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A glimpse at Augustana in the 1930-40s

(Retired Augustana President Thomas Tredway offers a glimpse at college life in the 1930s and 40s in this excerpt from his upcoming book, "Coming of Age: A History of Augustana College 1935-1975." The book will be available in January 2010 for $29.95. (Pre-order a copy.)

Unusual Behavior

While the leadership of the institution wrestled with these matters, life on the campus, of course, evolved as well. When the college functioned as its founders, staff, and supporters intended that it should, things on campus were relatively quiet. Students wrote papers, heard lectures, worked in labs. Academic and social life went on in relative serenity. There was little “news.” Some students excelled; their achievements were reported to hometown newspapers. Athletic and musical performances attracted some interest from the local community. Students dated and sometimes made life-long commitments to each other; that was big news, but mainly to family and friends. When all went well, all was tranquil. But like most schools, the serenity of the academic groves at Augustana was occasionally punctuated with unusual one-time episodes and even marked by lasting trends, neither entirely matching the hopes and expectations of the people in charge of the college. That was as true in the decades we are considering as in the years before and since. And the odd fact is that in later years graduates would often remember some of these events and trends as clearly as they did their classes and their grades.

In 1936 an Observer editorial reported that a new student had been thrown, fully clothed, into the swimming pool by upper classmen who wanted to welcome him to college life. The freshman could not swim and had to be pulled out by the people who had tossed him in to begin with. Better to have doused him undressed and “save on wearing apparel,” the editor opined and then, more soberly, warned that if such activity were not controlled by students, the “college authorities” would intervene.i Just before the Augustana-St. Ambrose football game in 1942, according to the Observer, two hundred or more students from the Davenport college invaded the Augustana dormitories with “fists swinging” to spread “liberal quantities of white wash and paint.” The headline of a special edition of the college paper published the next day was, “Norse Blast Irish,” referring to the football outcome.ii Football was suspended during the war and with it this local rivalry that was often accompanied by rather rough horse play from students at both schools.

For students the single most memorable event to shatter the quotidian tranquility of the post-war years at Augustana seems to have been the 1949 invasion of the women’s residence hall. In late February, when the mood and the weather in Rock Island are often grim, ten or twelve masked men (their heads were covered with paper sacks) charged into the women’s dormitory, accompanied by some of their fellows whose heads were un-bagged. The marauders were seeking women’s underwear, and they left the Women’s Building with their ill-gotten booty in hand. A nervous neighbor called the local police. Two women locked themselves in their room, leading to rumors, the Observer reported, that “several co-eds had hysterics.”iii The local media dubbed the episode a “Panty Raid.”

Scholarly research does not tell us whether this was, as student legend would have it, the first such male foray into a women’s dormitory in American history, but the national attention drawn to the college suggests it must have been among the earliest. Augustana’s name suddenly showed up in press reports across the country. The reader can almost hear teeth gnashing in the minutes of the Administrative Council, called hastily into session: “One could only wish that the public were as interested in the constant constructive achievements of the college as in a thoughtless ten-minute aberration from the normal high standards on the part of some students.”iv But the uproar did not still. The President of the Augustana Synod, P. O. Bersell, had to defend the oldest of his church’s colleges regarding the “riot in the women’s building.” He wrote to an outraged pastor that he, Dr. Bersell, would not join “in pronouncing judgment upon the President, Dr. Bergendoff, until [he] had been given ample opportunity for defense.” The college had tried to explain itself in the public and church press, Bersell noted, while he himself cagily reserved judgment. “Whether he [Bergendoff] goes too far in presenting extenuating circumstances or excuses is not for me to say at this juncture.” In any case, Bersell went on, it was the Board of Directors that was ultimately responsible for “the maintenance of Christian character of the school.”v Clearly panty raids were un-Christian.

By the May Board of Directors meeting the tempest had stilled. President Bergendoff, in Germany during the spring, wrote to the directors that it had been “a foolish prank” by a few; over one thousand students had had nothing to do with it. A “hungry press” played up details until one would have suspected that “the campus was out of control.” No woman had complained of improprieties. The president had met with the men involved and made them aware of “the stupidity of the affair and its evil consequences.” The press and even radio reports had been all out of proportion to the event itself, and “none more than myself has suffered in this experience, for my whole aim is to build up confidence in the school.” And if it were not for the high reputation of Augustana for a “different kind of activity,” this would not have received such notice in the first place, the president Dr. Bergendoff himself spent the months of April, May, and June, 1949 in Germany, lecturing at several theological faculties under the auspices of the American occupation forces, in an effort to re-introduce his German colleagues to the mainstream of ecumenical Christianity, from which they had been so isolated during the Hitler years. He must have been glad to leave Panty Raid troubles behind him to spend time on German post-war theological reconstruction.

i Obs, Oct. 8, 1936.
ii Obs, Nov. 12, Nov. 13, 1942.
iii Obs, Mar. 3, 1949.
iv FM, Admin Council, Mar. 1, 1949.
v P.O. Bersell to J. B. Heid, Mar. 15, 1949, CB 13-1.
vi BM, May 11, 1949.