The 1940s: The War Temporarily Closes Omicron Zeta
Editor’s note: In 1999, our chapter house at 125 Edgemoor Lane will be 100 years old; we have occupied the house since 1920. To help celebrate the anniversary, The Omicron Oracle is asking certain alumni to recall life at 125 Edgemoor Lane over the various decades that it has housed our fratenrity. This article is by Robert F. McKinless ’48 and appeared in the August 1997 issue of the Oracle.
World War II at first meant the virtual disappearance of male students from college campuses. But the military soon realized that the effort to train great numbers of officers was being hampered by the educational level of the officer candidates. At the same time, many universities were hard pressed to survive financially with the loss of half their students.
Both problems were addressed by setting up programs at college in which future officers would complete at least four semesters of schooling; engineering officers would get three more. The largest such program was started by the Navy in July 1943. It was named V-12 after the legislative provision that established it.
At the peak of the program, Cornell had about 2,000 V-12 sailors ad 150 Marines. (Some 400 Navy ensigns also studied diesel engineering, and several hundred midshipmen supplemented the Naval Academy. The Army also had 1,000 trainees based in Cascadilla Hall for a time).
In the spring of 1943, Omicron Zeta shut down at 125 Edgemoor, and the building was leased to the Navy to house some of its V-12 students. But by luck, Dick Turner ’45, a brother who had been initiated in 1943 just before the closing, had enlisted in the Navy and was sent back to Cornell. Lambda Chi still owned the fraternity’s original house at 614 Stewart Avenue— I’m not sure why— and Dick arranged to have it open for social events on weekends. [614 Stewart Ave was originally sold to Sigma Alpha Mu, but they defaulted on the mortgage when they left campus.—Ed] An “informal fraternity” was thus created.
I had enlisted in the Marine Corps, and after boot camp at Parris Island and a competetive screening process at Camp Lejeune, I was set to Cornell in November 1944. The academic life was rigorous; three 16-week trimesters per calendar year, starting in July, November, and March. The Marines were quartered in Telluride and Delta Upsilon, right around the corner from Edgemoor Lane.
College life was hardly what it had been or would be later. We studied in the dorms each evening; lights were out at 10; there were many formal inspections; and we marched in formation to all meals. But it wasn’t all work. Fraternity life had disappeared, but Ithaca’s restaurants and bars we4re full of students unwinding on the weekend (the drinking age being 18 then).
Dick Turner continued to build Lambda Chi Alpha. By January 1945, formal initiations were resumed. One who joined then was Tal Williams ’47, a Marine combat veteran who rushed other Marines, including me. Seven Marines were among the 14 brothers initiated at 614 Stewart Avenue in May 1945.
Only a month before that, the entire campus had been shocked when President Roosevelt died; he was the only president most of us had known, having been in office since I was in kindergarten. The Cornell community packed Libe Slope for a somber memorial service.
The Navy’s lease on 125 Edgemoor ran out in November 1945, and Omicron moved back in. We worked hard to restore the property for a December houseparty. By the next fall, Cornell was again in full swing. A brand-new crop of 18-year-old freshmen arrived, along with many from previous classes who had gone to war and now were back. But it was a different place; no one was going to tell an ex-GI to wear a frosh beanie! Most clothing consisted of parts of old uniforms. Tuition was $600, plus $90 in fees, per semester. The brand-new GI Bill and my New York State Regents Scholarship covered most of that, and I got $75 a month from the GI Bill for living expenses.
Informal fraternity initiations were still pretty wild, and many of them took place in the various parts of town. I remember having to direct traffic downtown by the old Ithaca Hotel while holding a large block of ice in my arms. And paddles were used for their original purpose.
Thanks to the activities at 614 Stewart Avenue the previous year, we had a strong house of 70 actives while most other fraternities were just getting started again. The house was full, with 45 living in. All the corner rooms were triples, and the South 40 was a quad. Almost everyone slept in the (uninsulated) dorm on the third floor. I seem to remember 15 nights of minus 15 degrees January 1948, but perhaps memory exaggerates.
On houseparty weekends, our out-of-town dates took over the second and third floors of the house (and got the privilege of freezing in the dorm) while the brothers moved out, usually to bunk with friends in the dorms. A typical Saturday night party entailed lots of beer and much singing. I can remember waiting impatiently until the women’s curfew so we could start singing the risque songs. (In those days, vulgar language wasn’t used in front of females.) Occasionally, someone’s date would be an import not subject to curfew, so we had to wait even later to sing the “good” songs— unless she was tipsy, too.
We still had the beautiful wooden staircase opposite the front door, and we used the formal upstairs dining room (now the Chapter Room), which was served by a dumbwaiter from the kitchen below. We exchanged waiters with Delta Tau Delta, as it was considered inappropriate for a brother to be in a role subservient to other brothers.
After dinner, there was usually a dash to the parlor to claim a spot at one of the octagonal tables for the nightly bridge game. We always had a hotelie for a steward (we were fortunate to have Dick Brown ’49) and a houseman to shovel coal into— and ashes out of— the furnace. Bob Zoller ’46, back from the war, ran an ice cream concession from a freezer near the South 40.
Despite the great differences in the ages of college students right after the war, firm bonds were formed— not just with one another but with Cornell. Many brothers from the late ’40s are still leaders of their respective Cornell classes.
When I am in Ithaca, I am reminded that the terrace and the summerhouse are for me among the most beautiful spots in the world. Maybe it’s the spectacular scenery; maybe it’s the friendships and fond memories. I suspect it’s both.