50 Years Ago, a Man-Made Miracle Changed America

September 12, 1995|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK — New York. -- This is the 50th anniversary of probably the greatest week in American history. After Labor Day, 1945, a total of 88,000 veterans of World War II enrolled at colleges and universities across the country under Public Law 346, the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944. They were the first of 2.2 million vets (including 60,000 women) who went to school under the law better known as the GI Bill of Rights.

Their lives and country were changed forever. Higher education was democratized; college enrollments doubled and tripled within two years. The power that came with degrees was such that by 1960 more than a thousand GI Bill graduates were listed in Who's Who in America, men and women who would have been factory workers or secretaries, at best, in pre-war America.

The rush to colleges also changed the way Americans married. The boy and girl next door were now marrying people they met in college -- marrying by ambition rather than geography, creating a more mobile nation and the beginnings of new kind of educated elite separate from old class systems.

The total cost was $5.5 billion, with each returning veteran eligible for one year of education for 90 days of service and then one month free for every month of active duty up to 48 months -- up to $500 for tuition and books was paid directly to colleges. In addition, single vets were given $50 a month and married men $75 a month.

The GI Bill, attacked as a ''government handout,'' passed out of a Senate-House conference committee by only a single vote. And that happened only because the American Legion (a major force behind the law) flew a Georgia congressman named John Gibson back to Washington to cast the deciding vote.

The draft bill had been written by a Legionnaire named Harry LTC Colmery -- there should be a statue of the man somewhere -- and its political weight was supplied by the Legion and the Hearst newspapers.

In fact, the education-for-service provision was almost unnoticed the time, a small part of a law called ''52-20,'' designed to provide $20 a week for 52 weeks to unemployed veterans. That part of the bill was designed to prevent the kind of veterans' bonus marches and demonstrations that followed the end of World War I.

Most of this I knew. In fact, I always wondered why there seemed to be no big book on the impact of the GI Bill. Maybe Edwin Kiester Jr. should write it. ''The GI Bill May Be the Best Deal Ever Made by Uncle Sam'' was the headline of a wonderful piece by Mr. Kiester, which I happened to see last Fourth of July in, of all places, the China News in Taipei, Taiwan.

Mr. Kiester, who went to the University of Pittsburgh on the GI Bill, grew up in Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, a mill town where a young man's idea of making it was to get a job like winding copper armatures at the local Westinghouse plant. Kids from Turtle Creek did not go college; many saw no point in finishing high school.

Mr. Kiester did graduate from Turtle Creek High School in 1944 and, like most of his male classmates, went off to war. He wrote about going to a reunion of 12 classmates, all college graduates. Of the 103 men in the class of 1944 (167 women graduated), 30 went on to college, 28 of them on the GI Bill. Before the war, only two or three Turtle Creek graduates went on to higher education, even to secretarial schools.

The Class of '44 produced 10 engineers, a psychologist, a microbiologist, an entomologist, two physicists, three professors, a pharmacist, a stockbroker, several entrepreneurs and a journalist (Mr. Kiester).

One of the graduates the next year, William Norris, whom I happen to know, became a U.S. Circuit Court judge in California. Back in Turtle Creek, he had signed up for the high school's commercial course, hoping to get a white-collar job at the Westinghouse plant.

Instead, mustering out in San Diego, he and a Turtle Creek friend, a sailor named Layman Allen who was also being mustered out, read about the GI Bill. They asked friends what was the best college in the country. ''Princeton,'' someone answered. ''Where's Princeton?'' Mr. Norris said. So the two friends headed east. Both ended up clerking for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and Mr. Allen became a law professor at the University of Michigan.

During the reunion, the boys from Turtle Creek told stories about living in ''Vetsvilles,'' the tent cities that grew up around colleges that first year, about baby carriages in crowded classrooms, and about the extraordinary football players who came back from battlefields and military posts, men who were three or four years older than teen-age classmates -- Bob Chappius at Michigan, Johnny Lujack at Notre Dame, Bobby Layne at Texas and Doak Walker at Southern Methodist University.

Then a retired high school principal, Les Faulk (who changed his name from Falcocchio), raised a glass of beer and said, ''To the GI Bill!'' The 11 others stood and answered, ''To the GI Bill!''

To the GI Bill. After 50 years, we could use a man-made miracle like that again. But, of course, now we believe the government can't do anything right or well. So, why even bother to try?

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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