Laura Thomas

Instructor, Senior Teaching Appointment

Old Main building historical photo
Copy negative of an undated image of Old Main filed in Historical Files.

Born in 1939: Margaret Atwood, Marvin Gaye, Tina Turner, Lily Tomlin, Francis Ford Coppola, and English as a stand-alone department at Colorado State College of Agricultural and Mechanical Arts.

Enrollment at Colorado State College of Agricultural and Mechanical Arts, or CSC, in Fall 1939 was 2048 students. The newly-created English Department had 12 faculty members, including its Head, Dr. Alfred Westfall, and was housed in the Old Main building on the Oval. The department offered composition as well as speech, drama, and journalism courses. In addition to teaching, Dr. Westfall served on the Board of Publication, which screened Collegian newspaper and Silver Spruce yearbook staff applicants, and advised the Scribblers Club student literary society.

This was the year that Gone With the Wind won the Academy Award for Best Picture, besting such iconic nominees as Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, and The Wizard of Oz, which brought Judy Garland fame and the chart-topping song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Among the hit songs of the year were Kate Smith’s “God Bless America,” Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade.”

Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” was also a top seller, despite her record label‘s refusing to record it. Spurned by Columbia, she turned to the small Commodore Records to release it as a single. Drawn from a poem written by New York high school English teacher Abel Meeropol, a man haunted by a photo of the lynching of a black man, “Strange Fruit” was named American Song of the Century by Time 60 years later.

This was an era of social and geopolitical turmoil, from the mass migrations brought on by drought in the south and west to the economic hardships of the Great Depression to Hitler’s invasion of Poland in August 1939, and the arts reflected that. John Steinbeck’s best-selling novel The Grapes of Wrath was but one example of the light that writers, poets, and artists shone on human rights and social justice in 1939.

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