“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
A message from President Krista Newkirk: Founder’s Day 2020 is unlike any we’ve experienced in recent history at Converse. Our celebration this year is remote, as COVID-19 community spread has forced us to implement social distancing protocols and caused our Spring 2020 classes from being held in-person to online. Our students, faculty, and staff are experiencing the uncertainty of the crisis physically separated from each other while at the same time, joining together as a community through virtual conversations. When our college is faced with a problem or crisis that is particularly difficult, complex and troubling, I turn to two things: first, Converse’s values, those ideals we hold dear, and that serve as our highest and best motives; and, second, history to see what lessons we can learn from the past.
So, when faced with this year’s pandemic of historic proportions, I naturally turned to Lillian Adele Kibler’s The History of Converse College, to see how Converse handled the flu pandemic of 1918. Seeing nothing written there, I turned to the most knowledgeable person on all things Converse, Dr. Jeffrey Willis, our Director of Archives and Special Collections and Andrew Helmus Professor of History Emeritus. I asked him if he knew of or could find anything in the archives about Converse during the Spanish flu epidemic.
Surprisingly, even Dr. Willis did not have anything about how that epidemic affected the college, but in keeping with his character, he did not leave me empty-handed. He provided a letter from President Edward M. Gwathmey dated December 11, 1945. It appears to be a form letter sent to all students and it may strike a chord with many of you as it did with me since I have found myself sending, and you have received, similar letters in recent days. Providing classes online was not an option then, of course, so they adjusted the schedule of the school year.
It provided me with some comfort to think that seventy-five years ago, President Gwathmey was undoubtedly making some of the same difficult decisions we have had to make in recent days to ensure the welfare of Converse students. The timing of this flu outbreak at Converse followed on the heels of World War II, inspiring me to explore Converse’s response to the war. Converse made many adaptations and innovations to its programming during World War II, not least of which was its rollout of educational programs to the 17,000 soldiers stationed at Camp Croft, near Spartanburg. A committee drew up a list of ninety-seven subjects it could offer the soldiers there ranging from foreign languages and advanced mathematics to home cooking and typing. Converse brought soldiers and townspeople together in these free courses to create a sense of community and support. The soldiers loved the classes, and Converse continued offering them. Converse’s response was innovative and patriotic, and Converse made headlines across the country because of it.
“On February 7, 1943, Converse announced that it would become co-educational overnight by taking on all of Wofford’s juniors and seniors.”
Remarkably, seventy-seven years ago to the very date that we announced Converse’s decision to add a co-educational undergraduate college on campus, Converse went co-educational. That’s right, on February 7, 1943, Converse announced that it would become co-educational overnight by taking on all of Wofford’s juniors and seniors. At the time, Wofford was still a school for men only. Wofford students needed our support because the federal government was taking over the Wofford campus for aviation cadets to train there. Two weeks later, 116 Wofford students began classes at Converse.
President Gwathmey held a joint convocation that morning to welcome the new students. Although the young men lived off-campus, they were allowed to eat in Gee dining hall, and every class included men and women. Converse quickly adopted those young men, and they became our own. Unfortunately, many of those students were conscripted before they completed their education. Still, Converse faculty once again rose to the challenge, providing those students with individual instruction and examinations so they could complete their courses before they left to serve their country. This change went so well that President Gwathmey reported that Converse would open its summer school and its fall session in 1943 to any Wofford student who applied, including freshmen and sophomores who had previously been sent to Spartanburg Junior College.
80 Converse students board a bus to help harvest cotton fields during World War II. Converse changed in other ways during World War II, as well. Converse students were excited to join a volunteer military service as a defense project. Converse women gathered on the hockey field for drills conducted by one of the Camp Croft officers. Each member had room inspections every day where they made their beds and cleaned their rooms before their first class. T
hey began a Red Cross sewing room and made surgical dressings, bandages, and garments. They also constructed and ran an obstacle course as part of their physical fitness program. The obstacle course was designed by a Camp Croft officer to be similar to the course soldiers used. The volunteer students ran over logs, climbed trees, stood against posture boards, did chin-ups, and jumped rope. When President Gwathmey learned of a local labor shortage caused by the war that meant that cotton growers risked having their fields rot unpicked, he conferred with Miss Gee, and they both talked with the student body. The students rallied with their usual energy and lined up, laundry bags slung over their shoulders, to perform the challenging work of picking cotton, led by President Gwathmey. They picked 1,176 pounds cotton in one day, and returned to do it again. Because of the work of Converse students and the local community, a $5M cotton crop had been saved. The two bales picked by Converse students were auctioned off for war bonds and provided $13,000 to support the troops.
“Converse must find its path forward by turning to its values of community, progress, and excellence.”
This extraordinary history of Converse shows that Converse does not shrink in times of struggle. Converse rises to the occasion. It becomes innovative. It expands its horizons. It engages in new programming. It helps students face their unique circumstances. And, most importantly, it opens its arms to help those in need. In short, Converse lives up to its values by being progressive, by supporting and expanding its community to help those in need, and by pursuing excellence as it strives to help and educate each person to provide greater opportunities.
Often lost in history are the moments of despair, the exhaustion, the periods when people felt isolated and scared. I am sure that Converse students at that time felt all of those emotions, but they found ways to act and to serve others. I truly believe that service and a focus on helping alleviate the pain and struggles of others is the best cure for our own ennui and despair. I’m sure that there were times when Converse faculty, staff, and students thought helping the war effort or becoming a coeducation institution overnight was impossible. Yet, they did it.
As noted science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke stated, “The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.” Here we are, Converse, facing another world-wide, unprecedented challenge. With each new day and news report, you can feel the fear and lack of certainty on how and when this all will end and when things will return to normal. Once again, Converse must find its path forward by turning to its values of community, progress, and excellence.
Converse’s Andrew Helmus Distinguished Professor of History and Politics, Dr. John M. Theilmann, recently wrote a thought-provoking piece about current and past pandemics. In it, he emphasizes the comfort we can take in learning from the lessons of past pandemics. While examination of the past gives us some cautionary points, and a pandemic may be challenging while we are experiencing it, we should remember that history demonstrates that society eventually recovers.
One of the important lessons we learn from pandemics is how much we rely upon others and our community. Which is why it is important to remember that while we must physically isolate for safety, we must not socially isolate. We must come together as a community, be progressive in our approach to face the impossible and make it possible, and we must pursue excellence in all that we do. We must rise above these earthly challenges to see clearly. We must review history and primary, trusted sources instead of being overwhelmed by opinions and conjecture in order to decide wisely. And, we must focus on our values to ensure that we are acting justly. That is the Converse Way.