1930-39, Luther survives the Depression
The Depression years
Construction on the new campus, 1937
Excerpt from Ken Mitchell's Luther: The History of a College (1981)
The "Dirty Thirties" hit hard on the prairies, and Luther College was not immune, with enrolment dropping to as few as 70 students. Faculty members took pay cuts of 10% initially, but their salaries were cut in half again before the economy recovered. Even though Luther faced difficult situations, these years were not without joys. In 1931, principal Dr Rex Schneider and mathematics professor Elsa Mees were married. Students who were able to attend Luther College still enjoyed sports and music programs. In 1930, the choral groups staged the operetta Marrying Marion, and in 1936, the boys won the Intercollegiate Rugby Championships. As Luther grew and recovered from the Depression, the student body at Luther slowly became more diverse. Prior to the 1930s, most students had come from Lutheran homes. In the years following, the Luther College student body represented a breadth of Protestant faiths.
In 1937, construction began again on the Luther College campus. It was the first major construction project Regina had seen
since the start of the Depression. This time, a chapel, a residence for the principal, and a girls dormitory
were added. The new chapel was of particular significance because it provided students and staff with a place to gather and worship together. The principal's residence was located just across Royal Street from the College. Dr and Mrs Rex and Elsa Mees Schneider were its first occupants. The Women's Missionary Federation of the American Lutheran Church donated $75 000 for the building of the girls residence. The lavish new wing for the women was called Federation Hall as a tribute to the generosity of the women's group. The new buildings were much needed as the College continued to grow. By 1946, 226 students were attending Luther College.
Luther College was barely established, however, when the world was plunged into the worst economic depression in modern history. In Saskatchewan, of course, the effects were made doubly worse by the savage drought which raged across the Prairies during "The Dirty Thirties". Coming so soon after its opening, the depression nearly finished the new college.
Student enrolment, which had risen to 200, suddenly plunged to as low as 70 students. The farm people of Saskatchewan found it hard to meet their debts, and impossible to educate their children. There was simply no money.
"Financially we were in trouble at the college. At first all salaries and wages were cut 10 percent-then 50 per cent of the remainder. Our policy was not to borrow money, but we did, indirectly. The late Mr. H. Whitmore was our supplier of coal. When the going got difficult, I asked Mr. Whitmore to wait until next September, when a new crop of students arrived, to pay for the previous year's coal. He agreed to do this each year until the difficult times had ended. He was our banker," Dr. Schneider remembered.
"The families of some of the teachers moved into the residence, where we had empty rooms. A five cent chocolate bar was a luxury. The college tuck shop sold baked beans on a cone. It was a popular treat-and nourishing." This was a period of hardship and prayer for everyone at Luther, but the spirit of the college stood firm.
One of the students who attended Luther in those days was Leonard Peterson, now living in Toronto and one of Canada's most noted authors. He has written countless stories, plays and articles, which have won a number of prestigious awards. He took time recently to note down some of his impressions of Luther in 1935-36: "Ideological guff filled the world, those days, and blew on the prairies. The unreal, extreme abstractions of capitalism, socialism, communism, fascism, divided men and encouraged them to organize for another murderous world war. Tribalism and imperialism added further corruption to the mind and spirit of those I rubbed shoulders with every day. Only in our personal relationships far from the clutter of grand concepts did my young friends and I find much that was okay, that was even wonderful. No money. Weather, plain meals, family and friends, that was our universe that made sense. Almost. "Death had visited my home. That made no sense." I went to Luther because I could scrape up $75 for a year's tuition. I went because my parents (like many immigrants) believed in education. I couldn't go grander than Luther. I couldn't stop book-learning to loaf or ride the rods.... At Luther I found no guff, no pre occupation with ideology, with tribalism, with imperialism. The general approach to education was humanistic. A sense of decency prevailed. Quiet curiosity.
"I came to Luther trusting pure science and mathematics, and distrusting history and literature. Literature sickened me; it seemed so full of pretensions and lies. History seemed to change every time it crossed a border or moved into a new era. At Luther, science and math became even better friends of mine. And for the first time, I fell in love with a fictional character, Eustacia Vye in Hardy's Return of the Native. I liked the gusto of Smithers and Jones in O'Neill's Emperor Jones. And at long last I met up with a play of Shakespeare's that stirred me, King Lear. They did not win me round to literature but they made me less suspicious of it.
"No doubt, when I was a student at Luther, it was a miracle that enough funds were found to pay the profs a skimpy salary and keep the classrooms warm in winter. There was certainly no squandering of funds for sports. We had a workout once a week in the YMCA gym and pool. The football field was buffalo grass and weeds. But that was a good field in our league. Most of the fields were dust or mud. "When we set about organizing a football team, we discovered that only two of the players had ever played organized football. I'd played end for the West-End Cleaners in Junior Football, and could wing a fair pass, so I was made quarterback. We were a light team, and the forward pass proved our best yard gainer. We had so few extra players that, injured or not, most boys played the full game-offensive and defensive.
"I remember (clearly now) playing one game in a state somewhere between a blackout and a blur. Early in the game, my face was stepped on and smashed by an unfriendly boot. The team could not afford cotton batting and adhesive tapes; my cuts were dressed and the game continued. The cleat's assault left me with a 1-20 vision. On defensive plays I played safety, and was supposed to run back our opponent's kicks. That game, I had to rely more on sound and smell than sight to catch any ball booted down to my lonely corner of the field.
"Luther was a kind of oasis for me. I had come out of childhood and youth not weary but windburnt and parched and shaken. I was about to plunge into the rougher and even more uncertain span ahead. My stay at Luther gave me a chance in honest calm to muster my resources. Science helped; math helped; King Lear helped; Eustacia Vye helped. They gave my spirit hope, hope that I might find further goodness scattered here, there..."
Many new people had joined the staff during this period. One of them was Emilie Walter, perhaps the best remembered of the many teachers in Luther's history. She had first joined Luther in 1928 as a German teacher, but came into prominence as the Dean of Women. She remained until her retirement in 1964.
"She was firm in her discipline, but in spite of her firmness, the students respected and liked her. She was on duty 24 hours a day because she was often awakened at night when a student was sick or needed extra attention. She was exceedingly loyal, an able teacher," Dr. Schneider said.
"Mr. Paul Liefeld was a teacher in South Dakota who came to us in 1930. He was an excellent teacher, and this is evident by the fact that many of his students continued in chemistry and succeeded to a very high degree. In addition, he organized the college orchestra. and was director for many years."
Mr. Liefeld retired recently after 44 ½ years of service with Luther College, a remarkable record in any institution. By 1938, the worst of the Depression was over. The student population had climbed to 148. It was clear that the college's future was more secure, as crops and cash began to appear again on the Prairies.