|Treasure in the Archives
“I remember how important the Hopkins academic honor system was to me. The Hopkins way left a lasting impression on me and still is at work in my life.”
—Eric Wellisch ’42
(pictured during his days at Hopkins)
Ross Jones ’53, former Hopkins vice president and secretary and special aide and adviser to six university presidents, certainly is a familiar face on campus. These days, he’s especially familiar to the folks in the Ferdinand Hamburger Jr. Archives, where Jones has spent considerable time researching the life and career of P. Stewart Macaulay, a long-time university secretary and provost. “He came in at a time when the university was in tough financial straits, in the middle of the Depression, and I had a hunch that he had a major role in holding the place together,” Jones says. Last summer, while researching Macaulay, Jones came across a press release from 1939 saying the student body and faculty had raised money to help pay for the education of a Jewish refugee from Europe, and that the university had agreed to provide the student free tuition.
Jones’ training as a news reporter kicked in as he dug further into the story, eventually finding the alumnus, Eric Wellisch ’42, alive and well in Asheville, N.C. “I went down to Asheville to see him in the fall, and it was delightful to spend a few hours with him and his wife,” Jones says. Jones wrote this piece for Arts and Sciences Magazine about Wellisch and the movement at Hopkins to bring him to campus.
Eric Wellisch was born in 1920 in Weisenfeld, Austria, to the only Jewish family in his tiny rural village. As a teenager, he saw his world change with the suspension of the Austrian constitution and the rise of Adolf Hitler. Set to graduate from high school in 1938, he learned from his principal that because he was a Jew he wouldn’t be allowed to attend commencement ceremonies.
“About that time, Hitler’s ‘brown shirts’ came,” Wellisch remembers. They took over his father’s general store and eventually evicted the family. Wellisch joined a Zionist youth group that offered agricultural training, but wasn’t in it for long before he says he and his father were jailed and then told to leave Austria. He was somehow able to obtain a visa and passport and headed alone for New York, where a cousin was living, in early 1939.
Wellisch enrolled in the National Youth Administration (NYA)—a Roosevelt-era program to train young people who were continuing their education despite the Depression. At the suggestion of a fellow NYA member, Wellisch wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt for help in bringing his father, mother, and sister to the United States. Wellisch says he was amazed
to receive a prompt response from Steve Early, Roosevelt’s press secretary: “The President has read your letter and he will do what he can to bring your family to this country,”
the letter read.
Two weeks later, Wellisch says, his family was allowed to emigrate, landing in New York on Sept. 1, the same day German forces invaded Poland, signaling the start of World War II.
As Wellisch was gaining freedom for himself and his family, students at Hopkins, concerned about events in Western Europe, began a fundraising drive to support the education of a European refugee. News-Letter accounts said the students were seeking $750—$1 from every student and faculty member—to pay the refugee’s expenses.
“This was a period of upheaval,” Harold A. Ricards ’39 remembers. “World War II was not far off, and Nazi activities were in the news media constantly.” Ricards, then president of the Student Council, led the fundraising campaign.
By early spring, the students had raised their goal and teamed with a refugee organization in New York to identify the recipient. A Hopkins fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, offered free room and board in its house, and the university, in turn, agreed to remit tuition for the student.
In New York, Wellisch learned of the Hopkins offer through a Jewish social agency, and was eventually contacted about it by Morris Wessel ’39, now a retired pediatrician who helped lead the scholarship campaign.
At Hopkins, Wellisch lived in the AEPi house, sang in the glee club, worked hard, and majored in chemistry.
“I remember how important the Hopkins academic honor system was to me,” Wellisch says. “The Hopkins way left a lasting impression on me and still is at work in my life.”
After graduating in 1942, he worked for a local chemical company for a few months before enlisting in the U.S. Army, where he spent most of his time with the 44th Combat Engineers, landing with them at Normandy a month after D-Day and seeing action in 1944’s Battle of the Bulge. Just before he shipped out in 1943, Wellisch became a U.S. citizen at Fort Breckenridge, Ky.
After the war, Wellisch continued his education, earning a master’s degree in chemistry from Columbia University and a PhD in chemistry from Purdue University. He then went to work for Missouri-based Olin Industries, Inc. (now Olin Corp.), where he spent most of his career as a research chemist. A company transfer moved his family—wife, Lillian, and two sons—to Asheville in 1964. Wellisch retired from Olin in 1985.
Over the years, Wellisch lost touch with most of his friends from Hopkins, but he says his gratitude for their generosity and kindness and the happy memories of his days at Homewood are stronger than ever.