FEATURES • Fall 2001

A Washington University graduate remembers what it was like to be a student here in the 1940s.

by Jim Fox, A.B. '43

After receiving my copy of the latest edition of Washington University Magazine, I turned, as always, to the section on classmates. Two things were apparent: The list of classmates for the late '30s and early '40s continues to shrink, while the "In Memoriam" segment for those years continues to grow.

Indeed, those of us still around who went to the University during those years are now in the winter of our lives. Many in school then went on to various levels of glory, while others of us embarked on more mundane lives—dwelling on the misty flats of modest accomplishments.

As for me, I majored in English and minored in philosophy. Neither English nor philosophy was a highly marketable commodity unless you planned to back them up with, say, a degree in education. But I was fortunate to toil with varying amounts of enthusiasm and dedication for four years on Student Life.

Then as now, Washington University had no journalism department as such, but it did offer some journalism courses, and almost all of us who worked on Student Life enrolled in these classes. At the time, James McClure was the only professor specializing in journalism, and he was also faculty adviser to the miscreants who "put out" Student Life twice a week. My association with him when I was a student led later to an unexpected relationship with the University that lasted some 25 years.

Streetcar College Days

While I was an undergraduate, much of the student body came from the St. Louis area; there was no South 40 dormitory complex, only a few modest accommodations for students from outside the region.

The term "trolley college" came from the fact that the old University streetcar traveled along what is now Forest Park Parkway. It had its own right-of-way west of DeBaliviere Avenue and would zip along at what seemed a high speed for streetcars. Many students took the trolley to and from school. Now, the very thought of MetroLink pursuing a similar path seems to have the citizenry up in arms.

I had been rejected for military service in World War II, so I was able to continue my studies without interruption (although many of my classmates marched off to war). I recall vividly how some troops were taking courses at the University, and in the spring and fall, when classroom windows were open, they could be heard marching across campus to the cadence of "Left, right, left, right!"

In the pre-war days, instead of civil rights or environmental causes, we were concerned with whether the Bears would ever go "big time" in football or whether the campus police force would be beefed up. The Bears came close to the big time under coach Jimmy Conzelman, but this was a short-lived adventure.

Ethnic diversity was certainly not in the picture when I was a student. There were no African-American students on campus, as far as I can recall, nor were there many Hispanics or students from "Third World" countries. Sad thing is, we all thought this was the normal state of racial relations.

To show we practiced equal opportunity in biases, Gentile students and Jewish students mingled in classes and at Student Life and—I suppose—at some other campus undertakings, but socially they remained apart.

In those days, male students had to take two years of physical education or ROTC. The phys. ed. classes were held in the Field House or gyms. Some classes were a real challenge if not for academic content, for their physical demands. One teacher devised a rather rough game called, I think, speed ball—a mad combination of soccer, touch football, and passing, as in basketball. He seemed to enjoy watching us bang into each other on the field that was used by the baseball squad, just east of Francis Field. If someone got decked, he took satisfaction in saying, "You college boys just can't take it."

The gripes students nourished in those days seem current today: The food is terrible, there is no "school spirit," too many teachers are boring. Everything seems to go full circle.

I don't remember how we got into Washington University then because we didn't have to go through SATs or any of those other tests that seem to play such an important role today. I guess having the $125 admissions fee was a major factor.

And freshmen were supposed to wear silly little hats called "beanies." They were red and green and ridiculous looking. Most freshmen, including me, dumped the things once we realized no one was going to enforce wearing them.

After graduating in 1943, "non" cum laude, I landed a job with the Daily Pantagraph in Bloomington, Illinois; spent four years there; then came to the old St. Louis Star-Times for another four years; and finally went to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where I drew a paycheck for 33 years as a reporter, editor, and finally Reader's Advocate. I met my wife of 56 years in Bloomington, and I did not come close to winning a Pulitzer Prize at any time.

A Return to the Hilltop

Jim McClure, the teacher I mentioned earlier, called me long after my days at Washington University were over and asked me to teach a night class for him. "I'm getting too old for that," he explained. "Besides, it will only be for one semester." That one semester turned into about 25 years—among the most enjoyable of my life.

My class was made up of day-school students with an interest in journalism and night-school types who worked at regular jobs during the day and were, for a variety of reasons, taking a course in journalism. I am vain enough to report that several of my students actually wound up in print or electronic journalism.

A Look Forward—and Back

So much for a few recollections of the old school. As I read the University's magazine, I note it is devoted to many erudite persons who are leaving a mark on the University and society, far more than I did. The magazine gives deserved space and praise to present and past faculty and students who have made a major contribution to society, yet there are many of us who never received the headlines but have in our own way contributed, thanks to our days on the Hilltop.

When my next issue of Washington University Magazine arrives, I will dutifully turn to the ClassMates section. I may not recognize the names because then we stayed in our own little worlds: engineering, law, pre-med, social work, the liberal arts. Of course, I'll check the "In Memoriam" section, too, and take some comfort in the fact that I am not listed there yet.

 

 

At home in St. Louis, Jim Fox remembers his days at WU, particularly of freshmen having to wear beanies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although there was not a formal journalism program, students gained valuable experience by taking a few journalism classes and staffing Student Life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The football bears were coached by Jimmy Conzelman during this time.

 

 

 

 

 

Military students took courses at the University before going off to World War II.