COVID-19 has been a world-changing event unlike any other in the history of the institution. No other event forced students, staff and faculty off campus in the same way. Though the 1918 flu pandemic arrived at Colby Academy, there is no record of it forcing students off campus. To the contrary, the historical record shows the school year continuing without a hitch.

To find another event that had anywhere close to the impact of COVID-19, one must go back to the junior college days and World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Colby Junior College was thrust into a new reality without having time to prepare. Immediately, the college put a plan in place to respond to the emergency. It created a steering committee of faculty and students to set policies, delegate tasks and adapt to a changed world.

Returning to campus for the spring semester of 1942, students had more responsibility as they adjusted to new ways of life. Colby students, working in pairs, were asked to survey the skies around campus on the lookout for enemy aircraft. This practice continued until Oct. 15, 1943, when the Army sent a telegram discontinuing the practice across the United States. The college also implemented an air raid alarm, with each dormitory’s telephone ringing five short times, repeating for a total of 15 short bursts at the start of a blackout. The first student in each dorm to hear the alarm was instructed to ring the dormitory’s bells to alert her fellow students. Students also practiced evacuation from New London when the State of New Hampshire did its blackout training exercises.

Red Cross fund drive

The Red Cross organized blood drives, and many students volunteered for the organization. The college developed plans to manage important defense resources like food, fuel and transportation should an evacuation from New London be necessary. Students attended lectures on nursing, first aid, sewing, knitting and bandage rolling and volunteered to roll bandages and knit garments and materials for the Red Cross. Students also put together gifts for the Red Cross to send to wounded veterans.

The college community also found ways to help local businesses and institutions. Colby Junior College students put their newly acquired skills to work to aid New London Hospital. As the hospital was overwhelmed with patients and understaffed during the war, Colby students were called on to help the hospital in areas of need, including bandage rolling. Colby students also helped local farmers pick produce, as some of the farms in the area were short of laborers during the war.

Sugar began to be rationed in February of 1942, with rationing of heating oil, gas, coffee, meat, cheese and many other items to follow. Like all Americans, Colby students were issued ration books to use when purchasing meals on campus and buying food off campus. Students set the heat in their rooms to specific temperatures at different times of the day to conserve heating oil. The school limited the use of its bus to conserve gas and urged students to stay on campus on weekends to further save gas for the war effort. Dye shortages created issues in acquiring clothing for students, which forced some students to get creative and combine older garments into new fashion styles.

Colby even adjusted the curriculum to aid in the war effort. Most notably, the medical secretary course of study, then a three-year program, was accelerated to a two-year program, with students taking additional summer terms to complete the needed credits. Mr. F. Eldred Hodge of the Science Department introduced an aeronautics course to teach students about the burgeoning aeronautics industry. The course covered the history of flight, the types of planes in operation, motor construction and operation, and the various parts of planes. Colby even purchased a small plane, a Taylor Cub Trainer with dual controls, from a man in East Jaffrey, N.H., so Mr. Hodge could use the plane in class for demonstrations.

Students held stamp and war bond drives on campus 1942-45 to raise money for the war effort. Colby also found other ways to raise money. The Campus Curb, a newly opened shop on campus in 1942 that sold sandwiches, hot dogs and sodas (in reduced quantities due to sugar and meat shortages) donated some of its profits to war bonds. The college also showed movies throughout the year and donated some of the profits to the Red Cross war bond drive and to New London Hospital.

While COVID-19 has altered higher education in a way never seen before, Colby-Sawyer has, throughout its history, risen to meet the challenges of the day. From transitioning from an academy to a women’s junior college, to adapting to the constraints created by World War II, to transitioning to a four-year college and then to a coed institution, Colby-Sawyer has survived 183 years. Its strength lies in its community of faculty, staff and students, who will help the institution get through this time, too.