It was located in the slums under the shadow of a giant crane. Its faculty was a ragtag mix of high school teachers and former professors. Its student body consisted of war veterans living in Navy barracks.
And for two years, it was a part of the College of William & Mary.
Norfolk’s St. Helena Extension was born of a campaign promise made by Gov. William M. Tuck 1915, that all Virginian veterans returning from World War II would have the opportunity to attend college under the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (G.I. Bill), provided they had a high school diploma.
But by spring 1946, it became clear that this would be impossible given the amount of space available at state colleges. Like the rest of the country, Virginia’s campuses were flooded with veterans after the war. Tuck, William & Mary President John E. Pomfret and Bursar Charles J. Duke formulated a solution.
The College would take over an abandoned Navy berthing yard in Norfolk, Va., and transform the dozen or so buildings into a makeshift campus. Organized in just six weeks and with rules created by the students themselves, the St. Helena Extension was open for business in the fall of 1946.
“St. Helena was a product of desperation. In the years immediately following World War II, hordes of eager veterans, sobered by the tragedy of which they had been a part and determined to build a better future, knocked at the gates of colleges,” wrote Ed Grimsley ’51, L.H.D. ’11 in a Richmond Times-Dispatch column in 1967. Grimsley himself had attended the extension.
“A stranger school never existed,” Grimsley wrote. “It was surrounded by slums, and a crane, its boom stretching into the sky, stood, for some reason, on one corner of what was laughingly known as ‘the campus.’ The William & Mary campus in Williamsburg had its statue of Lord Botetourt, but we at St. Helena had our crane, and that was enough.”
Grimsley recalls his fellow students as being untidy in dress — usually some variation on their military uniform — but being very serious in their studies.
As most of the veterans hadn’t seen the inside of a classroom in years, special sections were organized for intensive review of subjects like foreign languages. Barracks served as both dorms and classrooms, though Grimsley recalls one English professor holding his seminars in a beer hall on Norfolk’s East Main Street.
“It was a pretty primitive way to live,” recalls David Eissenberg ’50. “Along the window side of the barracks was just one bed after another, and then in the middle of the barracks were the lockers for our clothes.”
Eissenberg was just 17 when he was sent to St. Helena, and was one of the few students who hadn’t served in the military.
“I guess we were at the bottom of the list for acceptance at Williamsburg,” said Eissenberg, now 84. He was attending as part of a five-year program that would earn him two bachelor’s degrees, one from W&M and one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Eissenberg went to St. Helena from February 1947 to February 1948, but doesn’t recall any beer hall lectures.Though the veterans and non-veterans didn’t mingle much, he remembers them being a fun crowd.
“They all had war stories, and they enjoyed playing cards, playing poker or some form of gambling cards. Hearts was a favorite game, and they would play all hours of the night,” Eissenberg said. “[St. Helena] was a good way to get started when many campuses were flooded by the G.I. Bill.”
The men started their own sports teams and created a student newspaper titled “S.H.E.,” named for the initials of the St. Helena Extension. But as much as the veterans tried to make the campus feel like home, the extension was to be short-lived.
From its inception, St. Helena was only meant to serve as a learning facility until the mass of students could be absorbed into other campuses, including the main W&M campus and its Norfolk Division across town, which later became Old Dominion University. The College’s administration opted to close the extension, and the Board of Visitors adopted that decision in February 1948.
“Regardless of how successful the program at St. Helena has been — and among veteran’s colleges it is outstanding — it could never be more than an ad interim, substitute program,” wrote President Pomfret in a letter to the student body.
Unhappy about their unique campus closing, the vets complained to U.S. President Harry S. Truman, their commander in chief. Though sympathetic to their wishes, he saw the issue as one that should be determined by the state. The veterans then made their appeal to Gov. Tuck, the man whose campaign promise had launched their campus in the first place.
“Tuck patted the boys on the shoulder, praised them for the ‘great job’ they had done for their country in World War II, gave them — it is suspected — a shot
of bourbon, and refused to intervene,” Grimsley wrote.
The Williamsburg campus and the Norfolk Division, both of which had sizable veteran populations, absorbed some of the students. For vets, the school obtained a housing project on Richmond Road where Williamsburg Shopping Center currently stands. It housed about 150 men, and was dubbed “Vetville” by students.
In the spring of 1947, a temporary dorm sprang up near Phi Beta Kappa Hall called “The Chicken Coop.” To go with the name, someone painted a chicken on the building’s chimney. These dorms housed single men, and married couples lived in College-owned houses on Richmond Road. Twenty demountable houses were also erected for couples and families on Matoaka Court.
For Eissenberg, the move to Williamsburg was a welcome one.
“It was very refreshing to be on a real college campus, and of course the professors were standard, old-time college professors instead of something that was put together in a hurry,” he recalled.
The brick structures of the Williamsburg campus weren’t the only pleasing change of scenery for Eissenberg. Though he had dated a girl in Norfolk, he appreciated attending a coed campus.
“I recall the Sunken Garden, I recall the woods in the back of campus where we would go with a girlfriend and have a little romance,” Eissenberg said with a laugh. After graduating from W&M and MIT, Eissenberg went to work at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and started a small business.
“Time and again, William & Mary professors commented on the veterans’ most outstanding trait: a seriousness usually not found among college students,” wrote Jim Baker ’51 in a 1989 article for Williamsburg Magazine. Baker had gone to St. Helena, and didn’t confine its importance to just the 1,600 men who attended. He saw St. Helena as a prime example of how the G.I. Bill changed the course of American education.
“It was an intellectual haven for veterans of World War II who returned home to find classrooms overflowing at Virginia’s established colleges. More importantly it was about democracy,” Baker wrote. He then quoted the extension’s yearbook:
“It demonstrated the soundness of the new concept, first formulated in the G.I. Bill of Rights, that every American should have the opportunity for a college education — that a college education should be, not the privilege of the aristocratic few, but the right of the democratic many.”