BYU: Brigham Young University and the Great War

August 26, 2018

The famous battles of World War I happened in far off places like Verdun, the Somme and Gallipoli, but the impact of the war was truly felt around the world, even in Utah Valley.

This November marks 100 years since the war ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, and Brigham Young University Archivist Cory Nimer is commemorating it by producing an exhibition, “Brigham Young University and The Great War” that shows the school’s role in the conflict.

Most people don’t know that the war had a big impact on BYU.

“With the Church encouraging enlistment and participation in the war effort, many students joined up. The exhibit looks at the long-term impact of the war on the university, including building construction and setting the stage for the ROTC,” Nimer said. The school began construction on the Mechanical Arts Building, later named after President George Brimhall, with plans to use it for military technical instruction. They even used the Maeser Building as a barracks.

The majority of soldiers from BYU never saw combat, but 16 students lost their lives during the war. One of the most touching documents in the exhibition is the telegram that informed John D. Boyd Jr.’s family of his death. Boyd, who wasn’t a BYU student, was serving on a Navy ship when it encountered a violent storm. He was the first casualty of the war from Provo and the university participated in his funeral.

Even those soldiers who stayed in the states weren’t safe. Future BYU President Ernest L. Wilkinson was quartered in the Maeser Building. He was one of the first soldiers to catch influenza in the early stages of the epidemic that would ultimately cause authorities to temporarily close BYU.

The exhibit includes letters, diaries and scrapbooks from notable people including a young Spencer W. Kimball, James E. Talmage and Sen. Reed Smoot. The library has a collection of wartime letters from President Brimhall that document the issues he faced. The task of reviewing those letters and tracking down all the names of BYU alumni who served in the war was assigned to Jason Colver, from Elk Ridge, a student researcher employed by Nimer.

Colver was in for a surprise. Part way through the process he learned that Alma Evan Jacobson, his great-grandfather, had served in the army.

“He was at BYU studying blacksmithing and he ended up being assigned to Arizona where he trained others to be blacksmiths.” Colver had no idea that his great grandfather had served in the Army during World War I.

Nimer hopes every student who visits the exhibit will have a personal experience like Colver.

“The real focus of the exhibit, though, is on how students at BYU responded to this local context,” he said.

The goal is for visitors to look at the challenges and choices each person in the exhibit made, and then decide for themselves what choices they would have made. As visitors leave the exhibition they are invited to try on service uniforms for a soldier or a nurse and take a picture in front of a selfie station featuring a poster of BYU’s WWI soldiers.

The exhibition “Brigham Young University and The Great War” was co-curated by Nimer, along with John Murphy from the L. Tom Perry Special Collections, and Ken Alford from Religious Education. It was developed with a grant from two agencies, Utah State History and the Utah Division of Veterans and Military Affairs. It is located on level one of the Harold B. Lee Library, just inside the L. Tom Perry Special Collections. The exhibit is open during special collections hours, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Fridays, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays. It will run through November 2018. The public is welcome and admission is free.

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