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Hurricane of '38 Nearly Got the Best of Harvard

Storm That Greeted Class of '42 Was the Worst in the History of Boston, New England

By Brian R. Hecht, Crimson Staff Writer

The members of the Class of 1992 had just moved into their sophomore rooms when the storm struck. They had all been bracing for The Big One, but when Hurricane Hugo hit the shore, it was with more of a whimper than a roar.

Still, the glory of staring down a hurricane--even one that never lived up to its name--was an opportunity not to be missed by the young sophomore class. It was the first week of school, and the Class of '92, armed with plastic keg cups and a summer's worth of stories to tell, took to the River house courtyards.

That warm, gusty September evening was an important moment in defining a particular year's "class consciousness." For all the structured "memorable events" that Mother Harvard provides, it often takes Mother Nature to give meaning to a particular time and place.

That's the way it happened for the Class of 1942 as well. When the members of the class celebrate their 50th Reunion this week, one of their most vivid memories will no doubt be the hurricane that very nearly got the best of Harvard.

The Hurricane of 1938 didn't have a catchy name like Hugo, or Gloria--this was before they began naming storms like children. But that does not detract from its place in the collective memory of the Class of '42.

The Great New England Hurricane, as it has since come to be known, began its trek up the Eastern seaboard in the third week of September 1938, just as the class of '42 was beginning its trek toward Harvard Yard.

The hurricane beat the new students to Harvard's gates, if only by a few days. The storm unleashed winds of more than 120 miles per hour. According to contemporary news reports, floods from the hurricane killed more than 400 people in New England. Although no one was killed in Harvard Yard, the damage to the University's architectural and botanical treasures can hardly be overstated. The Crimson of September 23 cited damage of $100,000 in an article describing the scene as such:

"After a week of muggy weather when the humidity stood steadily at 92 percent, the storm broke furiously at about 6 o'clock. During that time nothing was spared. Blasts of wind carried branches through the air. Football practice was abandoned when a 10 foot strip of board fence came hurtling through the air toward C and D teams and the wooden grandstands retreated nine feet. A chimney fell off Harvard Hall and started the automatic sprinkler which in turn set off the fire alarms and drew three fire engines."

The description continued, "Another chimney plunged through the roof of the School of Education. Slate from Wigglesworth Hall's roof whirled across the street, and is blamed for the breaking of the Cambridge Trust Company's large plate glass window."

But the physical impact of the storm was slight compared with its impact on the class arriving at Harvard. Arthur Viner '42--like many members of his class--still remembers the less-than-rosy scene greeting him when he reached the devastated campus. Viner tells of how his train from Chicago to Cambridge was redirected to New York due to the storm, causing him to arrive late for registration and his baggage to arrive more than a week after he did.

"We made our way, early in the morning, out to Cambridge ... soaking wet. I still remem- ber," Viner recalls. "We went to registrationwith very minimal wardrobes, absolutely exhausted... the Yard was just totally devastated, and alot of the trees had fallen."

Indeed, The Crimson estimated that the "stormsof Herculean proportions" delayed up to one-thirdof the incoming class from registering on time.The Hurricane of '38 wasn't just herculean on aHarvard scale. Dr. Richard Pasch, a hurricanespecialist at the National Hurricane Center inCoral Gables, Fla., asserts that the Hurricane of'38 was at the time--and probably still is--thestrongest storm ever to hit New England.

"The big problem was that it was a majorhurricane moving very fast, pushing a lot of watereast of center, and that it came in at high tide,"Pasch says.

"It was a grim sight," Viner says of his firstglimpses of the Yard, "but it was pretty excitingtoo."

Would Viner, or any of his classmates, everforget the great hurricane, even 50 years afterthe fact? "It would be just like forgetting whereyou were on Pearl Harbor day," he says.

"It is indelibly marked on every member of theClass of 1942.

Indeed, The Crimson estimated that the "stormsof Herculean proportions" delayed up to one-thirdof the incoming class from registering on time.The Hurricane of '38 wasn't just herculean on aHarvard scale. Dr. Richard Pasch, a hurricanespecialist at the National Hurricane Center inCoral Gables, Fla., asserts that the Hurricane of'38 was at the time--and probably still is--thestrongest storm ever to hit New England.

"The big problem was that it was a majorhurricane moving very fast, pushing a lot of watereast of center, and that it came in at high tide,"Pasch says.

"It was a grim sight," Viner says of his firstglimpses of the Yard, "but it was pretty excitingtoo."

Would Viner, or any of his classmates, everforget the great hurricane, even 50 years afterthe fact? "It would be just like forgetting whereyou were on Pearl Harbor day," he says.

"It is indelibly marked on every member of theClass of 1942.

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