The “War to End All Wars” had fired its last shot four months earlier. University alumni and students who had served “over there” would be returning to America just in time for the start of Prohibition. What better time to throw a party? What better place than gay Paree? What better occasion than the 100th anniversary of the founding of UVA?
And what better person to make it happen than Lewis D. Crenshaw (Col 1908), first secretary of the Alumni Association, creator and director of the Virginia “bureau” of a wartime Paris club for American college men, organizer extraordinaire, member of the Seven Society and King of the Hot Feet—prankish precursor to today’s IMPs?
In less than 5 weeks, Crenshaw conceived and orchestrated a two-day commemoration and reunion, both dignified and festive. Letters, ledgers, reports and mementos in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library show that he recruited generals, diplomats, Paris municipal chiefs and a descendant of Thomas Jefferson as speakers; arranged a performance by a 70-piece U.S. Army band; commissioned a monumental marble-and-bronze plaque to be mounted at the location of Jefferson’s Paris residence when he was minister to France (1785–89); procured hundreds of pounds of food and hundreds of boxes of cigars and cigarettes from the Army Commissary; obtained permits to construct a speakers platform and block traffic at an intersection along the Champs-Elysees; and even secured an order from the high command of the American Expeditionary Force that gave Virginia alumni in uniform special permission to leave their posts all over Europe to attend the Founder’s Day events in Paris. He cajoled American and French newspapers, along with three newsreel crews, to publicize and cover the event; and booked an excursion boat (renamed “Wah-Hoo-Wah”) for a day trip down the Seine. Crenshaw even personally composed the inscription on the plaque celebrating Jefferson, France and UVA. And in the middle of the dedication ceremony he placed a rendition of his own French translation of “The Good Old Song”:
Crenshaw included his French lyrics on the printed invitation he sent to alumni and friends, along with the genial suggestion, “Pick this out on your ukulele.” Crenshaw’s network among alumni-soldiers in France included a cartoonist who had drawn for him when he was editor of Corks & Curls, Carl Zeisberg. Infantryman Zeisberg came through again, with gag drawings that promoted the centennial celebration. One of those was published a week before the event in the Paris edition of the New York Herald, urging alumni, “Don’t be A.W.O.L.! Put in TOOT SWEET for a week-end ‘perme to Paree.’”
Of the nearly 2,500 UVA alumni Crenshaw estimated had served in the war, he reported that about 300 attended the celebration on April 12–13, which he later called “the largest reunion of the former students of an American University ever held in Europe.”
His only disappointment appears to have been that the University’s most distinguished alumnus at the time, President Woodrow Wilson, declined the invitation to take the place of honor Crenshaw sketched for him in a seating plan. Wilson was in Paris at the time helping to negotiate the terms of peace between the victorious Allied powers, including France, England, Italy and the U.S., and the vanquished Central Powers, including Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.
The treaties that ended “the war to end all wars” would be derided in time as “the peace to end all peace” because they codified resentments and humiliations in Europe that led to World War II, and they cultivated bitter sectarian and anti-colonial conflicts in the Middle East. But on Founder’s Day 1919, as contemporaneous news accounts and copies in Crenshaw’s papers show, the speeches in Paris overflowed with hope and goodwill. Flush with the idea that democracy had defeated tyranny for good, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels told the audience that he imagined Jefferson and Lafayette, walking together at Monticello, envisioning such a time: “May we not truly say that in the coming League of Nations, which will bless the world for all time, we have an enlargement of the international brotherhood of which Jefferson’s interpretation of France to America, and America to France, was the forerunner?”
Major Armistead Dobie (Col 1901, Grad ’02, Law ’04), who taught law at the University and who would later be dean of the law school, represented the faculty: “Here in Paris, on perhaps the most beautiful Boulevard in the world, in the France that he loved, in the France for which we fought, whose soil is forever hallowed by the blood of sons of Jefferson’s University, we dedicate a tablet of fitting dignity and beauty.” The plaque, roughly 2½ by 4 feet, was mounted prominently on the wall of an apartment house built on the site of the 18th-century mansion in which Jefferson had lived.
The Wahoo Dobie outdid the Tar Heel Daniels “by about eight lengths,” Crenshaw wrote to a friend who had sent a contribution to help pay for the plaque.
A photo from the event records the scene. The boulevard is wet, and a few umbrellas dot the crowd. Hundreds of alumni soldiers in uniform cluster in front of a raised platform, where a dozen dignitaries in top hats and military uniforms sit, with the Jefferson plaque high on the wall behind them. A military band is arrayed stage left. Hundreds more civilians line the street, and newsreel movie cameras aim at a top-hatted orator and the audience from various points. French and American flags flank the platform. Below the speaker, centered on dark bunting, a large banner displays one word: VIRGINIA. The plaque—actually a model of it—had been unveiled by Brig. Gen. Jefferson Randolph Kean (Med 1883), deputy chief surgeon of the American Expeditionary Force, head of the Overseas Alumni, and—most important—direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson.
And then came the party, on the ticket for which Crenshaw had assigned himself (in French) the title Minister of Refueling. Alumni and guests trooped to a nearby restaurant for a banquet of salad, fish, roast beef, vegetables, cheese, fruit and coffee. Red and white Bordeaux were served. Beer and cocktails were available for an extra few francs. As the Paris edition of the New York Herald reported the following day: “College jokes, varsity pranks and old friendships were renewed, while a big banquet was served with plenty of the water substitute that the United States will not know after next July.”
Crenshaw was also in on that joke. In the margin of a sketch of the Jefferson plaque, he had written, as though for an inscription: “Millions for defense, but not one sou for Prohibition!” And on the printed program and drink menu for the Saturday dinner and Sunday boat excursion he mockingly attributed to Jefferson the words: “Eat, drink and be merry, for in July we’ll be dry.”
But they were wet the next day, and not only because beer, wine and cocktails flowed. The boat ride along the Seine through Paris was rainy. But that didn’t dampen the jazz band on board, or spoil the promised “Old Virginia Eats.” Camel and Fatima cigarettes and Perfecto and Van Dyck cigars were brought from the banquet the night before, and the excursion capped the centennial occasion as Crenshaw hoped. Robert P. Hamilton Jr. (Col 1917), a private in an Army ambulance unit originally organized at UVA, described it in the Alumni Bulletin the following year: “Nothing could have been more typical of the ‘reunion spirit’ than the free play of cordial, unaffected good-fellowship that broke through all distinctions of rank and made Saturday’s dinner and Sunday’s river-trip joyous ‘get-together’ occasions, where General X of ’71 and Private Y of ’17 remembered only that they were both Virginia men and had the time of their lives.”
In his report to the Alumni Association, Crenshaw summed up his complete satisfaction: “It reunited in a delightful way an extraordinary number of alumni far from home. It left in France a dignified and lasting memorial of the University of Virginia, and of her sons who have fought overseas. It served to strengthen the relationship between America and France, and finally it perpetuated in tangible form the memory of a great man, and his important relations with the two republics, and the University which he loved so well.”