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Column: Voters said 'we will build a college' 75 years ago

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WORTHINGTON -- If your memory is long, these continue to be puzzling times.

Maybe you remember skinny men in fedora hats and shirt sleeves riding atop boxcars; maybe you remember a grimy, gaunt man going door to door through backyards asking for a sandwich; you may remember kids chasing stray chickens at the produce plants and offering their birds door to door for a dime apiece. Maybe you remember the boy in your class who had but one overall.

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The thing puzzling: for a couple of years now -- oh, longer than this -- newspaper pundits and television's chatter heads have been talking hard times. Ninety-one percent of the work force goes to jobs every day but relentless focus is on the nine percent who are jobless. Some people can't make tax payments or house payments. 

Lawmakers closed down Minnesota because of a troubled economy. We didn't do that even when desperate men begged for sandwiches.

The American dream -- I remember an American girl whose dream was peach jam. Her mother made green tomato jam because the family couldn't afford fruit. I remember a girl whose dream was a birthday cake. She served macaroni and peas to guests at her birthday party because that is what there was.

There is a reason for recalling those dreary days. Those days shape a tribute, a golden tribute, to people who lived at Worthington three-quarters of a century gone by. 

The great stock market crash came in October 1929. Worthington built The Grade School, which became Central Elementary School, and our showcase Memorial Auditorium in 1930-1931. Perhaps restrained praise is due local voters for those projects. The Great Depression had not yet pressed hard upon the local region.

The golden tribute is for the decision of Worthington residents in 1936 who, amid green tomato jam and birthday macaroni and men atop boxcars, voted more taxes to build Worthington Junior College. They wanted their sons and daughters educated. They couldn't send them off to college. They resolved, "We will build a college."

Worthington Junior College, which has evolved to Minnesota West, began as a wing on the Seventh Avenue high school building. There were half-a-dozen classrooms. Students shared chemistry labs with high school classes.

This column last week recalled Armistice Day, 1938, which was the day WJC students chose for their second annual Jay Day. There were no alumni so there could be no homecoming. Hence Jay Day. WJC students -- "We're Bluejays," they said -- organized a parade along 10th street which took them to the courthouse lawn for an open-air, downtown pep rally. Students who could play horns or clarinets roused the crowd with a make-shift band. The affair made Worthington feel good. Worthington had a college. 

Jay Day was an early stab at establishing traditions.

Someone found beanies on the market. WJC ordered blue and white beanies, the school colors, and required entering freshmen to wear beanies all through their first quarter. This likely could not be done any longer. It probably is a form of bullying.

There was a more popular thrust for a tradition. This was the annual pheasant hunt/pheasant banquet.

By permission of the administration, male students took off one morning each fall and headed for cornfields to bring down pheasants. They brought their birds to waiting female students who prepared a sumptuous pheasant dinner, mostly in their parents' homes. (Man, hunter; woman, cook.) The entire student body came together in the late afternoon for their Bluejay pheasant feast. 

A couple of things frustrated the effort to make the pheasant feast a tradition. One was that pheasants became hard to find, especially after the great Armistice Day blizzard of 1940 in which thousands of birds perished. The hunters could find no prey. ("Maybe we could go with turkey.") The second frustration was World War II, beginning with December 1941. The hunters went off to war and WJC became, nearly, a Worthington sorority.

After the war's end, after 1945, WJC became a different place. Scores of war veterans began college studies under the new GI Bill. These were serious young men who had no time for beanies or pep rallies but they prized and praised the college Worthington built in the storm of the Great Depression.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.

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