Dr. Sharkey's Pieces

Then As Now: A Year in the Life of a Student

(June 2002)

Letters Home of Donald McLain Campsey
(Written Between 1908 and 1909, and provided to the College by descendant Donald R. Miller, Westminster 1990)

In telling the story of the life of any college, the very heart of that narrative must be the story of the students -- of how they lived and studied, of the nature of their recreation, their food preferences -- of how they dressed for class and for play -- of their relationships with their fellow students, their faculty and the administrators of the college -- of how they responded to being away from their families for extended periods of time. Throughout the long history of Westminster to the present day, many freshmen each fall semester are, for the first time, living somewhere other than within the family home, and are doing so under what can be stressful circumstances caused by the demands of the academic curriculum together with the necessity of making new friends and accommodating the personalities and peculiarities of roommates, dining companions, classmates and faculty.

There exists today in our society at large, an assumption that most students have a worldliness -- an almost cynical anticipation of what the life-experience will present. Yet this writer, having taught on the college level for 36 years, can attest to the fact that most students have led relatively sheltered lives, not markedly unlike those characteristic of students a century or more ago. The anxieties and the vast array of potential academic and personal problems encountered by students in 2002 parallel in the most intriguing ways those of 1902 or 1852.

In considering the historical ambience of student life we are fortunate in having various College records, as well as the personal accounts left by students themselves of their years at Westminster. Those accounts are limited in number and in completeness but enough exist to enable us to see backward in time the earlier life of the College.

One such account is that of Donald McLain Campsey, a student here beginning in 1908. His personal account is contained in a series of letters written to his parents in Claysville, Pennsylvania, during his freshman year, 1908-1909. Donald’s place in the annals of the College is unique. He was a member of what has become a multigenerational legacy stretching from 1877 through to today, when family members continue to attend Westminster.

In August of 1908, Donald, then twenty years of age, was considering attending Westminster. At the time, although the automobile was coming into use and the telephone was becoming more commonplace, Claysville and New Wilmington were a substantial distance apart.

It was a smaller college in a simpler time when Donald began his years at Westminster. Dr. Robert Russell, the president of the College, wrote to the elder Campsey on September 11, 1908:

... I have engaged a room for your son Donald in a most convenient part of the town, near the college and the clubbing places of the students. The room has good outlook, and is convenient to bath room.... Table board, at a convenient club which I will aid your boy in selecting, will run about $3.00 per week, or $3.25, by the clubbing system, which is the popular one here. The total cost of room and board will thus be from $5.25 to $5.50 per week....
I am happy to say that the home where your son will room is presided over by a good Christian woman, who will keep me in touch with the life of the boys. I am glad that Donald is coming, and I shall do my best to cooperate with you for his development....

For his part Donald wished to do some traveling through the area before settling down to his studies.

During August 1908, he came to New Wilmington to determine whether he liked the College. In a letter to his mother he related that President and Mrs. Russell hosted him overnight and both of them escorted him to the New Wilmington railroad station in the morning. He said that Dr. Russell placed no undue pressure upon him to attend Westminster, “but said that he would like very much to have me.”

By the 29th of August he had visited Mercer, Grove City and Erie and wrote to his mother that he planned to visit the famed Chautauqua resort in New York and then go to Niagara Falls, “if my money holds out.” He traveled entirely by train, commenting at one point that “the railroads in this section don’t try to ‘do you’ like the old B & O does.”

Writing to his father from the Hotel Imperial at Niagara Falls on August 31, 1908, he related that he was enjoying himself greatly:

I am having a fine time up here. Went in the Maid-of-the-Mist this afternoon.... I met a fellow...from St. Louis.... He asked me to take supper with him here so that is why I am here waiting for him. His name is Simpson. There are sure some swells here.

After a short return visit to Claysville he enrolled at Westminster for the fall term. By September 18 he wrote again to his father voicing the frustrations so common to any freshman:

Dear Papa --
I suppose I should have written before this but I have not had time. There is too much “red tape” about entering this college and I haven’t thoroughly straightened myself out as to the studies. I think everything will be all right after tomorrow.
I am taking from 20 to 25 hours of study a week and that is more than anyone I have met yet is taking but there is one thing sure, I can drop some of my freshman studies if I can’t handle them all. I am taking what prep work I have to to enter the Freshman class and also some Freshman work and if I can keep it up I’ll be through with this place in four years.
I wish you would send me a check for thirty-five dollars to pay my tuition for the first semester. There is thirty dollars required for the college fee and five dollars for matriculation fee which is required but once. I don’t know what that means but I do know I have to pay it. Send the check made out to me and I’ll pay the old boy and send you the receipt. These fees must be in by the 26th so you had better send it at once because after 10 days it costs more. Look in catalogue on p. 27.
Tell mother I’ll write to her Sabbath. Ask her or Sue [his sister] if she took my stick pin out of my trunk. If she did, it was a mean trick and I want it “at once.” Tell her I need some towels because I can’t take a bath until I have one. Well, that is all this time.
Your Son,

P.S. Don’t send any mail to Dr. Russell. Send it to New Wilmington and I’ll get it. I have a box no. 26 at the Post Office.

In another letter, postmarked October 15, Donald reported that:

.... I have a duce of a bunch of work to do for tomorrow so I can’t take time to write a long letter now.
I have been trying to find a wash woman but haven’t yet.... I am feeling fine but would feel better if I had all my lessons out for tomorrow. I have five pages of Dutch [sic] to read, two reviews to write out, one to correct and ten lessons in the grammar besides my algebra and writing an autobiography of 800 words. How’s that for one day? And George [his older brother] wants me to do more.
I expect to do all that I can but I won’t do more than I can do well and I think the above is enough to keep a fellow busy for five or six hours a day....

In a letter dated November 9, 1908, to his mother he said:

I received your letter this morning with father’s and as I only have time to write one now I am going to write you. I didn’t mean to keep you waiting so long for a letter and won’t do it again. I haven’t enough news to tell when I write home... so I’ll have to take it in turns.... if you need me you had better telephone because a telegram would not get me for a day.
I think papa thinks I am spending too much money. Maybe I am, but I couldn’t help it. I have been keeping a list of expenses but I haven’t time to look over it now and see if everything is on it. If you can’t understand everything I’ll explain.... This isn’t half as bad as some of the fellows from the club say theirs is....
P.S. Tell Sue to send my basketball suit and white sweater up at once. I need some exercise. I got my glasses but they don’t work good [sic]. My eyes just hurt a little after I’ve been studying a long time....

Appended to the letter was the following list of expenses:

tablets $.20 [for writing]
concert .50
ruler .05
chestnuts .10
crackers .10
soap .05
gum .40
shells .50
sandwitches [sic] .50
plotting paper .10
society fair .05
Saturday Evening Post .05
concert tickets 2.00
reserved seat .10
hair cut .25
tablet .05
church .10
morning paper .01
traveling .94
“ 1.16
“ .20
suitcase checked .10
transfer .35
transfer .25
hack .25
dinner .40
hammer and tacks .20
pen & ink .25
shaving brush .35
shave .10
church .10
books 8.00
paper .35
post office box .50
towels .25
note books .80
athletic fee 3.00
tuition fee 35.00
suit pressed .75
post cards .25
stamps .10
church .10
shave .10
hair cut .25
hack .25
railroad fare 4.20
hotel 1.00
dinner .35
street car .20
football game 1.30
dinner .40
hack .25

On November 15, 1908, Donald wrote to his sister reminding her that she had not yet sent him his basketball pants and asking that she also send her student lamp as he could not locate one in New Wilmington....

I went to Sharon yesterday to see Westminster beat Allegheny. It was a good game the second half.... There was about four inches of snow on the frozen ground and we couldn’t stand up at all or they wouldn’t have gotten a touchdown. They got one touchdown and failed to kick goal, while we got one touchdown and kicked goal. Score six to five.
That football game and a lecture last Friday night is all that has been doing up here for a week. We play Hiram College, here, next Saturday; and Thanksgiving we play Grove City College at Grove City. There are nine of us going in a hack and say we won’t have much fun. “Much Glee.”
Well, I have five minutes to get to bed so must cut this. Send that lamp and basketball pants up before Thursday if you can. You know the pants I mean, the brown canvas ones. These black ones are no good to me. You might as well send my running pants up too...
Your Brother,
P.S. When are you coming up? Better wait until after Christmas. I think there will be more doing.

In a letter of December 6, 1908, to his mother, Donald was clearly experiencing the Christmas spirit:

My Dear Mother:
I should have written before this but I kept putting it off until I am ashamed of myself. I wrote to George this evening. I will not get away from this place until Wednesday evening or Thursday morning 23 or 24 December, but I’ll be home Thursday evening. I’ll have to be in Pittsburgh all day Thursday because I can’t buy any presents up here.
Tell Papa to send me some money. I am all in. Ask him if he will send me some or will I write a check for it....
What do you want for Christmas and what will I get everybody else -- George, Sue and Papa?
Your Son,
P. S. Send me some stamps.

There is no record among the letters as to precisely what response Donald received but on December 13 he wrote again, this time to his father:

Dear Father:
I have my time pretty well occupied but not so much as not to find time to write home; I thought I was doing pretty well at the writing business but I see I am not.
Mother wrote me you were at Washington, D.C. and that you were sick, but she didn’t tell me you were as sick as I have learned you were. I thought you had just a bad cold and would be better in a few days but it was worse than that. Tell mother she is a good guesser, better than I thought she was.
I was mighty glad to get the ten dollars, because I haven’t had a cent for over a week and needed some. I don’t know yet whether this will be enough or not but I think it will.
You had better send me the old suit case by express. I’ll need it. I can’t take my trunk home and can’t put everything in my suit case that I want to take home.
Tell Mother to have a great big turkey and lots of good things to eat Christmas.
I have gained 13 pounds since I struck this burg and every time I get weighed I weigh more than the last time. I have not been weighed for two weeks but I then weighed 161 pounds. What do you think of that? I’ll beat George out yet if I keep that up.
We are having fine weather up here. Sleighing is fine. One day last week it snowed six inches. What do you think of that? There is lots of skating up here but I haven’t been out yet. I haven’t any skates up here.
I was playing basketball last night and it did feel good to be in a suit again. It wouldn’t do for me to play on this floor. It is too narrow and too small; in general smaller than the one at home. I’d get my brains cracked if I played on the varsity.
I think I’ll be home Thursday evening. I can’t get home if I leave here in the afternoon the same day, so I think I’ll wait until Thursday morning or go to Pittsburgh and stay all night with one of the fellows.
I’ll have to close now and get dressed for supper.. ..

December 20, 1908, Donald wrote again to his mother:

I received your letter of the 13th and meant to answer before this but couldn’t because I had two exams last week and one tomorrow, so I have been kept busy.
I am going to Pittsburgh Wednesday evening but won’t get there in time to catch the late train so some of the fellows who can’t go out that night are going to the Nixon [theater] to see Round Up. I too.
I’ll be home Thursday evening but don’t know what train I’ll be there on.
George [his brother] said he was behind in his work, the last time he wrote me (last week) and would be in Massachusetts for two weeks. Then he said he was going to New York and didn’t think he could be at home for Christmas and therefore couldn’t come and see me....

Apparently Christmas passed uneventfully, the next letter is that of February 13, 1909, written to his mother:

I wrote home last week but did not receive an answer. You are all the time saying nice things to me about not writing and you do not answer the letters I do write.
There has not been anything doing since last Sabbath, of any importance. The Freshman and Junior Banquet was last Friday but I didn’t go.
Last night Walker got sick. Doctor said he had the grippe. So I have been nurse today....
I went to church tonight instead of going to chapel and as usual missed something. Last Friday Doctor Freeman read a few new rules in chapel: one was that the boys would bring their hats and coats into chapel instead of hanging them on the hooks in the hall as they had been accustomed to do and another was that everybody should sit in their regular place in chapel on Sabbath evening.
This evening the students made fun of the new rules. The girls hung their hats and coats in the hall and the boys wore their coats in and delayed the service by taking them off one at a time. Then, too, there were union services at chapel and those that could not get into their own seats went to the front seats.
Doc Russell became angry and said more than he should, so I hear, so next Sabbath evening the students are going to boycott the meeting. Now I wonder what Doc will do about it. Appoint a committee to investigate or wait until the students decide to return to chapel....

In his next letter, March 23, 1909, Donald begins:

Dear Papa:
I meant to write to you several weeks ago but I didn’t and I don’t know why either.
Sue said I hadn’t acknowledged the five dollars you sent me. I thought I had but maybe I didn’t. I still have about forty cents of it but that won’t see me home.
I suppose Sue has told you everything that has happened up here for the last century or two. She isn’t crying to be back here, is she? Tell her I won’t show her such a good time the next time she comes up if she don’t [sic] behave when she gets home.
School will be out on the 25th and if I get into Pittsburgh in time to make connections I’ll be home on the 10:55 so don’t lock me out and have me raise the whole town in order to get in....
Apparently the spring break for Easter was over by April 4 and Donald had returned to campus. His next letter to his father suggests that he was reporting on some last-minute family business to which he had attended before leaving for New Wilmington.

Dear Father:
I suppose you are home by this time. I left things Wednesday morning in pretty good shape and suppose they were the same way when you found them.
I bought a suit in Pittsburgh and paid twenty dollars for it. That was more than I intended to pay for it but I didn’t see anything there that I liked except the one and I bought it and nothing else.
The day before I left home somebody, paid a bill of $3.00; I can’t think now who it was but I marked it off in the day book. Mother got a dollar of it, when I wasn’t looking and I kept the rest, so you know where it has gone to. Arthur has told you about the ton of Victor sent to John Laird and all the rest. I entered all the charges of Monday in the day book, so don’t you do it again.
Well, I’ve said all I wanted to and all I have time to as the lights go out in about five minutes.
Your son,

Slightly more than one month later Donald wrote again, on May 9:

My Dear Father:
I received your letter of the eighth and was mighty glad to get it; also the five [dollars] as it came in very handy. I had a few small bills to pay off and it took nearly all of it. It seems to me that everything costs more than it should but I can’t help it. I’ve tried to keep down the bills as much as possible but I don’t think I’ve succeeded very well....
I wish I were home to work on that car of oats; I would feel more at home there than here. I don’t think mental work is my line; at least it doesn’t seem that way. It seems to me that the more I study the less I know and if I keep it up I’ll soon know nothing.
Last Sabbath there was a preacher here who was the best I’ve heard for some time. He was one of the fellows’ uncle [sic] and built just like him. He was about 5 feet 2 but he could make the house shake when he brought his fist down. I’ll tell you all about his preaching when I get home which is just five weeks from last Thursday.
Did you see the piece in the papers about the raid the students made on the college Thursday night? They took about 1000 chairs away and hid them in barns and every place. All of them are not back yet.
Well, I’ll have to close as the lights are about to go off.
Your son,

As his freshman year ended, Donald wrote once more to his mother on May 25, 1909, to tell her that he had been ill for a short time but had recovered. He reported that the Dean of the College had excused him from classes. Now he was eagerly looking forward to returning home from New Wilmington for the summer.

Eugene G. Sharkey, professor of history and Peace Studies Program co-coordinator