Memorial Day isn’t exactly Spring Break, but it does afford students the opportunity to escape their humdrum collegiate existence for a couple of days. In 1948, the holiday provided not only the chance, but the requirement, to leave school behind.
On May 30, 1948, the students and faculty of the Vanport Extension Center (soon to become Portland State College, then University), received notice from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the local Housing Authority that the rising flood waters of the Columbia posed no material threat to their homes, lives and school. Fliers distributed that morning reported to Vanport’s denizens, “You will be warned if necessary. You will have time to leave. Don’t get excited.”
This warning was probably meant primarily for those in the community who weren’t students, as the end of the school year tends to be excitement enough for those ploughing through their finals. Regardless of the authoritative assurances of the leaflets, a few folks decided to lay extra sandbags against the dikes, while others took off for the weekend.
Those who remained didn’t end up sticking around very long. By 5 p.m. that evening, the dikes had collapsed and water levels reached the second floor of campus housing. What ensued was an impressive display of cooperation among faculty, staff, students and community members that puts the most community-minded Capstone class to shame.
University historian Gordon Dodds writes that news of the dike break broke while school President Stephen Epler joined between 15 and 30 students and faculty in loading important records into the school’s second-best bus, just in case the Housing Authority warnings were misleading (the school’s “best” bus apparently wouldn’t start that day). Among the more expensive pieces of equipment saved from the flood were manual typewriters, microscopes and a few floating football helmets.
In Epler’s own “History of the Vanport Extension Center,” he describes the crisis as an opportunity for heroism and humor. One staff member, Epler reports, assisted neighbors in evacuation as his wife carried his uncompleted doctoral dissertation. Later, the same man dove into the floodwaters to help a “mongrel dog” reach safety. Upon completion of this task, he tossed his soaked shorts into the tide, momentarily forgetting that “the clothes on his back” were now the only ones he owned.
The campaign to ascertain the safety of the student body began almost immediately. Three days later, Grant High School loaned its gym for a schoolwide assembly (needless to say, the college was much smaller then). Working from a list of students – one of the few records that survived the flood – students and staff exchanged rumors and information until it was ascertained with sorry relief that all were either present or accounted for. Between 15 and 20 residents of the area, primarily low-income former dockworkers and World War Two veterans, were not as lucky as those who lost “only” their homes and material possessions.