Walt Bruska earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornell’s College of Agriculture in 1950, thanks to the GI Bill. He went on to a career as a football coach and university administrator. In this excerpt from Postwar Cornell, Walt remembers the long road that lead him to Cornell and the unique community for married students known as “Vetsburg.”
I played all four sports at Mohawk High School—football, baseball, basketball, and track. I was named the outstanding boy in my class, and my wife was named outstanding girl. I still have the trophies. There was never any question I would go to college. My parents were immigrants from Russia, and my father worked in a factory, but when I entered school they started speaking English at home. They wanted me to succeed.
I enlisted in the Army Air Corps in the spring of 1943, but the army postponed my reporting date so I could graduate from high school. I wanted to be a navigator because I had seen the movie Winged Victory, where the navigator was the key man on the plane. He sent directions to the pilot so the plane could hit its target, and even more important, he knew when the plane had to turn around so it wouldn’t run out of fuel. I didn’t know it would take them almost two years to train me.
I finally arrived in Guam as a member of the 315th Bomb Wing at the end of June, 1945. I flew on a couple of bombing missions before the war ended, and I was sent to Tinian Island as one of the back-up crew for the atomic-bomb runs to Japan, although I didn’t go on either of them. I continued doing supply and delivery missions until I was discharged as a first lieutenant in May 1946.
I planned to use the GI Bill to go to Cortland State University and study physical education so I could be a coach. But then I realized that I could be a high school coach and also teach history, math, or science, which seemed more interesting. So I applied to Alfred University and was accepted, but they couldn’t take me until the spring semester of 1947.
Around that time I ran into Edward Burns 1918, a family friend who was an attorney and a loyal fan of Cornell football. He was on the lookout for promising young men, particularly if they were athletes. He asked me if I was going to college and I said yes, but I didn’t think I could get into Cornell. So he made me an appointment and drove me to Ithaca for an interview, and about five days later I was accepted for the fall term.
I was twenty-one years old and married when I arrived at Cornell, and married students had to arrange for their own housing. So I bought a house trailer and an old Cord automobile—a big Mafia car, it would have carried a dozen people—and we towed the trailer from our home in Mohawk, New York, to a trailer park that had just opened in Varna. Our daughter Charlotte [who graduated from Cornell in 1969] was born on May 2, 1947. Her sister, Nancy, was born on February 12, 1950, a few days after I graduated.
Cornell, for me, was work, family, and football. After my wife got pregnant, we noticed that there was ice on the floor of the house trailer in the morning, and she said we couldn’t bring a child into a place like that. So we went looking for another place, and we found a cottage in Harold Clough’s backyard. He was a welding instructor in the Agricultural Engineering Department, and I helped in his class. We were there for eighteen months, and then we got a place in Vetsburg.
Vetsburg was great. Nobody who lived there had much money, so we cooperated with each other. We traded babysitting and did odd jobs. We used to have our parties once a month, when the veteran’s payments arrived. My neighbor and I would each buy a pint of whiskey, and we’d go over to someone’s house and have dinner and whoop it up.
I didn’t party very much, though. With a wife and child, I had to work to make ends meet. I was a teaching assistant for two agricultural engineering courses during my junior and senior years. Between the end of classes and the beginning of football practice I worked on the university farm, driving a tractor, planting, cultivating, and cutting weeds. In the fall I’d work in the beef cattle barn. And I also worked at Long’s grocery store on Eddy Street. Mr. Long was very good to me. We would close up the store at 10 or 11 p.m., and he would give me a bag or two of groceries to take home. A lot of Ithaca people were kind and helpful to us.
Mr. Burns urged me to join a fraternity, so I did. I got into Phi Kappa Psi, and he paid my initiation fee. But the main thing I did there was go with my wife to chaperon at fraternity parties. That was an eye-opener. Three times a year, there would be big weekend parties where the second floor of fraternities would be reserved for girls who were visiting for the party, and the guys would be bunking on the third floor. It was hard to maintain the separation. These young guys would drink too much and try to sneak their dates upstairs. That was a different kind of Cornell than the one we lived in, for sure.