W.K. “Happy” Askew knew there was something special about his class at Alabama Polytechnic Institute.
That’s why in 1983 – 46 years after graduating from API – he published a book, “Class of 1917: ‘World War I Class’.”
In 1977, Askew and his surviving classmates saw a bronze plaque commemorating the class go up in Foy Union. A hundred years after that class, no one is left for reunion or acclaim, but that doesn’t make what the “World War I Class” did any
“I don’t remember many stories from him, but I do remember things like dirt roads and everything revolving around Samford Hall,” says Lovic Pierce Hodnette III, grandson of Lovic Pierce Hodnette, who was senior class orator and commencement speaker for the Class of 1917. “It’s not the Auburn we all saw later, that’s for sure.”
Hodnette III is one of a long line of descendants of the 1917 Class, many of whom had children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren attend API, which became Auburn University in 1960.
Andrew D. “Lan” Lipscomb III is one of those grandchildren. He’s putting together a book of his father’s World War II letters, but his Auburn lineage includes Lan Lipscomb Sr., a member of the class of 1917 and co-owner of the Newell and Lipscomb Tiger Drugstore, which opened on Main Street (now College Street) in 1922.
What became Lipscomb’s Rexall Drugstore was a mainstay in Auburn until the late 1980s, while Lipscomb III’s uncle, Mac Lipscomb, bought Toomer’s Drugs in 1950 (his widow still owns the building, according to Lipscomb III).
Lipscomb Sr. “died in 1966 when I was 8 years old and was very sick in his last years, so I have only a few direct memories,” Lipscomb III says. “I can say that he was a gentle, good-natured man, with a keen sense of humor, an easy ability to laugh at himself, and a reputation as a scrupulously honest man.”
Askew’s book paints quite the same picture of many members of the Class of 1917. Though studious and living in a country on the brink of war, the class carved out time for sports and largely harmless hijinks.
For instance, a group of students known to hop trains to get to football games and other destinations once bribed an engineer to slow down while crossing Donahue Drive. His price? Some corn squeezings. (The group even had a name – the Hobo Club).
Askew also recalls the “bicycle path,” a man-made trail that led to Wright’s Mill, where Chewacla and Ogletree creeks met. The site was a “swimming hole” and more for students. “The ‘country’ boys who were expert frog giggers often left town with a Bull’s-eye lantern after dark and returned at midnight, usually with a sack full of frogs,” Askew wrote.
William Schloss Jacobs, a member of the Class of 1917, was the first student to have an automobile, according to Askew. “Jacobs’ friendship was much in demand,” Askew wrote.
“A very small percentage of the students had ever ridden in an automobile; so, they either jumped on the running boards or climbed in to ride whenever (Jacobs) beckoned to them.”
Some of Auburn’s most iconic names were active on campus in 1917. Dr. Charles Coleman Thach was president, and his four deans were George Petrie, who went on to write the Auburn Creed; Bennett Battle Ross, Charles Cary and John Jenkins Wilmore. The football coach was Mike Donahue, and the campus doctor was Dr. J. H. Drake
Around this time period, students would attend football games in Langdon Hall, Askew wrote. Yes, Langdon Hall. When the team (which went undefeated in 1913 and 1914) was on the road, students would sit in Langdon and, thanks to information received by telegraph, the game would be “played” on a large blackboard with a cardboard oval representing the ball.
Mostly, though, the Class of 1917 will be known as the class that went to war.
When 1917 came around, World War I was brewing, and nothing distinguishes the Class of 1917 more than its military duty, which actually began when the students were freshmen.
Askew writes that freshmen were assigned to one of eight companies, which were divided into two battalions (led by Majors W.T. Shinholser and H.M Lewis). Everyone was expected at daily 7 a.m. roll calls, usually conducted by the president. Drills
were held three days a week.
When war was declared in April 1917, nearly everyone in the class enlisted, and many of those returned to accept their diplomas that June.
“It is doubtful if any class in any educational institution furnished a higher percentage of volunteers and commissioned officers,” Askew wrote. “On the day war was declared, class members were permitted to leave immediately for military training camps or to enter strategic industry with the provision of receiving their diplomas without standing final examinations. For these and other reasons The Class of 1917 became known as the ‘World War I Class.’”
Perhaps because of its military bonds, the Class of 1917 remained particularly close, holding regular reunions into the 1980s. Askew, while writing his history, contacted all surviving members of the class, many of whom had gathered in 1977 for the dedication of a plaque.
The Bronze Plaque, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the class, now resides in the Alumni Center. “World War I Class,” it reads. “War declared April 6, 1917. Seniors immediately released to enter strategic industry and officer training camps. Many returned for diplomas at graduation exercises June 10-12.”