This account is based on questionnaires, in person and telephone interviews in 1996 of six men and five women, born between 1908 and 1918, who attended Omaha University during the 1930’s and graduated by 1940. They all took history courses and five of them were History Majors. These graduates shared experiences that had occurred over 60 years earlier. Not withstanding the passage of time and the tenden-cy of sentiment and nostalgia to blur stories and anecdotes, their recollections and opinions have the ring of truth.*
Humor accompanied seriousness. One apologized, “Excuse my penmanship-my typing is worse.” Another, asked about the Depression exclaimed, “Good grief, Lad, ask us to describe the Depression. We scrimped, did with short rations, hoped whatever we had would last. But since we were all in the same boat, it didn’t matter that much, “So many people dropped out because of economics.”
Seven students were born in Nebraska and one each in Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, and Pennsylvania. Four graduated from North High School, three from Benson and one each from Central and South. Only two students had foreign-born parents. Most entered the university right out of high school.
The education they received at the University of Omaha, founded in 1908, benefited from its becom-ing a Municipal University in 1931. The staff under the Presbyterian dominated university led by Daniel Jenkins taught history as a subject necessary for graduation but did not have professionally trained, doctorate holding, faculty. The main history teacher in the latter 1920’s, Alfred Kuhn, also taught Ger-man, French and Latin. The original campus at 24th and Pratt, accommodated about a thousand students, “cramped but large enough to accommodate all.”
Efforts to raise the qualifications of the teaching staff, improve the disastrous library and physical plant, and obtain North Central Association accredi-tation moved forward. President William E. Sealock recruited a new staff. Edgar Holt headed the History Department. Fourteen history courses concentrated on Europe and America. A student described Holt, who had become Dean, as an intellectual, penetrat-ing, a man of great wisdom, soft spoken, always smiling. “I took no classes, but had pre-registration discussion of courses to choose.” He was a superior administrator and fascinating and very good teacher, - my advisor. One graduate recalled that he was well liked, available, but not all that inspiring an instruc-tor. The arrival of new staff expanded the course offerings.
Lyman Henson Harris, Jr., a 1933 arrival, was “vastly well-informed and a good teacher,” “Probably the teacher I remember best. His lectures were attention holders and contained many narratives about the individuals who were parts of the subject.” His test papers “contained so many comments that one was certain he had read them.” “He locked the door at 8:00 o’clock for that class. Rattling the doorknob did no good so if late, we just went to the library. One exception was a Golden Gloves boxer. We didn’t think that was really the reason, but it gave us a laugh.”
The students advised by Professor Holt, attended classes, read their textbooks, and took essay exams. “I don’t think the multiple choice had been invented yet!” They belonged to the History Club, the Liberal Club, and after 1935 Phi Alpha Theta, the national student history society, which met frequently to dis-cuss books, historical and current events. Campus speakers included anthropologist Margaret Mead and an Italian diplomat who explained Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia and presented “pictures of atrocities committed against Italian soldiers by Ethiopians.”
The Regents fired President Sealock and he com-mitted suicide. Memories of President Sealock are complex. At the simplest, a graduate stated, he “signed my diploma.” He had a “perpetually worried look.” He was an idealist, very honest, a good man, a likable man, and an excellent President. He was my idea of a scholar and a gentleman. He made the dif-ference in going to school at 24th and Pratt. My sun rose and set in this man (except for smoking).” He had a loud voice and white curly hair. He “wanted teachers who were honest and unbiased and not con-trolled by a need to please the commercial interests.”
Sealock’s demise started in 1934 with the appear-ance of unofficial student publications. Sealock hired a young and liberal faculty who voiced opposition more loudly against Huey Long and fascism than against communism. Republicans and business inter-ests intensely disliked the New Deal. Sealock sup-ported Senator George Norris and the NRA. The President of the board of Regents, James Davidson, also president of the Nebraska Power Company, op-posed T.V.A. and “communistic” policies vociferous-ly and had little respect for academic freedom. Sea-lock fired on June 28, 1935, ostensibly because “he did not possess the desired executive ability neces-sary to provide firm guidance to the university,” committed suicide on July 7, at the age of 56.
Beyond shock and disbelief two students ex-pressed polarized recollections, perhaps confused by the intervening 61 years. A student critical of the President wrote, “Dr. Sealock was regarded by the students as an impediment to progress. As I recall, he was “hung in effigy” from the campus flagpole. The end result was that he committed suicide.” This unre-liable memory is included here as an example of the frailty of memory. It places the conflict of creating the Municipal University in 1935, while it had actual-ly occurred in 1931. In fact Sealock, a liberal, en-joyed the overwhelming support of students and fa-culty.
Another student used subsequent events to charac-terize the episode, “This superb man was McCar-thyized into a tragic death.” She went on to state, “W.H.Thompson, our revered Dean, was a charlatan and self-seeker, not to mention a guardian of our moral behavior. No institution needs a Thompson.” Thompson may have opposed Sealock, and hoped to replace him. The Alumni Center is named in his honor.
The new President, Rowland Haynes, had a “cheery, warm personality, and made one feel that the University of Omaha was truly for the people.” The history staff expanded from two to four positions between 1936 and 1940. Margaret Gloe, an assistant in the History Department, sponsored a social sorority and tutored its pledges prior to survey course exams. William Miller replaced Gloe in 1937 adding German and Canadian History to the program. T. Harry Williams came to Omaha in 1938 from the University of Wisconsin. The humorous and universally admired Williams interested in the Civil War and the South, initiated history of the American Western Frontier at Omaha.
Then as now we were a commuter campus, though the automobile replaced the street car. Two students worked at the library and one at the bookstore, at 35 cents an hour. One student worked at the Omaha
Public Library and another as a gardener. They gen-erally completed their degrees in 4 years. “One went to school to further your education. Playtime was incidental. When you had to work for it, the total educational experience was meaningful.”
The most significant memory in the latter 1930’s was the1938 move from the old campus to 60th & Dodge, adjoining Elmwood Park, for which the Public Works Administration provided 45% of the funds. A student who graduated in 1940 recalled, “We were so excited when we made the move to the new Omaha U. We did not realize what a small school we actually were.” This student exemplified OU’s educational ethic, she returned in the mid 1960’s to earn a Master’s degree.
Seven graduates went into teaching, two into in-surance, one became a social worker and one went into business. One teacher recorded, “My secondary education classes (24 hours!) were a fiasco…I really regret the 24 hours of nothing.” Five are still in Oma-ha, two in Texas and Florida, and one each in Cali-fornia, Kentucky, and Missouri.
Studs Terkel interviewed ordinary people capturing their extraordinary lives and times. We captured a generation fading in memory and numbers. Our in-formants after the passage of decades, forget, distort, conflate, confuse, telescope, personalize, exaggerate, reveal inconsistencies, and provide the essential hu-manity and color to this chapter of Nebraska higher education.
* See also Tommy R. Thompson, A History of the University of Nebraska, 1898-1983 (Dallas: Taylor, 1983), Oliver B. Pollak and Les Valentine, University of Nebraska at Omaha (Chicago: Arcadia, 2007), and Oliver B. Pollak, “Fifty Years of Teaching History at Omaha University, 1908-1957,” Journal of the West 42(Summer 2003):75-82.