Tradition in a time of need


” We will go down to some kind of defeat, I don’t know whether it will be military defeat or economic defeat, because of what is happening in us now, or we will come to victory because of what is happening in us now. When it is all sunshine and brightness and the birds are singing and there is no anxious looking up into the skies, you can do more to save America in what is probably her most perilous moment, which is now, in all her history. You can do most to save America by preventing yourself from becoming soft, soft in your will, soft in your brain and your muscles and your nerves. Work hard, goad yourself to your best effort[sigma]it is on that basis that all true living with pleasure is founded, and you will be preparing yourself to be a good American in a hard world.”

There is a timeless quality to the advice of the Rev. J. Edgar Park; the former Wheaton College president could have been speaking to nearly any class of students. His admonition, delivered in September 1940 as the United States watched the war in Europe, betrays a knowledge far deeper than the jingoistic rhetoric of the day. Whether the time was World War II, the Civil War or yesterday, Park’s essential message lies at the heart of the college mission: to prepare world citizens for a lifetime of learning and service. The history of service by Wheaton students, faculty and staff in America’s times of crisis indicates the success of that mission born in 1835.


Sept. 11 was a national crisis unlike any previous; its immediate horror was delivered swiftly and without warning, leaving thousands dead and many more asking why and how and who. The campus was still reeling from the initial shock when administrators went into action. By that afternoon, on-campus counselors tended to those upset by the attacks, the Dean’s office began the task of helping students locate their families in New York and Washington, D.C., and hundreds gathered in the Dimple to share their emotions, vent their anger, and offer comfort and inspiration to classmates and co-workers.

“The coordinated terrorism our country has experienced today is a life-changing tragedy,” Provost Susanne Woods said at the Dimple gathering. “We do not yet know all of what happened, and we must resist the temptation to fall prey to every rumor. But whatever we don’t know, we do know that thousands of innocent people have lost their lives today, and that we are all likely to be affected by it.”

In the days that followed Sept. 11, emotions transformed into action as leaders in all areas of Wheaton life devised and implemented service strategies. Student Life chartered a bus to transport students to their New York homes and families. Faculty members organized campus forums to increase awareness of Middle Eastern history, culture and sociopolitical issues; served as sources for national news stories; and authored commentaries that appeared in regional newspapers.

The Communications Office joined with Alumnae/i Relations and technical staff to create the “Wheaton Update” Web site, which offered information about local and national emergency services, news and service opportunities. The site also connected Wheaton alums worldwide, who submitted eyewitness accounts and personal reflections of Sept. 11 (excerpts from those accounts appear in the Class Notes section of this magazine; the site can be found at

Student response to the humanitarian needs of New York and Washington were immediate and continue today. Fund-raisers by the Multifaith Council, Posse and other groups have raised thousands of dollars for New York relief efforts. “As a New Yorker, I felt that I needed to help the relief effort at home,” said Daniel Wolf ’02, dean of student’s intern for spiritual life. “I asked for the support of the Multifaith Council, and the support that I gained from members of the council was amazing.”

Monica Talbot ’03, an art history major from Connecticut, took the lead in coordinating Wheaton’s resources with several area blood drives, enabling students to contribute to the nation’s most immediate needs. She organized carpools to nearby Sturdy Hospital to make it easier for students to donate blood, and she worked closely with Norton’s Trinitarian Church to provide Wheaton staffing and donors for a previously scheduled blood drive. In fact, she convinced her lacrosse teammates to join her efforts.

“I had to do something to help,” Talbot said. “I think I had survivor’s guilt and felt so disconnected to emergency work in New York City. My cousin, an EMT, was in New York [see page 12 for the first-person account of Ret Talbot ’93]. I wished I could do more.”

The desire to “do more” has long been part of the Wheaton tradition. The earliest record of Wheaton participation in national emergencies is a letter written in 1861 by “a young lady at Wheaton Seminary, Norton” to her father. The letter, published in Grace T. Shepard’s Reference History of Wheaton College, illuminates a time when the danger of the Civil War seemed somewhat remote (there was a rumor of escaped slaves, en route to Canada, celebrating their freedom in Norton’s town hall), yet the need to contribute to the Northern war effort was overwhelming.

“Norton is comparatively quiet, yet we Seminary girls are wild with excitement,” the unidentified student wrote. “We have finished 120 flannel shirts for the noble volunteers, and have bought yarn, and are knitting socks for them. Each girl sewed a motto into the sleeve of the shirt that she made, with her name and that of the Seminary. I hope mine will cheer some manly heart as he goes forth to battle for his country.”

Sewing societies, a common activity for women in both the North and South, continued at Wheaton throughout the war. Students used whatever cloth they could gather to cut material for uniforms, and the resulting production was often very ambitious. Shepard wrote that in the winter of 1863, student Edna Sanford knitted 75 pairs of socks, and in a single day, 100 girls produced 100 grey flannel shirts to send to Union soldiers.

World War I ushered in the modern age of America, and Wheaton’s response to the war was more modern than anyone could have imagined. In 1917 Grace A. Croff of the English Department, senior class president Margaret S. Gray ’18 and Wheaton Record editor Harriet E. Hughes ’18 organized fund-raising on campus as part of the YMCA and YWCA’s Student Friendship War Relief Fund. Wheaton students raised more than $2,000 for war prison camps in the fall semester of 1917, “denying themselves pleasures in order to help our soldiers,” according to the Record.

World War I changed the landscape of opportunities for women after college, and on the leading edge of that movement was Catherine Filene ’18. In 1917 the college junior, director of Wheaton’s Bureau of Vocational Opportunities, organized the first Intercollegiate Conference on Vocational Opportunities for College Women. The conferences were held annually at Wheaton until the 1950s and investigated careers open to women. A. Lincoln Filene, Catherine’s father and then general manager of Wm. Filene’s and Sons department store, advocated the conferences in an article in the Wheaton Record.

“There has been some fear on the part of many colleges of this country that the cultural aim of the college would be endangered by introducing vocational studies and vocational guidance into the curriculum,” Filene wrote. “I think it’s safe to say that anyone who looks forward into the future and sees how women are coming more and more to be a factor in our economic life, cannot help seeing the vital need of connecting in some way college and business.” Today the Filene Center for Work and Learning, established in 1986, continues the tradition of linking students to career and service opportunities beyond the Wheaton classroom.

During the Second World War, Wheaton students, faculty and staff organized relief efforts with military precision. Hardly an issue of the Wheaton News was published without some mention of campus activity, from war-relief fund-raisers for Russia, China, Britain and other countries to knitting clothing for French prisoners of war and entertaining troops from nearby Camp Myles Standish. And that was just the beginning.

In December 1941, when the U.S. entered World War II, Wheaton became the first college to establish its own Defense Corps. Faculty and students formed military-style response units on campus, such as first aid, motor corps and fire fighting units, and campus wardens presided over frequent evacuation and defense drills. According to Louise S.G. Perry ’23, writing in the Wheaton Alumnae Quarterly of her Defense Corps duties at Wheaton, the threat to the college and other East Coast locations was believed to be serious: “When an air raid warning sounds, two crews of [campus] fire fighters will go to their posts in the top floors of each dormitory to extinguish any incendiaries that may fall.”

Josephine “Dody” Wilding Freeman ’44, herself a refugee of Nazi Germany (see the spring 1999 Quarterly for more on Freeman’s story), recalled a flurry of war relief activity on campus. “In my senior year I was an air raid warden at Larcom,” she said. “Many of us knitted clothing and created ‘Bundles for Britain.’ Along with a good many others, I took a first aid course.”

In fact, Wheaton offered a number of new courses related to the war. Created “in reply to the increasing sense of obligation for women to enter into some branch of war service where they are most vitally needed,” the courses included mechanical drawing, a chemistry course in lab techniques, analytical geometry and nutrition.

“Wheaton was totally behind the WWII war effort, both students and faculty,” recalled Bojan Jennings, professor of chemistry emerita. “We raised a large Victory Garden and grew as much food as possible for the Wheaton kitchen. Students did a lot of the work.”

Jennings was among the faculty who volunteered at the exchange at Camp Myles Standish, which was then a staging area for troops headed overseas. She recalls spending the entire Thanksgiving 1943 break at the camp with several other Wheaton faculty members, including drama professor Nancy Conger and English professor Kate Burton.

“Everyone knew that many of these kids would not return, and they knew it, too,” Jennings said. “The PX had a grim, overcharged atmosphere, with everyone trying to keep every one else’s mind off what was going on. We did not want to be anywhere else. Nancy’s fiancĂ© was overseas, as was my husband, a Navy lieutenant serving in the Pacific Theatre. It seems to me that everyone had at least one loved one in jeopardy somewhere.”

The Vietnam conflict brought to campus more political protest than relief work. Perhaps the most controversial expressions of protest were the moratorium days of 1968[^]69 and the student strike of 1970, which split student and faculty into opposing camps yet provided the foundation for open discussion of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia.

“It was a very divisive era,” recalled professor of political science Jay Goodman. “The Vietnam War was a daily subject in poly sci classes, among students, and in special lectures and programs we had in the department. Many of our students were active in regional and national anti-war movements while other groups were supportive [of the war effort].”

One student active in campus protest was Marcia Polese’70. Now president of Polese Clancy, a Boston communications firm, she was a student Moratorium Day organizer.

“People were so anxious to ‘do something’ in terms of having their voices heard–having an opportunity to stand up for what they believed in–that my role was more of a facilitator, providing time and space for so many to say so much,” Polese said. “While other campuses actually experienced bitter debate and even some violence, the Wheaton approach was more oriented toward open dialog and organized debate. There were a lot of differing points of view, from the most radical to the most conservative.”

Today the open debate and tradition of service continue, with student journalists penning convincing commentaries for and against military operations in the Middle East and fund-raisers planned nearly every week.

“During the weeks, months and years ahead, my dream is that we use our imaginations to dream together[~]use our vision to create a world as we would a work of art–so that we can resolve our differences in ways that go beyond the old solutions of violence, war, hatred and blame,” Polese added. “This is the work we must all do together, as students, friends, professionals and citizens.”