During this year of Sesquicentennial celebration, we pause today to remember those who have lost their lives serving our country. Perhaps the most disruptive of wars to affect the Institute was World War I, during which fourteen Tech students and one instructor made the ultimate sacrifice. The devastation during and after the conflict halted normal campus life; with nearly 700 faculty, students, and alumni in service (most of whom were commissioned officers), WPI had few coaches or players to host sporting events, few directors and actors to produce stage performances. Tech News, which has been disbanded during the war, would have to completely reorganize. Fraternal organizations on campus were forced to redevelop. Many students wishing to return to their studies were delayed and more did not return; the classes of 1917 and 1918 were some of the smallest in the school’s history, proving that academics suffered the greatest.
But despite these trying times, WPI was lifted up by the strength of its community and by 1920, the painful scars left by World War I were already beginning to fade. Recently released from their war duties, the faculty returned with the same spirit and enthusiasm as displayed on the battlefield. With their energy restored, WPI alumni, trustees, faculty, and undergraduate students felt it necessary to honor the fifteen men who gave their lives. In February of 1922, the Institute announced plans to erect a memorial plaque on the west porch of Boynton Hall. The plaque was erected in November of 1924, during a ceremony that was well attended by the WPI community as well as friends and relatives of the deceased.
Of the Tech men honored, three were killed in action or died of wounds sustained during battle.
One of these three was Lieutenant Winfield M. Putnam of New York City. A member of the 16th Field Artillery Regiment, Putnam died in Base Hospital 34 in France on October 20, 1918. Although Putnam died before he could return to the fifth year of his studies, his father, Winfield S. Putnam of New York City, still received a tuition bill for the 1918-1919 academic year.
Putnam’s father responded in February of 1919 by sending a letter to President Hollis, explaining how and when his son had died. Enclosed in this letter was a check for $177.65, the amount due for instruction that Putnam never received. “I am greatly shocked and grieved,” President Hollis responded, “…My own boy made one hair breadth escape on the other side and is still there.”Over the next few months, Putnam and President Hollis remained in correspondence because Putnam had one wish: for his son to receive a degree and be reinstated as a member of his original class (1917). The two wrote letters back and forth, Putnam tirelessly championing his cause so that his son might be recognized for his academic achievements. President Hollis agreed, then proposed the idea to the faculty and the corporation, and personally invited Putnam to not only attend the 50th annual commencement in June of 1920 but to also sit on stage, rather than in the audience. Finally, a degree in Civil Engineering was awarded Lieutenant Winfield M. Putnam, whom was more than deserving of the recognition.
The plaque placed on Boynton Hall serves as a daily reminder of the sacrifices made by those who died in World War I. But it is clear that the recognition for his son’s pursuit of higher education was worth far more to Winfield S. Putnam. As 20th century educational reformer John Dewey once said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”
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