyle to George “Dixie” Heighway:

                Nov. 28

Dear George—

Something else I wish you’d do for me.

After the luncheon that day, a red-headed gal from the Bloomington High School paper tagged me and wanted an interview. Our schedule was so tight and everybody was pulling at me so that I had to leave her standing there, and later had Jack Hastings go back and apologize and say it was impossible, since she seemed to want a lot of time.

I’ve felt badly about it, for I know how kids can be hurt by failing in an assignment like that. I’d  like to send her an autographed book in recognition of a good try. Could you find out who she was?

I’m still glowing over the grand day we had, and so are my folks.

As ever,

Ernie

P.S.—I’ll be leaving here for good in about two weeks

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 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.

Mail Call: Correspondence at IU during WWII

“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on that strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter.” — Sir Winston Churchill in My Early Life: A Roving Commission

War is never easy, especially for those serving in the armed forces and those they leave behind. Throughout the various wars in our short history, our military members and their loved ones have made countless sacrifices in order to defend our country and protect the freedoms which we all enjoy so dearly. Separation from our loved ones can be a particularly difficult thing to bear during these times of conflict.

But whereas we now have email, skype, and various other methods of communication to keep in touch with those on the battlefield, there were no such luxuries in the Second World War.  People relied on snail

“Mail Call” from the 1944-1945 Sycamore Logbook

-mail to receive news from the frontlines which, in some areas, could be less than frequent. Letters could easily be lost in the mail as well.

Letters to and from the front lines were a lifeline for service men and women fighting in WWII. One can imagine these soldiers clinging desperately to photos of their loved ones and sitting in their shelters or in the trenches reading and rereading those letters from home dozens of times over. All the while sitting. Waiting. Hoping for the end of hostilities so that they can once again return to their former lives.

It was no different for those at home. One can be sure that many individuals sat by the mail box waiting with bated breath as the postman came up to deliver the mail, hoping to hear some news from the front. Students at Indiana University seem to have been no exception to this rule. While I was processing a set of scrapbooks from Sycamore Hall (when it acted as a women’s residence hall), I stumbled upon this little gem embedded in Volume 5 of the Sycamore Logbook from the 1944-1945 academic year whose faded pages revealed what was going through many a young woman’s mind here at IU when it came time to receive the mail during WWII.

The following is a transcription of an account written by one of the copy editors of the Sycamore Hall dorm logbook:

Residents of Sycamore Hall, 1945 Archives image no: P0044228
Residents of Sycamore Hall, 1945
Archives image no: P0044228

Mail Call

Mail Call is the most important event in the day for almost all of us girls at the University. Even on days when we could sleep late, our alarm clocks will usually be set for ten a.m.

We jump out of bed, dress in a flash, and dash downstairs. In each of our hearts there is a solemn prayer that, maybe, today is the day a letter will come from the most important man in the Army, Navy or Marines.

Each of us goes downstairs with a happy look of expectancy written on her face. Some of us come away smiling and happy; others leave the mail boxes depressed and sad.

The conversation each morning rambles on something like this:

 “Hi, Kelly, is that a letter from Bob?”

“Yes, he got his wings yesterday, and he’ll be home next week. Barbs, you had better dust off the Wedding March because we are going to be needing that song.”

“That is grand, Kelly,” comes in a chorus from the girls.

There is a scream of delight as Kay rushes for her mail box, which is packed full of letters. She stands there laughing and crying at the same time, as she counts twelve letters from her Bill. Bill is a Navy flier, and he is in the South Pacific; mail from him comes only every six or eight weeks.

Cluching [sic] the letters as though her life depended on them, Kay dashes for the big chair in the living room. Incoherent phrases tumble from her lips.

“Jeepers, and gee, he is still my man! Oh, his is wonderful – – twelve letters!  Happy day, oh happy day!”

 “Darn! Just a letter from Carol,” comes the disgusted words from Ruthann.

“That’s my luck, too,” replies Donna.

“I know Dick is busy, but – -“

“Cut it, Ruthann; there is Janie, and she did not get a letter again today.”

No, I must not forget to tell about Janie. She is a little thing and pretty as a doll. She is the pet of every girl in the house. Her Marine is in the Philippines, and she has not heard from him since Manila was taken. Janie does not say anything about not hearing from him, but we know how worried she is; we sense the heartbreak she feels when she looks at her empty mail box. I guess she realizes we would all “crack up” if we put our feelings into words.

She saw us looking at her and smiled.

 “Everything is all right, chums; Jack is all right, and there is always tomorrow.”

Julia Ann Bookout

Little did these ladies know that they did not have long to wait for their loved ones to return. The war would soon come to an end with the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945 with the formal surrender to follow on September 2nd (which is known today in the US as V-J Day). We can only hope that Jack returned with the rest of his brothers in arms to US shores to celebrate the Allied victory with Janie and the rest of his family and friends.