Nittany Lions in the Great War

July 12, 2017 at 10:59 am Leave a comment

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Our July/August 2017 issue has a short piece on the Penn State All-Sports Museum’s current exhibit on university athletes who fought in World War I. “Field to Front: Nittany Lions at War, 1917–1919” is a fascinating exhibit of mementos, photos, letters, cards, pins, flags, and other assorted memorabilia from the approximately 210 students who served in the Great War. Of those 210 young men, roughly 75 to 80 were sent overseas, and eight died.

The project was spearheaded by museum director Ken Hickman ’98, who spent the last year and a half researching and collecting the pieces for the exhibit, located in the temporary exhibition space. Hickman’s research process started with a book, Penn State in the World War, which was compiled after the conflict.

The book’s authors surveyed alumni and faculty in the years after the war to put together a collection of bios on all Penn Staters who served. For this project, Hickman and a small staff compiled a list of athletes and proceeded to work backward, tracing their genealogy forward to current living relatives. It was then a process of sending out surveys, contacting people, and trying to flesh out what information they could and couldn’t trust.

The result? “We did much better than I expected,” says Hickman.

The museum heard back from roughly 30 relatives of those who fought, leaving Hickman with the responsibility of tracking down items for the museum. For some, the surviving relatives—usually a grandchild, great grandchild, or grandniece/ grandnephew—were as close as Pennsylvania or New Jersey, with some taking the time to drop off the mementos. Others had donated the items to a museum or other institution, such as the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

“I think probably one of the most enjoyable things has been speaking with the different families, both to get their soldier’s individual stories, and to really be able to, essentially, take it into the trenches,” Hickman says. “Many histories you read discuss General [John] Pershing doing this or General [Robert Lee] Bullard doing that. It’s very high level. This instead is really in the trenches with a diverse group of individuals—all of whom have this common theme of having been athletes here.”

Among the items you see upon first entering the exhibit are mementos of Ed Moore 1915, including his varsity “S” certificate and the telegram informing family members of his death in combat. A stalwart catcher on the baseball team, he desperately wanted to serve in the military, Hickman says. After he was sent overseas, he wrote letters to his parents up until the time of his death.

James “Red” Bebout

Photos, cards, and letters from James “Red” Bebout 1914, a star football player, were also kept with surviving relatives who permitted the museum to display them. Like Moore, Bebout wrote letters continuously from the front to tell his parents of his adventures. Aware of censorship issues, his spoke in vagaries, but still was able to paint a clear picture of his time in Europe. Bebout also is commemorated—along with three-sport letterman Levi Lamb 1915— on a plaque in Rec Hall honoring those who died in the war.

The keepsakes of Harry Jester 1915 gave a much clearer picture of the war and the lives of the men overseas. A star center on the basketball team, Jester was among members of two sections of the Ambulance Service that were recruited at Penn State due its proximity with the service’s primary training point in Allentown. Jester had graduated but came back to Penn State to enlist in both units: Section 529, comprised entirely of Penn State students and alumni, and Section 530, which was mostly Penn Staters, saw action in Italy in the closing month of the campaign there, Hickman says.

Jester had taken a camera with him, documenting not only members of the sections and their equipment, but also keeping a diary of his time with the units. All of the memorabilia was with his son, Harry Jr., in Westfield, N.J. “We were lucky to, one, track him down; and two, find out he kept all this material,” Hickman says. “It certainly provides a more personal look at both his experience as well as the Penn State unit’s experience.”

The exhibit, which could travel and be taken to other campuses after its one-year planned run at the All-Sports Museum, opened this spring to coincide with the 100th anniversary of U.S. entry into the war.

B.J. Reyes, associate editor

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Entry filed under: Athletics, From the Magazine, State College, University Park. Tags: , , , , , , .

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