More than two decades before a fateful night in February of 1949, Emmy Evald knew there'd be trouble.
She was so convinced that the all-male board of Augustana College had erred in selecting the site for the building she and the Augustana Women's Missionary Society had worked so hard to make possible, that she (and every other WMS member) pointedly refused to attend the building's dedication in the fall of 1928.
Evald, whose name has graced the hall originally known as the Woman's Building (or W.B.) since 2008, was concerned that the building's location across 7th Avenue from Denkmann Library and Old Main would not provide its residents enough of a buffer from the thrum of a male-dominated campus, with all of the meaner entailments thereto appertaining. And, boy, was she right.
A bastion of womanhood
From the moment it opened, the W.B.'s status as a consecrated bastion of vestal womanhood made it more alluring to Augustana's male students than Golden Fleece to your average Argonaut. Stories abound of daring incursions during the building's first 20 years, usually involving a lone perpetrator. And the traffic, it must be noted, was two-way: With a sparkle in her eye Dr. Dorothy Parkander, professor emerita of English and 1946 graduate of the college, tells of her popularity among the W.B.'s residents given her first-floor room's ideal location as a portal for many a young woman heading to or returning from a late-night rendezvous with one of the dashing young Navy officer-candidates who found themselves at Augustana during World War II.
But such quaint violations weren't good enough for the Greatest Generation, once it laid down its arms and invaded colleges like Augustana through the G.I. Bill. Everything they did was bigger, louder, more intense... and usually more violent. By late 1948, the temptation of the W.B. was too great to resist. According to Don Peterson, throughout the fall term groups of male students were talking about something bigger, louder, and more intense involving the W.B.
Peterson, who graduated in 1951 and would go on to become a professor of education at Augustana, was pledging the Phi Omega Phi fraternity during his sophomore year. Like many of those who'd begun planning an assault on the fortress of femininity, Peterson was an Army veteran. These men were more than ready to apply the organizational and tactical lessons they'd learned in military service to cracking the defenses of the W.B. Their communications discipline, however, was a little lax.
"A lot of women knew what was coming," Peterson says, "I remember there were quite a few gathered that night by the Stu-U (the student union in those days was in a house located near the site of present-day Ericson Field's scoreboard) to see what would happen."
The fateful night
According to the Rock Island Argus, police were called at 12:39 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 25, 1949, six minutes before the raid was to begin. Apparently, neighbors were concerned about a large group of men gathering in the shadows behind the W.B. Although the Argus reported 250 men took part in the ensuing 10-minute incursion, Peterson recalls the actual figure was closer to 120, many of whom were members of various fraternities, each assigned a corridor to assault.
Two women were key allies in the raid's success. Verna "Ma" Ayers, housemother of Andreen Hall, had quietly told some of her "boys" to be sure and double-lock the apartment of W.B. housemother Alma E. Johnson, since she had a habit of keeping the key for only one of the door's two locks with her. The second ally was Dorothy "Dot" Bratlie, a junior who had a thing for one of the raid's organizers, John "Cousin" Anderson. It was she who made sure that the raiders found the rear door to the W.B.'s cafeteria unlocked.
The raid was quick and chaotic. Lights and phones were cut, and men streamed through the halls on all of the W.B.'s three residential floors. Although some women reported being thrown in showers, the only casualties reported were one man "hit on the head with a chair," and a pair of men who emerged with cuts and scratches. Another line of defense by the women residents was to spray copious amounts of perfume on the invaders, which they hoped would make later identification easier. Although thievery was not the apparent aim of the raid, some of the women reported missing items, including several articles of ladies' undergarments.
The story hit the Chicago Tribune the next day, with a front page headline blaring: "Students Don Masks, Invade Rooms of Sleeping Co-Eds." Although the story alleges some of the residents "became hysterical" (a charge later emphatically disputed by college administrators), it notes, "others were heard calling out windows, 'Help! Police! Isn't this wonderful?' "
Panties trump academics — temporarily
That same Saturday, a deeply disappointed Conrad Bergendoff met with fraternity members. Augustana's fifth president always remembered the raid as one of the low points of his 27-year administration.
As it happened, 1949 was the same year Augustana learned it would be awarded a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, and Bergendoff was ever after chagrined by circumstances that allowed America to learn about Augustana due to pilfered panties rather than academic prowess. (The raid showed up in Time magazine on March 7, 1949, with a quote attributed to Lois Taylor saying, "It was more fun than anything else. In fact, we had an inkling they were coming.")
Media coverage continued sporadically, with the event first described as a "riot," then later as a "raid." It's believed a reporter for the Daily Dispatch newspaper of Moline was the first to add the momentous modifier "panty" that would set off a fad on American campuses throughout the 1950s.
Despite Bergendoff's mortification, the legacy of the Panty Raid is powerful. Cousin Anderson married his co-conspirator, Dot Bratlie, and two generations of progeny have graduated from the college. Among the alleged participants that night were not only several future members of Augustana's Presidents Society, but future chairs of the education, geology, and religion departments, and even a future dean of the college.