Family Album


Many readers were spot-on in describing the “Vanished Into Thin Air?” picture in the Summer Davidson Journal, as these letters attest. That picture is reproduced below, alongside others we found in archives in support of the backstory. Please feel free to use the comments section here to identify friends and relations you see!

This picture from 1942 has captured the imagination of all whose lives it has touched since Archivist Jan Blodgett discovered it on a quest for legacy graduation photos.

From the Archives: “ROTC Commissioning at Commencement 1942. Billy Barker, photographer. Descriptive note: ‘An ROTC student at commencement and commissioning in 1942. Shearer Hall looms behind the stage.’”


The picture on page 36 of the latest Davidson Journal caught my attention. My father-in-law, Mason Wallace ’42, recounted how their class graduated from Davidson and almost immediately shipped off to fight in the war. They wore their uniforms proudly underneath their gowns during the graduation ceremony. Once the ceremony was over, the class as a unit removed their gowns to reveal their military uniforms and marched off.

He is no longer around for me to ask, but given the clues—people are attending a very big special event given their hats, gloves, suits, etc.; it is a warm time of year; the gowns are in a row, as if removed and dropped from where they were standing in a line and not piled up; everyone seems to be looking in the collar area for a name or some identification; they are carrying programs in the hands. It could be some kind of church ceremony, but my gut feeling is that this captured the fallen gowns left by the newly graduated soldiers headed off to war.

My husband and I heard this story many, many times over the years from Mason. He was proud to serve his country and earned three purple hearts. He was even prouder of graduation from Davidson!


Debby Carlton Wallace ’81

From the Archives: “ROTC Commissioning at Commencement 1942. Billy Barker, photographer. Descriptive note: ‘A picture of President John R. Cunningham shaking hands with an ROTC man and giving him something at the 1942 commencement.’ Those in picture are: Dr. Cunningham (left), Ellis Marsh ’30 (center ), Bill Faison of Charlotte ’42 (right)”


I believe I was told that at the graduation of 1942 that the graduates who were being commmissioned as second lieutenants wore their Army uniforms under grad robes and after their commissioning took robes off and boarded a bus for Army induction.


Ben Goldsmith ’65

From the Archives: “ROTC Commissioning at Commencement 1942. Billy Barker, 1943, was the photographer, and the descriptive note indicates that it is ‘a picture of the ROTC men standing side by side either putting on or taking off their graduation robes.’”


This is in response to the mystery photo in the most recent edition of the Davidson Journal. My father, George Thompson “Tommy” Brown was in the Class of 1942. My father tells the story of his graduation in 1942, in the middle of the war. Many it not most of the graduates were commissioned into the Army and sent off to war immediately upon graduation. They all had their uniforms on under their graduation gowns. This photo must show the gowns after they were discarded for the Army commissioning ceremony. My father says it was quite a dramatic and emotional moment—sons and daughters were already being lost at an alarming rate in the middle of the war. My father served in the war from his graduation in 1942 until 1945 or 46, and later became a Presbyterian missionary to Korea. He and his wife of 67 years, Mary Hopper Brown (Agnes Scott, 1943), live in Stone Mountain.

Bruce Brown ’79

From the Archives: “ROTC Commissioning at Commencement 1942. Photographer not indicated. Descriptive note ‘Top: A group picture of the men in ROTC all holding their graduation robes. Bottom: A picture of five ROTC men either putting on or taking off their graduation robes.’ Caption notes: ‘In September 1941, 2nd Lt. Samuel R. Spencer, Jr. ’40 returned to Davidson as an instructor in the ROTC unit. At graduation in 1942, above left to right, Spencer; Walter B. Wooten, Jr., Claude Hackney.’”


Reference the subject page 36 mystery photo of discarded graduation robes on the pavement in front of Chambers: In the spring of 1943 during WWII, I witnessed the caps and gowns graduation ceremony held in front of Chambers, which was followed by the swearing-in ceremony of new 2nd lieutenants being commissioned from ROTC. Immediately after the graduation ceremony, and as a continuation of the ceremonial program, these new officers, who were going off to war, symbolically pulled off and dropped their academic caps and gowns. It was to reveal their pinks and green uniforms with gold bar rank insignia, before raising their right hands for the oath of office swearing in ceremony administered by the Professor of Military Science and Tactics.

This could possibly explain the dropped academic robes at the time of war ’42 graduation.

John Edward Gray ’49
Colonel, U.S. Army Retired


I have a suggestion about the subject picture in the Summer 2010 issue of the Davidson Journal. When I entered Davidson in June 1943, there were still a few undergraduates around who had not gone off to war. They told stories about ROTC graduates in 1942 and 1943 who wore their military uniforms under their academic gowns. When the ceremonies were over, they removed the gowns and marched off in formation to report for active duty service in World War II. In the picture, their families are retrieving these uniforms for safe-keeping until their sons returned from the war.

The new format of the Journal is GREAT! It has always been a good publication, but it is even better today. Please keep up the good work.

P.S. At the last two alumni meetings here in Charleston, I was the  senior alum present!

William A Wier, Jr. ’47


My father, Bennett Y Cowan ’42 recognized the scene immediately as occurring in the moments after graduation 1942 when the ROTC cadets (who were wearing their uniforms underneath) had shucked the robes to be commissioned into the Army (they were required to be in full uniform for that bit of ceremony).

On page 8 of Soldiers and Sentinels: Davidson’s World War II Veterans Speak, edited by Merrill ’84 there is a picture taken only a few moments earlier, which shows a similar bit of cordage separating the graduates from the audience, as well as the graduates disrobing with their uniforms underneath.

Although his eyesight is failing, and there are no family photos for corroboration, he thinks that the matron on the left might be his mother. But his memory and recall remain nearly 100%!

Hope this doesn’t disappoint anyone hoping for photographic proof of The Rapture.

Bennett Y Cowan, Jr ’71


The 1942 photo may be those robes of newly graduated young men reporting directly from commencement to military duty, leaving the task of turning in robes to the family members.

I’ll be interested to find out for certain!

Sandy Saxton
parent of Caroline Saxton Muegge ’05


My father, John R. MacKinnon, Class of 1942, on more than one occasion, told me about his graduation in the spring of 1942. He and the other members of his ROTC class, which was probably almost all of the graduating class that year, had their uniforms on under their robes at the graduation ceremony. Immediately following the ceremony, they took off their robes and marched to the nearby flagpole, where they were sworn in to the U.S. Army. They were then sent off to basic training that same day, I think. He spent the rest of the war in the Pacific, serving with distinction.

This picture is consistent with his story. The family members appear to be collecting the robes and caps that have been left behind by the newly enlisted soldiers, who are now headed off to the more serious matters of World War II. My father passed away some years ago, but I am sure that he would have appreciated this picture very much. Thank you for presenting it and please help other people understand what it really meant. (And if you find out that it is something else entirely, you don’t have to tell me, as it fits my father’s story just fine as it is.)

John A. MacKinnon ’72
Bisbee, Arizona.


About Author

Comments are closed.