“This was the year the boys came home!” the 1946 Elms reported. It was a year that brought decisive change to Elmhurst College, to American higher education, and to the larger American society.
The key transforming factor was the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, which financed the college educations of millions of returning veterans. The “G.I. Bill” pumped billions of federal tuition dollars into American colleges and universities, and precipitated a rise in the levels of education attained by persons across the society. It thus established, for the first time, a convincingly democratic system of higher education in the United States.
At Elmhurst, enrollment more than doubled in two years—from 301 in 1945 to 660 in 1947. The campus bulged. Hundreds of students took up residence in three Army-surplus barracks set up west of the Gymnasium. An unfinished pool area became “the Annex,” a makeshift dormitory for thirty students. Quonset huts served as temporary classrooms.
In 1947, 38 percent of Elmhurst students were war veterans. A purposeful group, they brought a new level of seriousness to their Quonset-hut classrooms. In the 15 years after the war, nearly half of Elmhurst graduates continued their education toward advanced degrees.
The College celebrated its Diamond Jubilee with a renewed sense of its larger possibilities. It held an Institute on Religion and the Liberal Arts featuring Reinhold Niebuhr, an alumnus of such prominence that he was about to grace the cover of the 25th anniversary issue of Time. In 1948—with the Depression, the war, and the jubilee all behind him—Timothy Lehmann retired as president after two decades of triumphant endurance.
The eighth president, Henry W. Dinkmeyer, had been a classmate of Richard Niebuhr at Elmhurst, Eden, and Yale. Dinkmeyer styled himself a “practical Christian,” and brought to the job a distinctive combination of executive savvy and missionary zeal. In 1949, his administrative reforms (combined with swelling enrollments) produced the first budget surplus in the institution’s history.
The same year, Elmhurst launched an innovative Evening Session designed to meet the specific needs of students beyond the traditional “college age.” The initial Evening Session attracted eleven students; within a few years, Elmhurst’s was the fourth largest program of its kind in the state, with 1,422 students. Like the veterans, the older students changed the tenor of campus life. Many brought to the classroom intellectual and moral sensibilities deeply informed by life experiences.
Under President Dinkmeyer, campus life was further enriched by the matriculation of students from many racial and ethnic backgrounds, and from other nations. In 1947, Elmhurst enrolled its first African American student, Gwendolyn Jeffers of Cleveland. In 1950, the Student Refugee Committee organized Operation Foreign Student; it brought to campus, among many others, forty refugees of the 1956 Hungarian Revolt. The College added a minor in Hungarian to the curriculum.
Given the range and depth of Dinkmeyer’s accomplishments, it may be unfair that he is remembered primarily as “The Builder,” for his bricks-and-mortar legacy. Still, he earned the title. Cordial, debonair, a natural fund raiser, Dinkmeyer planned, built, and found the money for facilities essential to the future of a growing college, including two new residence halls.
He took an idiosyncratic approach to fund raising. The president would pick a site for a new structure, arrange for a bulldozer to dig a hole there, then put up a sign announcing a hole to be filled by faith. Next he would call in a photographer and pose heroically atop the bulldozer, like Washington crossing the Delaware. Somehow it worked. Among the many private gifts that flowed to the College during the Dinkmeyer years was a record-breaker—a $300,000 capital grant from Louis Hammerschmidt, an attorney and trustee from South Bend, Indiana.
In February 1957, the gentleman builder announced that he would retire at the end of the academic year. Two weeks later, on the eve of his 65th birthday, he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was working on plans for a new campus chapel when he died.