Brave Young Woman in a Brand New World

Wheeler Hall, the UC Berkeley building at the center of the College of Letters and Science, in which Ursula was enrolled

Wheeler Hall, the UC Berkeley building at the center of the College of Letters and Science, in which Ursula was enrolled

It was the fall of 1919 when Ursula began her freshman year as one of 5,250 students enrolled in the College of Letters and Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Just one year before, as World War I was ending, the University was contending with the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, according to a fascinating article in the Chronicle of the University of California. Almost a quarter of the campus community had contracted the disease, which took the lives of 20 students. The story reports:

“The most serious influenza epidemic to date would witness university buildings converted into make-shift hospitals, a segment of the campus quarantined, women students working as assistant nurses and “flu mask” manufacturers, public activities curtailed, classes canceled and spring semester delayed.”

By the time Ursula embarked on her college career, the Berkeley campus was back to normal. But that didn’t mean the drama was over; for Ursula — leaving home and donning her new independence — it was just beginning. In fact, the drama for her commenced two weeks before the start of school. As the Oakland Tribune reported on August 26, 1919:

From the "Oakland Tribune," August 26, 1919

From the “Oakland Tribune” 

“For three weeks the social fate of many of the freshman co-eds at the University of California has hung in the balance, but now the strenuous rushing season is over, and the sororities have mailed the bids to the successful ‘rushees.’

It is the custom of the women’s organizations to ‘rush,’ or entertain, a number of freshman co-eds for two weeks prior and one week after the opening of the college semester…”

Upon paging through an online digital scan of UC Berkeley’s Blue and Gold yearbook covering the college year 1919-1920, I discovered that Ursula was one such rushee. There on page 523, row 6, I saw her face peering out from among more than 40 other young women. She had apparently passed muster (I’m not surprised), and was one of several freshman women accepted into Zeta Tau Alpha (ZTA).

Ursula's photo is among the Zeta Tau Alpha member portraits for the academic year 1919-1920

Ursula’s photo is among the Zeta Tau Alpha member portraits for the academic year 1919-1920

This national sorority was founded in 1898 at the Virginia State Female Normal School. The UC Berkeley chapter’s handsome, two-story house was located just north of campus at 1700 Euclid Avenue; the cost of board and lodging would have been between $30 and $50 a month.

The Zeta Tau Alpha house where Ursula lived with her sorority sisters

The Zeta Tau Alpha house where Ursula lived with her sorority sisters

A 2012 article in the Daily Californian noted that the chapter had participated in such service projects as volunteering in all-campus Red Cross drives during World War I and “adopting” a French orphan, which entailed sending funds to an overseas organization for the child’s care.

ZetaTauAlphaSeal_1921yrBookThe ZTA charter states that the sorority’s purpose is “to intensify friendship, promote happiness among its members, and in every way to create such sentiments, to perform such deeds, and to mould such opinions as will conduce to the building up of a nobler and purer womanhood in the world.” I imagine and hope that, as a freshman entering a new and exciting world, Ursula found such friendship and happiness during her time with ZTA.

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10 thoughts on “Brave Young Woman in a Brand New World

  1. What noble aims they had! How different when my class of 1955 was well embarked, the dean said we were a class that “discovered men” (and consequently nearly flunked ourselves out!)

    • ZTA’s official “mission” may have been noble, but I have a feeling Ursula and her sorority sisters “discovered men,” too!

  2. Hi there, I’m just over from GeneaBloggers and wanted to say how pleased I am to find your blog. I’m delighted you bought that album, and can understand why you hoped the person in front of you would put it down. I’ve just started a blog (only two posts so far!) on a similar kind of theme but in my case, the newspaper cuttings and photos are of my own family. Barbara

    • Thanks Barbara! I’m glad you found Mystery Dancer and hope you continue to enjoy the blog. I am delighted I bought that album, too — I wasn’t sure how much information I would be able to find about Ursula and her family, but it turns out quite a lot! I enjoyed reading your first two posts, and seeing the wonderful old photos you included. Keep up the good work!

  3. Found this entry very interesting and how wild that you found the picture of her as a new inductee in ZTA. And that is particularly wild about the impact of the Influenza epidemic on the Berkley campus! Wonderful investigative work!

    • Thank you, Jenny!I find it fascinating when personal history intersects with national and world history. The article I mention in the first paragraph also touches briefly on how UC Berkeley’s WW I war efforts changed the campus in the fall of 1918.

    • Thank you, Kendra! I appreciate your comments. How cool that you have your grandmother’s scrapbooks and can see what was important to her during her college years.

  4. I have finally caught up – read the entire blog from the beginning – and I am captivated by Ursula’s story and your efforts to fill in the details. I’m eager to learn more about her … more about her family, more about her talents, and more about what her life was like as she became a performer. Thanks so much for undertaking such a massive task and presenting it all in such an engaging way!

    • Wow. Thank you, Mary Beth, for such positive feedback. I am eager to continue discovering Ursula’s story, too, and sharing it here. I am sure there is much more great stuff to come!

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