Johns Hopkins Magazine
Johns Hopkins Magazine Current Issue Past Issues Search Get In Touch
Graduating in Tough Times

A faltering economy, war on several fronts, political unrest. Johns Hopkins students have graduated through it all.

By Marianne Amoss, Michael Anft, Dale Keiger, and Catherine Pierre
Photos by Mike Ciesielski

This May, more than 1,000 undergraduates bid farewell to the Homewood campus — and said hello to one of the worst job markets we've seen in years. Add to that global climate change, a health care crisis, an energy crisis, two ongoing wars and political conflict in hotspots around the world, fear of terrorism, and, at press time, a touch of the swine flu. Seems like a daunting environment in which to plan the next phase of your life. Which got us thinking: Johns Hopkins graduated students during the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam era, and the Carter "malaise" years. What could those alumni tell us? We talked to some for a little perspective.

When Charles Mewshaw came to Johns Hopkins from the Western Maryland mountains in 1934, the country was still in the midst of the Great Depression. Not that he remembers his time here darkly. "It was a romantic time, a delightful period," Mewshaw, now 92, says. "We came to Hopkins for one reason only: to learn. We didn't eat out, didn't go to shows because we didn't see any money around, and we certainly didn't have any."

Mewshaw spent his time on campus studying mechanical engineering with about a dozen others in his class. He concentrated on ways to set himself up for life after graduation, becoming the top ROTC student on campus — he's in Johns Hopkins' ROTC Hall of Fame — and having some fun while he was at it. By the time he graduated, jobs were back in play, as the nation's aircraft and munitions industries were gearing up to supply England during World War II. Mewshaw made a career out of the military, serving in a bridge-building, earth-moving combat engineer regiment during World War II, and spending time at 32 different Army posts in a 23-year career thereafter. He retired in 1970 as a full colonel, and maintains the bolt-upright posture of an Army man, despite his years.


Charles T. Mewshaw Sr., 1938

"I remember the day in 1929 when the banks closed. My grandfather was an undertaker in West Baltimore, a tough, hot-headed German named Teufel. He took me with him to a savings bank. He went up and started banging on the door, cursing them out in German. They had frozen all his money. By the time I was considering college, you could see things were tough. Have you ever seen the FDR Memorial in Washington, with all the men standing in bread lines? Well, we saw that in Cumberland [Maryland]. My Dad had a high-up position with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and craftsmen would come and stand in line for just a couple of hours of work. FDR eventually jazzed up the economy with the Civilian Conservation Corps and things like that. But for a long time, there were people standing in bread lines.

"My father wasn't all that hot on the idea of college. He already had a good job and never went to college, so what was the big deal? My older brother had gone to Hopkins on a scholarship arranged by a Maryland state senator, but he had trouble with an engineering professor who gave him a hard time about his drawing. My brother had lost some feeling in his fingers in an accident, and the professor criticized his drawing ability. He lasted two days — and had a hell of a time finding a job after that. I wanted to go to college, so I took a scholarship that paid my tuition and books. My father would help out the senator who got the scholarships, J. Glenn Beall, when he could. When it was election time, he would tell his workers he'd give them time off with pay if they'd go and vote for him, then come back to work. That wasn't an unusual way to do things back then.

"Most of the engineering students were scholarship people. My life for four years was this: I lived in a dorm, the only one at Hopkins. There were about 100 men there. The engineering curriculum involved going to class five and a half days a week, which included Saturday mornings. If you played lacrosse, you could get out a little early on Saturdays. We played ping-pong, studied, went to bed early. Sometimes, girls would come into the dorms, and we worked hard to make sure Mrs. Fuller, who ran the dorm, didn't hear about it.

"My parents paid for my room — about $43 a month, plus I got $5 a month in spending money. It cost $1 just to buy a bag of hamburgers from the Little Tavern. So, I needed to do something for money. Some medical guy at Hopkins Hospital needed someone to collect male urine, which he was going to use in hormone studies. I decided to give it a whirl. I told the guys in my dorm about it and about 30 of them decided to participate. I'd put jars outside their doors each evening. In the morning, I'd pick them up and pour them into a five-gallon jug that the researcher would pick up. I got $5 a week for that. I can't remember holding on to that job for very long.

"Right around the time we were graduating, Bethlehem Steel came around and started asking six or eight of us whether we'd like to become 'loopers' — guys who would travel to various plants and do various jobs for $125 a month for a five-day week, which wasn't all that bad back then. Jobs were finally starting to become available around 1937 or '38. I was sent to Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where they actually paid me $115 per month for five-and-a-half-day weeks. So, I left for Boeing in Burbank, California, where we built the Ventura bomber for the British, and then the B-17. I was on a ROTC commission, so when war came here in 1941, I was ordered to active duty."


Hugh McCormick began classes at Johns Hopkins in September 1938, right about the time British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Berlin waving an agreement, signed by Adolf Hitler, that he said meant "peace for our time." That peace lasted 11 months, until Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The Second World War raged in Europe and the Far East as McCormick pursued a degree in economics. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December of his senior year, and McCormick entered the Navy as soon as he graduated.

Part of the family that founded McCormick and Company Inc., the Baltimore-based spice company, McCormick had intended to see the world in the spice business. Instead, he saw the world, at least some of it, in the military, serving on submarine chasers that escorted convoys off the North Africa coast and the Mediterranean. After marrying his girlfriend while home on leave, he finished the war in Oregon and Hawaii. Over the years, he's kept in touch with Hopkins, and has been a generous supporter of the Krieger School and the Johns Hopkins Hospital.


Hugh McCormick, 1942

"My great-uncle started McCormick and Company in 1889, and I worked there for 40 years, extremely pleased with my position and proud of the company. My father was Hugh P. McCormick, vice president of McCormick and son of a Baptist missionary. He came to Baltimore in 1915. He died at 46 from tuberculosis, in 1936, when I was 16. My mother, Mary, was very stalwart and raised two boys. Her mother was from Savannah, and that lady said I should always marry a Southern girl, so I did, from Mississippi. I was always very happy for that advice.

"At one time I was going to go to the Naval Academy, but when I lost my dad I wanted to stay home, and Hopkins was close to home. I'd jog to school and hitchhike home in the evening. I think the tuition was $500 a semester, and that was a burden for my mother. So I asked them at Hopkins what I could do to earn some money. They said if I could get together a team of guys, we could put up the bleachers in the gym for the basketball games, and take them down afterwards. I don't remember what I got paid, but it helped me pay that $500.

"I had a wonderful experience at Hopkins. I had sports, and I had a fraternity for social life, Phi Gamma Delta, the Fijis. I was captain of the football team, played three years at center. I was captain of the swimming team, and then I got tired of swimming and was on the wrestling team. The swimming coach told me the muscles were all wrong for wrestling, but I thought college was where you went to try different things. I went on the track team as a shot putter and javelin thrower.

"I went to the local church where my grandfather was the preacher. I had good friends. Life was simpler then. I knew well in advance where I was going to be. I wanted to go to work for McCormick and go around the world buying spices, and the best preparation I knew was the business school at Hopkins, where I majored in economics. But then along came my graduation, and I ended up joining the Navy.

"Pearl Harbor was December of my senior year, and I went down to the post office and enlisted about a month later, but I was allowed to finish school. After Hopkins, I was up at Notre Dame in August for a month [of naval indoctrination] and Northwestern for three months for officer candidate school. I was what they called a "90-day wonder," in the V-7 program [the Naval Reserve Midshipman Program]: three months and you came out an ensign. Then they sent me to Casablanca to be captain of a sub-chaser, SC-525. It was all wooden with a crew of 28. We were part of the 'splinter fleet,' they called us 'iron men in wooden ships.' I went to North Africa and did coastal work, convoys to Naples, and was part of the assault on Anzio. I saw a guy next to me get his leg blown off.

"In 1944 they gave me a 30-day leave, and I came home and got married. I had met my wife, Joy, when we were paired at a Baptist retreat at Ridgecrest, North Carolina, in 1939. She came up from Baylor and I came down from Hopkins. She was from Newton, Mississippi. I used to hitchhike to Mississippi to see her, or she'd find a way to come up to Baltimore. We were committed to each other but weren't going to marry yet because of the war — I didn't know if I'd come back.

"Kids have different standards today, and their own stress. I didn't have to go into debt, I didn't have to have a car, I didn't have to have a computer. No phones that you had to check in every hour with your family. It was very simple and very satisfying. We had different ideas of security, where we wanted to be in 10 years. Expectations are high now, and that causes stress."


When H. Russell Wright graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1966, the Vietnam War was escalating, and anti-war protests and the drug culture were gathering speed. "Life started changing around that time," he says. "And for the kids who were coming after us, life was a lot different."

Wright, a Louisiana native, comes from a long line of military men — he's traced his family's fighting lineage back to the Revolutionary War. He was in ROTC at Johns Hopkins and was commissioned in 1966. After a brief sixth-grade teaching stint after graduation, he went on active duty in 1967 and went to Vietnam the next year. When he returned to Maryland, Wright finished active duty at Fort Holabird in Dundalk, then began working toward a medical degree at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. A practicing otolaryngologist, he maintained a relationship with the military, holding such positions as chief of staff of the 136th Combat Support Hospital, until his retirement in 2004. He and his wife, Judith, a nurse, continue to run a solo practice, called Baltimore Ear, Nose, Throat, and Allergy.

Looking back over his 65 years, Wright says he shares Jimmy Buffett's perspective: "Some of it's magic, some of it's tragic, but I had a good life all the way."


H. Russell Wright, 1966

"[Hopkins students] changed drastically between '62 and '66. Those of us who came along earlier in the '60s were more willing to go along with the [national] administration. I don't think we fully understood at the time what Vietnam was all about. There was not a huge military buildup when we started college and our first two years. The class that came in around '64, '65 was much more interested in complaining about — not complaining but demonstrating against — the war. If you look at the kids who graduated from high school in '64, that was around the time when we started our military buildup in Vietnam, and it was getting significantly worse.

"It was also about the time, if I remember correctly, that the drug culture really started. There were a whole lot of us who came into Hopkins in the early '60s and basically our drug of choice, if we had one, was alcohol. By the time I was finished, we were starting to see a shift. The major drug of choice was still alcohol, but there were people who were using other things. I think that had started to affect the student population — not necessarily in an adverse way, but I think it was changing some of their attitudes. A lot of [the anti-war protests] started after I left. By the time I came home in '70, they had really ramped up. I never protested. I never protested the protesters. They had their right to express their discomfort.

"I don't remember being upset or elated one way or the other [about going to Vietnam]. It was the commitment I had made. If you weren't married and weren't in school, you were gonna get drafted. As far as I was concerned, I was single, I knew I was physically fit, and I knew it was time to go.

"It turned out to be one of the best things I ever did. When I went I was not a physician, of course, so I ended up being assigned to infantry and signal positions, and I had a lot of neat experiences. They weren't neat like, 'Oh, I wanna go do that.' But they were growing experiences. Some of it was fun, some of it was funny, some of it was scary. The scary stuff you hide; the funny parts you talk about. I think the thing that a lot of people don't realize is, as bad as that war was, how random getting hurt was. It could be five seconds one way or the other. There was a phrase that one of our sergeants used: 'Anything you do, including nothing, can get you killed.'

"Times are so different [now]. What was hard for us was trying to figure out, are you going to go to grad school? Are you going to go into the Army? What's going to happen to you? I think a lot of people were scared, and I don't blame them. That threat is not here today. I think the threat in this environment, in this economy, is going to be that kids can't find the right job right away. The majority of people graduating from college still don't know what they want to do, and that's OK. They have an idea, so you start to pursue that, and then you go where life leads you.

"I have been an army officer, I've been a teacher, and I've been a doctor. I've owned my own business. You have to be prepared to go wherever life leads you. And I think that a lot of these kids are going to have to adapt to that. They're going to have to adapt to learning to change and make themselves as salable as they can in many different ways."


Larry Kenney and Marci (then Foggan) Kenney arrived at Johns Hopkins on the heels of the oil crisis of 1973. "I remember waiting on line to buy gas on our way down to visit Hopkins," Marci says. In the coming years, the country would suffer from stagflation and its share of trouble with the Middle East (leading President Jimmy Carter to deliver his so-called "Malaise Speech" in 1979). For all that, the Kenneys say they were focused more on their coursework and part-time jobs — and on planning for after college — than world crises.

The couple got engaged after their junior year and married in June 1978, three weeks after graduation. Larry had landed an engineering job with defense contractor Bendix; 31 years later, he's still with the firm, which is now Raytheon. Marci, an economist, started working at the Maritime Administration the summer before her senior year. That began three decades of government service, including positions at the International Trade Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Federal Highway Administration. She retired in 2007. About 12 years ago, they started the Marci and Larry Kenney Scholarship Fund at Johns Hopkins; more recently, they supported one of the study rooms at Charles Commons.


Marci, 1978 and 1979, and Larry Kenney, 1978

Larry: "Neither of us had a car on campus, so we don't have memories of the gas lines then. But I got my driver's license in high school, and I always had to bring the car back with a full tank of gas. It was a challenge because you were only allowed to buy a certain amount of gas, and you'd tell your dad, 'I couldn't get a full tank of gas today.'"

Marci: "At the time there was less of a sense of energy as being an ongoing crisis. It was kind of this blip in '73. There was definitely an emergence of environmental issues — Earth Day was getting started, and things like that — but there wasn't a good sense of how you factor them into the economy. And given the high inflation and unemployment, people were reluctant to impose additional requirements on industry. So those issues were starting to emerge, but they were nowhere near as legitimate or embraced by the mainstream as they are now.

Larry: "Tuition started out at about $3,000 and ended up at maybe $3,500 or $3,600 by my senior year. I had some grants, but the rest of it was borrowed. [When I graduated] there weren't that many defense companies in the area hiring, so I guess I was a little worried about getting a job so I could start making money right away. But it wasn't so much a general problem with the economy. I wanted to get out and be productive, and it didn't seem like there were that many opportunities. The opportunity that I ended up accepting, Bendix — I've been there for over 30 years, so it kind of worked out for me."

Marci: "In recent years it's been different in the sense that there have been so many young people who've been tremendously successful, whether they founded Google or Facebook or whatever, that there's a sense that if they're talented and bright, they can be very successful very quickly, and that they can bounce from one thing to another and that's OK."

Larry: "I think people are a lot more open to taking risks with their careers than we were when we were young. Young people going out and being entrepreneurs and getting venture capital to invest in them was unheard of. Then there's this crazy guy named Bill Gates. He was a real societal outlier, versus today. We go to these presentations by the engineering students, and they have visions of themselves going out and having a startup company and failing and having another startup company, whereas my model of employment was, go out and find a large company and start at the bottom and work your way to the top."

Marci: "I befriended student interns when I worked for the government, and they were always concerned about getting a job after graduation. They said things like, 'You don't understand, the economy is worse now.' And I remember telling one of them, 'Well, they said that in 1978, too.' I'd tell them that they were pretty well-prepared having a degree from a great school and having some related work experience, and that they would be able to parlay that into a job."

Larry: "I think for most people who graduate from Hopkins, they're pretty well-equipped to find an organization that needs talent. It might not be their ideal job, but it might be a job that opens up a network of other opportunities. Students should do whatever they can to tap the alumni, because the alumni are out here."


Njeri Osbourne came to Johns Hopkins — from Jamaica, where her parents are in medicine — as a premed student. But before long, she turned her attention to other pursuits. "I went from, 'I really want to be a doctor,' to changing to a psychology major and then into marketing," she says. Johns Hopkins doesn't offer a marketing major, so Osbourne, who in May graduated with a double degree in Writing Seminars and political science, took as many business and marketing classes as she could through the Whiting School of Engineering's Center for Leadership Education.

Osbourne, who founded the Vivaz Performing Arts Company her freshman year and was a co-winner of the 2009 President's Commendation for Achievement in the Arts, would like to pursue a career in music, as a performer, but sees music marketing as a practical backup plan. While an undergraduate, she had summer internships at Pepsi Cola Jamaica and MTV in New York. ("My big dream was to work for MTV," she says.) She hasn't found a permanent job yet, but she's spending her summer looking, and despite the bleak economic environment, she's optimistic. "In this economy, we really don't have the excuse of getting lazy or giving up," says Osbourne. "The opportunity is out there."


Njeri Osbourne, 2009

"I took as many marketing classes as I could — international marketing, globalization — and I was able to include those classes on my résumé so that it would be relatively transferable to internships. There was peer pressure at school to be a doctor, and I knew it was what my parents were hoping for. But once I came here and met some students at Peabody, they slowly got me to open up to pursuing a career that was more in the music side of things. Initially of course, I was hesitant.

"My mother, whenever she called, she would say, 'OK, how do you plan on using your major to get a job after college?' Our conversations usually surrounded that question. I've tried to answer that question every day since I've been here. There was also an initial panic about not being able to pursue a major that was directly related to the field I want to enter after college. But I'm very positive in terms of finding a job after college.

"I do worry about the economy. Coming from a third-world country, I can't help but think about the impact it's going to have on the violence, especially back home. There's an average of four murders every day in Jamaica. I worry about my family a lot, as well as my relatives here in the U.S. who are also being affected by the economy. Fortunately some of my relatives have opened up their social networks to me — 'OK, I have a friend who works in entertainment in D.C.' My uncles and aunts are also always reinforcing the importance of having a steady job to support my music career.

"Most of my friends seem to have made preparations before they graduated. I think that's what I like about being at Hopkins. My friends are very focused on what they're passionate about. Many of my friends are going to graduate school. And I know that a few of them are going into the Teach for America program. It's kind of disheartening that everyone's separating, but at the same time, with Facebook and MySpace, we have great opportunities to stay connected.

"I really believe that, especially in my generation, there is a greater need for marketability, and I think that the Internet is one of the advantages we have. It's faster and more efficient, and there are so many great opportunities for startup companies. Online social networking poses endless possibilities for connecting with people around the world.

"I read Think Big, by Ben Carson, and The Alchemist and The Secret. They talked about broadening your mindset and projecting your interests and your goals out into the universe so that the universe will conspire to give you benefits, give you good fortune and health. That's really helped to influence my thinking, graduating in tough economic times. I made up an acronym to motivate myself. MANAGE: Marketability; Aligning yourself for opportunities; Networking; Asking questions to build a skill set and to get to know what people think and want; Gathering information; striving for Excellence.

"That really sums up my attitude going into graduation and the experience I've had here at Hopkins."

Return to June 2009 Table of Contents

  The Johns Hopkins Magazine | 901 S. Bond St. | Suite 540 | Baltimore, MD 21231
Phone 443-287-9900 | Fax 443-287-9898 | E-mail