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A. Ray Olpin and the Postwar Emergency at the University of Utah

Utah Historical Quarterly

Vol. 48, 1980, No. 2

A. Ray Olpin and the Postwar Emergency at the University of Utah


CUT A HOLE IN THE FENCE AND LET THE BOYS THROUGH!" The fence of rather flimsy barbed wire separated the University of Utah from Fort Douglas. The suggestion to breach it came from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, who had been listening on that February 18, 1946, to the new president of the university, A. Ray Olpin, describe a common dilemma on the nation's campuses: "We have students coming out of our ears." The G.I.'s returning from World War II were looking for an education and a place where they and, in many cases, their families could live. The enrollment at the university had almost doubled between the fall 1945 and winter 1946 quarters. Olpin hoped to use some of the facilities at Fort Douglas to ease the overcrowded conditions on campus.

Eisenhower, on a nationwide tour of army bases, had managed to spare a few minutes from his busy schedule to meet with some local civilians at the Hotel Utah. Olpin had hastily excused himself from a faculty meeting and rushed downtown to take advantage of the opportunity. He and Salt Lake City Mayor Earl J. Glade entered together "a room full of brass." As Olpin described it, "There was a colonel or a lieutenant general at every step." Eisenhower greeted him cordially and introduced Maj. Gen. William E. Shedd, head of the Ninth Service Command, who was then making plans to move his command from Fort Douglas to the Presidio of San Francisco.

Eisenhower recognized the emergency facing the university because of the returning veterans. On the way to Utah he had stopped in Kansas where his brother, Milton, then president of Kansas State College in Manhattan, was facing the same conditions. It was that way throughout the country, Eisenhower observed, and one of the things he was trying to do on this tour was to see what could be done to aid the colleges and universities. He felt that the veterans who had interrupted their lives to fight for their country should be assured of a chance to have an education if they wanted it.

Olpin pointed out that the location of the university "just through the fence" from Fort Douglas put it in an excellent position to use the facilities being vacated by the Ninth Service Command. That was when Eisenhower turned to General Shedd and told him to cut a hole in the fence. Shedd objected, citing a federal law against civilian use of army posts. "That law will be changed when I get to Washington," Eisenhower declared. "I've fought with those boys; I crossed the Channel with two million of them. They're good boys, and I have great affection and respect for them. Let them have everything you can—extra facilities, supplies, and furniture—nothing's too good for them." A solution to the university's problem, one of long-range consequence, thus began to take shape.

Housing was the first need to be met. The Federal Public Housing Authority allowed the use of military facilities for temporary housing of veterans, and the director of war mobilization and reconversion recommended to President Harry S. Truman that unused army and navy facilities be made available to colleges and universities on a no-cost lease arrangement. On that basis, early in March 1946 General Shedd turned over to the university the area directly east of the campus which had been used for the WACs. Known as the "Douglas dormitories" for the short period they were used for housing, these buildings were put to immediate use to shelter about 320 single veterans. Another dormitory building, purchased from the Geneva steel plant, was set up west of the U.S. Mines Building.

The most pressing housing needs, however, were felt by the veterans with families. City housing was not only inadequate, it was also too expensive for most of these young families. Olpin and his staff worked throughout the spring of 1946 to acquire family-dwelling units from central and southern Utah, Arizona, California, and Oregon. By summer, after countless telegrams between Olpin and United States Senators Abe Murdock and Elbert D. Thomas, 301 family units were moved into place to form an instant community, Stadium Village, that was briefly the fastest-growing area on the Wasatch Front. During that summer, the Field House, which had been used as a wartime dormitory for the soldiers at Fort Douglas, was vacated. The men were "taken off the floor," as the official announcement put it, and the beds and mattresses were sold to the university at from 20 to 50 percent of cost. Then, in August, Senate Bill 2085 was passed, making military facilities available not just for the housing but also for the education of veterans. Needed classrooms were at hand.

When Olpin assumed the presidency of the university on January 1, 1946, the campus consisted of about 153 acres, approximately 225 full-time faculty members, and an enrollment of around 3,000. That winter quarter the enrollment soared to 5,300 and in 1946-47 the total enrollment almost doubled again to 10,026, of whom 5,377 were veterans. Adding to the problem of overcrowding were the financial problems resulting from the state legislature's meagre budgetary allocation, based on the previous year's enrollment, and the red tape surrounding payments through G.I. Bill of Rights.

Throughout the spring of 1946 the regents and faculty considered the question of whether to limit enrollment or to expand to meet the overwhelming demand of applicants. The Lower Division Council on Increased Enrollment reported on January 15, 1946, that limitation of enrollment "should be made on the basis of scholastic attainment and promise." More stringent entrance requirements were announced; all residents would have to have at least a "C" average, all out-of-state students a "B" average, to be admitted. All students were required to maintain at least a "C" average to remain at the university. In an editorial appearing on February 12, 1946, the Salt Lake Telegram commended Olpin and other authorities for "their decision to tighten university scholastic standards as an answer to a prospective enrollment far above the institution's capacity." The editorial advised that

Utah should resist the temptation to expand the university to meet an unusual enrollment situation just because we have the opportunity of making it overnight a much bigger institution from the standpoint of number of students.

The returning veterans had created an "artificial factor" in the institution's enrollment. The newspaper cautioned against overexpanding to meet what it saw as a transistory situation.

Even with more restrictive scholastic requirements it soon became apparent that many fully qualified students from Utah would be turned away if enrollment were limited to numbers the university could comfortably accommodate. The governor and the state legislature, responding to requests of residents of the state, made it clear that the state university should not close its doors to those wishing to find an education there. The university would have to expand; and the regents, the president, the administrative staff, and the faculty would have to search for ways in which this expansion could take place.

In a letter dated May 14, 1946, Olpin described the situation to Rep. J.W. Robinson:

The University ... is going to be over-crowded if developed to meet our present requirements. The only direction for expansion is to the East. . . Addition of the present developed section of Fort Douglas to the University campus, either by purchase or by Congressional action, would be a very outstanding accomplishment. Your assistance in this matter will be greatly appreciated.

The immediate problem of supplying adequate classroom space could be solved, Olpin felt, if the university could acquire the use of Building 105, a large structure that had been used for offices and classrooms at Fort Douglas. In May 1946 he went to Washington, D.C, armed with maps of the campus and Fort Douglas. Carrying letters of introduction from Senators Murdock and Thomas, he visited the War Assets Administration and pointed out Building 105 as one that would alleviate the shortage of classroom facilities at the university.

At the same time, however, other federal agencies were looking at the Fort Douglas buildings as places to locate their services. The Veterans Administration, for example, was urging the United States Employment Service, which had just lost its lease in the Newhouse Building downtown, to move to the fort; and one of the commanding officers at Fort Douglas was working to turn over the entire post to the Veterans Administration. Meanwhile, Gus P. Backman, executive secretary of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce, announced that the office buildings in the downtown area had waiting lists longer than at any time in the city's history and that federal agencies were using too much commercial building space. Editorials in the city newspapers stated that it would be a tremendous waste of taxpayers' money to pay for rentals or new construction when the buildings at Fort Douglas were standing idle. The War Assets Administration itself was interested in Building 105 as a possible Utah headquarters.

Before the end of the summer, however, Gov. Herbert B. Maw, Mayor Glade, and Senators Murdock and Thomas had all rallied behind Olpin and had sent telegrams to Truman, Eisenhower, and Joseph Stilwell, commanding general at the Sixth Army headquarters at the Presidio. A telegram from Senator Thomas to General Stilwell read, in part:

There exists a critical shortage of classroom, office and laboratory space at the University of Utah.. . . Unless additional facilities are made available immediately, 2000 veterans may be denied admission this fall. The additional space required is available at Fort Douglas in Building No. 105. This is the only building suitable for college classroom purposes.

Just before the beginning of fall quarter, the university acquired not only Building 105 but also twenty-one other buildings, some at the fort, others brought in from elsewhere. Additional buildings were acquired later, including a large, H-shaped structure imported from Dugway, that was used to house the bookstore, later, the center for Intercultural Studies, and, still later, the Center for Middle-Eastern Language and Area Studies.

Early in fall quarter an open house featuring refreshments and a brass band was held at Building 105, already becoming known as the Annex. Representatives of the various armed services at the university, several Army officials, faculty members, regents, and President Olpin formed an impressive reception line to greet, during the entire afternoon, about a dozen people, as Olpin later recalled. The Annex and other "temporary" buildings solved a crisis for the University of Utah by providing makeshift classrooms for the veterans of World War II and remained to be used by their children. As the Annex, Building 105 still stands as a landmark for the grandchildren of some of those veterans.

Through 1946, 1947, and 1948, university officials continued to work to obtain surplus military equipment. The lists submitted included items ranging from adding machines, acetone, alcohol, ambulances, and augers (clay) to thermofax machines, welders (atomic hydrogen arc), winches, and wire recorders. The bureaucratic red tape involved in transfers of property from the military to the university was complex. "Finding of Need" request forms were submitted in quadruplicate, indicating specific details as to size and type of equipment needed and including a justification of need in terms of veteran enrollment. The possibility of misunderstandings and frustrations was enormous.

In October 1946 Olpin received the following puzzled query from Cyril M. Whitlow, chief educational officer, U.S. Office of Education, who was helping to negotiate for the use of buildings and supplies: "It is not clear whether you are requesting 20 pianos only or 20 pianos and a building. If a building is to be included as a need, the facility probably should be designated as a Music Unit. And if a building is needed, where will it be located?"

The Botany Department requested a decontamination truck for spraying the trees and shrub' on campus, which were being consumed by some kind of pest. The request prompted this response:

We have given your request of June 5. 1947, for a decontamination truck careful consideration in accordance with the purpose of Public Law 697. We are not convinced that this need has any connection whatever with a veteran imposed emergency. You may need the truck; but this need does not derive from the veteran enrollment. Hence, we are compelled to conclude that it is not eligible for approval.

One serious need in the fall of 1946 was for chairs and desks. The students overflowed the classrooms, sitting on laboratory stools, wooden benches, radiators, and floors. When Olpin found out that there were some tablet armchairs in storage at the Ogden Arsenal, he initiated what was referred to by one Fort Douglas officer as "the armchair war of '46." Olpin's first inquiry about the chairs was a very polite request to the commanding officer at Fort Douglas, who, after several weeks, responded: "Subject chairs are not available for transfer." After other queries resulted in delays and frustrations, Olpin sent a telegram to Senator Thomas in September outlining the problem:

We have begged, bought and procured apparently every available chair of any description in this area . . . but lack from 600 to 1,000 seats for students scheduled to begin classes Monday, next week. Chairs now on hand are kitchen chairs and other undesirable ones. Our problems at Fort Douglas will never be solved until we obtain student or tablet arm chairs, 2,800 of which are in storage and unused in Ogden.

Thomas's office referred Olpin to the Federal Works Agency, which sent him to the Stockton General Depot, which sent him to the Quartermaster General's Office in Washington. After three calls to Washington and one plaintive telegram asking, "Who is responsible for these chairs?" Olpin learned that the request for the chairs had been denied and that nothing short of a directive from the secretary of war or chief of staff could make them available.

Olpin's next telegram to Senator Thomas read: "Registration will be completed Monday. Classes begin Tuesday. . . . Must have chairs before classes begin Tuesday. Your further help urgently requested." Thomas replied immediately: "Secretary of War has directed investigation by Proper authorites to determine possibility of loaning chairs." A telephone call to General Eisenhower finally released 1,800 chairs from Fort Douglas. The 2,800 tablet armchairs at the arsenal were declared "restricted material" and remained unavailable.

Despite such frustrations, the university benefited greatly from the Surplus Properties Act. During the 1947-48 year the university received $200,000 worth of electronics equipment, $30,000 worth of laboratory glassware, $10,000 worth of furniture, $100,000 worth of machine tools, $100,000 worth of laboratory equipment, and $50,000 worth of miscellaneous equipment, for a total of $490,000. The university paid only transportation costs or, in some cases, for transportation plus 5 percent of value.

In a speech before the Utah State Bar Association on January 4, 1947, Olpin gave the federal government much credit for keeping the university in operation. He noted that the state was paying only about half as much for university and college education as the next lowest state in the Union. He said that if it were not for the generosity of the federal government in providing temporary quarters for students at Fort Douglas, one-third of the students now enrolled at the University of Utah would be denied the opportunity to complete their college training. He went on to express his hope that the state would reevaluate its needs and recognize that any investments in youth would pay multiple dividends. The state apparently heeded his words to some extent. In the following year, when it became known that much of the Fort Douglas land would be declared surplus, the State Reserve Building Fund allocated to the University of Utah $950,000 to help in acquiring the property.

Despite the interests of private parties in the land, the governor, the mayor, and Senators Thomas and Arthur V. Watkins all petitioned the War Assets Administration on behalf of the University of Utah. Gus P. Backman and other members of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce flew to Washington to help with the early stages of negotiation for the property. The Chamber of Commerce also helped to resolve some of the conflicts within the city and to deflect some of the private pressures that could have resulted in the fragmentation of the land. The regional director of the War Assets Administration, John S. Skeen, and his deputy, Stansbury Thompson, were also sympathetic, efficient, and cooperative in the process of transferring the property.

In September 1948 Thompson notified the university that a final award of 289.59 acres together with sixty-one buildings had been made to the university at 100 percent discount. The formal deed for the land was presented during half-time ceremonies at a game with the University of Colorado in the Utah stadium. Jess Larson, an administrator from the Denver office of the War Assets Administration, said that he knew of no place in the country where surplus property was more convenient and could be more appropriately used for educational purposes. As he handed over the document, he said, "It gives me pleasure to present, on behalf of the United States Government, this deed of property to the University of Nevada." The loud groans from the crowd in the stadium prompted an immediate correction.

In turning over to the university this property, the federal government was giving back some of the land that had been originally set aside for a state university. Almost one hundred years before, on February 28, 1850, the General Assembly of the provisional state of Deseret had declared their intention to establish a university and appointed members of a Board of Regents. In March of that year, three regents were asked to select a site for that university. They chose an area of about 560 acres on the bench east of the city. The original tract included most of the main campus, a portion of Federal Heights, most of what has been since 1948 Fort Douglas, the Veterans Hospital, a portion of Mount Olivet Cemetery, and the property facing the campus on the west side of University Street.

Although plans for the campus were drawn up, by October 1862 when Col. Patrick Edward Connor claimed 2,560 acres on the east bench for Camp Douglas, the operations of the university had been suspended for ten years because of a lack of funds. More than 530 acres of the original 560-acre campus were enclosed within the claimed boundaries of the military reservation.

In his study of University of Utah lands, J. R. Mahoney traces the legal history of the title to the property. By a congressional act of 1855 "it would seem . . . that all of the necessary actions in establishing complete claim of the University to its campus were carried out, and that no other action was necessary." However,

the sequence of events since that time is evidence of neglect on the part of the Legislature, the Board of Regents of the university, and other officials in the Territory of Utah . . . matched with failure in more specific responsibilities by the Congress of the United States and the Department of Interior.

Some of the land was recovered in 1894 when Congress passed an act (for the second time) granting 60 acres to the university. An additional 32 acres were granted on May 16, 1906, and another 61.5 acres in June 1934. Thus, the campus, before its acquisition in 1948, had regained approximately 153 acres of the original tract.

The 298.59 acres of land deeded to the University of Utah under the Surplus Property Act provided enough acreage to permit long-range development that would otherwise have been impossible, but buildings that were counted as assets in 1948 had become liabilities by 1959. The yearly cost of painting and maintaining the wooden structures was more than double the cost of maintaining permanent buildings. In an editorial on February 19, 1959, the Salt Lake Tribune noted that the university had begun occupying the frame buildings of Fort Douglas fifteen years before:

These structures have deteriorated through the years and the "emergency" has grown into a "super emergency" as enrollment and demands for research and other services have increased beyond careful forecasts. The present enrollment is above 9,300, near the top in the Intermountain West.

The editorial compared the buildings to livestock shelters and seedy urban "renewal" projects. It advised: "The cumulative problem has now caught up with the state and the Legislature can not delay much longer facing up to grim facts."

By the time President Olpin retired in 1964, many of the wooden buildings had been dismantled and detailed plans for the new campus had been drawn up. Orson Spencer Hall and the Olpin Student Union had been completed, and ground had been broken and construction begun on several other buildings, including the Medical Center. In 1946 grant monies received by the university for basic research amounted to $183,525; in 1963 the university received $10,122,317. The school had developed from a small, liberal arts college to a major state university occupying at least a part of the land originally designated to it.

Recovering this land was not easy. The University of Utah did not simply fall heir to the Fort Douglas land. A number of competing private and public interests wanted very much to obtain that valuable property, and at times the battle for it was grim. One of the presidential assistants during that time has remarked that Olpin would have gone into handto-hand combat if necessary to get Fort Douglas. The battle engaged the determined efforts of regents, university faculty and administration, the state legislature, state and city officials, and the state's congressional delegation. It required breadth of vision and cooperation—the ability to see beyond immediate, selfish interests. City, state, and federal organizations worked together successfully and admirably to obtain something that would benefit not a few 7 private individuals but, ultimately, all citizens.

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