Class of 1944 broken up by WWII

by David Hemmer | 6/12/94 5:00am

The "class that never graduated" returns to Hanover this week for its fiftieth reunion.

Broken up by the call of World War II, the 1944 class never shared a Commencement ceremony. Some members of the class graduated in 1943; others not until 1954. Twenty-three never returned from the war.

While the war-disrupted class may not share a common graduation date, the '44s share a common bond that has made them one of the strongest and most unified classes in the history of the College.

This weekend, a record number of them return to finally receive a special certificate of recognition of "The Commencement that Never Was."

Off to war

In September 1940, 699 men matriculated to form the Class of 1944, all with high expectations for their college years. Although the Americans were not involved yet, war was already raging in Europe.

The next fall, 638 members of the Class of 1944 returned for their sophomore year. That December Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the war.

Many students wondered whether they should enlist or wait for the draft board to decide their futures.

Under pressure by the government to graduate students quickly, the College held a summer session in 1942 that allowed 356 members of the class to take 3 courses and advance toward their degrees.

The war continued to take its toll on the class, as only 442 men returned in the fall of 1943 for their junior year. Another 73 were gone before spring term started. Many had been drafted right out of college while large numbers enlisted.

Charles Secor '44 said Air Force planes would occasionally perform acrobatics over the campus and lure students with visions of grandeur.

"The next day a couple guys would go off and join the Air Force," Secor said.

The disappearance of their classmates was hard on the '44s. "The dwindling away of your core class was distressing," said Don Burnham '44, who was the class chairman.

"Little by little there were fewer and fewer people," Secor said.

But the College was not empty, -- 2,000 students arrived in July of 1943 to be trained as Navy and Marine officers in the College's V-12 program, the largest of its kind in the nation. The V-12 program continued for two years.

Burnham said having a Navy unit on campus was exciting. "It gave you something to laugh at," he said.

Math, physics and graphics classes filled to capacity with program participants. As class sizes in those fields swelled beyond 1,000, professors from other departments, including government, political science and history, were recruited and trained to teach those skills.

By this time, most of the campus was in uniform. "The V-12 program didn't come until most of our class, and indeed most of the undergraduate body had already left for some sort of service or another," said Stephen Tate '44.

Again to speed up graduation dates, the College held an inter-session from May 10 to June 26, 1943, where students could take three courses. The inter-session and the summer term allowed 111 members of the Class of '44 to graduate on August 6, 1943.

The next fall, 180 freshman made up about half of the remaining undergraduate civilian body.

Over the next 11 years, '44s earned diplomas on a record 31 different dates. Those graduating in 1944 were mailed their degrees, as no Commencement exercises were held.

Burnham and Bob Carr, the class faculty advisor and eventual president of Oberlin College, convinced the administration to award credits for military service, making it easier for many to finish their degrees.

But life goes on

Even with the war, some things at Dartmouth never change. Winter Carnival was still a big event with the usual overwhelming snowfall, according to Burnham.

One year Anne Hopkins, daughter of then-College President Ernest Hopkins was crowned Winter Carnival queen.

Lack of snow was not a problem, as even Green Key weekend was snowed out, according to Donald Oakes '44. "We had heavy snow, and it was almost worse than Winter Carnival."

Alcoholic beverages were as popular with students then as they are now, although only the civilian students were supposed to partake. Tanzi's Italian Foodstore was the '44s answer to Beverage King, as they were the "prime purveyors of beer in town," said Burnham, a brother at Phi Gamma. "They'd deliver you a keg or two at the fraternity house."

Gasoline was not as available as beer though, according to Oakes, who would save up his gasoline stamps to drive to New York and back. Oakes and his friend Craig ran a student church near Etna and received extra stamps as "clergymen."

"I had a 1932 Chevy Coupe with a rumble seat," he said. To save gas on the downhill trip to Etna, Craig would lie on the left fender to see if anyone was coming. They'd start downhill and shift into neutral. Oakes, who is now an Episcopal priest, said they could sometimes go seven miles that way.

Sports provided a source of unity for the remaining students in 1943-44. The hockey team did not lose a single game, and the basketball team became the first team in history to make the NCAA tournament three years in a row. They lost to Depaul in the semifinals that year.

Oakes, who was manager of the team, described the loss. "Depaul had a big clumsy oaf by the name of George Mikan. He was the first of the really big men in basketball," he said. "They'd wait for George to lumber down to the basket."

Oakes said Mikan later took dancing lessons and improved his game. This is apparently true, as he went on to become the star of the Minneapolis (now Los Angeles) Lakers and one of the greatest centers in NBA history.

Burnham, who ran on the track team, said the team benefited by the influx of military men. But, apparently, he was a pretty fast runner himself.

"He never walked to class. He ran," said Oakes about his former classmate.

Since 1944, the class has been one of the most unified, and generous, in the school's history.

"We had a greater sense of class unity in the alumni years than in the years we were there," Oakes said.

Among the buildings on campus that can be traced to '44s are the Gilman Life Sciences Laboratory, the Sherman Art Library, Berry Sports Center and the Burke Chemistry Laboratory.

John Berry '44 and Walter Burke '44 will be receiving honorary doctorate degrees today.

Another famous '44 is Lou Bressett, namesake of the popular Lou's Diner on Main Street.

Despite their disrupted years together, most members of the Class of 1994 look back fondly on their days at Dartmouth. "It's meant a lot to me," Oakes said.