For Jeanne Bearmon, the GI Bill was nothing short of a miracle.
“And what is a miracle but something you could not have imagined?” said Bearmon, a 93-year-old grandmother, retired psychotherapist and World War II veteran.
Born to working-class parents in Brooklyn, Bearmon was an honor student who got no encouragement to continue her education after high school. She went to work, but left a job as a stenotypist to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps. She served in London, then returned to the United States with a captain’s rank, a Minnesotan for a husband and a government offer of an education.
“Without the GI Bill, I never would have gone to college and I would have lived with disappointment,” she said. “I had a hunger for learning I had to satisfy.”
Bearmon, who enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1946, is one of millions of beneficiaries of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill. Under its provisions, Uncle Sam offered to cover the cost of tuition, textbooks and living expenses for every veteran who had been on active duty for at least 90 days.
The benefits were more than a sign of the nation’s gratitude to its troops. Worried that the postwar economy would be unable to absorb 15 million returning veterans, Congress passed legislation to keep them busy, productive and out of the job market.
The bill also had far-reaching unintended consequences. By providing broader access to higher education, it propelled many servicemen and women into the middle class.
Sherman Garon, now 91, was one of them. The St. Louis Park Army veteran enrolled at the University of Minnesota after fighting in France.
“The GI Bill was fantastic,” said Garon. “I got $75 a month to live on. That was plenty, more than enough. I had a nice room a few blocks from campus for $7 a week.”
Garon represented a new type of student. Before World War II, higher education was only for the affluent. In 1940, census data showed, only 5 percent of Americans held college degrees.
The postwar era brought the children of working-class and immigrant parents to U.S. campuses for the first time. Vast numbers of veterans seized the opportunity the GI Bill offered and graduated with expectations that previously would have been unimaginable.
They also changed the tenor on campus.
Garon can still recall dashing though the newly completed Coffman Union for a tomato-and-cheese sandwich and occasionally going dancing, but he was “too busy” for campus activities, he said. His father operated a Duluth knitting mill; Garon spent time away from class calling on prospective customers. By the time he graduated in 1949, he had set up 100 accounts.
“These veterans were mature students. They wanted to get their education and get on with their lives,” said U historian Ann Pflaum. “They attacked their studies with efficiency. The promise of education created optimism, but it was tempered with the great loss experienced by so many.”
The University of Minnesota enrolled an estimated 25,000 WW II veterans — more than any college in the country.
Months before the passage of the bill, the U set up a committee to coordinate services for veterans. As they arrived, veterans’ bureaus at the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses smoothed the process. Campus clubs for servicemen were established.
To accommodate the crush of new students, the U added temporary buildings, expanded class sizes and offered night courses. Housing was tight; students doubled up in dorms, and bunks lined the lower level of Memorial Stadium. Trailers and Quonset huts were hastily constructed for married students. Still, the lack of space spawned the first commuter students.
Enrollment mushroomed at Minnesota’s private colleges, too. Bethel College saw so much interest from veterans that it shifted from a two-year to a four-year college in 1947.
“Before the war, finishing high school was the dream,” said Chris Gehrz, chair of Bethel University’s History Department. “With the GI Bill, assumptions about what was within reach expanded. That amped up the American dream and created the middle class as we know it.”
The student body — at Bethel and at colleges and universities across the country — also became more diverse than it had been.
“It wouldn’t look like diversity to us today, but the GI Bill brought different cultures together on campus for the first time,” said Gehrz. “Bethel had been a Swedish Baptist institution and drew exclusively from that population. Now it was welcoming students with German and Irish last names, from other denominations.”
The benefits of the bill, however, didn’t necessarily extend to the 1 million African-American GIs who fought. In the era before the civil rights movement, Southern colleges were closed to black students, and only a small number of black veterans were admitted to the nation’s desegregated universities.
“The bill had inequality built into it,” said Rose Brewer, who teaches African-American studies at the U. “The GI Bill was fundamental in moving the white working class into the middle class. Only a tiny number of African-Americans saw their prospects change.”
“Black veterans had to go to the back of the line,” said Dr. David Hamlar Jr., the son of a WWII Navy veteran. “But now there was a line to get into for some of them, like my dad. He was persistent.”
Hamlar, a surgeon who codirects the U’s Craniofacial Skull Base Center, was named a brigadier general in the Minnesota Air National Guard in August. His father used the GI Bill to get a biology degree at the University of Toledo in Ohio, then went to dental school.
“I had a role model for what was achievable right under my roof,” said Hamlar, 59. “Where I grew up, there were six or seven black physicians, and they had all used the GI Bill. They paved the way.”
By 1956, 7.8 million WWII vets had used the GI Bill for college or vocational training — 10 times the number the bill’s authors had anticipated. With their degrees, they commanded higher salaries. With their knowledge, they built the postwar economy into the strongest in the world.
“My education meant everything to me,” said Bearmon, the former WAC. “It was like that for a lot of us. College changed the kind of workers we were, the kind of work we did and the kind of parents we became. It made all the difference.”
Kevyn Burger is a freelance writer and a newscaster at BringMeTheNews.com.