Eastern Mennonite University is celebrating their Centennial this year with year-long celebrations that kicked off at Convocation, will continue with Homecoming celebrations including artwork, theater, live music, reunions, and the release of a new history book, and will culminate in the 100th commencement in May 2018.
As we launch into our next hundred years, it is worthwhile to go back to the beginning and take a look at where the school began. In the EMU Archives’ digital collection we are fortunate to have correspondence from Mary Nafzinger, a charter student at EMS from Pigeon, Michigan, to her pen pal to Evan Miller, who was a C.O. in Camp Mead at the time. Evan Miller was also the grandfather of former EMU archivist Nathan E. Yoder, who graciously shared this material with the collection.
First graduating class of EMS; Mary Nafzinger, front left
Mary’s letters to Evan give us a sense of day-to-day life in the early years of the school and also an understanding of how world events–like the Spanish Flu and World War I–impacted the small campus:
September 19, 1918
“Things are going on in their usual quiet way here at school. Much like last year only I am taking a heavier course, and taking seven subjects. Six of them being solid. I also put in my application to do the ironing so I am quite busy. The spiritual side of the school is growing dearer to me every day. We girls have prayer circle every evening then we have a devotional service before breakfast every morning. We also have a S.S. [Sunday School] organized, and a Young People’s Meeting . . . Elizabeth Horsch [later wife of H.S. Bender] from Scottdale is my roommate.”
September 26, 1918
“I am sitting out on our porch writing on the bannisters. . . .”
The porch Mary Nafzinger is referencing here was on the “White House”, a mansion on the property in Park Woods that the EMS founders purchased in 1917. This building housed all school activities and students.
In this letter Mary also discusses the impact of WWI on enrollment numbers:
“We have about 22 students registered. Four of them are Maryland and Pa. Some more are expected soon. This last draft law cut down so many that wanted to come but of course girls could come, but some have to stay at home on account of their brothers leaving.”
In one of her next letters Mary tells Evan how they spend their leisure time at the school:
October 7, 1918:
“Two girls from here at the Park and I were out on a rocky hill all afternoon, too, writing letters, reading etc. I think that is one way of spending an ideal Sunday afternoon. The greatness and grandness of nature impresses me so much and makes me conscious of His greatness and also as nothing else can makes me feel the nearness of Him who never leaves or forsakes us.”
In the fall of 1918, the second wave of an influenza pandemic, nicknamed the “Spanish Flu” hit Harrisonburg and the surrounding areas. EMS was not immune from the pandemic, with many students and faculty taking ill. Mary writes:
Oct. 22, 1918
“I am just convalescent after having the Spanish Influenza. We have not been having school for the last two weeks but expect to open up again tomorrow. Quite a number of students went home, but all we folks that stayed got it. In fact we were all in bed with it except the cook. She took care of us and good care at that . . . I was in bed nine days and was quite sick as one day they decided to send for my parents then I happened to get better right off.
Quite a few people died around here, but only one Mennonite that I know of.
P.S. You need not be afraid of getting the flue thru this letter as everything has been disinfected.”
The influenza continued to affect the school after Mary’s recovery, and she was pressed into service as a caregiver:
November 7, 1918
“Just after writing to you three more students and the cook took sick with the “Hen-flew-enza.” The students from Pa and Md immediately went home, leaving only three of us in charge and two men to cook for, J.L. Stauffer and Mr. Matz. Miss Charlton and Miss Horsch were installed as cooks and I your humble servant as nurse. None of us were very strong yet, and we had some time. They were not used to cooking and in fact had never cooked much so they as well as the rest of us were in a misery ha.
I cooked soft-diet food for my patients and you can imagine they were in a perfect misery with me as a nurse. But I got along famously and like nursing fine. It was almost as much of a lesson to me to wait on patients as to have the ‘flue’ myself.”
Mary spent the Thanksgiving holiday at the school and enjoyed some special entertainment:
November 30, 1918
“Then Thanksgiving evening we had a taffy pulling in the kitchen. It was fine but the taffy and the sport of pulling it. Also to see some four little freshman smearing in the sticky stuff that were not accustomed to handling it.”
Lest we think that EMS in the early 20th century was all excitement and occupation, here is what Mary and her roommate were doing to entertain themselves in the winter of 1918:
December 8, 1918
“At present my roommate and I are engaging our spare moments and also others in watching a hyacinth bulb grow that I purchased in the ten-cent store. It seems almost miraculous how fast it grows. We have no idea what color it is going to be.”
The EMS of 1918 was certainly a different place to the EMU of today. It was smaller, more tight-knit, and moved at a slower pace. I think it’s safe to say that students of today, with numerous campus activities, extracurriculars, WiFi, and Netflix could find many ways to occupy themselves other than watching plants grow. But there are also similarities–a focus on spiritual life, challenging academics, and enjoyment of the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley.
Mary’s final missive to Evan contained her graduation announcement and the commencement program inscribed with her class’s motto ‘Each May Serve’. Likewise, the class of 2018 are prepared by EMU to ‘serve and lead in a global context’. As we appreciate the growth and changes the past 100 years have brought to EMU, it is also reassuring to notice the similarities and qualities that have made the school a unique place throughout its history.