Boonstra, Esther Conelley | Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections
The Way It Was at Purdue 1941-1945, by Esther Conelley Boonstra
I came to Purdue as a freshman in September 1941. There were four male students for every female student. The Music Hall (now Elliott Hall of Music) was new and in it we freshmen had an orientation talk and an initial assessment of each one's capabilities for the assignment to classes, whether remedial, level one or level two. We were welcomed by then University President, Edward C. Elliott, after which another man spoke and among other things told us to look first to our right and then left and by the end of the year one of the three would still be a Purdue student.
Everyone registered for class assignments in the armory at the beginning of each semester. The "Green Guard" was an honorary group of upper level women students which helped new women with registration and served as volunteer counselors. Each student received a "Passport" on which were our photographs and which allowed us to attend basketball and football games, convocations, some dances and other activities. All freshmen, both men and women, were expected to wear freshmen beanies, small green felt caps.
Slacks for women were not permitted on campus and none of my friends even owned slacks or jeans. saddle shoes and ankle sox were common footwear for coeds and skirts and sweaters or sweater sets were normal attire for attending class. However, in the dorms, women were required to wear heels and hose for dinner time. Six girls were seated at each table and one of them served as hostess for the table - this assignment changed every evening. Only the hostess was permitted to speak to the waiter on behalf of her table mates when asking for any additional needs, such as coffee, water, milk, etc.
All women were required to take four semesters of PE (Physical Education). The first semester required swiming, unless one could pass a basic swiming test; but, since most homes and communities at that time had no swimming pools, this requirement was a good, basic lesson as a life saving precaution. For subsequent semesters I registered for archery, tennis and modern dance.
I successfully tried out for the University Choir which was the largest component of the Purdue Musical Organization at that time with about 250 members. Our director was Mr. Albert P. Stewart. Some of the choir formed the Varsity Glee Club which was then about 35 men. In January 1942, Mr. Stewart introduced a new specialty group group he named "Purduettes," beginning with 12 girls selected mostly from the Concert Choir. Each semester he conducted try-outs for individuals to be selected for one of the groups. The PMO Christmas Show was simply a performance by all of the choral groups together wearing robes and singing a mixture of religious and secular music of the times, while the orchestra performed its own concert.
President Franklin D. Rooselvelt announced by radio (no TV) on December 7, 1941 that Pearl Harbor had been attacked by Japanese war planes. On December 8 classes were dismissed to hear the United Staes declare war. Universal draft registration soon followed and campus life quickly changed. Girls, whose brothers and boy friends could be drafted and sent to war, were anxious and crying. Gradually enrollment declined and at one point diminished to a little less than 4,000.
Consequently the ratio of girls to men was about 21/1. During the holiday vacation Purdue declared an end to semester-end final exams and awarded grades based on periodic smaller exams. Vacation time between semesters was reduced to a week or less. There were three full terms of 16 weeks each year with no summer breaks for the duration of the war. A student who was fortunate enough to successfully complete 8 consecutive semesters could earn a degree in 2 2/3 years instead of the customary four. Men were required to continue without summer interruptions and make good enough grades in order to stay in school. Women could choose to take summer breaks, if desired.
Each dormitory had a house mother and each floor had a "smoker" (room), and smoking in individual dorm rooms was prohibited. Washers and dryers were in the basement, but many students had canvas covered heavy card board boxes about 24 x 15 x 4 inches in which laundry was mailed home to be washed, ironed and returned, perhaps with some treat tucked inside among the clothing.
My room mate and I were both Home Economics students. I majored in teaching and minored in art while she majored in textile chemistry. (She was also in PMO participating in the choir and playing flute in the orchestra, then also a part of PMO, directed by Mr. Joseph M. Ragains). She later earned advanced degrees and ultimately becane Dean of Home Economics at Auburn University.
Applied design was a required course for Home Economics students. Many more art-related classes were then available in the HOme Economics School, such as clothing design, house planning and interior decorating. Water color painting was used to illistrate home interior decorating and clothing design. Because of the decline in numbers of male students leaving for the war effort, Michael Golden Shops offered some classes to women students. We were taught elementary electrical wiring, learned to use metal and wood lathes and soldering techniques. I made a brass plate and aluminum plates, some cookie cutters which I used for years, and small wooden bowls.
The marching band directed by Colonel P. S. "Spots" Emrick was then an alternative to the mandatory two year ROTC military training for all able bodied men. Because of the decline of male students from over one hundred to less than 50, the band began to accept women students, among them my room mate.
Male black students could only live in West Lafayette in International House on University Avenue. However, black female students were denied the right and had to live across the river. "Practice House" was a requirement in order to earn a degree in Home Economics. It was a program of 6 weeks duration, during which time home making duties were rotated among the girls each week. During those weeks two girls roomed together in the house. However, I was assigned to a group of five which included a very well liked black student. Those making the room pairings were planning to assign her to her own room, thinking incorrectly that no one would want to room with her. But she did have a room mate and one of the white girls roomed alone. Therefore, all of the assignments had to be rescheduled to accomodate a class of five. Thankfully, those restrictions were lifted long ago.
Purdue Independent Association (P.I.A.), the organization representing the numerous cooperative housing units, sponsored the annual Valentine Dance, and others. Dances, both formal and informal, were common during the war years, with "sock hops," "blanket hops," Military Ball, and Senior Ball, among others. Also, "Victory Varieties" were presented in the Hall of Music, as well as frequent convocations. Many famous orchestras of the times provided music for entertainment and the major dances. Among many others, they included the bands of Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Glen Miller, Stan Kenton, and Les Brown. All entertainment was free. Activities Bureau, Student Senate, and Exponent staffs all met in rooms on the second floor of the Union. Following one of the convos in the summer of 1943, I was invited to the Sweet Shop in the Union basement by my future husband.
Student automobiles were almost non-existent on campus. Students, with few exceptions, went home infrequently and seldom even called home. Busses and trains were the common means used to go home and return. Walking from class to class was the mode on campus. City busses connected West Lafayette to Lafayette.
In 1942, the first unit of the armed forces to send uniformed students for training to Purdue was the Navy. These men were in the V-5 and V-12 programs and were housed in Cary Quad which they named USS Cary. Early in 1943, the Army began sending groups of men to Purdue in the Army Specialized Training Corps (ASTP). They too were housed in Cary and eventually totaled 500. These were followed by a group of Brazilian Air Force men, who were housed in the Union Hotel. The same year several different companies involved in the war effort sent groups of women for specialized radio/electronics training (RCA Victor and Wright Field Cadettes) and engineering (Curtis-Wright Cadettes), later to become significant radio and electronic manufacturing aides and under-engineering aides replacing men called away from those companies to the armed forces. These women were assigned housing in the womens' dorms. I was displaced along with many others and 18 of us moved to a large home on Waldron st.
Heavy rains accompanied by extreme flooding of the Wabash River occurred in the spring of 1943 and two or three sailors decided, despite warnings, to try to cross in a row boat, unsuccessfully, of course. The boat swamped and they had to cling to trees to avoid being washed downstream. They had to be rescued by the police and spent the night in jail.
Smith Hall on the south side of State Street was the location of Purdue's dairy store where we could purchase ice cream cones for a nickel. It was a short walk from my house.
In February 1945 I received my Purdue B.S. H.E. degree during the first of several commencements that year and accepted a teaching position at New Carlisle, Indiana. I completed that school year and the summer extension program, then registered shortly before marrying in August and moving to Indianapolis with my husband who had one more year at the I.U. School of Medicine. I taught art for that one year in one of the public elementary schools of Indianapolis.
Esther Conelley Boonstra's firsthand account found in her alumni folder.
Purdue Univeristy Archives and Special Collections Oral History Program