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Remembering the Days — Move it on over: the (failed) plan to move the USC campus

Remembering the Days - episode 69

I’m standing in front of Capstone House on the University of South Carolina campus, looking west toward the Pickens Street pedestrian bridge. On my right is the Close-Hipp Building and over to the left is Gambrell Hall and the Humanities Classroom Building where, as a student more than 40 years ago, I took a lot of classes.

If you’re not driving a car or operating dangerous equipment right now, I would invite you to close your eyes for a moment and think about some of the places on campus that loom large in your memory. Maybe it was hanging out in the Honeycomb dormitories or going to movies in the Russell House theater. Maybe it was the long hike you made from Bates House or Columbia Hall to your morning classes.

Now … imagine that all those places never existed.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re looking back 80 years ago to a moment when a powerful state legislator set into motion a plan to move the university — lock, stock and barrel — to a new location in Columbia.

If his plan had succeeded, all of those campus buildings I just mentioned and many others would never have been built. The USC campus would have ended up on the east side of Columbia, several miles from downtown.

Well here’s the background. World War II was still raging in fall 1944, but the end was not far off. In less than a year, the United States and its allies would celebrate total victory against Germany and Japan.

Meanwhile, Congress had passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the G.I. Bill, which offered free tuition, books and a monthly stipend to veterans who wanted to go to college after the war. More than 3,000 soldiers who hailed from South Carolina indicated they would attend USC with their G.I. Bill benefits.

The problem was USC was not ready for that kind of enrollment boom. Before the war, the university had enrolled only about 2,000 students total, and the campus really wasn’t big enough to welcome another 3,000 new students all at once.

The prospect of enrolling multitudes of veterans when the war ended was a challenge facing lots of universities back then. There was talk in Congress about providing massive funding to help institutions of higher education build bigger campuses to accommodate the expected surge in enrollment from the G.I. Bill.

This is where the story gets interesting. Sol Blatt was a powerful politician who hailed from Barnwell County. He was the speaker of the S.C. House of Representatives, and he was a very loyal supporter of USC. He had graduated in 1917 and was serving on the university’s Board of Trustees.

Blatt had gotten wind of the rumors about federal matching funds for colleges to expand their campuses, and he came up with a novel idea. He called it the "new and greater university" plan, and it involved the University of South Carolina vacating its downtown campus, acquiring a 1,200-acre tract of land on the east side of Columbia and building a brand-new campus there. Blatt’s plan had a big price tag — $12.8 million for more than 40 new buildings, but he reasoned that half of the money would come from the federal government.

Blatt believed that his beloved University of South Carolina had a golden opportunity to reinvent itself much like Louisiana State University had done in 1925 when it relocated from downtown Baton Rouge to a new location outside of that city.

Blatt pushed his fellow trustees at USC to adopt the plan immediately. All but two of the 19 members of the board supported Blatt’s idea, and in December 1944, just a few months before WWII came to an end, the board approved Blatt’s "new and greater university" proposal. The board even hired an architect to begin drafting plans for the new campus.

There was at least one fly in the ointment, however. Edgar Brown, who controlled the state’s purse strings as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was as strong a supporter of Clemson University as Sol Blatt was of Carolina. If the plan to build a new USC campus was going to succeed, Brown’s support was needed.

Therein lay another challenge. USC’s popular president, J. Rion McKissick, had died unexpectedly just a few months earlier. What the university needed right away was a new president with close ties to the political establishment in South Carolina and the federal government — someone who could advocate strongly for this bold plan to remake the university.

Sol Blatt was on USC’s presidential search committee, and he had another interesting idea. He suggested that the university hire as its next president a retired Navy rear admiral named Norman Smith. Smith had overseen construction of several major Navy bases and had been the Navy’s chief civil engineer before retiring in 1938. He obviously knew how to take on large construction projects.

Now the story takes an intriguing turn. Norman Smith was the brother of Winchester Smith, a state legislator who was part of the so-called Barnwell Ring of politicians who held enormous sway in state politics. None other than Sol Blatt and Edgar Brown were the other members of the Barnwell Ring.

So even though Norman Smith had no experience in higher education and had not even sought the job, he became the university’s new president on Feb. 1, 1945.

I talked to Harry Lesesne, who wrote a book about the history of USC from 1940 to 2000, which includes a detailed account of this narrative.

Harry Lesesne: “He seemed to be the perfect guy, right? The chief civil engineer in the Navy would understand, you know, procurement and how to build big things and get them done quickly and all that. In any case, they set up Norman Smith as president with the task of executing this plan that Sol Blatt was in the midst of hatching at the time.”

Harry says that Sol Blatt’s plan for relocating the university began to unravel not long after it was unveiled.

Harry Lesesne: “So it was approved by the board of trustees without a lot of public discussion. It was just kind of sprung on people. And I think that was a strategic mistake. And I think Blatt probably overstated the amount of support that he was getting from other legislators and important political people in the state.

“When he first presented it, he said that he had the support of the governor and of Edgar Brown and other influential people in the Legislature. Well, it turns out when it became a political hot potato, those people all backed off. Understandably, the most immediate response by many people was how dare you leave the Horseshoe, the heart of the old campus where the old traditions and there was a lot of discussion about that and how could the university walk away from that and just sell off those buildings and it become, you know, more part of Columbia?”

Most Carolina students and alumni were not at all enamored with the idea of losing their beloved campus. One student, W. Perry Brandenburg, penned a poem of protest, which was published in a major newspaper. Here’s one verse from his poetic diatribe.

"Oh, let her stand on sacred sod,

I pray her friends, and cry to God!

I'd almost wish her drowned at sea,

Then moved, one inch, from where she be."

Two of USC’s trustees had voted against the plan, and they suggested that federal matching funds could be better used by improving and expanding Carolina’s existing campus rather than creating a new one. Soon, other colleges in the state jumped on the bandwagon and started advocating for their own expansion plans.

Harry Lesesne: “The legislative path became much more difficult when the other colleges decided that they probably ought to come up with their own package for this same problem of dealing with the veterans that were going to be coming. And so, you know, all the other state colleges came in with their own plans and the cost ballooned and then the political support evaporated. And ultimately, nothing became of it. The Legislature didn't appropriate any money at all for any of the campuses to deal with the impending veterans coming to campus. Nor did the federal government ever pass this matching funding that was originally proposed.”

So just months after it was proposed, the "new and greater university" plan for relocating USC’s campus simply died on the vine. But there were still consequences for the university, which had hired Norman Smith, its new president, for the express purpose of overseeing construction of the new campus. The institution was left with no way forward to realize that dream and stuck with someone who would prove to be one of Carolina’s least effective presidents.

Harry Lesesne: “He was fundamentally just a conservative guy. You know, he wasn't a risk taker. He sort of approached things with a very bureaucratic mindset.”

That bureaucratic approach to managing the university might have been OK in another era. But thousands of war veterans soon showed up at Carolina, eager to earn college degrees and get on with their lives. They encountered a stodgy president who seemed indifferent to their pleas to keep the university on the fast-track schedule it had adopted during the war that would have helped them graduate faster.

Harry Lesesne: “As soon as the veterans came back from the war, it was a new day.  Norman Smith and his relationship with the veterans was the embodiment of that struggle between the new South Carolina and the old.”

“It really struck me when I did the interviews for my book, I interviewed Fritz Hollings and John Carl West and Bob McNair, all of whom had been, you know, had fought in World War II and then come back to the university and were ready to take on the world. You know, they were ready to change things, bring South Carolina into a new era.

“And their first run-in with the old sort of staid conservative South Carolina was at the University of South Carolina through Norman Smith, who was not interested in doing much. And they nicknamed him Snuffy Smith. And all three of those guys I just mentioned talked about Snuffy Smith and not in a kind way, I don't think.”

Smith’s tense relationship with students, especially the veterans, continued for several years. They booed Smith at a football game and hung him in effigy on campus. Several veterans were elected to the Legislature while they were still students and there they criticized Smith’s ability to lead the university. In 1952, seven years after he had been appointed president, Smith retired and was succeeded by Donald Russell, who led the university in a new direction and won over the hearts of its students.

How Donald Russell reinvigorated the university after the Norman Smith era is a story for another day. For now, we can only ponder what might have been if Sol Blatt’s plans had succeeded all those years ago. Kind of makes me want to take a stroll across the Horseshoe and be glad that the university stayed right where it is.

That’s all for this episode. In the next Remembering the Days, I want you to get in your car, come to campus and look for a parking space — just kidding! We are going to look back at the history of parking and student transportation on campus and, I promise, you won’t end up with a parking citation.

I’m Chris Horn, forever to thee.