Museum To Honor A Forgotten School Pennsylvania Military College Grads Saw Their Alma Mater Transformed, Lost. Now It Will Be A Presence On Campus.

Posted: October 22, 2000

CHESTER — When the Pennsylvania Military College disbanded its cadet corps in 1972, transforming itself into Widener College, thousands of alumni were left orphaned.

The school, now Widener University, quickly shed its military image, eager to distance itself from the unpopularity of the Vietnam War.

"There was no attempt to salvage any vestiges of PMC," Christian Pfaff, a 1971 graduate, said last week. "The school colors, the mascot, all the traditions of 150 years were immediately disbanded, dispersed and discarded. . . . They probably needed to make the break, to move on, but at the time, it hit us hard. We felt abandoned."

Now, 28 years later, the former school's colors, red, white and yellow, and the school nickname, the Cadets, are on display in at least one corner of the 100-acre Widener campus.

In an attempt to heal old wounds and link the past to the present, a $500,000 Philadelphia Military College Museum full of uniforms, swords, yearbooks, and a host of other memorabilia, opened in a newly built wing of Widener's Alumni Auditorium earlier this month.

"Now there is a chance for the thousands of graduates out there to say, 'There is the place I went to,' " said Pfaff, who lives in North Carolina and is the president of the Thomasville Furniture Co. "Now there is once again a home for PMC grads."

Widener began its history in 1821 as the Bullock School in Wilmington. It became a military school in 1858 and moved to Chester in 1867.

Its program was modeled after that of the Army's military academy: "We called ourselves the West Point of Pennsylvania," said Vincent C. Gorman Jr., a Media resident and 1961 graduate who chaired the museum committee.

Pfaff recalled that on his first day at the military college, "they took us down to a barbershop, shaved our heads, and started working us into shape. It was an experience I'll never forget. . . . I still put my clothes in my closet the way I did then, with the pants and shirts hanging a certain way. I'll bet that every other PMC graduate does that, too."

By Gorman's estimate, about 90 percent of graduates went directly into the Army. Several became generals.

The school had about 600 students until the 1960s, when the Vietnam War and a sea change in campus culture made military service less popular. In 1966, with enrollment dropping, women were admitted to a parallel civilian institution, the Penn Morton College. In 1972, the military college closed. It had only 277 corps members.

Widener went on to become a well-regarded school. It became a university in 1979 and now has a full-time undergraduate enrollment of 2,350 at its Chester campus. But many military college grads felt little connection to its successor.

"We were always receiving phone calls and mail saying, 'Take me off your mailing list; I will never set foot on the campus again,' " said Christina D. Harmon, a senior development officer at Widener. "They had been taught to be loyal to each other to the death, if needed. I certainly wasn't surprised that they took the death of their school so hard."

The idea of a Philadelphia Military College museum took off in 1998, when Leslie C. Quick, chairman of Widener's Board of Trustees and a 1950 PMC grad, made a $250,000 matching grant for its construction. He chipped in $100,000 more this month.

Jayne Pennington, a Widener University official, said last week that there were plans to expand the PMC collection and make the museum a center for research and education about the military college.

"We've made an exciting beginning, but there is much more to do in preserving PMC's rich history, and we are eager to keep the momentum going," she said.

Dan Hardy's e-mail address is dhardy@phillynews.com

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|