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New book chronicles quiet revolution of Class of '50

September 1995

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – When World War II ended, a new nation began.


A plaque will be unveiled that chronicles the significance of the new structure in the history of the university. The plaque will seal a shaft at the base of the tower that contains a time capsule, which will offer the Purdue community of a century from now a glimpse of Purdue in 1995.

And it began on America's college campuses. Veterans returned home to the GI Bill, and many became the first in their families go to college. They returned home to develop the technologies made possible by the war and to send men to the moon. They returned with still-fresh memories of the Depression, but also with unbridled optimism.

The faith and the determination of those veterans and their classmates -- and the quiet revolution they started -- are captured in a just-released book: A Force for Change: the Class of 1950. The setting is Purdue University, on the banks of the Wabash River in north-central Indiana. The mosaic of memories is in their own words.

They were Norman Coats, who arrived from Borden in the knobs of southern Indiana where he grew up near the Civil War log cabins of his ancestors. His father was a berry grower and truck farmer and the family was dirt poor even before the Depression began. Thanks to the GI Bill, Coats went on to earn a Purdue degree in ag economics and retire as a vice president with Ralston Purina.

The war shaped his generation, he says, recalling bombing raids where he lay in a fetal position in the turret of a B-17, where temperatures would drop to 60 degrees below zero and where there was no room for him to wear a parachute. After experiences like that, he says, his generation was ready to take on the world, and did:

"You know, after the war we felt like we could do anything. We felt our nation could accomplish anything it wanted to.... We each felt like we could do anything, too."

They were Jim Blakesley, who was born in Watts, Los Angeles, and at 19 commanded a bomber with a crew of nine other equally young men. "They didn't tell us we couldn't do things back then," Blakesley says. "If people don't know what their limits are, they go ahead and do what they're told."

They were Billy Christensen from Chicago's southside, whose father was the son of Norwegian immigrants. Billy went to work after the eighth grade. Just before graduating from Purdue, he visited home and his favorite neighborhood bar. There, he stumbled into his first job at the suggestion of a friend who worked for a punch card operation. Christensen retired as vice president of that company's international arm, IBM World Trade Corp.

"Growing up in the Depression and living through the war stamped our generation with a certain attitude," says Christensen, who now lives in New Canaan, Conn. "When I was working so hard for such long hours and I'd get called back to work while we were on vacation, I used to say to the kids, 'You have to learn something. In this life, you do what you have to do and you don't complain about it. When you complain, you just waste energy.'

"That's the kind of thinking that came from the Depression and the war. The world doesn't owe you a thing."

When veterans like Coats, Blakesley and Christensen arrived on campus, they found 18-year-old freshmen so in awe that they called them "Mister." Men and women, 18-year-olds and 30-year-olds, they swelled the nation's campuses, nearly tripling enrollment at Purdue to 14,674 in the three years between 1945 and '48.

Many lived barracks-style in the field house or in the attics of classroom buildings. The population boom and age spread exploded on the athletic field. About 350 tried out for the basketball team that first season.

Lou Karras, one of three brothers who went on to play in the NFL, was only 18 when he went out for the Purdue football team. The average age on the team was 26.

"It was almost unreal," says Karras, who grew up in Gary, Ind. "It was particularly hard for the coaches. ... A lot of those guys had made bombing runs into Germany or were involved in the D-Day landing. ... It was hard for a coach to chastise them for mistakes they would make on the field or for being lazy. So you know what happened? They kicked the 18-year-old kids."

The players, though, were among Purdue's greatest. Football players included Karras and Abe Gibron, born in Michigan City, Ind., who went on to coach the Chicago Bears. They played along side upperclassman John McKay, who would coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Gibron now lives in Belleair, Fla. Although two brain tumors have affected his speech, he still lets the world know he longs for the sweet days of his youth, and breaks into a clear baritone as he sings, "Back Home Again in Indiana."

Like athletics, music was a vibrant part of the times, and serenades and formal Big Band dances were popular. With a 6-to-1 ratio of men to women, many co-eds recall having three dates in a single day. And they recall the innocence of the era. Today, some co-eds admit they were enrolled for their "Mrs." degree. After college, many set aside their careers for family. Some returned to the work force once the children were grown, most welcome the new opportunities for women, but almost all say they are glad they put family first.

Kattie Dittrich McMillin, who was the only girl in her Highland, Ind., high school to go to college, recalls that expectations were different:

"My father, a superintendent at Inland Steel, told me he would send me to school for one year and after that he needed to save money to send my brothers, so I would have to leave. I understood that. Today, young women wouldn't stand for that, but that's the way it was. ... Fortunately, at Christmas time my freshman year my father got a promotion and he told me I could finish."

Standards were different, too, she says: "There were very high moral standards." Her sorority "had a formal dinner every night and we didn't sit down until the housemother sat. We had waiters from the fraternities.

"I think we were the last virgins to march down the aisle."

McMillin now works in Lafayette, Ind., on a project to relocate railroads.

Some of the women, like Sarah Margaret Claypool Willoughby, were trailblazers.

Inspired by her father, who was a county assessor in Bowling Green, Ky., and her high school chemistry teacher, she became the first woman to earn a Purdue Ph.D. in engineering. She joined the chemistry faculty at the University of Texas at Arlington in 1954.

"It didn't occur to me while I was doing all this that it was all that unusual for a woman," she says. "But as I look back on it, I realize, I was a real trailblazer. There were very few other women who had professional careers at that time. When I went to Louisville to look for work in 1939, the first thing they always asked was, 'Are you married?' When I said 'Yes' they said, 'Sorry, we don't hire married women. We have to keep the available jobs for men supporting families.'

"Even after the end of the war, I was never paid as much as a man, and this was a real concern. My husband had died and I had a small child. I can assure you, had I spoken out about the injustices they would have told me to just go out and find another job.

"Of all the difficulties that career women had in the '40s and '50s, though, the worst was the lack of female role models and female peers. These days there are many women who give moral support and encouragement to each other in their attempt to advance intellectually and professionally. And I've tried to provide that to the young women in my classes and to others of my acquaintance.

"The loneliness is disappearing.''

Many of the graduates went on to push the envelope of possibilities, and they voice awe at mankind's leaps. Some went to outer space, and many others helped them get there.

They included Virgil Grissom from the quiet town of Mitchell, Ind., who grew up dreaming of becoming a pilot and who became the nation's second man in space. He picked up his nickname "Gus" at Purdue, along with his love for engineering.

He died when fire swept through his Apollo spacecraft during stationary testing in 1967, leaving behind words that reflected his times: "If we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk."

Some of his classmates started work at little-known operations that today are known as NASA, TRW, Rockwell International. They include Richard Freeman, who grew up in West Lafayette, Ind., and now lives in Corona Del Mar, Calif. He had a hand in developing missiles and warheads.

"The technology I've seen in my lifetime is incredible," Freeman says. "I just kind of wallow in it. I just really love it. I can't take my hands off the technology. I can't let go until I find a way to put something to use.

"I've seen incredible change.... I worked with the first IBM computer. It had vacuum tubes. And I go back even further than that. I started with mechanical computers, the first analogs used for fire-control solutions.

"There are so many things we were so dumb about. I look at things today like the computer games sold on every street corner and I remember the difficulty we had in the transition from vacuum tubes to transistors and from transistors to chips. Today people talk about chips who don't really even know what a chip is and how it works. Watching all this happen has been wonderful.

"I couldn't have lived in a better or more fun time."

Whatever they did, their children and grandchildren, and generations yet to come, benefited, says Bill Creson, a Lafayette, Ind., native who went on to become head of a forest products company in San Francisco.

"Really, the unique thing about the GI Bill was not just that the veterans went to college. It's that it created a belief, a value system...where it was normally just expected that kids went on to college. And that was very much unlike what their parents had gone through. Now the grandchildren are going. "These are people to whom a college education is an expectation. And it had never been that way before."

The book is the second written by John Norberg, an award-winning newspaper columnist in Indiana who grew up in the Chicago area. Norberg also has written articles for various national publications, including the Saturday Evening Post, USA Today and Time magazine.

The 408-page book includes more than 50 photographs. It is available at or from the author at

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