The Greatest Generation at Central

Good manners were a constant practice on campus in the 1940s.Back in the 1940s, the students of Central College came and went in many ways. The hometown natives ran across Pella in time for compulsory chapel at 8 a.m. Wilma Damhof Hoekstra ’45 carpooled down from Minnesota with upperclassmen, scrunched in the backseat with her older sister. Eldert Groenendyk ’42 drove from the family farm in his Model A, shoveling his way through snow drifts when he got stuck. James Naccarato ’43 hitchhiked back and forth from New York, once even hopping a freight train. Mary Du Bois Wright ’41 took trains big and small from the mountainous East Coast to Pella, awed as they rolled through cornfields from horizon to horizon. And the Navy cadets of the War Training Center flew over campus in their biplanes before returning in their handsome blue uniforms.

Life in the United States—and on Central’s campus—was transformed between 1940 and 1950 by the tail end of the Depression, World War II, the return of the GIs, the postwar boom, increasing enrollment and a burst of construction. For the students who lived through it, those years at Central were a “golden time,” as Ginny Carpenter Ver Ploeg ’46 puts it, as they made friends and learned lessons they have yet to forget.

The Professors and Presidents

Many students coming to Central in the 1940s were the first in their families to attend college. The rigorous academics were a shock to those coming from small country schoolhouses or high schools where most girls didn’t graduate.

“You thought in high school that you knew a lot,” says Orleath Vogelaar Ingle ’47. “Then you got to Central amongst other people and found out you didn’t know much.”

biology class 1940

The faculty’s high standards were a source of the initial consternation, but the freshman soon grew to love their teachers
and mentors. “They all wanted you to do well and end up with a good education,” says Betty Brands Huitsing ’48. “They were interested in your personal life. It was just a big family atmosphere.”

But it wasn’t only faculty who had a direct impact on students. With enrollment hovering around 300 for most of the 1940s, President Irwin Lubbers knew every student’s name—almost. Groenendyk tells the story of being called last at commencement because Lubbers only knew him as “the whiz,” rather than his given name.

Huitsing made a personal connection with President Gerrit Vander Lugt, who took over in 1946. Thinking of staying at Central despite having the credits to graduate, Vander Lugt urged her to save the money. Instead, he found her a teaching position in Chicago and took her along on a business trip there. Her meal with the president was the first time she had eaten in a train’s dining car.

Both Vander Lugt and Lubbers did their best to make Central as affordable as possible for students. Tuition, at $75, was a stretch for many families who had lost their savings during the Depression. Naccarato, considering attending Central, wrote to President Lubbers and asked for a scholarship. The $25 award made the difference he needed.

The Campus

On their walks to class, students crossed a much smaller campus than they do now. Most classes were held in Central Hall, nicknamed New Central, or Jordan. Douwstra Chapel, now the auditorium, had been finished in the late 1930s. The men lived off-campus in private homes, and the women had claim on Graham Hall. In the early 40s, however, the Navy cadets filled Graham, leaving the women to inhabit small cottages.

student on campus 1940The dining hall—with assigned seating at long tables, waiters, good china and food passed in large bowls—was located in Graham’s basement, along with large tubs and washboards for laundry. Put off by this old-fashioned arrangement, many of the women mailed their clothes home to their mothers in special laundry boxes.

The rooms were small and clean, but the rules were strict in Graham. The women had to sign out after 7:30 p.m. and return by lights-out at 10—or midnight on the weekends. Genevieve Van Hattem Spiekhout ’45 tells the story of a date with a senior—and his failure to return her to campus by curfew. He wasn’t punished, but she was grounded for six weeks, meaning she couldn’t leave campus.

Although the house mother could be rigid, she also cared for her charges. As they girls filed out for church each Sunday morning, she would hand formal hats and gloves to any who had forgotten. Huitsing says the girls hated these borrowed accessories and took them off once they were out of sight. But that was usually the extent of their infractions. “When I look back, I am amazed at all the rules we obeyed,” says Huitsing. “It was hard to complain about them because it was just a part of life.”

The Social Side

Despite the rules and seeming boredom, the students made their own entertainment. In the basement of Jordan Hall, a student center offered pool, ping pong and a snack bar. Intramurals were available for both girls and boys. And the whole campus turned out to cheer on the “Flying Dutchman” at football games.

On the Saturdays without home games, students gathered in the gym for roller stating, a new national craze. Glenn Meerdink ’48 was a floor monitor—calling the different skates and keeping the peace. “I’m not sure how the basketball people felt about our using the gym,” Meerdink says with a laugh, “but they tolerated it.”

1940 dance

Meerdink was also president of the choir, a popular group even then. Others played in the orchestra, discussed
philosophy in self-selected groups, joined literary societies (similar to fraternities and sororities) or went to small country churches to preach and provide special music.

Like students today, the 1940s Dutch were sure their Central friendships would last a lifetime. And many of them have. Eleanor Vos Short ’47 was one of six girls who ran around campus together, having slumber parties and going to Central Park Café every afternoon for cherry pie a la mode. The women and their husbands kept in touch their whole lives, and the surviving members still do.

Short was active in another aspect of the social scene, too—dating. She went out with a cadet with a red convertible, and the couple would drive to Des Moines for dinner. But the cadets were transitory, moving through their training fast. “They weren’t here for more than six weeks, and then they’d move on. You didn’t have time for a long relationship. Then you’d move on to the next one,” Short says with a laugh.

Couples would walk around town together, sample ice cream sundaes, study in the library and go to the small movie theatre downtown. Some even made out in the parlor of Graham Hall. The students didn’t have much money, but they didn’t need it either.

Joy McCain Crelin ’48 met her husband Ed at Central; he was the leader of a brass band that played in the Legion Hall on Friday nights. Dancing was forbidden on campus, so the students flocked downtown for big band music and a chance to connect with the opposite sex.

But, of course, for much of the 1940s, men were scarce on campus, filling the ranks of the military instead. During that time, the girls stayed cheery and danced with each other.

The War

“The war affected everything,” Ver Ploeg recalls. Other than Navy cadets on campus, the classrooms were nearly empty of men, many of whom either enlisted or were drafted between 1941 and 1946.

On December 7, 1941, Hoekstra remembers going to Second Reformed Church like any Sunday. When she returned, students were standing around Graham Hall with their mouths open and tears running down their faces. All they could say was, “The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.”

Walter McCain

Walter McCain, who trained as a pilot at Central, was killed when his plane was shot down over Germany. He is remembered fondly by his family, including his sister Joy McCain Crelin ’48.

“Of course, we were very much aware of what was happening in the world around us, but we had no idea that was going to happen,” says Hoekstra. “I remember everything just went from high gear to low gear. Things had to keep going. But, boy, was it a shock to the whole community.”

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hoekstra says things were amiss on campus. Men began disappearing, heading to training and then overseas. Soon, reports of deaths were coming in. When that happened, Ver Ploeg says, “the entire class gathered around. It was like a death in the family.”

After four years of fear and bad news and trying to carry on, the students on campus in 1946 witnessed a huge change. The soldiers began to return, many of them paying for tuition with the GI Bill. “There was a lot more activity when the veterans came back,” says Artis Vande Voort Leabo ’48. “There seemed to be life on campus.”

Many of the GIs were older than the typical college students, returning after three or four years in the service. Huitsing says she was never quite sure who was in her class, because the age of freshman ranged from 17 to 25.

“These people who came from all around the world were very determined to learn as much as they could,” says Huitsing. “They really stimulated the discussions in class. I thought my classes got very difficult, but I got a really good education.”

The Legacy

As the 1940s progressed, the decade left its mark on Central College. Increased enrollment of both veterans and women led to the construction of a men’s dorm and a new wing on Graham Hall. The Kuyper Athletics Complex was completed. Central became an accredited college and was admitted to the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

joy homecoming queen

Joy McCain Crelin ’48 accepting her cup as Homecoming Queen.

But the biggest impact was on the students themselves. Groenendyk credits the college with teaching him how to studyand to think, which became the foundation of his life thereafter. Naccarato says his career in the Justice Department was due to Central’s influence.

Hoekstra and her husband Tony began their lives together during the war—and then both returned to Central decades later to finish their degrees. Counting their children, grandchildren and spouses, 22 of their family members are Central alumni.

In the 1940s, Hoekstra couldn’t imagine what would come from her time at Central. And neither could most of the students. But they had hopes and dreams similar to students’ today.

Carol Huibregtse ’44 wrote a poem in the 1944 issue of The Knickerbocker. It began: “I want to live a thousand lives, to see a thousand suns.” It ended: “But then I want one sun to rise, To shine on me each day, For though I’d like to travel far, Home’s where I want to stay!”

Home was Central College, as it has been for generations of students. “There’s a special feel about Central,” says Ver Ploeg. “It was there in the 40s, too. The faculty were interested in every student, and they had our best interests at heart. I think that is carried over to this day. Students at Central are more compassionate and think about people outside themselves. I think the tone was set long ago.”


See more photos and read more stories about the Central Dutch of the 1940s.

To encourage serious, intellectual discourse on Civitas, please include your first and last name when commenting. Anonymous comments will be removed.

Comments are closed.