Last Word – My Life as a Wilson Woman

Last Word – My Life as a Wilson Woman

By Nancy Adams Besch ’48

In June 1944, I graduated from J.P. McCaskey High School in Lancaster, Pa. When I contacted the guidance counselor, Mary Myers, she recommended Wilson College, where several other McCaskey girls were students.

Thus my Wilson journey began.

Travel was difficult during World War II because gasoline was rationed, so the first time I set foot on campus was my first day as a freshman. Every student was required to bring their ration books for dairy products, sugar and meats, as well as a dozen linen napkins each. We never saw those napkins again and have no idea where or if they were ever used.

In those days, each student was assigned a number when she arrived—mine was 138—to be sewn on all her clothes, sheets and towels. We were assigned seats in the dining room on a monthly basis. The head of the table was either a faculty or staff member or perhaps a student leader. Each table of eight had two students from each class. The head of the table served the entree and the rest of the dishes were passed around. Students were required to wear skirts for all meals except for Saturdays, when slacks were allowed and we could sit with friends instead of at our assigned tables. Occasionally the College held a “white dinner” when everyone wore white dresses.

During the war, meals were very different from the fare served today. I remember one particularly strange meal—the entree platter arrived with eight pieces of fried bologna, which looked like bra cups. Plus, they frequently served prune whip for dessert! On those nights, many of us went to Barnhart’s for ice cream!

Students were required to attend chapel every weekday morning and convocation every Wednesday at noon. The members of the senior class had to wear their caps and gowns to chapel. Because of Wilson’s close association with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), most of the speakers at chapel belonged to that denomination. We were expected to attend a worship service in Chambersburg on Saturdays or Sundays and used to all walk into town wearing hats and white gloves.

There were six residential dormitories—Main, Davison, Fletcher, South, Alumna and Riddle Halls. New students were assigned a dorm when they first arrived. In the spring, students “drew” a number to choose a dorm for the next year. I lived on the third floor of Main Hall during my freshman year and met many of my lifelong friends there. I lived in South my sophomore year and returned to Main for my junior and senior years. Whenever we left campus we were required to sign in and out.

Most of our social activities occurred on campus. After dinner, we usually went to the “smoker” in our dorms to play cards. I was not a smoker, but the room was definitely smoke-filled. We went to the movie theater in town and to Barnhart Drug Store for ice cream. We hosted a few informal dances and a few formal dances. Male students were invited from nearby colleges like Gettysburg, Franklin & Marshall, and Shippensburg for these so-called mixers.

In 1945, as part of the celebrations for the 75th anniversary of the College, former U.S. President Herbert Hoover visited the campus. It was a lovely fall day and everyone gathered on the lawn outside of Main Hall to hear him speak from the balcony. That same year a special meeting was called for the entire campus to inform us that one of the sophomores was planning to marry her boyfriend, who was joining the military. Up to then, no student had been married. Times have changed!

Perhaps the one thing that had the greatest and most significant impact on us was the Honor Principle. I am proud of the influence it has had on every aspect of my life and the lives of all “Wilson Women.”

I’ve been blessed with lifelong friends, thanks to all the networking of “Wilson Women” and “Wilson Men.” These connections, begun in college, continued after graduation through the local Wilson clubs that I joined wherever I lived.

How ironic that as the Wilson Alumnae Association was about to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1979, the Board of Trustees would vote to close the College as of June 30, 1979.

As chair of the Save Wilson Committee, I was so proud and thrilled that Judge Jack Keller ruled that the College must remain open. He wrote me a note indicating that when he first heard of our efforts to save Wilson, he thought we were dreaming “the impossible dream.”

Our alma mater expresses it well: “She is small but she is mighty.”

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