From the Archives: A Resilient Community

Throughout its history, the Elon community has shown unwavering resilience in times of adversity.

History is full of trials and tribulations, and Elon University has seen its share of them. The recent COVID-19 pandemic is not the first time the Elon community has been severely tested. Elon has a history of rising to the occasion when uncertainty rules the day.

Members of Elon’s Student Army Training Corps unit from 1918.

Elon’s first great trial came early in the school’s history. During World War I, both alumni and students joined the armed forces. As a result, enrollment declined considerably, placing financial strain on the fledgling college. The graduating class of 1918 shrank from 46 to 30, and ultimately four members of the Elon family died in the line of duty. But Elon was determined to do its part. In the fall of 1918, the school was one of only 12 colleges and universities in North Carolina to host a unit of the Student Army Training Corp. Enlistees in the SATC trained to be soldiers while attending college. Since Elon was one of the few co-educational institutions in the state, both male and female students volunteered to serve their country.

The tombstone of Modesto Lopez, one of three Elon students who died during the 1918 flu pandemic.

Just as the fall 1918 semester was getting underway, the campus was struck by the horror of the flu epidemic. This pandemic killed more than 50 million people worldwide, and 14,000 in North Carolina alone. Like COVID-19, it struck down perfectly healthy people of all ages. At Elon College, the virus hit the campus fast and hard, sickening approximately 300 of the 400-member student body.

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Instead of trying to send students home — where students might be at even more risk — Elon took care of its own. The college gym was converted into a sick ward and President William Harper and his wife opened their home to care for the most ill. Students who were not sick cared for those that were. Thankfully, most students and faculty recovered, but three Elon students succumbed to the virus. As tragic as those deaths were, Elon College weathered the storm with considerably less loss of life than many other communities.

A few years later, Elon faced a crisis that threatened the very survival of the school. In the early morning hours of Tuesday, Jan. 18, 1923, a fire destroyed the Main Administration Building. Even as the building burned, students, faculty and town residents turned out to try and save the building. Despite the disaster, classes resumed the next day, with students assembling in whatever space could be found, including in the homes of their professors.

After learning the news of the Jan. 18,1923, fire on Elon’s campus, residents of Alamance County pledged to help rebuild the school.

Within a few days, the board of trustees met and approved a new building program, as well as a campaign to raise $600,000 for both construction and endowment. The residents of Alamance County pledged $100,000. Over the next two years, five new buildings were raised: Alamance, Whitley, Carlton, Mooney and Duke; together they formed the new heart of campus. In the end, a disaster that could have doomed Elon resulted in a rebirth for the institution. In 2001 this transformation inspired the adoption of Elon’s mascot, the Phoenix — the mythological bird that rises from its own ashes.

Then in 1929 came the Great Depression, and Elon’s greatest trial yet. In 1931, Leon Edgar Smith became its fifth president, inheriting a school in crisis. Enrollment, which had peaked at 424 in 1926, declined to just 277 students that year. Soon the college was unable to pay the salaries of faculty and was in arrears. Unless drastic measures were taken, Elon would have to close its doors. Smith persuaded creditors to accept partial payments and appealed to faculty to compromise on getting paid. Elon launched a new fundraising campaign, an audacious action when so many people were financially strapped. Elon persisted and kept its doors open, avoiding the fate that befell many small colleges across America.

During World War II, Elon’s campus was used as training grounds for the 325th College Training Detachment.

During World War II, President Smith offered the use of the campus for the war effort. In April 1943, 250 trainees of the 325th College Training Detachment arrived on campus. By the end of the war, this squadron had trained 672 aviators for the U.S. Army Air Force. Elon students who remained at the school also did their part. A “V for Victory” club was established, and air raid drills were conducted on campus. Many Elon students left to serve in uniform, along with numerous alumni. Thirty-three Elon members of “The Greatest Generation” gave their lives to defend freedom. Their names, along with the four Elon casualties of World War I, are memorialized on a plaque in Alumni Memorial Gymnasium, the building that honors all Elon alumni who served in both world wars.

Pioneering black students Eugene Perry ’69 and Glenda Phillips Hightower embrace after their portraits were unveiled in 2016.

World War II was followed by a long period of prosperity and financial stability; enrollment swelled as veterans attended on the GI Bill. But the postwar period was not without its challenges. During the Civil Rights Movement, Elon had to confront the divisive issue of racial segregation. In 1963 President J. Earl Danieley made the decision to integrate the college. That fall, Glenda Phillips Hightower enrolled as the first full-time African-American student. In 1969 Eugene Perry became the first African American to receive a degree from Elon. Although at the time they faced resistance from some on campus, both Hightower and Perry have been recognized and honored by the university and Elon community in the years since. Their historic enrollments paved the way for greater diversity and inclusion at Elon.

Students light candles in honor of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In more recent times, Elon has again rallied in the face of adversity. On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked commercial airliners and flew them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, as well as the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A fourth airliner crashed in Pennsylvania. More than 3,000 people were killed in the attacks. President Leo M. Lambert shared news of the unfolding tragedy to a stunned gathering at College Coffee that day. In the days that followed, Elon showed the resilience that has carried it through dark times. Classes were canceled for a campus-wide meeting in Alumni Gym on Sept. 12. Moseley Center was set up as a community information and gathering center. Members of the Elon family came together to mourn, pray and console each other. Elon’s strength and sense of family helped many get through those challenging days.

Now once again, Elon finds itself in an uncertain time, confronting a crisis that has deeply affected the entire world. But our response today is a reflection of who we are. This community will persevere, just as those who came before us persisted and overcame great challenges. That is the Elon way.