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Eyewitness to war: A look back at the Towson students who served

“The going was wicked,” wrote First Lieutenant Jerome Kolker in 1945. “Snow and ice and cold combined to just about wreck us. (There were some Germans there too.)”

Kolker, a 1940 graduate, wrote from Holland. Part of the “greatest generation,” he hailed from what was then the State Teachers College at Towson, one of many alumni who enlisted and fought during World War II.

Cook Archives

The archives of Cook Library house the often heartbreaking—always inspiring—stories of the male and female Towson students who served their country.

His letter, sent back home to staff at the college, is among the World War II collections in the library’s Special Collections and Archives. Some 228 folders, labeled with each service member’s name, contain correspondence, photos, cards and other memorabilia they mailed to Towson during the war.  The college, in turn, communicated with the alumni and staff who served on ships, fighter planes, battlefields and the home front.

Towson University was recently recognized by GI Jobs magazine as a military friendly college for the fifth consecutive year. But this archival collection documents the sacrifice and selflessness of Towson alumni as well as the school’s long and storied history of rallying behind those serving in the military.

When the United States first entered the war, Rebecca Tansil, registrar and business manager, kept a typewritten list of addresses of each State Teacher’s College graduate who enlisted in the armed services. She sent them a monthly newsletter of campus happenings—the 22 inches of snow that fell in March 1942, construction of the gym with a view of the building’s exterior and new programs.

Tansil also shared news that reached her about those who were serving, including Donald Foster ’40, who had been in England for a year, and Bill Jett ’43, who was “somewhere out in the Pacific. I wish I could tell you some of the things we are doing and seeing, but that is impossible.”

In her letter of Oct. 17, 1941, Tansil wrote “Dear Boys.” By January 1943, the salutation had changed to “Dear Service Alumni” because those entering military service from Towson were no longer just males. Women joined the WAACS and WAVES, including Martha Schnebly ’40, Julia Over ’38 and Katharine Jacobsen ’43. Tansil herself would soon enlist as well.

Theresa Wiedefeld, president, took over the correspondence, writing about the “astonishing record of achievements of promotion and of service” and how classroom discussions of war had evolved with graduates now ready “to play a part in history.”

As the nation celebrates Veterans Day, the archival collection stands as witness to Towson’s spirit and commitment to those who have served their country.

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