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WSU remembers the 'war to end all wars'

PULLMAN, Wash. — Washington State University has created a new exhibit marking the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and highlighting the effect the first global conflict had on the institution and surrounding communities.

The first shots of the war were fired on July 28, 1914, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire invaded the Kingdom of Serbia in retaliation for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand a month earlier. It ended four years later, having reshaped the map of Europe, killed more than 9 million people and boosted an isolationist United States to world prominence.

WSU archivist Mark O'English created the exhibit, together with graphic designer Amy Grey. They each invested more than 100 hours in it, creating posters, conducting research and deciding which items from the university's extensive special collections to include.

"We have walls of boxes filled with papers in the basement," O'English said. "If you put them all together, it's about three miles of paper. Each box has a guide that indicates what's in it. I looked for World War I material, then pulled them to see what was in it."

With the exception of one photo from the Library of Congress and a World War I Army uniform worn by the grandfather of a WSU instructor, everything in the exhibit came from the library collections, he said. The exhibit includes dozens of photos, letters, postcards, old newspaper stories and a miniature Bible the size of a quarter that soldiers took with them to the front.

"It fit in a small container that came with a magnifying glass," O'English said.

The United States didn't join the war until April 1917, about a year and a half before it ended. An estimated 2,500 people from Whitman County participated, O'English said, including 1,100 students, faculty and staff at what was then Washington State College (WSC). As many as 77 died.

In putting together the exhibit he focused on local stories, rather than the larger geo-political conflict.

One section, for example, highlights the work of American Red Cross volunteers who provided food, gum, cigarettes, postcards and mail to nearly 200,000 soldiers who passed through Spokane on troop trains. Even years after the war ended, young men continued to write to Canteen Capt. Lenna Baird, their "Red Cross mother," thanking her for her help.

"That immediately jumped out as a story that needed to be told," O'English said. "It was a part of the community that had never really been documented."

Another section focuses on the military training that took place at WSC, including the Student Army Training Corps program, which allowed students to spend half their day taking classes and the other half training as soldiers.

The training was indirectly responsible for the death of Mary B. Packingham, the college's only female casualty during the war.

"When the military began sending soldiers here to train, they sent 50 percent more than expected," O'English said. "They were being bunked in hallways and packed in everywhere."

Those were exactly the type of confined conditions that facilitated spreading of the Spanish flu, a global pandemic that ultimately infected a third of the world population and killed more than 50 million people, including 600,000 in the United States.

Two-thirds of WSC's male population fell ill, according to the exhibit. The college gymnasium, two fraternities and three churches were converted to temporary hospitals, and a quarantine was implemented in Pullman, with all public schools, dance halls, pool rooms, lodges and churches being closed.

Packingham was a longtime registered nurse on campus, O'English said. After working herself to exhaustion, she caught the flu and died at the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity.

Her portrait hangs in the student medical building today, he said, but unless you know her story it's just a picture on a wall.

Logan Wheeler, another nearly forgotten individual, was responsible for many of the photos displayed in the exhibit. He attended WSC from 1914 to '17 before being drafted. While selling "Wear-Ever" pots and pans to pay his tuition, he put together an album of more than 1,000 black-and-white photos, documenting life at an institution that was then barely 25 years old.

O'English discovered the album while searching for photos of the original Bookie bookstore, which celebrated its 100th anniversary earlier this year. He didn't find anything useful, so he set the album aside, wondering vaguely what happened to Wheeler.

The next day, while continuing his research for the World War I exhibit, he noticed Wheeler's name in a list of WSU veterans. He'd been killed in France in September of 1918, at the age of 23.

"I was sitting in my office looking out on the mall," O'English said. "It was May of this year. Logan Wheeler was here 100 years ago, in May of 1914, having no idea that he'd be dead in four years. Something about that grabs you. One of the things we try to do is make history come alive for students, to turn it from something in books to something they can connect with in their own lives. Logan did that for me."

The World War I exhibit will be on display in the Terrell Library's Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections room through Oct. 31. A "grand opening" ceremony will take place at 2 p.m. Sept. 4, after students and faculty return for the fall semester.

bspence@lmtribune.com
 

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