Timekeeper to the World

By The Editors / March / April 2000
October 29th, 2007
It was 1945.

A mushroom cloud filled the air above Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. With two major cities destroyed by atomic bombs, the terrible sounds of war at last grew silent. The jungle rot, the Bataan death march, the widespread malaria, and the kamikaze attacks all became history. In Europe, the war had ended earlier. The Battle of the Bulge, the bombing runs out of England, the growing list of those killed or missing in action, the swastikas and Omaha Beach on D-Day ­ these were all mercifully past. Soldiers like Abel Gonsalves ’50 were going home.

But then what? For the generation fighting in World War II, years of youth had been lost. To help compensate for the opportunities missed during those years at war, Congress passed the G.I. Bill of Rights, which gave every honorably discharged serviceman and servicewoman the money they needed for tuition and books at acceptable schools. Brown went a step further. In September 1946, President Henry Merritt Wriston and Dean of the University Samuel Arnold ­ who had worked as a recruiter for the Manhattan Project during the war ­ began an experiment to help returning veterans obtain a college education. The Veterans Extension Division was the University’s first real attempt at opening its doors to prospective students who, though they might have the drive and the intelligence, did not have the money or the academic preparation to attend Brown. The original idea was to include other colleges and universities in southeastern New England, but when Brown discovered no one else was interested, it decided to move forward alone.

Of 1,400 applicants for the first class, 486 were accepted. The students were remarkably diverse, and included blacks, whites, Latinos ­ even a few women. Their ages ranged from twenty to thirty-eight; the average was twenty-six. The group included the son of an admiral and a professional boxer. There was a ten-star campaign veteran and a man with no formal education but an IQ of 170. The assumption underlying the Veterans Extension Division (the name was changed to the Veterans College later that fall) was that these students could get back up to speed academically by taking the University’s less rigorous courses for two years and then applying to transfer to Brown’s regular academic programs. They were not allowed to participate in any formal athletics, fraternities, or any other extracurricular activities. This was, Sam Arnold noted, “A school without trimmings.”

What happened surprised everyone. The veterans worked so hard and so well that after the first semester, the University transferred 139 of the men to the undergraduate College and three of the women to Pembroke, a year-and-a-half ahead of schedule. The experiment ended in 1949; two years later, the last student was gone. Many had graduated with honors, and some had left as members of Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi. The great lesson of the program, as demonstrated by the following profiles of some of its first students, was that highly motivated people can excel at an Ivy League school, even if their academic background doesn’t follow the conventional pattern coming in.

A Rhode Island native, John Bourcier grew up poor in a family of six children. Dinner was often supplied by the local soup kitchen. After enlisting in the U.S. Navy toward the end of his senior year at Providence’s LaSalle Academy, he was called to duty in the Navy before graduation and sent to V-5 pilot training.

After his discharge in 1946, he enrolled in the Veterans Extension Program, even though he had never finished high school. Brown was followed by law school at Vanderbilt, where he served on the editorial board of the law review. Bourcier became a Rhode Island trial attorney in 1953, undertaking a career that would last more than twenty years. During that time, he was also the town solicitor of Johnston, Rhode Island, and, for two years, a probate judge.

In 1974, Bourcier was appointed an associate justice of the Rhode Island Superior Court, and twenty-one years later he was chosen to become a justice on the state’s Supreme Court, where he still sits. Bourcier has also been a Rhode Island Trial Lawyers Association citizen of the year.

Not bad for a high school dropout who had served his country well.

Hunkered down on the bloody sands of Omaha Beach on D-Day, Abel Gonsalves was surrounded by dead bodies. Fifty percent of his company had been killed the first day of the invasion. Gonsalves managed to survive and later served with General Patton’s Third Army. After thirty-five months of duty, Abel was discharged on October 21, 1945.

Born in Brava, Portugal, Gonsalves arrived in Rhode Island at the age of six with his grandfather. He started boxing at fourteen in Central Falls, and at fifteen, began his career as a welterweight. The next year, as a middleweight, he won his first championship, the Rhode Island Diamond Belt. He was later a Rhode Island state champion, Rhode Island Golden Glove champion and New England All American champion.

Gonsalves resumed boxing after the war. He fought as a heavyweight and at one point was scheduled to fight Rocky Marciano. When Marciano injured his arm and cancelled the bout, Gonsalves commented, “Perhaps that was my lucky day.”

In 1946, Gonsalves entered the Veterans College to study political science. He supported himself by boxing, at one point convincing Dean Sam Arnold to change the lab night for one of his courses because it conflicted with his fighting schedule. After Brown, Gonsalves attended Columbia and Trinity before earning a masters in education at Massachusetts State Teachers College. He taught in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and New London, Connecticut. “Looking back on it all,” Gonsalves says,” I wouldn’t trade three boxing titles for my teaching career.”

One of five children brought up in a cottage in Fall River, Massachusetts, Trustee Emeritus Tom Brown graduated from high school in 1942 chosen by his classmates as the student with the best personality. After enlisting in the Army Air Corps, Brown became an air cadet assigned to the Tuskeegee Group, but his orders were cancelled when the War Department determined that it had “enough colored cadets and the experiment was not going to work.” Brown was transferred to the Quartermaster Corps.

In 1946, he borrowed $500 from his sister and bought a much-used Cadillac to help support himself through the Veterans College. Brown used the car to ferry passengers back and forth be-tween Fall River and Providence, charging each one twenty-five cents for the round trip. While at the University, he became an officer in the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and after graduating, was named director of the international Jaycees. He was also the editor and publisher of the first Jaycee magazine in Massachusetts.

Armed with his Brown degree in English and economics, he has since held executive positions at various companies, eventually serving as assistant to the chairman of the board and assistant to the president of the Polaroid Corporation. In 1981, he founded Jobs Clearinghouse Inc., a nonprofit employment agency specializing in placing qualified minority job seekers into professional positions. Since its inception, the agency has placed more than 10,000 people in jobs.

In 1994, the Brown Alumni Association established the John S. Hope award to honor this member of the class 1894 who was Brown’s first African-American graduate. Tom Brown received the award in 1997 as recognition for his extraordinary commitment to volunteer public service. He is currently president of the Argus Detective Agency.

Before serving in the Army, Ronald Stenning had completed three years of a four-year apprenticeship as a machinist. During the war, he sustained serious spinal injuries that prevented him from finishing the apprenticeship after his discharge. So he went to College Hill. “For me,” he says, “the decision by Brown to establish the Veterans College was life-changing.”

After graduation, Stenning returned to work at Brown & Sharpe and eventually worked his way up in the engineering and industrial-relations divisions. By 1959, various surgeries had made it possible for Stenning to work toward a longtime dream: he enrolled at the Episcopal theological school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Following ordination and two years as vicar of a mission church, he was appointed director of Christian social relations for the Episcopal diocese of Providence, where he was subsequently elected dean of the Episcopal cathedral. As dean, he soon became active in civil rights and social justice issues throughout Rhode Island, and the cathedral became a meeting place for civil rights groups concerned with fair housing. Stenning, along with then-Governor John Chafee, was asked to testify before the U.S. Senate subcommittee on constitutional rights in support of President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Bill.

Stenning eventually became director of the Church World Service’s world hunger program. Long after he was retired, he was recalled to administer the international refugee program during the recent Bosnian crisis and the influx of Cuban and Haitian “rafters.”

“President Wriston, Dean Arnold, and others had significant confidence in returning veterans,” he says of the Veterans College. “They were willing to give us a chance.”

Sarah Davol grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts. She says she “is a member of the Durfee and Davol families, but not the wealthier branches of these families.” Davol joined the Red Cross during World War II, training first in Washington, D.C., and then in Galesburg, Illinois, where she treated many serious war casualties. After her training, she was shipped to New Caledonia in the Pacific, but in the spring of 1945, the hospital in which she worked was ordered to pack up and board ship for Okinawa and the planned invasion of Japan. The trip lasted fifty-six days.

While waiting for Okinawa to be secured, Davol’s ship was attacked by Japanese kamikaze planes. When the island was taken and Davol went ashore, she was assigned to the Red Cross Club on the southern part of the island, where a typhoon promptly struck.

After returning to civilian life, Davol learned she was not eligible for the G.I. Bill because she was not categorized as military personnel. Brown, however, considered her a veteran, so like all her fellow Veterans College students, she began commuting to College Hill, in her case from Massachusetts. After graduation, she taught school in Norwalk, Connecticut, but after three years, she decided to return to Japan and began teaching the children of U.S. service personnel at Sasebo, on the island of Kyushu. She stayed until the end of the Korean War.

Some time later, while visiting her sister in Indianapolis, she met and married Charles E.Test. In recent years, remembering her time as a veteran on College Hill, Sarah Davol Test has been a strong supporter of the University’s Resumed Undergraduate Education program (R.U.E.).

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