Veterans Day on Nov. 11 coincides with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Under the leadership of President James Kaye, Northern State Normal School (now Northern Michigan University) participated in WWI regionally, nationally and abroad. War-time concerns were exacerbated by another significant threat a century ago: a Spanish flu pandemic that ultimately shut down Northern for three months in the fall 1918 semester.
The impacts of WWI and the flu outbreak on Northern are documented by Ted Bays, an editor for NMU’s Center for U.P. Studies, and Russell Magnaghi, history professor emeritus and former director of the center.
In his forthcoming book, Principals and Presidents: NMU’s First Five, 1899-1956, Bays writes that Northern State Normal School students began enlisting in the U.S. military in 1917, with the student newspaper posting notes on their assignments. Early that same year, 45 male students and faculty members joined one company of a home guard, holding drills twice per week so they would be prepared if they were called up to duty.
Faculty members assisted the war effort directly. Men volunteered to help the draft board, putting in extra time assisting registrants in answering “the very difficult” questionnaire of 16 pages. Some of the women systematically worked in food conservation. Several faculty contributed their expertise to military bases across the country and overseas. Examples include Della McCallum of Home Economics, who went to Camp Jackson in South Carolina and taught dietetics to students at the U.S. Army School of Nursing. Also, O.H. Horrall received an early commission as a psychology expert and went on to do reconstruction work in France.
President Kaye served as a county committee member for the U.P Red Cross chapter, and the Northern Training School created a Junior Red Cross. He and his staff decided to curtail commencement exercises and encouraged the campus community to donate to the Red Cross. The plea generated a good response. Student groups contributed about $480 and faculty pitched in more than $700. Kaye also attended a Michigan war conference in Escanaba—the first held outside of Lansing.
A WWI entry from Magnaghi’s A Sense of Time encyclopedia of NMU reads: “A unit of the In 1918 and 1919, war rallies and memorial services filled the Northern State Normal School auditorium, which became a patriotic war center for the Upper Peninsula. Faculty and special lecturers visited the campus and actively promoted the war effort and patriotism.” The largest celebration in the auditorium, which drew 3,000 people, was the presentation of 481 service flags to the parents of boys who had gone to the front, presented by the city and citizens of Marquette.
As the war was drawing to a close, a Spanish flu pandemic broke out globally. Magnaghi wrote that it was first identified locally by Dr. Charles Drury, city health officer, and came in three waves between October 1918 and April 1919.
“Northern closed for the fall semester and reopened Jan. 6; as a result, no students or faculty faced death at that time. During the 1919 outbreaks, Samuel Magers, professor of biology [and namesake for Magers Hall], succumbed. Overall, the death toll from the flu was limited due to precautions taken by Dr. Drury and life proceeded as if little had happened. This was not the case around the world, where millions died.”
WWI had reduced enrollment for obvious reasons, including students enlisting in the military and other young people foregoing college to assume employment positions vacated by the men who served. After Armistice Day on Nov. 11, 1918, Kaye addressed the problem in a letter to U.P. superintendents and principals, suggesting they cooperate with Northern “in an effort to induce students to become teachers.” He followed up the letter by sending Northern professors to visit each U.P. high school. The recruiting initiative worked. After the 1917-20 decline, enrollment increased from 423 in 1920 to 566 in 1921.
The Federal Men, veterans who attended Northern under the Federal Board of Vocational Education, organized a Northern State Normal chapter of the Disabled American Veterans of the World War in 1921.
NMU’s Beaumier U.P. Heritage Center commemorated the conflict with a 2017 exhibition titled “Soldier Stories: The U.P. in WWI,” in collaboration with a related exhibit at the Marquette Regional History Center.