By the time the U.S. entered World War I in April of 1917, Northern’s enrollment had reached 424 women and 58 men. By the fall semester of 1918, enrollment had plummeted to 223 women and no men.
Many of the male students had enlisted; some were drafted; and others left to tend family farms and take on other services needed for the war effort. Several male faculty and staff also enlisted.
The effects on the young college and its remaining students were substantial. There were no football teams during 1917, 1918, and 1919 as there were not enough men available to field a team. Nearly the entire baseball team enlisted as a unit in the Hospital Corps of the 129th Infantry. Female faculty and students joined Red Cross efforts, cutting and sewing gauze bandages to be sent to the front. Reports in the student newspaper from that era indicate that co-eds (as female students were called) spent a great deal of time making candy and other gifts to send to their soldiers.
One particular instance of sacrifice appears in many of the historical records of the time: The Senior Class of 1918 voted to forgo a yearbook that year and instead used the $800 they saved to purchase a fully-equipped ambulance that was sent to France where many of their classmates were serving on the front lines.
Each morning students attended General Exercises in Altgeld Auditorium, where a Service Flag with 121 stars (one for each student serving in the war) hung front and center over the stage. The flag eventually had four gold stars sewn onto the back in honor of four students who were killed in action.
Supporting the war effort touched every aspect of life at NISNS. At the supper table, students ate barley bread and cleaned their plates in an effort to follow the guidelines of the U.S. Food Administration’s food conservation program. The effort sought to preserve scarce food resources with voluntary sacrifices such as “wheat-less Wednesdays” and “meat-less Mondays.”
In addition to the war, the NISNS community was hard hit by the flu epidemic of 1918, causing President Cook to close the school for a period of time in October of that year.
“When we shall begin again is a matter for the future to decide,” Cook wrote. “There is nothing that seems of consequence now but the war and the epidemic.”
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