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Column: A great thing that came out of a difficult year

WORTHINGTON - The year 1935 was notably depressing for America. Unemployment was above 20 percent.

April 14, 1935, Black Sunday. The worst dust storm of all moved over Worthington and blew all the way to the east coast, blurring views from the White House and blocking views of the Empire State Building. The Perfect Dust Storm.

WPA (the Works Progress Administration) was created in 1935. Will Rogers, beloved actor and humorist who wrote a column published in the Nobles County Times, was killed in an Alaska airplane crash. Sen. Huey Long was shot and killed. The Labor Day Hurricane is still the worst ever to sweep the North American mainland.

Hobos rolled through Worthington on boxcars and came to back doors asking sandwiches.

Unemployment and dust storms and assassination -- these were backdrops for July 17, 1935, when voters of the Worthington school district were asked:

Will you authorize a sale of bonds for the creation and construction of a junior college? (Oh sure -- and I'll also ask Franklin Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart to stop by for dinner.)

When the votes were tallied, the proposal to create a college was approved 564 to 72.

You explain it.

There were other junior colleges in Minnesota -- Rochester, 1915; Hibbing (the million-dollar high school and the open-pit iron mines), 1916; Ely, 1922. About half a dozen in total. No other Minnesota community authorized a college in 1935. No other Minnesota community launched a successful community college in the 1930s.

But -- with no college near at hand, it was a squeeze to send anyone off to college in those dire years. It was, basically, a question of whether students in southwest Minnesota should, with few exceptions, never be more than high school graduates. Should we/can we make it possible for our kids to attend a college?

The vote came in time for construction to begin early on a college wing on the east side of Worthington High School. Six class rooms. Offices. Science labs shared with high school students.

Work was completed for the first students to be enrolled in the fall of 1936. Worthington Junior College. WJC. Students already were saying, "JC." "I'm going to JC."

This cinched a name for athletic teams. J.C. -- J: Jays. What kind of jays are found here? Bluejays! ("Come on you Bluejays, get out and fight --get out and fight for dear old Worthington...")

The power of athletic teams for building support for a school should be emphasized. Worthington residents were proud and excited to field two football teams, one a high school team and the other, with boys from Luverne and Lakefield and Jackson mixed with boys from Worthington, playing college squads from Mankato and Minneapolis. There was pride sitting in Memorial Auditorium watching a Bluejay cage team defeat a team from Bethany College.

The good feeling students came to know for their library was the feeling many Worthington voters had for the college building they authorized. When they took visitors for a ride around town in the Chevy, as people did in those times, few failed to drive along 14th Street to note, "Here is our junior college."

It was Worthington's good fortune to bring together a notably fine faculty. Students year by year agreed they had fine teachers. This was not just luck; the Great Depression worked in Worthington's favor. There were very many teachers looking for work. Salaries were not a stunning line item in WJC budgets. Dedicated teachers also were attracted by the challenge of creating a college where none had ever existed.

Worthington Junior College. Then Worthington Community College when that title came into general use. Today, Minnesota West -- an institution far and very far from the visions of those who, in 1936, created WJC.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays, and this is the second ot three columns pertaining to Minnesota West scheduled to appear on this page.