In her condo building, on the shores of St. Petersburg, FLA., fellow residents call her “War Eagle.” Outside her door is an inscription of the Auburn Creed beside a porcelain tiger draped in orange and blue, a hard hat from the groundbreaking of Lowder Hall of the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business over its ears. Parked nearby is her blue car with orange stripes, perfectly matched to Auburn’s official colors.
“People in my building seem to know I’m from Auburn,” said Helen Krauss Leslie ’43. For more than 70 years Leslie has been as dedicated an alumna as they come, an astonishing thought for someone who had never heard of the place before her freshman year. “The first thing I ever heard about Auburn was when my brother was a student at Georgia Tech. I went up to a football game and they were playing somebody called Auburn. I didn’t know who Auburn was, or where it was. Then my brother went to Auburn for a summer course and he calls my dad and says it’s a good place for me. That’s how I got there.”
Helen Leslie was born Helen Krauss in New Jersey in 1922, but settled with her family in St. Petersburg in 1929. Arriving at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute in spring 1941, she found a campus dramatically different from today’s, with only 4,000 students (3,000 men to 1,000 women), limited transportation and
a familial insularity around town.
Leslie’s was the first wave of students to live in the new dormitories that now comprise the Quad, back when roads around it were still unpaved red clay and the cadets drilled in the field behind to the enthusiasm of female students who watched from their doorsteps.
“That, for me, was quite an experience. We were very proud of the soldiers when they marched over the fields there in practice, cannons and all.”
At Auburn, Leslie wanted to be an engineer, but at the time only the colleges of education, business and home economics admitted women. “I decided on business, then took some engineering courses. I still had to take one home economics class—that was the acceptable profession for females at the time.”
Leslie was required to complete core undergrad classes like chemistry and history, but made a point of taking as many engineering-related courses as were available. Often the only woman in any of them, there were times, like in mechanical drawing, where male jealousy threatened to impede her studies.
“When we had to do lettering for our plates, the fellows would tell the teacher that I used a ruler to do my lettering—that I had cheated—so the professor came over and I had to prove to him that I was doing it freehand. They were jealous.
I didn’t really experience too much [sexism] besides that while in class. [But] even in chemistry we didn’t have many females.”
Leslie was just one of two women who graduated from the College of Business in 1943, a distinction she has never forgotten. But while it’s easy to assume that women chafed against their limited options, in retrospect Leslie says female students didn’t necessarily feel that way. Many just wanted an opportunity to prove themselves.
“Where we ‘hung out’ was at the Women’s President’s office,” Leslie said. “They had curtained-off areas there where you could meet someone and study—almost like a dating parlor—but that was about it. I guess we didn’t do much ‘hanging.’ There were so few of us, I don’t even remember going to the movies and, of course, no TV. But we did have electric calculators, finally.”
As insulated from world affairs as Auburn was, the conflict happening overseas was unavoidable, even if it seemed distant. That all changed with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Leslie’s then-boyfriend was a student from Cuba who wanted to enlist but was barred from joining the U.S. Army. “People from Cuba and non-residents of the U.S. were not accepted into the Army, but they felt compelled to be helpful. So my boyfriend flew up to Canada with a group one Sunday afternoon, signed up and then came back.”
Leslie played international chairman for the Congress of Business and Professional Women of the Americas and the Hemispheric Friendship Committee of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs Inc., making six Hemispheric Friendship trips to Central and South America.
She was a guest of the West German government in 1965 to promote international understanding, the same year she received the Certificate of Achievement from the American Bureau for Medical Aid to China for her outstanding service.
Behind it all, Leslie says, was Auburn.
“I love Auburn; I’ll always love it. Auburn led me to all the other events of my life. It took me to Central and South America and to West Germany as a guest of the government before the wall came down. All these things probably wouldn’t have happened if not for that first experience.”