Vocations for Veterans
While the SATC may never have gotten a chance to fight, millions of American soldiers had, including hundreds of thousands who returned suffering from both physical and mental disabilities. As these injured veterans began coming home, it became apparent they needed help entering back into a productive civilian life. This sort of supportive demobilization was something that federal and state officials failed to provide after the Civil War. Under the auspices of the Smith-Sears Rehabilitation Act of 1918, the Federal Board of Vocational Education set up a rehabilitation division that provided disabled veterans of World War I the opportunity to learn new skills. Oshkosh Normal offered its services to the rehabilitation division as a training center, and with its excellent industrial department and proximity to many factories, its bid was accepted. Two other Normal Schools were chosen as sites of vocational rehabilitation; the River Falls Normal School trained veterans in agricultural work and the Whitewater Normal School was chosen to teach veterans commercial trades.
As a first step to get into the new program, the disabled veteran had to report to an eligibility board to determine if his injuries qualified him for vocational rehabilitation. If accepted, he was then assigned a “job objective” by his new placement officer. In Oshkosh, a large number of enrollees were placed in the Normal School rather than directly into factory apprenticeships. The school’s Industrial Arts Department was a great fit for men with interest, experience, or ability in machine shop, drafting, or pattern-making skills. Special classes were designed for these “Federal Board men” to learn more about the trades and how to work around their disabilities in an industrial setting. After spending time in the these classes, however, many of the veterans switched into the Normal School’s Industrial Arts teacher training program to become certified to teach the subjects in middle and high schools.
Based on available records and photographs, most of the veterans who came to the Oshkosh Normal for rehabilitation did not appear to have had major physical handicaps. Mental injuries may have been more common in Oshkosh’s contingent. A letter in the campus newspaper, The Advance, tells of at least two Federal Board men who had to withdraw from school for a semester due to “a case of nerves.” Still, during their time at Oshkosh Normal, most of the veterans seemed to have integrated very well into campus life. They joined the football team, fraternities and clubs, wrote and edited the school paper, and proudly marched in the color guard in the homecoming parade.
Despite their success in entering into college life, the young men were still part of a major social experiment and subject to interest among social service providers. When the 1920 State Social Workers Conference met in Oshkosh, the Federal Board men exhibited samples of their work alongside those created by inmates of various state institutions for the disabled. Although the Stout Institute would go on to become the state’s site for civilian industrial rehabilitation, Oshkosh Normal was proud to have been of service to the veterans and to have taught them the skills they needed to make a better life for themselves and their families.
The success of the WWI veteran services experiment, along with its civilian counterpart, proved to be a turning point in the history of vocational education. It was also a positive departure from the experience after the Civil War, when veterans were left to their own devices to find appropriate work and training, often with poor results. Less than 20 years after WWI, however, the United States government would have an opportunity to improve again on their response. What they developed proved to be one of the most influential social and economic projects in 20th century America.