History Spotlight: The 1968 Flu Pandemic

The 1968 flu pandemic (H3N2 virus), also known as the “Hong Kong flu,” forced King’s to close its campus in Briarcliff Manor, New York, early before Christmas Break. King’s alumni reminisce about the experience.

Christmas 1968
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On March 13, President Tim Gibson and the Emergency Operations Team notified the King’s community that The King’s College would move to remote teaching and operations through the end of the spring semester (Friday, May 8) due to concerns about the COVID-19 virus. All classes, meetings, and school-wide events (like the Public Reading of Scripture and Interregnum XVI) that can be conducted online have been moved to online platforms.

The novel coronavirus has upended our sense of normalcy, not just for King’s, but for the nation and the world. However, this is not the first time The King’s College campus has been closed due to a virus. The 1968 flu pandemic (H3N2 virus), also known as the “Hong Kong flu,” forced King’s to close its campus in Briarcliff Manor, New York early before Christmas Break. Outbreaks in 1968 and 1969 caused an estimated one million deaths worldwide.

King’s alumni who lived through the 1968 flu pandemic took to Facebook recently to reminisce about the experience. They remember the United States response to the H3N2 virus as less severe than today’s COVID-19. While one can weigh the relative severity and reach of these outbreaks, the outcome of both was the same—King’s students, faculty, and staff were instructed to leave campus before the semester’s scheduled end. We reached out to several alumni and asked if they would share their memories from 1968, and offer some encouragement to current students persevering through today’s trying circumstances.

Letter from Dean 1968

Maryann Cirillo (Christian Ed/Spanish ’69)

Cirillo was a senior in 1968 and was one of the few King’s students who actually contracted the virus and became sick. Cirillo shared that the virus caused disappointment for many since campus closing meant that they missed out on campus traditions. “We missed Christmas decoration night. We missed the Christmas banquet. Both events were such fun and we were sad about that.” Cirillo encourages current students to remember that God is in control during this “crazy” time. She mentioned Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (ESV).

Esther Mills

When students were sent home early for break, Mills, a freshman in 1968, did not have to travel far—only 80 miles by train to her parents’ place in Long Island. When asked if her parents, or other students’ parents, were worried, Mills said that she doesn’t remember anyone being too “panicky” about the situation. Businesses weren’t closed down like they are today, Mills recalls, and everything seemed normal in her hometown over the extended break. To return to school on January 6, 1969, Mills remembers that students needed to show no signs of illness and bring proof that they had gotten a flu shot. Mills wants current students to remember how important it is to keep their eyes on the Lord: “The world is going at a worldwind pace right now, and we get so caught up in bombardment from social media that we sometimes forget that God is not just in control, but that God knows where you are at all times. It is especially easy to take your eyes off the Lord when things start becoming like they are now. We get scared. There’s nothing wrong with being scared as long as you remember who the Lord is.”

Harold “Hal” Smith (Men’s basketball/baseball coach ’68, Dean of Men/Assoc Dean of Students ’69-’78)

Smith, who had studied Social Studies Education at King’s from 1963-1967, returned in 1968 to assistant coach the men’s basketball and baseball teams. Smith continued to coach athletics teams until 1978, while also working as the dean of men, associate dean of students, and, occasionally, a history professor. Smith remembers that when students, staff, and faculty returned to Briarcliff Lodge in early January, everyone acted with “extreme caution” for the first few days back. When asked about encouragement to current students, Smith said, “The Lord is in control of all…respect authority and their decisions…stay healthy.”

Dotsie Fesmire Corwin (’71)

Corwin was a sophomore in 1968 and was dating a basketball player (her husband now). Men’s basketball players were allowed on campus during the break since the team had gym practices on campus; girlfriends of players were also allowed to return to their dorm rooms during the break. Those who were allowed back on campus were quarantined there, and could not leave the grounds, according to Corwin. Corwin remembers that for several years before 1968, Coach Wilhelmi had treated basketball players and their girlfriends to a trip to the Poconos over break, but it was cancelled that year. (Says Corwin, “Coach Wilhelmi had some friend who had a resort and worked out a deal with him to have us come. It sounds a little suspicious, but it was all totally good, with girls bunking in one area and boys in another.”)

Although the team was bummed, Corwin explained that they made the best of the situation and had a lot of fun “having the whole campus to ourselves.” She said,
I guess they fed us in the cafeteria and we played a lot of board games, Aggravation being one we were totally addicted to. We could not go into each other’s rooms (we had a men’s dorm and women’s dorm, both a part of the main building) so we hung out in the “Formal Lounge” and by the “gray stairs,” where many couples bid each other good night, and where we spent hours on the landing playing Aggravation.

Dotsie Corwin
The “gray stairs” where, Dotsie Corwin remembers, “many couples bid each other good night, and where we spent hours on the landing playing ‘Aggravation.’” Dotsie is at center; her husband (then boyfriend) is on the left.

Corwin offered this encouragement to current students: “I can imagine this is much harder for students at King’s, or any college, than the Hong Kong flu was for us. Today’s seniors will miss their final semester on campus and time with their friends. This is a life-changing pandemic and only God knows how different our world will be in the future. But as believers, we know God has our best in mind and we can trust Him for that. I have no doubt that an education as excellent as TKC provides has prepared its students to be salt and light in many diverse ways in the coming years. For now we need to put our faith in God alone, and rest in Him for His peace, comfort and care.”

Photos courtesy of Dotsie Corwin.

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