Enrollment surge after World War II

Virginia Tech alum Rieman “Mac” McNamara, 91, talks at the Old Guard Society of Golden Alumni reunion in Blacksburg last month. McNamara recalled big enrollment swings at the school in the wake of World War II.

BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech’s enrollment surge for fall 2019 is significant, but this isn’t the first time the school has had to go to great lengths to adjust for sudden, substantial growth.

In the years following World War II, the university’s enrollment swelled to more than 5,000 students for the first time. During the war, enrollment had dipped to as low as 738, according to the school’s historic enrollment data. Across the nation, colleges faced enrollment growth as veterans went to college on the G.I. Bill.

Rieman “Mac” McNamara, a student at the time, remembers a crowded campus. Students were crammed three into a dorm room, married students lived in trailers near the Duck Pond and near Stadium Woods and others even lived in university-rented space at what is today the Radford Army Ammunition Plant, informally called Rad-Tech by the students living there.

“You couldn’t believe it how crowded it got,” said McNamara, a member of the class of 1949 who now lives in Richmond.

The crowding was commonplace across the country, said LaDale Wingling, a Tech history professor who has studied the history of higher education. Enrollment at college campuses doubled during the time period, he said.

“It was a rare institution that didn’t have this type of overcrowding,” he said.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute or VPI, led by President John Hutcheson, had to take creative measures to house the thousands of additional students, according to “The First 100 Years: A history of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University” by Duncan Kinnear.

The university had been a beneficiary of the New Deal prior to World War II, adding about a dozen buildings that make up the core of the campus today, Wingling said. But that simply wasn’t enough for the influx of vets and other students who started flooding Blacksburg.

Changes were necessary, Kinnear wrote, because dormitories were in disrepair due to a lack of maintenance during the war, there weren’t enough dining facilities and “most disturbing of all,” there was no place for married students to live at the college or in town.

The university put in a trio of trailer courts for those married students, their wives and families.

Life in the courts, was the “ideal setup” women who lived in the Duck Pond court informally called “Vetsville” told The Roanoke Times in 1946.

“My husband and I love the place,” a woman identified as Mrs. Raymond Minyard of Roanoke said. “We’re together and Ray is going to school. I think it’s really wonderful.”

For the multitude of non-married students, VPI administrators also found cramped housing on campus and in Blacksburg. As many as 900 lived at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant, from where some students and even instructors were bused back and forth from campus along Prices Fork Road.

A 1946 editorial in The Roanoke Times praised Hutcheson and Tech for their innovative thinking of housing students at what was then known as the Radford Ordnance Works dormitories.

“Much burning of midnight oil has taken place at Virginia Polytechnic Institute as officials there have planned for the huge influx,” the editorial said.

“The arrangements have their disadvantages, but the veterans who predominate in today’s classrooms are glad to be going to college under almost any handicaps. Had it not been for the college’s planning many of these ex-soldiers and sailors would assuredly have been disappointed.”

Away from the Arsenal, students found methods to get to class any way they could, sometimes living outside of a heavily burdened Blacksburg.

Hundreds of students commuted to campus living from “Vinton to Pulaski,” according to a report from Hutcheson to the school’s Board of Visitors. Those students’ cars were scorned by locals for causing traffic jams.

Further changing life on campus was a new dynamic among its students. Veterans coming back from the war had no desire to serve in Tech’s Corps of Cadets so in 1946, for the first time in institution history, civilian students outnumbered cadets.

The sudden growth and large civilian population caused some dramatic administrative shifts during this time as well. For the first time, VPI hired administrators to solely focus on admissions, student affairs, buildings and grounds and business operations. Walter Newman was also hired as the school’s first ever vice president and would later serve as president.

Today, there are many more administrators to deal with the growth. Tech is in the process of hiring dozens of faculty members to aid with an impending surge of an over-enrolled class of more than 7,500 students slated to come to Blacksburg in fall 2019.

Students again will be crowded into dormitories, sleeping three to a room and in study lounges. Alternative housing at apartment complexes and hotels is also being considered by university officials.

Wingling said that problems like rising housing costs and deteriorating general conditions in town should be expected now like they were then. However, technology and the relative size of this enrollment surge should make it easier for the university and Blacksburg to manage in 2019.

Problems from the surge eventually slowed down and enrollment shrank to less than 5,000 students by 1949, as new dorms and facilities came on line to host a larger population.

Tech would later face significant enrollment growth during the late 1960s and early 1970s under the leadership of T. Marshall Hahn. That led to high-rise structures near Washington Street and the emergence of large off campus apartment complexes like Foxridge, according to Tech history professor Peter Wallenstein.

The resounding lesson from the crowding on campus of the late 1940s, McNamara said, is that people can deal with the problems that come from overcrowding.

Things might have seemed difficult back then. They seem difficult now. But Virginia Tech and Blacksburg will be fine, he said.

“They made it work before,” McNamara said. “They’ll make it work again.”

Staff writer Matt Chittum contributed to this report.

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Robby Korth covers higher education, primarily Virginia Tech.

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