The year without a Homecoming.


In October of 1918, as soldiers entered what would be the final days of a devastating war, the world was gripped by the deadliest influenza pandemic it has ever known. It swept across the globe with unprecedented speed. Roughly fifty million people would die in the fifteen months of the pandemic, more than were killed in WWI and WWII combined.

On the hundredth anniversary of this difficult autumn, we look back at a campus that prepared soldiers for war, tended to the sick, and came together in a spirit of selflessness and compassion that was the hallmark of some of our earliest Illini.

By Kim Schmidt
Additional reporting by Abigail Bobrow and Nicole Evans
Photographs courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives, who we thank for their assistance with this story.

On the day that the homecoming game would have been played, under a gray and drizzling October sky, 18-year-old freshman Fred H. Turner stood at the locked iron gates of Illinois Field, then located north of the Engineering Quad. He watched from afar as the Illinois football team played a team of Navy men. The stands were empty and the field unusually quiet except for a small collection of university deans, administrators, and military staff who cheered them on. The Daily Illini wrote that the game “was one which was too good to throw away on empty stands, but the few military men who were there made up for the deficit in spectators by cheering their hardest.”

This was a year like no other. In 1918, war was raging overseas. The world had endured four painful years of battle, leaving cities and villages in ruins. Between 15 million and 19 million people were killed in World War I, including thousands of young American soldiers and nurses who were buried in French fields far from home.

And there was another war raging around the world, one with an enemy that was invisible to the eye and seemingly impossible to control—influenza. What is usually a mild illness had exploded into the deadliest pandemic the world had seen since the bubonic plague wiped out nearly half the human population in the fourteenth century. The plague killed 75 million people over the course of one hundred years. It took only fifteen months for the flu to kill roughly 50 million people.

The flu moved so quickly through communities that many just simply shut down. In an effort to quell the spread of the illness, dances were canceled, movie theaters closed, streets were quiet.

Turner was recovering from the illness himself and knew firsthand how debilitating it could be. By the time he stood at the gates, one million people in the state of Illinois had been infected and hundreds of his fellow students and army buddies lay in campus buildings converted to emergency makeshift hospitals.

As he watched empty bleachers collect rain, while the world around him was consumed with battle and quarantine, Turner was witnessing a small piece of Illinois history set in a much larger historical moment.

At Illinois, this was the year without a Homecoming.

A young tradition pauses

Homecoming was a relatively new concept in 1918, not only at Illinois but at universities across the country. Former students would often return to campus for spring graduation, but two Illini argued that this time of year didn’t encourage proper fellowship between alumni and students. By graduation day, they noted, most students had already left campus for summer break and seniors were too preoccupied with the ceremony.

Clarence Williams (B.A. 1910) and W. Elmer Ekblaw (B.A. 1910) suggested instead that the alumni should return to campus in the fall, and that multiple events could take place over the course of a crisp, autumn weekend. After much discussion and planning, the first Illinois homecoming was held in 1910 and drew thousands back to campus. Banquets were arranged, class reunions were held, and orange and blue bunting hung from university buildings.

The festivities culminated Saturday afternoon at Illinois Field when the alumni and students gathered to watch the football team play its rival, the University of Chicago Maroons.

Homecoming was a success, and the tradition remains one of the most beloved events on campus over a hundred years later. There has only been one year when Illinois did not celebrate homecoming and that was in the fall of 1918, when battles in Europe struck down soldiers and civilians—and back home, influenza did the same. Once the danger of (what was then called) Spanish Influenza became clear, all plans for celebration were set aside.

The pandemic takes hold

The influenza pandemic of 1918 actually swept across the world in three waves. The first occurred during the spring, its journey helped along by the movement of soldiers in World War I. While the number of people who fell sick was notable, the illness was mild and so didn’t raise alarms.

By the fall, however, this particular strain of influenza began appearing again—this time with unexpected virulence. The conditions of war, including close quarters and lack of sanitation, played a major role in the spread of the disease not only in the trenches and the training camps, but on the ships that moved troops across the Atlantic. By the time the SS Leviathan docked in New York in early October, for example, more than 2,000 cases of influenza had erupted aboard the ship. It was carrying over 9,000 troops who were coming home from France, among them future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an assistant secretary of the Navy at the time. He developed influenza and then pneumonia on board, and, like many others, was so weak he needed to be carried off the ship.

The influenza that emerged in the fall differed in many ways: in the number of people infected, the high mortality rate, and in the types of people who were especially susceptible. This was a disease that was targeting young, healthy people who were usually not at high risk for lethal complications from flu—including college students and military personnel.

The first reported case of influenza at Illinois was diagnosed on September 27, and the speed with which the virus overtook campus mirrored how it was unfolding everywhere else. People quickly realized that not only was this flu passing from one person to another at an exponential pace, but once a person was infected, the illness was deadlier than they had seen before.

The Department of Public Health encouraged citizens across the nation to do all they could to prevent contracting the disease. Posters and advertisements appeared in newspapers telling people to avoid crowds and public transportation, cover coughs and sneezes, and stay home if sick—many of the actions that might be suggested today. Fresh air and open spaces were a central message in flu prevention as well, from keeping bedroom windows open to walking to work. In San Francisco, some judges even held court outside.

In this tumultuous time, Illinois pulled together and revealed the strength of its character.

As government and public health officials began to strongly discourage the gathering of crowds, campus followed suit. By October 6, sorority rushing season was postponed indefinitely. Organ recitals were canceled. Student soldiers were ordered to avoid “groups around soda fountains, pool halls and cigar stores and to stay away from moving picture shows and dances.”

But despite these efforts students on campus still became sick—far too many for the small university hospital to handle. Dedicated staff members on campus transformed fraternity houses and dance halls into makeshift infirmaries, stood by bedsides as students’ fevers raged, and answered the daily telegrams and letters from worried parents.

In this tumultuous time, Illinois pulled together and revealed the strength of its character. Out of these extraordinary circumstances, one man emerged as a natural leader: the university’s Dean of Men Thomas Arkle Clark, at once a counselor, an enforcer, a friend, and a father figure for thousands of students.

War comes to campus

By October 1918, the world was war-torn and weary. Earlier that summer, in an effort to attract more recruits, the War Department created the Student Army Training Corps (SATC). Men who enlisted in this voluntary program became privates in the U.S. Army as well as students at the university. They were placed on active status, meaning they could be deployed at any time. The government paid for the students’ tuition and housing and provided the student a monthly stipend of $30, equivalent to $539 today.

The program was introduced in mid-summer and by the time classes began it had attracted 140,000 young men and had a presence on 525 university campuses across the nation. Illinois welcomed nearly 3,500 student soldiers, either new students or continuing students who had enlisted, a number that comprised nearly half the student population that fall.

Army men need barracks, and so Dean Clark spearheaded the effort to transform fraternity and sorority houses as well as privately owned homes used as campus rentals into proper housing for the influx of military men. The drill floor of the newly constructed Armory was also used—around 1,500 of the men slept in row upon row of beds under the 98-foot dome, some calling it the “biggest bedroom in the state.”

The work was intense and involved an incredible amount of coordination between those in charge of facilities, local residents, military leaders, and campus administration. Blueprints were drawn, boilers installed, contracts signed.

Students returned to campus during the second week in September for entrance exams. The SATC men were officially inducted on October 1, university classes began on October 3, and by October 4, only one week after the first case on campus was reported, the number of flu cases began to swell on campus.

Dean Clark kept a correspondence with a close colleague and friend, in whom he confided. “I am in a whirlwind of work running or trying to run this whole machinery of the S.A.T.C.,” he wrote on October 4. “We have more than a hundred people in the hospital and no nurses. I am drafting or attempting to draft the University women.”

The influenza crisis was now overlapping the upheaval caused by coordinating the SATC. With no time to rest, Dean Clark moved from one massive undertaking to another.

View GalleryChampaign, Ill.10-1-18WWI TRANSFORMS CAMPUS. Thousands of Illini served in World War I, and 189 lost their lives.

Fighting an invisible enemy

October was a deadly month. Data gathered from around the world show an almost implausible spike in the number of people sick from influenza. On our own campus, the numbers of sick climbed daily.

Dean Clark worked day and night to balance his responsibilities to the SATC, his regular duties dealing with student infractions and failing grades, and the growing number of students who needed intense medical care. He was already known for his high energy and intense schedule and, in less turbulent times, was rumored to see hundreds of students a day.

One of his close friends described his energy this way: “Nobody goes to more dances and dinners, as well as funerals and faculty meets, than he. He will manage to get around to a smoker, a meeting of church deacons, an operation on an undergraduate in the hospital, a dance, and a theatrical rehearsal in an evening, and be dictating letters at eight the next morning.”

This chart from the 1918-1919 University of Illinois Health Services Annual Report shows an extraordinary spike in cases of influenza in the month of October, 1918. Reports from around the world looked much the same way.

It is easy to imagine the dean hurriedly crossing campus to check on students in each of the emergency hospitals, his signature moustache making him instantly recognizable on the street. Dean Clark was steadfast and calm under pressure, but as the weeks passed, his letters illustrate the enormity of the situation—even for him.

“I have never had so big a job, and I have never been so proud of doing it.” – Dean Thomas Arkle Clark, October 14, 1918

“We certainly are making things hum here,” Dean Clark wrote on October 14. “How we have got done what we have, I cannot see. Two weeks ago tomorrow, we had room for seventeen in our hospital. We have more than three hundred now and are having to enlarge every day and to get supplies and nurses and organization until my brain reels. We have lost two men so far. I have never had so big a job, and I have never been so proud of doing it.”

But in reality, Dean Clark’s work was just beginning.

By the fourth week of October, during the time when alumni were supposed to flood campus in their orange and blue and sophomores would try to best freshman in the annual class competition, Dean Clark and a team of dedicated staff instead worked ceaselessly to keep campus from being overwhelmed by illness. Dean Clark was joined by many hard-working Illini, including the head of university health services Dr. J. Howard Beard and athletic director George Huff. All three men are remembered in historical documents for their unfailing devotion to Illinois and to seeing the campus through its darkest times.

And dark times they were. Fear was spreading along with the disease, and some students were afraid to go to class. At one point the alumni newsletter reported that Dean Clark along with Dr. Beard “helped to carry breakfast to the patients in College Hall when the servants became panicky and refused to go in.” Nearby, Indiana University officially closed its campus between October 10 and November 4, sending all students home who were not enlisted in SATC. Over the course of the three-month emergency, they had only a third as many patients as Illinois did.

What is missing (or buried) in the records from this time are the contributions of nurses during the crisis. The November 1 issue of the Alumni Quarterly and Fortnightly News mentions that “The demands for medical attention entirely exhausted the efforts of local doctors, and nurses were simply not to be had. Miss Olive Condit, the nurse in charge, stuck to her post throughout the epidemic.” Dean Clark references recruiting university women to serve as nurses, but it is not clear how many answered his call. One record mentioned the employ of eighty-five nurses from around the state, but we came across no primary accounts of their experiences.

Sadly, these stories are lost to history and we are left to wonder about the story of women like Olive Condit, whose efforts were undoubtedly heroic as they joined the efforts to selflessly attend to and provide comfort for the severely ill.

“I don’t feel like the same person, and I haven’t for the last two months. I seem somebody else working in a new world and under new conditions,” Dean Clark wrote on October 22. “We have had a thousand people sick with influenza and nine deaths. There will be others I am afraid too. This is a horrible disease.”

This was the state of affairs when the weekend that would have been homecoming arrived. Despite the fact that all other homecoming events were canceled, the Illinois football team showed up on Saturday, October 26 to challenge eleven Navy men who were stationed at Chicago’s Municipal Pier.

The 1918 Fighting Illini football team.

From his vantage point, the recovering Turner watched behind locked gates what the Daily Illini called “one of the most sparkling games ever played on Illinois Field.” The Navy beat the Illini 7-0, but it was a tough match. “Illinois played real football in every minute of the game,” the newspaper reported, “with the exception of a few moments, and it was at those times that the Pier team was able to salt away a victory.”

The gates were closed to protect students, of course, but Dean Clark was not one to let the team play to complete silence. He gathered the head of the SATC and other military officers, walked through those gates, and that small group cheered mightily.

Extraordinary times reveal extraordinary people

Dean Clark wrote his friend again two days after the football game. “I hardly know what to write to you about our situation here. We ran it almost wholly ourselves, and by that, I mean Dr. Beard, Huff, and I ran it…We chose the physicians, had them approved by the government, and made the plan of organization,” he wrote. “We lost practically one per cent of those ill or less than that; that is, we had ten deaths and considerably more than a thousand people sick.”

By the beginning of November, it started to look like the worst was over—however the pandemic continued to keep the emergency hospitals busy through the end of December. The third wave of the pandemic appeared in the spring of 1919, but thankfully it was much like the first wave and not nearly as deadly as the fall. Experts are still trying to unravel the mystery of why this particular strain of flu was so virulent. In 2005, scientists managed to recreate the 1918 virus in the lab and fully sequence its genome. Work is underway to better understand the pandemic—and potentially how to predict and prepare for another.

Chasing the fluLEARN MORE ABOUT THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE FLU VIRUS(opens in new window)

Over the course of those harrowing months, it is estimated that 2,500 Illinois students were treated in university hospitals—roughly 37 percent of the over 6,600 students on campus. In all, nineteen students died. The attentiveness with which doctors, nurses, and university officials worked to care for and protect Illinois students ensured that the mortality rate remained low. Compared with other state universities, Illinois had among the fewest deaths during the pandemic.

Dean Clark, Dr. Beard, Huff, and others all were recognized for their remarkable efforts under complicated conditions. It was more than an exercise in administration, though. It was also an example of a loyalty to and love of this campus and our students. These men, as well as the doctors and nurses, each exposed themselves to risk in order to care for the very ill.

When Huff passed away in October 1936, Dr. Beard remarked that Huff was responsible for saving many students’ lives during the crisis. “He worked feverishly, and lost a lot of sleep in those days, and many were the times we said goodnight at midnight.”

Upon his passing, Dr. Beard was similarly remembered by none other than Turner. After his tumultuous first semester on campus, Turner went to work for Dean Clark in the spring of 1919. He worked in the dean’s office throughout his undergraduate years, became a trusted confidante, and ultimately succeeded Dean Clark as Dean of Men in 1931.

In 1950, Turner, now dean of students, released a written memorial for Dr. Beard co-written with other university officials. “He was a man of rare character and personality,” they wrote, “conscientious, sincere and kindly…All of his deeds were characterized by his unfailing ability and integrity, and he refused to deviate from the highest principles of his profession.”

Over the course of his thirty-eight-year career at Illinois, Dean Clark became a legendary figure. He was beloved and he was feared (nobody wanted to receive a summons for they knew it meant they were in trouble). He knew nearly everyone’s name, and it was rumored he had a spy network on campus, bringing him reports of misdeeds. He was so much like a parent, the students even made up a rhyme about him:

“A father to the girls, a mother to the boys…Our matriarchal, patriarchal Thomas Arkle Clark.”

In 1932, Dean Clark passed away. He was the first dean of men in the country, setting the standard for the role as it emerged at other universities. Upon his death, Harry Woodburn Chase, the university’s president at the time, praised Clark’s “keen knowledge of human nature, his passionate desire for moral up-building of youth, and his literally tireless devotion to his work.”

Dean Clark began here as a student when the university was young. From the moment he graduated from Illinois in 1890, he dedicated himself to teaching and guiding students. An obituary in the Daily Illini may have summed up Dean Clark’s importance to students best: “What would have happened to the undergraduate at Illinois had not some such man arisen to better their conditions, assure them justice and sympathy, and to give now and then a bit of fatherly advice, is difficult to imagine.”

Urbana, Ill.7-25-67FRED H. TURNER REFLECTS ON 1918. On the centennial of the university, in 1967, then Dean of Students Fred H. Turner talks about the influenza outbreak, SATC, and Dean Thomas Arkle Clark.

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There were still students fighting through influenza into the new year, though the numbers were now much more manageable and life began to return to normal. The armistice was signed on November 11, 1918 ending World War I and SATC students were decommissioned by the end of December.

It was hoped the new year would usher in a time of healing, that 1919 would be a salve to the deep wounds inflicted by the previous year.

In the end, of course, campus recovered due in no small way to the selfless efforts of so many who came together in an extraordinary time. One hundred years later, few students know the stories behind the names of campus buildings. Two of these men are memorialized with buildings that anchor two corners of Fourth and Gregory streets: Huff Hall and Clark Hall. Fred Turner was similarly honored with the naming of the Turner Student Services Building. Their legacy is etched not only in the buildings’ stone, but also in the character of our campus.

As Dean Clark wrote, “Nobody was neglected here, but that was because we took care of them.”

This story was published .