Columbia in Transition: The Post-War Era
By Arthur L. Thomas ’50
Arthur L. Thomas '50
and his wife, Charlotte, earlier this year at a function honoring
employees of Greenwich (Conn.) Hospital, where Charlotte has
served for 30 years.
My first impressions of Columbia College in September 1946 were
of its awesome environs. Huge, forbidding buildings — at least,
forbidding to me — characterized the campus. As a college
student, I was one step closer to leaving the halls of academia
and entering the workaday world. How-ever, the College (mainly Hamilton
Hall) was unusual in the sense that it was surrounded by other University
buildings, beckoning us to enter the various graduate and professional
schools after college, an environment quite different from that
of colleges with no university affiliations.
I entered Columbia College in the first full post-war year. Students
as well as instructors wore jackets and neckties — this was
way before the era of blue jeans and T-shirts. Classes had many
returning veterans taking advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights.
In the peak year of 1947, veterans represented 49 percent of college
enrollment in the U.S., according to the Veterans Administration.
The College, of course, was all-male, but Barnard was across the
way and we did not feel that anything was missing by not being a
co-ed student body.
This was a time in which the University was not top-heavy with
administration. Columbia was a “renaissance university”
in the ancient sense. There was a story that at one time in the
1920s or 1930s, a chemistry professor who had been chosen to be
department chairman went to the University president, Dr. Nicholas
Murray Butler (Class of 1882) and asked him what he was to do in
that function. Butler replied, “You know what to do.”
I joined the renaissance, majoring in science and engineering,
relishing these classes and the Contemporary Civilization and Humanities
courses. They all required much effort in a competitive atmosphere;
more than one student mentioned to me the tension under which he
studied. I also studied engineering drafting and descriptive geometry
in my freshman year, from which I still have the textbook, Engineering
Drawing, by Thomas E. French. Inside the front cover, I noted, “Allen
Vreeland, Ray Lyerly” who undoubtedly were the instructors.
Also written inside the book was “2.70,” the going price
for a textbook at that time; the going price for a subway ride was
I was a CC student of Richard Hofstadter, who was on his way to
winning the Pulitzer Prize in history, and a Humanities student
of Vladimir Ussachevsky, who became a well-known music composer.
I studied general chemistry under Charles O. Beckman in the grand
Havemeyer lecture hall with a 40-foot domed ceiling and oak demonstration
table. These were inspired people who spoke with intensity and fervor
about their subjects. I still am amazed how they could speak before
groups of students day after day, several hours a day, and never
The College also provided inspirational experiences outside the
classroom. I had never heard of crew until I went to Columbia, but
in September 1946, I saw a notice on a bulletin board calling for
candidates. I responded, and crew became the gateway to many positive
competition experiences on the Harlem and Hudson rivers and at venues
in New England, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In the fall and spring,
it was a delight to go to the Gould boathouse at the northern tip
of Manhattan and practice rowing in such sublime surroundings, far
removed from the hustle and bustle of the city. It was a privilege
to row for Columbia, and I look back on my days on the water as
some of the great moments of my life.
Thomas, a rower on the lightweight crew,
at the Gould Boathouse in the late 1940s.
I also enjoyed participating in the Van Am Society (the honorary
service society) and the Delta Phi Fraternity, Delta Chapter, at
609 W. 114th St., known to some as the “crew fraternity,”
founded at Columbia in 1842.
I was a student at a time of transition, from the stable pre-war
era in the first half of the 20th century to the beginning of the
rapidly changing post-war era of the second half of the century.
Butler passed away a year after I entered Columbia. Dr. Frank Diehl
Fackenthal was acting University president from 1945–48. In
1948, General Dwight D. Eisenhower became University president,
and my stay at the College was capped by receiving a diploma with
Eisenhower’s signature. His son, John, studied at Columbia
at this time and received a master of arts in English from GSAS
in 1950. At the same time, my father was a professor at the University
and president of the Men’s Faculty Club from 1948–50.
I did not see or meet Eisenhower, but my parents always remembered
their pleasant encounters with him and Mrs. Eisenhower.
What better recommendation is there for Columbia than the fact
that my father, Arthur W. Thomas ’12, earned additional degrees
from Columbia in 1914 and 1915 and later served on the faculty;
my sister, Madeleine, graduated from Barnard in 1947; and I graduated
from Columbia College in February 1951.
I have a friend who did not attend college but has enjoyed a successful
career, and I asked him if it is worthwhile to go to college. He
said, “It makes a difference.” President Lee C. Bollinger
said it more eloquently: “Universities remain meaningful because
they respond to the deepest of human needs, to the desire to understand
and to explain that understanding to others. A spirited curiosity
coupled with a caring about others is a simple and unquench-able
After graduating from Columbia College, Arthur
L. Thomas ’50 attended the Engineering School
and then Princeton Engineering. After earning his Ph.D. there in
1956, he entered the chemical industry, where he was engaged in
research and development in New Jersey, West Virginia and California
until 1968. He then taught college and spent a year in university
research, later becoming science and engineering editor at Roland
Press in Manhattan and market researcher at Hull & Co. in Greenwich,
Conn., followed by freelance work in engineering information. Thomas
is the author and co-author of several books and articles as well
as the editor of and a contributor to Fred C. Hess’ book,
Chemistry Made Simple. He married Charlotte, a nurse whom
he met at Columbia, in 1977.