oren Hicks ’42, JD’49 still remembers the moment he learned Pearl Harbor had been bombed. The Pacific Coast was blacked out, and he and his friends sat in a darkened fraternity house asking, “What do we do now?” The jokes, for once, had died. “We were a quiet, grim bunch. We knew who was going to have to fight this war.” Sitting in the dark that night, they wondered who would survive and who wouldn’t. The campus took on a strange restlessness as edgy students on “borrowed time” found it hard to concentrate on lectures. Loren and his classmates were soon shipped off to war, and as the nation struggled to survive, so did the university; the overnight disappearance of hundreds of male students left classes and coffers empty. President G. Herbert Smith went into overdrive, lobbying Washington for an officer training program at Willamette. His bid successful, Navy officers took over Lausanne Hall and crowded into classrooms. Enrollments soared, and Willamette survived, as did Loren, who came home after almost four years in the Army to attend Willamette’s law school.
His granddaughter, Lauren Hicks ’05, had it a bit easier when war visited her generation in her freshman year. For one thing, she wasn’t in the dark. Twenty-first century communications made it possible for her and her friends to watch the images, again and again, in shocked silence, of two planes careening into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. “I didn’t believe it at first,” she says. “It was too unimaginable to be real.” An eerie quiet settled over campus as people congregated in front of TVs. People held hands and stood close to each other. “I think people just wanted to be near other people,” she says. “A lot of people were far from home for the first time. We looked to one another for reassurance.” The bonds forged by war grew into lifelong friendships and a passionate loyalty to the school, though neither grandfather nor granddaughter originally intended to come to Willamette. Loren had dreams of Stanford. “I always maintained that Dad tricked me.” His father, an alumnus himself, made a deal: He would send Loren to Stanford if he first attended Willamette for two years. “He knew darned well once I got to Willamette I wouldn’t trade,” Loren says, “and I didn’t. Two months at Willamette and I loved it, and after Freshman Glee you couldn’t have pried me out of the place.”
Coming from a long line of Willamette grads — Lauren’s parents, Teckla ’73 and Graham Hicks ’70, JD’73, met on campus during Freshman Camp — Lauren determined to strike out on her own at another school. A visit to her brother, Aaron ’02, undid her plans. “As I walked across campus, I was stopped at least three times asking if I was finding what I was looking for, if I was lost,” she says. “I was fine, but the fact that people were stopping to ask if I needed help was really nice.” Even though the students she met were from widely divergent backgrounds, “everyone had positive things to say about Willamette. It felt like family.” After one week on campus there was nowhere else she wanted to be.
When Loren was an undergraduate, the campus was in a precarious state, like everything else during the Depression. Too-small classrooms bulged with students and landscaping was an afterthought, but money was found for a muchneeded library after President Bruce Baxter warned that the weight of library books on Waller’s second floor posed a serious safety threat. The 1937 Collegian touted the new library’s Georgian Colonial edifice with its stone portico entrance, housing 37,000 books amidst the Windsor chairs and mahogany trim. Students wrote essays in longhand among the stacks or used their own portable typewriters.
By the time Lauren attended Willamette, library planners were less focused on architectural style and high-end decor, and more focused on giving students an edge in the globally connected marketplace of ideas. In 2005 Lauren had her choice of 385,000 volumes, along with millions of Internet sites accessed from 4,900 computers on campus. “I got class assignments and research online from my laptop,” she says.
“Two months at Willamette and I loved it, and after Freshman Glee you couldn’t have pried me out of the place.”
— Loren Hicks
Loren hit the books hard five days a week, and hit the dance floor on the weekends. His was the first generation given permission to dance on campus. In the past, that kind of behavior could get you expelled. Students petitioned and re-petitioned to hold dances on campus, and finally got the go ahead in 1939. “The Big Bands were creating music that was wonderful for dancing,” Loren says. His fraternity hired small orchestras for the Kappa Gamma Rho formals and made do with nickelodeons for informal dances. Few students owned cars, so on formal dance evenings you could see a promenade of women in sidewalk-length gowns and men in black jackets and bow ties strolling along State and Court streets toward campus.
Loren’s Class of ’42 also sang, a lot. “Impromptu group singing around the piano was common in our fraternity house,” he says, “and we serenaded women outside their buildings accompanied by a pump organ.” Freshman Glee, started by students in 1908, was the highlight of the year. “The lowly Frosh would challenge the other three classes to a song contest,” Loren says, and the campus went into a frenzy. Each class wrote an original song, and several hundred students participated. “Sleep went on hold, studies suffered, professors were careful not to schedule tests during the crucial days of preparation.” Students performed before a packed house, and the competition was broadcast on radio throughout the region. “Classes shouted friendly challenges to each other and generally carried on in a wild manner while in a horrible state of anticipation, waiting for the verdict as to which class was first and which class was last,” Loren says. Losers paid their dues, often getting tossed in the Mill Stream on Blue Monday.
Glee survived until the last years of the century, just before Loren’s granddaughter enrolled, but its spirit lives on in Wulapalooza. The daylong celebration features student performers and artists, main stage bands, dancing, salmon bakes, and sometimes even belly dancers. Students learn about volunteer opportunities and environmental issues at Quadside displays, and raise money for social causes.
Graduating a hundred years after the school was founded, Loren is quick to cite his class motto: “They waited a hundred years for us!” Now, Lauren says, “there’s not as much identification with your class as a whole.” Instead, students bond with fellow students through more than 100 organizations, created and managed by students. Chapel attendance is no longer mandatory, and yet the ethical and spiritual foundation that guided early students still inspire. Students volunteer around the globe, and graduates and faculty are leaders in the local and national dialogue about corporate responsibility, civil rights, conflict resolution, and just and sustainable development.
For both grandfather and granddaughter, Greek life was an extension of the camaraderie of the Willamette experience. In Loren’s fraternity, “Men who swore at the dinner table were assessed a fine of five or ten cents, and the evening rule was ‘No coat and tie, no seat at the table.’” His housemates monitored themselves and their friends. Lauren, a Pi Beta Phi, observed the same kinship among students of her day. “People here look out for each other,” she says.
The campus that Lauren inherited, with its towering shade trees, ornamental cherry trees, fragrant roses, and Japanese and botanical gardens, was a gift from Loren’s generation. President Baxter had the novel idea that the grounds of the rough pioneer school would be more inviting to potential students and faculty if they were landscaped. He kept the sprinklers on during the summer and planted numerous well-selected trees in order to create a park-like setting. His successor, Reverend Carl Knopf, planted the Star Trees in the summer of 1942 to mark the university’s centennial. The five Sequoias, President Knopf said, would stand as sentinels into the next century. And they have; the tallest is now fifteen stories high.
Loren has seen a lot of changes at Willamette over the decades, but through his granddaughter’s eyes, he can see that even more has remained the same. A new century has given birth to new traditions, created, as always, by students. The night after parents and siblings have driven away from campus, new students gather on the Quad for the Matriculation Ceremony. Some are nervous, many are excited, many don’t know what to expect. They are welcomed by President Pelton, who introduces them to Willamette’s history. He tells the incoming class that a visionary missionary founded a school in the middle of a wilderness, that it was the first school west of the Missouri. After the students are welcomed to the Willamette family, they walk together past the bell tower with its inscriptions: “Knowledge is the preface of peace,” “Education finds fulfillment in compassion.” The students gather at the Mill Stream and, one by one, each gently sets a candle into the waters until hundreds of lights are floating side by side down the stream, coming together, illuminating the dark, passing into the future.