FLUSHING, N.Y., May 27, 2011 – Four hundred students enrolled in the new Queens College in fall of 1937. Four years later, 197 graduated. And on June 2, nine members of that group—members of Queens College’s first class—will return to campus to join the Commencement ceremony for the class of 2011.
These stalwart nonagenarians entered Queens College during the Depression. World War II started six months after they graduated. Some of their classmates left college early to enter the armed forces.
“We made do,” says Haskel Kase ’41, who had been in the mail-order business. “It wasn’t the best of times.”
The campus, purchased for $424,000, had been the home of the New York Parental School for Boys (otherwise known as a home for “wayward boys”). The school had been closed in 1935 after an investigation by then-Queens DA Charles Colden, who led a committee to establish the college—the first public one to serve the rapidly growing borough of 1,250,000. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia agreed to establish Queens College in 1936.
The college, led by president Dr. Paul Klapper, opened in October 1937 with 16 academic departments. It was so new that some alumni recall that on the first day of class, there were no blackboards or desks. Others remember bringing bag lunches because there was no cafeteria, and climbing a ladder to get to the library that was housed in an attic. The buildings didn’t even have names. The Apple Orchard was a favorite haunt for students who found it an appealing, bucolic refuge from the surrounding city, as were the tunnels between the classrooms that provided privacy for courting couples.
“It was a far cry from what it is today,” as Kase says. “The buildings were two by nothing. There was an agricultural farm in the back. You could hear the chickens during class.”
None of that mattered. “I just remember very clearly the freedom we had on campus,” recalls Bernice Altarac ’41, who taught elementary school for 40 years in Long Beach before retiring in 1982. “Times were bad. Kids weren’t going to college. We were poor kids and were so happy to have a college to go to. The buildings were meager. We thought it was heaven.”
They lived at home. They commuted, by subway, bus—sometimes both, for those who lived in other boroughs—or for a few lucky ones, by car.
What made it heaven for these bright, ambitious first-generation college students and children of immigrants was the extraordinary faculty, they say.
“They were committed to teaching,” says Dr. George Scherr, a former professor of microbiology and infectious diseases. People were devoted to doing the best job they could, to make teaching an enjoyable experience.” One of his mathematics professors had studied under one of Albert Einstein’s students.
Many in the Class of ‘41 served the war effort as linguists, cryptographers, even research scientists in the area of germ warfare. Using their military experience and skills they honed as undergraduates at Queens College, they went on to have careers in the military, business, academia, social work, teaching, medicine, law and computer technology, among others.
- John Kinder—mathematics major…drafted in September 1941 and used his mathematics in artillery during the war…worked for Manhattan Life Insurance and Adirondack Life Insurance…remained in the Reserves, ultimately gaining a promotion to the rank of Major
- Dr. Guy Riccio—French major…earned master’s degree in Spanish, Portugese and Romance Languages…inducted into the Navy in December 1942…became Japanese language officer in the Pacific Theater…taught as an officer/instructor in the foreign language department for the Naval Academy in Annapolis…retired from academic career as professor at University of Wisconsin and the University of Maryland
- Dr. George Scherr—biology and chemistry major…trained in international Morse code during the war…taught cryptography to the Air Force…worked on secret germ warfare project during the war…became medical school professor of microbiology and infectious diseases
And they are quick to credit their debt to Queens College. “The competence of the instructional staff was exceptional,” says Dr. Scherr. “Plus, I made lots of friends. I have fond memories.”