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Archives give personal glimpse of WWI

NORMAL — World War I was a monumental, transformative event with an impact on the world can still be seen today, in the opinion of an Illinois State University historian.

The war also was a deeply personal event that left its mark on individuals, according to the university's archivist, who maintains a collection of correspondence, photos and other artifacts of people connected to Illinois State Normal University who were involved in the war.

It was 100 years ago — June 28, 1914 — that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo in what is considered the trigger that started the struggle that became known as World War I.

The United States wouldn't become directly involved in the war for nearly three more years.

Ross Kennedy, associate professor of history at ISU, said President Woodrow Wilson attempted to maintain U.S. neutrality.

But when the Germans broke what Wilson saw as promises to restrict use of their submarines, Kennedy said, “to preserve his credibility and his influence … he had to get in.”

Once the United States was in the war, men and women with connections to ISNU (then the name of ISU), including University High School, got involved, too.

A large service flag with the initials ISNU outlined by blue stars was designed by the university's art department, according to a written history in the university archives. Among the stars for the 705 students and faculty who served were 14 gold stars for those who gave their lives.

The names of those 14 are on a bronze tablet, with the inscription, “For Our Tomorrow They Gave Their Today,” imbedded on a granite boulder that remains on campus, at the northeast corner of Fell Hall.

The boulder is one of many monuments in McLean County dedicated to those who served in the war, including a cannon in Bloomington's Miller Park and a veterans area in Park Hill Cemetery, south of the entry road, said Greg Koos, executive director of the McLean County Museum of History.

Koos said a memorial in Cropsey, placed in 1929, and a combined World Wars I and II memorial established in 1945 in Gridley, are among other nearby tributes to those who served.

The stories of some of those soldiers with connections to ISNU are preserved in about 685 files, out of an original collection of a little more than 800, in the university archives, said university archivist April Anderson, who called them “a treasure trove.”

“Sixty to 70 percent of the files have photos in them,” Anderson said.

From a photo of a dashing young pilot who patrolled the East Coast of the United States to one of Julia Scott Vrooman, who organized a military jazz band in Europe, the files show a more personal side to the war.

Among the activities of the university's War Service Committee was mailing 6,000 Vidette newspapers to those serving overseas.

"They'd be in some foxhole and write back and say, 'Thank you. It's a little slice of home,'" Anderson said.

Looking at the old letters, with their beautiful penmanship, provides a glimpse of not just the war but of another age.

Many of the letters are written on YMCA stationery with “on active service with the American Expeditionary Force” printed on them. Anderson said even the envelopes have historic value and tell a story, with rubber stamps indicating a letter was cleared by censors and postmarks with messages such as “Food will win the war.”

The person largely responsible for this “treasure trove” is Ange Milner, ISNU's first librarian, Anderson said.

Milner corresponded with many of those serving stateside and overseas and surveyed them after the war.

For those serving overseas, the correspondence with "Aunt Ange" was "a connection to the outside world for them," Anderson said.

Without letters, photos and postcards like those in the files, Anderson said, “how else are we going to know what goes on? There were no blogs in World War I.”

A century might seem like a long time ago, but Kennedy notes, “Wilson is frequently invoked by liberals and conservatives, even today.”

Liberals seize on what they see as Wilson's advocacy for multi-lateralism and international institutions, such as the League of Nations, while conservatives point to Wilson's support of intervention and promotion of democracy, which Kennedy calls an oversimplification of Wilsonianism.

The war “started a chain of events that affected the whole world,” Kennedy said. “It changed borders; it led to the rise of communism and the Soviet Union; and it involved the United States in the world.”

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