World War II put a quiet end to her time at Auburn, but 70 years later her spirit is as strong as ever
In her condo building, on the shores of St. Petersburg, they 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 that 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 1921, but moved with her family to Palmetto, Fla., in 1923, then just up Tampa Bay to St. Petersburg in 1929. She remembers not wanting to immediately go to college after high school, intending to be a “concert pianist, or something radical,” but decided to continue studying at a St. Petersburg College, a junior college close to home, taking basic courses in typing and shorthand.“Then, when my brother made me go to Auburn, I got on a train right downtown in St. Pete,” Leslie said. “I had no idea where I was going. Took an hour and a half to get to Tampa, we backed into the train station in Tampa, then took off, stopped in Albany and from there went to Opelika.”
Leslie vividly remembers her mother’s last, stern warning when she arrived in Opelika: don’t take a ride with anybody; it didn’t last. “When I got to Opelika there was a lady there seeing a student off to Atlanta and she said to me, ‘I bet you’re going to Auburn, aren’t you?’ I said, yes I am. She said ‘well, I’ll take you to Auburn,’ which she did, and dropped me off at the train station.”
Though she had arrived in Auburn, she didn’t know where Auburn was. Departing on foot from the Auburn train station, she made her way through downtown “looking for Auburn,” with little luck. “A couple people when I went by and they said ‘hey!’ I thought ‘well, they’re not talking to me, they don’t know me,’ [so] I turned around and looked and there was nobody behind me. That was my introduction to Auburn.”
The Alabama Polytechnic Institute Leslie arrived at in the Spring of 1941 was dramatically different from today, with only 4,000 students (3,000 men to 1,000 women), limited transportation and a familial insularity around town that affected all walks of life.
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. Outside, behind what later was the fraternity houses, was the drill field where ROTC cadets practiced, much 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.”
“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.”
In each of the four dorms was a ballroom-style basement that served as sorority headquarters and event space; Leslie was in Theta Upsilon when they became Delta Zeta, which, like most Greek institutions at the time, promoted wholesome, conservative values—sometimes competitively. “The sororities used to have a campaign on how many people they could get to Sunday School or church on a particular Sunday, so we’d walk from one to another trying to get more churches in. [We’d] at least get to two in one day.”
Though women were no longer shepherded from dorm to classroom and immediately back, there were still plenty of stringent rules governing female students that, seemingly, didn’t apply to their male counterparts. “We had to sign in and out of our dormitories and during the week we had to be back in by 9 o’clock. On the weekends you had a little extra time, if you had permission from your parents. Sometimes we’d sign out to go to the library, but we didn’t always get to the library…”
Leslie remembers the dorm’s House Mother’s nightly checks to make sure everyone was in, but none too fondly. A common phrase secretly passed around dorms for late arrivers was ‘grease your belly and slide under.’
At Auburn, Leslie was thrilled to have choices of business, home economics or education as a major when many schools had fewer options. She had her heart set on becoming an engineer, but, at the time, only the colleges of education, business and home economics were admitting female students, so she settled for business while taking as many engineering courses she could.
“I decided on business, then took some engineering courses, because I didn’t want to be a teacher and didn’t want to be a home economics person. 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 female in any of them, there were times, like in mechanical drawing, where male jealousy threatened her 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 the female students didn’t necessarily feel that way; many just wanted an opportunity to prove themselves.
“I think what we did was, we wanted to be proficient in what we were working on,” Leslie said. “Most of them were home economics people and educators because those were the choices and courses that were offered. If I wanted to go into engineering, it wasn’t open to me, and I don’t know how I would have done it.”
Despite the popularity of women’s sports only a few years earlier, enthusiasm for co-ed athletics had waned by then. Women were not encouraged to pursue physical activities and even basic outings to Lake Chewacla were few and far between. “The only women’s sport I remember is volleyball. And I think that was between the sororities, not even intramural stuff.”
Like most students, Leslie regularly attended football games at the old Alumni Stadium and distinctly remembers the wooden bleachers, wearing hats and gloves with their dates and the thrill of the Auburn Marching Band signaling kickoff. For such a small student body, the school spirit was contagious. “Football would always bring us together, basketball didn’t do much for us, but the band would play at the entryway, they made us real proud of Auburn. You always wanted to be there when the band started coming in.”
Organizations and sporting events were one way to pass the time, but the most important social events of the time, besides football games, were the dances. Organized by special committees and well-attended by students from all grades, school dances were one of the few ways to fraternize with the opposite sex before curfew.
“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. On [College] street there was a restaurant and residence, the drugstore you hung out at, the Alumni House, but 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.”
Students, and especially women, needed permission to leave campus, further insulating the student population from the outside world. Leslie fondly recalls day trips to “that dirty old pond” Lake Chewacla and how Phenix City was off-limits to students, but for the most part, student life revolved around the library and Toomer’s Corner. “There were only about 10 cars. I could count them on my hands, and we knew who all owned the automobiles. One of my friends had a boyfriend with a car and when he drove up, we’d all be there. But we walked every place other than that.”
Even Opelika, today only a five-minute drive from Toomer’s Corner, seemed as far away as New York City. “There was nothing between us and Opelika at the time,” Leslie said. “I don’t think the outside world affected us at all.”
As insulated from world affairs as Auburn was, the conflict happening overseas was unavoidable, even if it seemed destined to remain distant. Limited understanding of the scope and impact of the Nazi Party mitigated concern and life carried on as usual for the students. That all changed with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.
Leslie’s biggest concern at the time was for her then-boyfriend, a student from Cuba who wanted to enlist but was barred from joining the US Army. “People from Cuba and other countries, 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.
That was the beginning of that, I think, for all of us.”
The military cadets who had trained year-round, pride of the A.P.I, began disappearing from class as their draft numbers were called. As their numbers dwindled, the relentless drilling in the fields began to take on a more ominous tone. Everyone paid a lot more attention to the military then, whether it was on the field, flying in the sky or with the sailors arriving for training. Everyone was worried.
“[The men leaving] was critical and made us very much aware of what was going on in the world. People would leave and sign up and they were drafted, so they had to go. There wasn’t a thing we could do about it.” With so much focus put on the war effort, it was difficult to concentrate on school, or anything else, Leslie said. “It was tough. Almost like the world today, it seems like we can only do so little to help, to return to a safe and sane country.”
The graduating class of 1943 was shortchanged, Leslie remembers; a greatly diminished student body, an increased workforce demand and a bleak outlook on the world all seemed to contribute to their rushed commencement ceremony. The ceremony was held in February, more than three months earlier than usual, and the winter weather forced the typically outdoor event into the theater. International travel restrictions blocked the travel plans of their planned commencement speaker, so the ceremony proceeded quickly and quietly in an almost funereal atmosphere.
“We had an impromptu graduation in the theater, with no cap and no gown,” Leslie said, her disappointment still audible even 74 years later. Whatever disappointment harbored at the time was quickly pushed aside after graduation. The war effort at home was in full tilt and everyone had a part to do. Considering a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority, Leslie was summoned back to St. Petersburg by her father, an engineer with Carrier Air Conditioning since 1919 who ran his own supply company.
“Basically, it was my family’s business. When the war was on my dad called and said, ‘I need you back here in St. Petersburg,’ so I said OK. I had no choice. Of course, one thing led to another…” Leslie worked as secretary, treasurer, president and eventual owner for several roofing and supply companies in the Tampa Bay area, in addition to doing layout work for the Tampa Shipbuilding Co. and present-day MacDill Air Force Base. Then, as now, she encountered Auburn connections along the way.
“My suitemate, after she left college, went to Washington, D.C. and got a job in the Pentagon. My interest was there because of Carrier Air Conditioning, but when she was in the Pentagon I took a trip up there to see her and she took me on a tour to see all of that before it opened.”
Besides her business work, Leslie served on the local chamber of commerce, board of directors for the St. Pete College Foundation and in local government. Nationally, she served as chairman for the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service, the National Advisory Council for Small Business Administration, National Safety Council’s Women’s Conference, the Committee on Employee Recruitment and Job Development for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Visitors for Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base.
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. She made six Hemispheric Friendship trips to Central and South America and 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, as a guest of the West German government before the wall came down; all these things probably wouldn’t have happened if not for that first experience.”
She’s paid for her opportunity in kind; an emeritus member of the Board of Directors for the Harbert College of Business, she served for decades and helped break the ground for the Lowder Building in 1988. The Helen Krauss Leslie Endowed Scholarship was created for rising sophomores in financial need from Florida, with preference given to students pursuing non-traditional career paths.
“I think my heart is still in Auburn, it always will be,” Leslie said. “When my brother pulled away that morning after his summer school was over and I found the Auburn dormitory, he got in his car and said, ‘Is there anything you need? I’m going back to Atlanta.’ He left me there all alone in Auburn. That was the beginning of a wonderful experience, of the new me.”
He left me there all alone in Auburn. That was the beginning of a wonderful experience, of the new me.”