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History of Wayne State College

Two World Wars and Expansion

USAF cadets

U.S. Conn, a long-time friend and colleague of Pile who had taught at NNC in the 1890s and had also served as Wayne County superintendent, was named president of the college in 1910 and remained so for 25 years, not only the longest term of any Wayne State president by a substantial margin, but the longest serving president in the entire state college system. 

By 1915, there were 50 graduates from nearly 1,000 students enrolled. With the state and national economies booming, the school received generous appropriations in its early years. In 1912 a new building to house the library and science laboratories was constructed just to the west of the two existing campus buildings. This building, now the oldest structure on campus, is known today as the Humanities Building, but its origins can still be recognized by the permanent “Library and Science” title engraved above the south entry. 

Two years later the original “College Building” was demolished and replaced with a new $100,000 administration and classroom building that served for many years as the center of campus activities. A highlight of the new “Admin” building was a large auditorium or “chapel” that could seat nearly 1,000 people (attendance at daily chapel was still required of all Wayne State students). The building is in its second incarnation as Brandenburg Education building, and the chapel is known as Ley Theater. 

The Great War

The first five years of the new State Normal School were a success by almost any measure. Enrollments doubled between 1910 and 1915, the two new buildings more than doubled classroom and office capacity, and the number of faculty, departments, and course offerings increased as well. 

The outbreak of the war had little immediate impact on Wayne State. If anything, it furthered the booming agricultural economy that had been underway since the turn of the century. Enrollments and the number of graduates continued to grow. New faculty positions were added each year, and the college quadrupled in size when it purchased the remaining 30 acres of the 40-acre Nebraska Normal School property. Planning for a third new building, for the physical education and industrial arts programs, began in 1915 and the building was completed in 1918. 

Wayne supports WWI

All of that changed once the U.S. entered the war. Despite the strong German background of many northeast Nebraska communities, Wayne students and faculty strongly supported the war. There was little of the tension and dissent over war issues that marked some other colleges, including the university in Lincoln. Male students began volunteering for the service almost immediately, and football and basketball were cancelled. That summer, faculty and students planted a large “victory garden” in the area that is now the Willow Bowl, selling the produce to the campus dining hall and donating the proceeds to the war effort. Female faculty members and faculty wives made surgical dressings for wounded soldiers.

From co-ed to military base

The full impact of the war hit the campus in the fall of 1918, when the draft age was lowered to 18. When classes opened in the fall there were almost no males on campus. 
Wayne State became one of many schools in the country involved in the Student Army Training Corps (SATC), a massive wartime expansion of the Army’s officer training program. The SATC unit in Wayne had 114 members and was the second largest in the state, after that at UNL. 

Remembering students who served

News also began arriving on campus of six former WSC students who were killed during the final months of the war in the fall of 1918. The following Arbor Day six spruce trees were planted in a circle on the open hillside in front of and to the left of the administration building, in memory of the six individuals who died during the war. They remain there to this day (near the northwest corner of Terrace Hall). In addition, a memorial entryway providing the first automobile access to the campus from Main Street was designed and constructed in honor of the more than 300 Wayne State students who served in the military during the war. 

Post-war adjustments and expansion

Leading the way as the most important new development in this decade, and indeed as one of the most important in the college’s history, was the legislature’s authorization in 1921 for Wayne State to begin offering four-year degrees in addition to the traditional two-year normal school diploma. This was accompanied by an addition of “Teachers College” to the official name of the school. The increasingly out-of-date “Normal School” part of the title was dropped a few years later, and for the next four decades Wayne would be known as The Nebraska State Teachers College at Wayne.

New campus additions

Building construction slowed somewhat from the pace of the previous decade as the state became less generous in supporting expensive projects. The most important addition was the construction in 1926 of a “training school” building. As with most other normal schools and teachers colleges, Wayne State had maintained a “campus school” where instruction was carried out partly by students preparing to become teachers. 

Another significant project near the end of the decade began the replacement of the older frame dormitories with modern “fireproof” brick buildings. Neihardt Hall was opened in 1930 and is now the oldest residence hall remaining on campus. Earlier in the 1920s the first version of Connell Hall was completed as the school’s kitchen/cafeteria facility.

Black-and-gold Wildcats

Wayne State’s athletic teams became known as the “Wildcats” and the school colors of black and gold were firmly established in 1921. Before that, the team was intermittently referred to as both “Tigers” and the “Teachers” and the colors were either black and gold or black and orange. But in a close-fought game against a much larger and heavier rival, someone decided that “Wildcats” was a more fitting symbol than “Tigers” for the small but spunky team, and the label quickly caught on. One of the most popular and long-lasting events of the school calendar started in the fall of 1924, when Wayne State held its first fall Homecoming in conjunction with a football game. 

“We Hail Thee, Mother Wayne”

Wayne State’s “Alma Mater” is also a product of this era. After the school’s name change in 1921, President Conn announced a competition for the selection of a new school song. The winner, announced a year later, was a former outstanding Wayne student and recent University of Chicago graduate Tilly Fay Solfermoser. Music faculty member Leon Beery added the music a few months later. 

Difficulties and diversions

Lawrence Welk and his orchestra played for the 1930 spring prom. The basketball team won the conference title, and the following year the football team created a sensation by going not only undefeated but un-scored on in conference play (the only small blemish was a 0-0 tie with Omaha). The basketball and track teams were frequently successful during the 1930s as well, and boxing became a fourth popular sport. 

By 1932 problems were getting more serious. Nebraska’s economy was in shambles, with a double whammy of farm prices at the lowest levels in the state’s history and drought conditions reducing statewide corn production to three bushels an acre for several years. In 1933 the college budget was cut by 25 percent, which necessitated severe salary reductions. 

Katz Club

Katz Club and Homecoming

The number of clubs and organizations continued to expand. The Katz pep club, formed in 1934, was one of the largest groups. Among the campus traditions associated with the 1930s, the most popular was the expansion of Homecoming activities in 1936 to include the election of the first Homecoming queen. This quickly became the most coveted of various popularity contests on campus. Wayne’s first Homecoming queen, Harriet Lampson, started a tradition that has continued to this day. 

President Conn retires

President U.S. Conn announced his intent to retire at the end of his 25th year as the college’s president. During his tenure, Wayne State grew from a fledgling normal school with a degree equivalent to that of a community college to a four-year school and the largest of the state’s four teachers colleges. 

Dr. J.T. Anderson named President

The person selected by the Board to follow Conn was J.T. Anderson, a Nebraska native who had a doctoral degree from the University of Southern California and was the current dean of men at Kearney State Teachers College. Anderson quickly established his own legacy, building on the achievements of Conn’s administration but also bringing in new perspectives and initiatives of his own. 

Student union and the Willow Bowl

Facilities’ expansion and enhancement was another highlight of Anderson’s early years. The college’s third dormitory of the decade, Terrace Hall for men, was completed in 1938 and drew regional and national attention to Wayne State for its excellent depression-era residence hall facilities. Immediately after the completion of Terrace Hall, Anderson used a combination of Public Works Administration and state-approved revenue bond funds to begin an even more ambitious project, the expansion and renovation of Connell Hall into one of Nebraska’s first and finest college student unions. 

Completed in early 1940, in addition to a completely renovated kitchen and cafeteria, the Union had a popular grill and soda fountain area, a ballroom and student lounge, recreation rooms in the basement (including eight ping pong tables), plus offices for student organizations and the deans of men and women, and the new campus Post Office.

Willow Bowl graduation

Willow Bowl graduation

Anderson’s single most important contribution to Wayne State, however, was his decision to convert the southwest corner of the campus into the outdoor theater that soon became known as the Willow Bowl. Designed by a former Wayne State graduate and completed in 1938, the Willow Bowl immediately became, along with the new Student Union, a campus icon. 

War’s impact

Even before the U.S. got involved, World War II had an immediate effect on Wayne State. In the fall of 1939, just a few weeks after Germany’s invasion of Poland, Wayne State had the last in a series of record enrollments, with 997 students attending school. The following year that number dropped by more than 100, and in the fall of 1941 it was down by another 200. Two factors appear to be involved in these sharp enrollment declines. First, the job market improved dramatically in teaching and non-teaching areas, which probably led some students to forego college completely and others to leave early. Second, the United States established its first-ever peacetime draft in 1940. While most students were under the initial 21-year age minimum for the draft, many male students volunteered rather than waiting to be drafted. 

One of the early responses to the war was the creation of a national Civilian Pilot Training program to increase the number of potential pilots available to the military. This program involved a three-month introduction to ground and small-aircraft flight training, to be followed by more advanced pilot training in the military. Wayne was one of several schools in Nebraska to get a CPT program. The first class of 15 students, including three females, started in the summer of 1940. By the fall of 1941, 69 trainees had graduated and 18 were already serving in the military as pilots. One graduate died in an accident during military flight training. 

Dramatic changes ahead

Things changed more dramatically after Dec. 7, 1941. President Anderson announced that students who joined the military immediately would receive full credit for the fall semester, and male students quickly became almost non-existent. By 1943 there were only 27 males enrolled in school, and most of those were freshmen. The graduating class that year was barely half the size of the 1941 class. Even many female students left school to join the military, which actively recruited students of both sexes, or to help fill the severe teacher shortage. A number of male faculty members also joined the military or war-related organizations. 

Classes were cancelled for two weeks that fall so that students could help alleviate the labor shortage for the fall corn harvest. Even students not from farm families were encouraged to volunteer for the effort. 

Flight training

Pilot training center

Perhaps because of Wayne State’s initial success with the Civilian Pilot Training Program, it was one of five locations in Nebraska to house a massive wartime expansion of that program—an Army Air Corps Cadet Training Program. It immediately became a central part of the campus for the remainder of the war years. 

The first Training Center group, 300 members of the 349th Detachment, arrived on March 31, 1943. All 300 men were housed, four to a room, in Terrace Hall, which had been built for a maximum of 150 students. Almost 1,200 individuals from all over the United States, in four separate groups, graduated from this program before it ended in 1944.

More than 1,000 Wayne students or former students served in the army or navy in World War II, including 106 women. Thirty-six of those, including two women, gave their lives. Memorial Stadium, completed after the war ended, was named in their honor, and Wayne’s Veterans of Foreign Wars post is named for one of them, Llewellyn Whitmore.  

The turning point

By 1945, as the war was beginning to wind down, some aspects of regular campus life were beginning to return to the school. Enrollments started inching back up. 

Further contributing to the sense of a major turning point, President Anderson announced his retirement in the summer of 1946. His 11 years as president had spanned two of the more difficult periods in the school’s history—the final years of the Great Depression and the equally trying challenges of World War II. 

Exceeding expectations

Given the circumstances, Anderson had clearly exceeded expectations. While he did not remain to see two of his most important projects—a new library and football stadium—completed, his advocacy was an important factor in placing both of these items on the school’s agenda. 

Dr. Victor Morey named President

World War II brought about enormous changes in American society, setting off massive shifts in the economy, the role of women and minorities, and the huge demographic development known as the “baby boom,” to mention only a few of the most important areas. 

Leading Wayne State into a new era was a new president, Victor P. Morey. Morey was a native Kansan who had received his Ph.D. in education from the University of Nebraska. Like his predecessors he had a background in public education and had worked his way up through the school system. 

Morey immediately faced challenging issues. Once the war was over, enrollments skyrocketed. In 1949 the number of graduates from the four-year program tied the 1940 record of 99 and rose by an amazing 50 percent the following year. And for the first time in the school’s history women found themselves in the minority; approximately 60 percent of the student body in the postwar years were males. The primary reason for this was a large influx of veterans, many of them taking advantage of the federal government’s generous support for higher education in what was popularly known as the GI Bill. 

Campus activities return

At the same time that Wayne Staters were coping with these new developments, they were also busy getting back to normal. The fall of 1946 saw the first real Homecoming in five years, complete with a Friday night pep rally, bonfire, snake dance, and a pep talk by the new president. That winter the music department was able to present its popular Messiah program, also for the first time since 1941.

New stadium, new teams

Athletics quickly returned to a prominent position. The football team had three consecutive outstanding seasons under new coach Jack Link, a star quarterback just a few years earlier at Wisconsin and Michigan. The team also finally got a new stadium, which had originally been planned for completion in 1942. A plaque over the main entry to Memorial Stadium read, “Dedicated to the men and women of this college who gave the last full measure of devotion for the preservation of freedom in World War II.” Poignantly, but also somehow appropriately, the 1949 Wildcats had their first and only undefeated season that year.