On a warm August evening in 1955, Charlie and Mickey Tull drove with their young son down a dirt road known as Hesburgh Way into Vetville, where the Korean War veteran would use the GI Bill to study history at Notre Dame.
The initial view of their new home, unit 34C, left Mickey concerned. In 1946, Notre Dame had created its first married student housing from 39 prisoner-of-war barracks used in Missouri during World War II. The government broke them down, shipped the boards and slapped them back up in the area where the library and Mod Quad now stand. Each barrack had three two-bedroom units, often sharing a single telephone among them.
The floorboards were so rough that cheap rugs had to be put down to prevent splinters. The ceilings were so low that a friend would put his head through the plaster jumping up when Notre Dame ended Oklahoma’s record winning streak in 1957. But the price was right at $27 per month.
"There was such a spirit of community and cooperation."
The Tulls’ furniture wouldn’t arrive until the next day. There was nothing in the main room but a space heater, the only source of warmth for frigid South Bend winters. The next morning, a neighbor dropped in and asked about their baby: “Does he always eat cereal on the floor like that?”
But then that same neighbor offered to wash the baby’s cloth diapers in her new washing machine. And Vetville chaplain Father Jim Moran welcomed them with $50 to stock up with starter groceries. And Notre Dame students, especially the football players, volunteered to babysit while the parents played bridge or socialized at the nearby Veterans Recreation Center.
“It could be tough – no one had any money,” says Mickey Tull, now living in a retirement community at Holy Cross College. “But everyone who lived there remembers it as the best time of their life. Everyone was in the same boat. There was such a spirit of community and cooperation.”
“You were never going to live so close to so many people that you share so much with,” finishes Charlie Tull, who taught history at Indiana University South Bend for three decades.
A baby getting a bath in a kitchen sink, c1960.
Vetville conditions were cramped, especially as the population exploded with an annual baby boom that often exceeded the 117 families there. Residents called the place Fertile Acres when the unpaved roads didn’t summon the harsher nicknames of Mudville and Dustville. They washed babies in the sink because there was no bath tub. Between a full academic schedule and raising children, both husbands and wives juggled busy schedules that often included whatever work they could find.
Yet what may be most remarkable about Vetville is that spirit of community that made it work. They shared food, child-rearing and whatever entertainment they could invent. Despite the hardships – or maybe exactly because of them – Vetville families thrived. Nearly all of this rapidly dwindling group recall it as the best time of their lives, even as they now live in larger, nicer homes stuffed with modern comforts and technology.
Could this phenomenon be more than just rose-tinted nostalgia? Are their memories nothing more than a wistful yearning for a time when the couples were young, full of promise and post-war hope for a better world? Or can we learn today from their experience?
In a slim book published last year, Sebastian Junger – journalist, war correspondent and author of The Perfect Storm – suggests an answer in what humans have traded away in the modern world after a long history as a tribal society. While modern times have brought greater wealth and privacy, the flip side can be the breaking of social ties crucial to a sense of well-being. Vetville may be a perfect illustration of this theory.
“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary,” Junger writes. “Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”
American history provides a unique lens on the transition from tribal to modern life because for centuries the Western frontier represented a dividing line – and stark choice – between two worlds: the European settlers and the Indian tribes. Thousands of people passed back and forth between this border, sometimes by choice but often through war and abduction.
"Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary."
As early as 1753, Benjamin Franklin noted in a letter to a friend that a surprising number of Americans joined Indian society but the opposite rarely happened. He lamented this apparent rejection of civilization, saying that Indian children “brought up among us” can’t be persuaded to stay. Yet returned European captives of the Indians shortly “become disgusted with our manner of life … and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.”
“Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European,” a French émigré named Hector de Crevecoeur observed two decades later. “There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us.”
Agriculture and industrialization fundamentally changed human existence, allowing private property, independence and wealth accumulation. But it also made people feel more alone. Rates of depression and suicide often increase in lock step with affluence and urbanization. For example, middle-aged white men have the highest economic status in America, but also the highest suicide rates. And a global survey by the World Health Organization found that people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as eight times the rate as that in poor countries.
To be sure, Western civilization has a long history of glorifying primitive life in the myth of the noble savage. In reality, tribal life could be brutal, mean and short. And tribes, by their nature, are defined by a common identity that requires some form of exclusion in a multi-cultural world.
But Junger claims the abrupt loss of close social ties, egalitarian customs and intensely communal living conditions after eons of human history represents a trade-off that has created serious disruption.
Modern paradoxes bear this out. Orthopedic surgeons make more money than other doctors but their survey responses show the highest rates of dissatisfaction with their pay. Mexicans born in the U.S. are wealthier than those born in Mexico but are far more likely to suffer from depression. Public defenders generally make the least money in the legal profession but rate their happiness levels more highly than corporate lawyers steeped in conventional success.
A study in the Journal of Affective Disorders concluded in 2012: “In effect, humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.”
In many ways, Vetville was an experimental return to a more tribal existence. Life there was communal, egalitarian and focused on subsistence. Nobody had much, so they shared everything as the means of interdependent survival. They shared a common background (veterans), similar values (family and ND), and common purpose (education).
That’s exactly what Mickey Tull cherished about the place. “Nobody had more money than you, so you could really talk to anyone,” she says.
Charlie Tull puts the same sentiment in a different way:
“I remember the blizzard of 1957; every car in the place was snowed in. But one guy had a little Volkswagen, really light. We dug it out and carried it to the road so he could do grocery runs for everyone else.”
The idea of Vetville was conceived at the Rockne Memorial in the fall of 1945 when two priests met with a few married couples to discuss the acute housing shortage in South Bend. By the next year, the problem would become national as 4.5 million veterans returned to civilian life after the war.
A solution was located in Weingarten, Missouri, where the government had built barracks for thousands of Italian soldiers captured during the war. The 39 buildings were subdivided with paper-thin walls into three units, each with a tiny kitchen, bathroom, living room and two bedrooms. The Federal Public Housing Authority subsidized the $400,000 relocation project, and Notre Dame paid $36,000 for new roads, sewers and water mains on a 13-acre site along Juniper and Bulla roads.
"...it was just like one big family."
Only 6 percent of a class of 936 Notre Dame students were veterans in the fall of 1944. Two years later, veterans comprised 74 percent of the 4,532 students flooding the campus.
Notre Dame did not permit married students before the war, but hundreds of the returning veterans had rushed into marriage and most arrived in town with a wife and kids in tow. The Vetville project was intended to be a temporary solution for three or four years. Instead, it lasted 16 years as married students became an integral part of college life.
Notre Dame was not the only university to create an emergency response to the GI rush. Veterans Village appeared at Michigan, Illiniville at Illinois, and Vetburg at Wisconsin. Michigan State doubled its campus to 15,000 students by bringing in Quonset huts and trailers.
At MSU, faculty wife Edna Brookover wrote in her memoirs of an experience strikingly similar to the Tulls. She cried when she first visited the Faculty Quonset Village but soon came to love the tight-knit community. “There was always a friend around and a pot of coffee at most neighbors’ homes,” Brookover wrote. “We learned to share.”
The first dozen families moved in November 1, 1946, and the project was finished and fully occupied by the following March. One of the first residents reported borrowing candles from the Grotto to light his apartment before the electricity worked. For some, Vetville represented a huge step above the far-from-campus and kid-phobic rental apartments in town, where a hot plate in a closet was sometimes called a kitchen. It was inexpensive, and most of the men were used to barracks. Still, the place left room for improvement.
“The first impression was a nightmare – it was startling but you got used to it,” says Anita McCollester, who lived there with her first husband and two kids in the late 1950s. She says the whole building shook when the neighbors ran their washing machine. She said her husband Charles did not seem fazed by the conditions, possibly because he was shot down on a B-52 bombing run over Denmark and spent more than a year as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany.
Staff of the Vetville News, 1946-1947.
The residents, experienced in military hierarchy, immediately set to work organizing themselves. They elected a mayor and deputy sheriffs and divided into six wards, each electing a political representative to a governing council. The council’s primary function was the admission of future residents, based on matching applications with available units. Preference was often given to larger families.
Residents also started a newspaper, the Vetville News, in March 1947 that successfully crusaded for telephones, extended bus service, playgrounds and babysitting services. The paper — really a mimeographed newsletter — would change names several times but continue to thrive largely under the direction of the students’ wives.
Socially, the men formed football and bowling teams that competed in inter-hall leagues. The women formed a dramatic group, a lecture series and bridge clubs so strong that one local branch met until 2012.
“I think our bridge group stayed together because living in Vetville was no piece of cake,” says Anita McCollester of the bonds that lasted for half a century. “We grew up together, cried together and drank together. All the problems and hurdles and being so close together; it was just like one big family.”
It didn’t hurt that Vetville’s first chaplain was Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., in the years before he became University president. One of his first moves was to finagle a surplus building from the government for recreation. The Vet Rec Hall became the center of social life, hosting potluck dinners, Victory Dances after football games and holiday parties.
Vetville residents present Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh with a fishing pole at a banquet that includes Rev. John J. Cavanaugh, March 1948.
Fr. Hesburgh also started a course called “Marriage and the Family” after refereeing a few late-night domestic disputes and reading up on the unfamiliar subject. Residents report that he knew the name and unit of every Vetville inhabitant, even years later.
When people complained about noisy kids at the Mass at Sacred Heart, Fr. Hesburgh started a special Mass for the veterans’ families in Farley Hall with babysitting in the basement. Student babysitters who came to Vetville were usually paid not with money but with an open-refrigerator policy for food.
In a 2003 essay in Notre Dame Magazine, Susan Allman-Carlo wrote that Fr. Hesburgh baptized her in 1947 and came back to their little apartment to celebrate. “Dinner was chicken a la king from a canned chicken,” she wrote. “Father H was seated in a chair with no back and drank his coffee out of the measuring cup.”
The hard times and industrious responses weren’t what made Vetville unique, according to a 1948 article in Scholastic, the student newspaper: “Rather, it’s a simple Rosary with a couple of families kneeling in the living room; it’s the expectant mothers receiving a childbirth blessing from Chaplain Hesburgh; it’s a hundred families kneeling in Farley Hall Chapel renewing their marriage vows at the close of the annual retreat.”
Like many tribes, religion provided ritual and cohesion in Vetville. Charlie Tull’s cherished directory of Vetville residents notes that the non-existent Unit 14 lies “deep within the heart of all Vetville. It has been reserved for the Holy Family ever since Vetville opened its doors to the warmth and friendship of family life.”
One of Fr. Hesburgh’s favorite Vetville stories was about a premature birth inside one apartment. Fr. Hesburgh scooped up the baby as he turned blue and dunked him in the sink for a quick baptism. The child screamed bloody murder coming to life.
And the baby boom kids kept coming. One 1949 Scholastic cartoon showed an airplane hangar with a bunch of storks, one of which had crutches, black eyes and a bloody beak. Another stork says, “Poor Oscar, all crippled up and he’s only been on that Vetville run for six months.”
Virginia Black lived in Vetville in the 1950s and wrote a book called Tackling Notre Dame about her experience. She wrote that earning and saving money were favorite conversational topics there. While her husband worked a factory job until 3 a.m. each night, she started a dancing school for tots in the Rec Hall. After losing money, she hit on the idea of an article about football players like Paul Horning babysitting in Vetville. LOOK magazine sent photographers, but football officials concerned about the players’ tough-guy image squashed the story.
Other money schemes benefited the whole community. Residents collected and sold waste paper, putting the earnings into a community treasury for social events and physical improvements. For years the biggest fundraiser was a booth at the annual Mardi Gras carnival, where cakes baked by Vetville wives became famous across campus.
By 1950, Scholastic reported that World War II veterans were vanishing on campus, down to just 20 percent of the student population. They would soon be replaced in Vetville by Korean War veterans and non-veteran married couples. The once-booming veterans club on campus would wither away as its members branched out to other interests.
"Like many tribes, religion provided ritual and cohesion in Vetville."
Other challenges struck Vetville. A polio outbreak in 1949 took the life of one graduate student. In a note in University Archives, Mary Ann Lassuy reported that in 1952 her daughter Mary Pat was bossing other kids into playing sick while she nursed them. When one boy actually felt sick, it turned out that polio had returned. Families were urged to quarantine their children to the small yards and refrain from visiting each other.
The closing of one of the Studebaker factory plants in 1952 led to an emergency meeting in Vetville because a considerable number of residents were among the 3,500 people laid off work.
Clara Mitchell, another member of the local bridge club, says Vetville residents could be counted on to rally around each other. If something broke, someone knew how to fix it. She and her husband, Bill, lived there from 1954 to 1956. “It was just a joyous time in my life,” she says.
“It was little, but we were so happy to have a place of our own,” Mitchell says. “As long as he was with me, it was fine. No one had any money. I spent $10 a week on groceries, but boy, what I could do with one chicken. We didn’t feel poor. We were all in the same boat.”
Mitchell proudly displays the weathered “diploma” that Fr. Hesburgh created to present to Vetville wives. It attests that she “survived the post-war hardships of South Bend housing, the rigors of Indiana weather, and with courage beyond the call of duty has helped her husband to a happy graduation.”
End of an Era
In the fall of 1960, President Hesburgh announced an ambitious construction project to build one of the largest libraries on a university campus in the country and a score of other new academic and residential buildings. The University’s future path ran right through Vetville.
The next year, plans called for a new, modern married housing complex northwest of campus near U.S. Highway 31. By the end of its 16-year run, Vetville had housed more than 700 families. Most of the adults are gone now, though thousands of children around the country keep those memories alive.
Chuck Lennon, the long-time director of the Notre Dame Alumni Association, says he was the last person allowed into Vetville. He married during senior year and needed to save money when his wife, Joan, was expecting in 1961. Vetville’s mayor said they weren’t taking new applicants, but Chuck pleaded his case as a low-paid coach and new family man.
The Lennons lived there about a year until the units started coming down for the library construction. They moved to the new married housing complex of three-story brick buildings, where the price was $65 a month, but he says it wasn’t the same. “Vetville was all about the camaraderie,” Lennon says. “I’ve never heard one person say I wouldn’t do it again.”
In the farewell issue of the Vet Gazette in June 1962, editors Pat Rush and Dotty O’Keane addressed the old barracks directly. “You were humble, but you were cheap. You were small but you rang with laughter and friendship,” they wrote. “Luxurious surroundings no longer seem so all-fired important and a large bank account can’t hold a candle to a treasury of friends ... We shall miss you, old girl.”
In his own letter for the issue, Fr. Hesburgh recalled some favorite memories: cold walks back to campus after late nights typing out the early Gazettes in Unit 4C, and dances that cost 25 cents because everyone was broke. He wrote of being called into the office of then-President Rev. John Cavanaugh, C.S.C., to explain why he had taken it upon himself to offer the wives diplomas. After an explanation, Fr. Cavanaugh agreed it was a good idea and said he’d sign them too.
Fr. Hesburgh also recalled Vetville’s first infant death and more than $100 collected among the residents to help the couple with burial expenses. He wrote, “I can still picture the glass jar full of nickels, dimes and pennies.”
In his conclusion, he wrote: “The greatest lesson of all is how happy they were in the early years when they had no money and were faced with many sacrifices … I think the reason for this is love.”
"You were humble, but you were cheap. You were small but you rang with laughter and friendship."
In 1963, the government needed an official document to take the torn-down Vetville barracks off the inventory list. University officials called Lennon and appointed him the last mayor to wrap up the paperwork.
Three years later, Fr. Hesburgh invited former Vetville families and chaplains for a blessing of a plaque honoring Vetville. It stands today about 50 yards north of the library, the only physical remains of a long-ago tribe.
But maybe the spirit of Vetville has some lessons to offer modern society. To recent military veterans, some lost without a purpose and prone to suicide. How could the country better handle their transition back to civilian life?
Could the Vetville experience even shed light on recent events like the viral opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline? The protests started with Native American teenagers rocked by a rash of suicides among their friends who had lost hope in the future and turned to addiction or death. The campsite they built at Standing Rock offered primitive conditions and brutal weather – and a collective mission. Could that sense of solidarity and purpose explain the anomaly of 2,000 military veterans joining their environmental cause?
The Vetville plaque by the library sits placidly through the driving snows of winter and the gentle rains of summer. It reads: “Many were the trials. Thanks to the Holy Family for the many blessings needed to persevere.”