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University Life No Stranger to Times of Change

2020 disruptions remind alumnus of shifts during post-World War II enrollment boom, on-campus Quonset huts

Rows of Quonset huts outside Dyche Stadium, now Ryan Field, in Evanston. Credit: Northwestern University ArchivesRows of Quonset huts outside Dyche Stadium, now Ryan Field, in Evanston. Credit: Northwestern University Archives

While Northwestern in 2020 feels different — emptier with many courses held remotely — there was a period of notable change on campus where it was suddenly more crowded.

As World War II hit in 1942, Northwestern faced enrollment declines as students headed to war. Fred D. Fagg, Jr., then-vice president and dean of faculties, described the University as a ship that “may not be able to detour around the storm center.”

But in the aftermath of World War II, that changed. Hundreds of thousands of American military members returned home, ready to resume their lives. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the “GI Bill,” offered significant education and training subsidies to support vets returning to college as well as those who’d previously never had the means to get a degree.

Credit: Northwestern University ArchivesNorthwestern felt the impact immediately.

“The United States is engaged in a magnificent experiment in the democratization of higher education,” wrote Northwestern President Franklin Bliss Snyder in the University’s 1945-1946 President’s Report. “Northwestern will participate to the full in this experiment.”

In September 1945, 933 veterans enrolled. By Spring Quarter, that number had exploded to more than 6,100. At the start of the 1946-47 academic year, more than 10,000 veterans were enrolled between Northwestern’s Evanston and Chicago campuses — an 11-fold increase from the previous year. By September 1947, veterans on campus totaled more than 11,000.

That meant the full- and part-time student population grew from 19,000 in 1939 to nearly 30,000 just nine years later, an enrollment higher than any other before in the University’s history. To meet the demand for student housing, the Northwestern constructed nearly 100 steel-framed Quonset huts around campus, from Deering Meadow to outside Ryan Field. The project, which cost $750,000 — nearly $11 million today — provided a temporary, yet effective housing solution for incoming students.

Life in the Quonset huts

Composed of lightweight, portable materials and assembled in days, each Quonset hut housed eight students who slept on wrought iron bunk beds placed at opposite ends of the unit. They studied at desks constructed out of sheet metal, and each was provided a small bookcase and two-drawer chest. A bathroom, which included a 3’x3’ shower, toilet, and wash basin, stood in the middle of each hut. Electric heaters provided relief from the cold Evanston winters.

Illustration depicting Quonset huts on Deering Meadow. Credit: Northwestern University ArchivesMelville Hodge (’52) arrived on campus in September 1947 as a 17-year-old from Rock Island, Illinois, prepared to study electrical engineering. He brought with him a single suitcase of belongings and little familiarity with Evanston or Chicago. He spent his first year on campus at the “Music Hut,” named for its proximity to the old School of Music building at the corner of Clark Street and Sherman Avenue.

“We were used to all sorts of limitations in life from the war,” Hodge said. “I can’t say that winding up in the Quonset hut was any big shock. I never knew anything different. It felt standard for college life.”

While he had not served in the military, he had experienced the hardships of life during wartime, assuming several full-time jobs at home during the war out of necessity — he delivered mail at age 15.

But on campus, Hodge quickly connected with his roommates, many of whom had returned from serving overseas.

“Making friends wasn’t as difficult as you might think. Some of my very best friends were people back from service,” said Hodge, noting two of his best friends, Bob and Don, served as a fighter pilot in the European theatre and a naval officer on a destroyer in the Pacific, respectively. “I probably picked up some bad habits from them. They taught me how to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes.”

Hodge, who later endowed Northwestern Engineering’s Melville and Jane Hodge EXCEL Scholars program, a bridge program for incoming McCormick students who have demonstrated leadership skills and a commitment to diversity, said the campus community then was reflective of the mood of the country at that time.

“There was a general spirit of togetherness in society, especially among college students,” Hodge said. “There’s a lot of political division today, but in my mind, back then it just didn’t exist. During the war and after, people were so united.”

By 1946, more than 10,000 veterans were enrolled between Northwestern’s Evanston and Chicago campuses — an 11-fold increase from the previous year. Credit: Northwestern University Archives

Full steam ahead

By 1946, despite facing the challenges caused by the enrollment boom, Fagg wrote that the University was poised to enjoy calmer waters.

“It seems to me that we find the ship in excellent condition, the cargo intact, and the crew eager to break out full sail, accepting the challenge of ever-widening horizons.”

Through times of change, this look back offers hope for the future.

“One of the best parts of my role as dean is talking to alumni who have seen this institution go through dramatic changes before,” said Julio M. Ottino, dean of the McCormick School of Engineering. “Few organizations have the staying power of universities, and I am certain that we will continue to adapt to achieve our mission in new and innovative ways.”

Special thanks to Kevin Leonard, Northwestern University archivist, for supporting research on this story.