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Class of '49 recalls war, student days

Members of the Class of 1949, many of them already veterans of World War II by the time they entered MIT as freshmen, were reunited last week when they gathered on campus to celebrate their 50-year reunion and welcome the Class of 1999 into the ranks of Institute alumni/ae.

The 137 men and one woman (only four women were in the class) were f��ted with special seating at Tech Night at the Pops on Thursday, led Friday's Commencement procession clad in matching cardinal red blazers, and spent the remainder of the weekend in other educational and recreational programs.

Their delight at being together again in Killian Court was apparent from their smiles and the small clusters of friends that formed and reformed under the shade trees throughout the Commencement ceremony. Also apparent were the ways in which they resemble -- and differ from -- the Class of 1999.

Paul Reynolds, a building engineering and construction major from Santa Rosa, CA, who attended the Pops concert, said the orchestra played the MIT song in a singalong. When asked if he remembered the words, he laughed. "Of course not. They gave us a printout. I didn't even know we had a song."

A World War II veteran when he entered MIT, Mr. Reynolds said the veterans, though older and more mature than the average college freshman, "really felt welcome here."

"This was the most incredible place," said Bernard Steinberg of Philadelphia, who earned the SB and SM in the electrical engineering co-op program. He was trained as an artillery man but instead was sent to Oak Ridge, TN as a technician on the Manhattan Project.

"In the army, we were given three meals a day and shown where to lay our heads every night. When we got here, we found ourselves in a nurturing, intelligent community. Anything you wanted to do, the Institute would let you do. You just had to decide what you wanted," he said.

Don Ramsey, a mechanical engineering major from Rochester, NY, matriculated in 1944 and lived in the Theta Chi house. "Six months later, 16 of 17 of us were in military service," he recalled. He returned to school in 1946, participated in the wartime accelerated program (three rather than two terms per year) and graduated with the Class of 1949.

"Military discipline was really something," said Mr. Ramsey, who was managing editor of The Tech his junior year and went on to work at General Motors for 40 years. "MIT didn't require quite as much discipline, but it was rigorous. My fraternity held study hour weeknights from 8pm to midnight. Nothing else happened during that time."

Jerry Lewi of Thousand Oaks, CA earned the SM and SM in the electrical engineering co-op program, working one term and studying the next. During the working phase, he lived in a boarding house in Philadelphia with other student engineers. "There were three main groups of students I associated with: the co-op engineers, my fraternity brothers in Delta Tau Delta and the track team," he said. He was drafted and served in the Korean War following his graduation.

Walt Friauf, an electrical engineering major from Bethesda, MD, said most of his non-veteran classmates joined ROTC. "It was a patriotic time," he said.

"The ROTC guys got a lot of kidding from the vets," said Kemon Taschioglou of Lincoln, MA, who also studied electrical engineering. "When I got my commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Force, I went home to my frat house and a vet said, 'Hey look -- diaper pins!'"

Mr. Taschioglou, who worked at Teradyne for 20 years, said the vets were "older, more serious, more mature. A lot of them were hereon the GI Bill."

"The vets were so focused. They just wanted to come here to get their education. I wanted to have some fun," said electrical engineering major Alfred Kenrick of Palo Alto, CA, who later served in the Korean War. "I had to study hard just to match their maturity." Mr. Kenrick's father was also an alumnus -- Alfred Kenrick V of the Class of 1906.

"We had fun," countered World War II vet Gene Wroblewski (mechanical engineering) of Doyleston, PA. "We went to dances with Wellesley and played sports." Because of the accelerated wartime program, Mr. Wroblewski graduated from high school on a Thursday in 1943 and matriculated at MIT the following Monday. Six months later, he was drafted into the infantry and was later wounded in Germany. A bullet entered his back and exited his chest without leaving lasting damage.

"Suddenly I couldn't breathe and fell down," said Mr. Wroblewski. "The medics came over, looked at me and said, 'You've got a million-dollar wound,' meaning 'you'll get out of here, but won't have to lose an arm or leg.'

"Then I went into shock. I didn't call for my mother or God. My thought was 'Gee, here I am 20 years old and I'm gonna die before I even get to sleep with a woman.' I was upset that I wouldn't get to experience that side of life...

"I was bloody and dirty and they took me to a hospital and the first thing they did was put me between these clean white sheets -- and I felt even dirtier. When I got back to the US, everything started to heal."

Mr. Wroblewski, who now has three children, returned to MIT in the spring of 1946. "Because of that wound, my education at MIT was free," he said.

"We really changed the atmosphere here. Instead of a bunch of kids coming out of high school and prep school, you got a bunch of hardened vets who had been through the war. The whole dress code went. When we came in, students wore clean white shirts with ties.When we left, dress here was very casual," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 9, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 33).

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