Mrs. Roosevelt Returns

Earlier in 2013, we told you about First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to campus in 1938 to give a speech to the student body.  A recent question about an alumnus led us to uncover another long-forgotten visit by Mrs. Roosevelt, although this event was distinctly less formal.

Silvester Hall (L) was the home of the UNRRA during their time in College Park.
Silvester Hall (L) was the home of the UNRRA during their time in College Park.

In 1943, the United Nations created the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (the “UNRRA”) to provide services to war-torn areas after the conclusion of the fighting.  The UNRRA needed space to provide training to those who would do this important relief work, and the University of Maryland campus’ facilities and proximity to the administration’s Washington headquarters made it an ideal initial location.  Frank Munk, the head of training for UNRRA, arrived on campus in April 1944 to establish the program.  Munk and his students from around the world set up shop in Silvester Hall (now known as Baltimore Hall) and were given use of the cafeteria.  In a sign of very different times, UNRRA students were charged $2.00 per day for room and board.

The school offered training in the basics of providing emergency aid, as well as in the sociological and psychological impacts of war.  Language training was also a major component of the program. According to the UNRRA, the College Park facility provided training in French, German, Greek, Italian, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian, all the native languages of European countries that had been severely impacted by World War II by that point in the conflict.

The Diamondback reported on Mrs. Roosevelt's visit in their May 19, 1944 edition (click for larger version)
The Diamondback reported on Mrs. Roosevelt’s visit in its May 19, 1944 edition (click for larger version)

It was barely a month into the school’s operation when they received a surprise visitor.  On May 16, 1944, Mrs. Roosevelt made the short trip from the White House to College Park to drop in on the UNRRA program.  According to an article in the Diamondback, Mrs. Roosevelt arrived at the Rossborough Inn while Mr. Munk was teaching an orientation class there and later had a full tour of the facilities. The paper quoted her as saying that “she herself would like to take the UNRRA course and go overseas with the group”.  The New York Times reported that she sat in on a Serbo-Croatian language class, where the professor asked her a question as though she was one of the students (Mrs. Roosevelt evidently didn’t speak Serbo-Croatian!).

The UNRRA school at College Park graduated approximately 1,000 students in its first year.  By mid-1945, the needs of the UNRRA and the University were at odds, however, as both needed more space.  The UNRRA left the College Park campus in August of that year and relocated to the administration’s headquarters near DuPont Circle in Washington.  The UNRRA brought the First Lady to campus a second time, but this story is also another important reminder of the many ways in which the University of Maryland contributed to both the war and recovery efforts in the 1940s.

You can find out more about the UNRRA’s presence on campus in the President’s Office papers, accession #94-85.  Mrs. Roosevelt’s visit was rediscovered thanks to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Day By Day project of the FDR Library and Marist University.


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