The Last Page

Winning World War II in Iowa

By Mary Draper Janney '42 and Barbara Gair Scheiber '42

Sixty-one years ago, three of us, newly minted graduates of the Vassar class of 1942, set out to change the world. The country was at war and we, like most of our classmates, were eager to contribute to victory and lasting peace. During senior year we concocted something we called “The Plan” — an idea for helping the war effort on the home front. Having grown up in New York City, we wanted to live and work in a small rural community. It seemed to us that many Americans “out there” wanted to be useful but didn't know how. Perhaps, we thought uncertainly, we could help small-town America organize for effective participation.

Our plan took us to Washington, DC, where officials in the Department of Agriculture referred us to colleagues in the Agricultural Extension Service in Ames, Iowa. In mid-June, in our 1940 blue Plymouth convertible, we drove to Ames, where we were greeted with warm enthusiasm. Small towns did indeed need help, the professionals said. There was a lack of education about war issues, a need for leadership and coordination. One typical town had conducted four scrap-metal drives at once; metal was now rusting in the dump. In other places, nothing was happening at all.

The answer, the Ames team believed, lay in bringing townspeople together in communitywide councils composed of representatives of all the organizations in a town—churches, schools, civic groups, lodges, social clubs, farm agencies. “The habit of working together instead of at cross purposes in wartime,” they said, “could carry over into peacetime.” They added, “Why not adopt the community council idea as your plan? It could be a model for other towns.” Their words fit the dreams that had filled our late-night talks of “The Plan” at college. And they picked a town for us to get started: Clarion, a rural trading center in northwest Iowa, with a population of 3,000.

On July 4, 1942, armed with names of community leaders, we headed through the Iowa cornfields to Clarion. Our first contacts suggested that to support ourselves, we organize a summer day camp for children. We were all experienced camp counselors, so within a week we were going door to door, recruiting campers. “Camp at Home in Clarion” opened on July 13 (the cost: $2.00 a week for full-time attendance, $1.00 for half-time). Camp provided our livelihood for the next three months. It also introduced us successfully into the community and inspired trust in “the three girls from the East.”

On weekends and after work each day we sought out and met with representatives of the town's many organizations. In this town of 3,000 there were more than 60 organizations, including six separate religious denominations, veterans groups, civic groups such as Rotary and Kiwanis, and study groups like the Monday Club, the Knotty Thread, the Merry Eight. People spoke of failed drives—piles of newspapers and rubber that never got picked up—and too many separate fundraising appeals. “We need one consolidated fundraiser,” a church leader said; it would save time and energy and raise more money. “A few people have done all the work,” he continued, “yet everyone is anxious to do something.”

At each interview, we floated the idea of a community council to coordinate the town's efforts. The idea caught on. People were excited by the possibilities, not only for tackling wartime problems, but for dealing with long-term community needs. We were stunned when one prominent businessman confronted us coldly, asking, “Who or what sent you here... to start organizing a movement?” But despite his accusations, interest in the community council idea grew.

On September 4, a meeting attended by representatives of more than 50 organizations was held at the county courthouse. After three hours of debate, they voted unanimously to establish a townwide council. To our amazement and delight, they adopted the concept of coordinated community action as their own. Our “Plan” had become theirs. Natural leaders emerged and put it into action. When we left in late September, the council was up and running.

The story has an epilogue. We wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt about our experience. Meeting with us, she agreed that democratic grassroots action was important—important enough to invite us to tell the President about it. In October 1942, the three of us had dinner at the White House with eight other guests. We recited the tale of Clarion, Iowa, to a genial, beaming President. In spite of the incredible pressures he faced leading a nation at war, he listened patiently, made a few jokes to put us at ease, and nodded his approval.

We'll never forget that evening or the lessons we learned in Clarion—about people, communities, and ourselves—lessons that have guided us throughout our lives.

Juliet Fleischl Brudney '42 was the leader of our threesome, spurring us on with her boundless energy, her wit, her intense, unflagging commitment. Juliet died on January 23, 2003. This account is dedicated to her.