Kean history: Newark State Teachers College at war

By Leanne Manna | Published Nov. 28, 2017

NSTC Soldier Sydney Leigh. Courtesy of Kean University Archives and Special Collections

NSTC Soldier Sydney Leigh. Courtesy of Kean University Archives and Special Collections

Only twenty-one years after the War to End All Wars, the world found itself plunging into another conflict. 16.1 million Americans, roughly 9% of the nation’s population, would join in the fight both in Europe and in the Pacific. The students of Newark State did their part to answer the call to action. About 180 students, alumni, and faculty members served.

Nancy Thompson, the school’s librarian reached out to as many of them as she could and received over 800 letters and cards in return which she compiled into a scrapbook. The Nancy Thompson WWII Scrapbook Collection is now housed in the Kean University Archives and Special Collections and reveals a lot about college life and the life of a student soldier during a time of war.

One student’s name will be familiar to most Kean Students now, Ralph Sozio. Sozio was in the Industrial Arts program at Newark State and wrote the wildly popular musical “College Daze” which was performed at the school by male students dressed in drag. Sozio left the college in May 1943 to join the Army Air Corps.

There Sozio continued working with entertainment, putting on shows and dance classes, as well as working as a weather observer. Sozio’s life ended tragically short however. He passed away from rheumatic fever on June 18, 1945 just 3 months before the war would end.

The class of 1945, which would have been Sozio’s graduating class had he stayed at the college, had signed and sent him a yearbook. According to Thompson, Sozio took it into the oxygen tent where his bed was, read it, and died shortly after. Following his death, letters poured into Newark State for Nancy Thompson. Students recalled their fond memories of Sozio and what he meant to them and the college.

Courtesy of Kean University Archives and Special Collections

Courtesy of Kean University Archives and Special Collections

One student, Albert Bashover wrote “Perhaps I’m getting sentimental, but Ralph’s personality is one you can’t forget. It cannot and will not die as long as you and I and all the other fellows are around to remember. We are going to have “College Daze” again.”

Another NSTC soldier was Sydney Leigh, formerly Liebowitz. He entered the military in December 1941 as part of the Army Air Force. He made it up to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant before his plane was shot down. He was held in a Nazi prison camp for officers for several months.

He told his family that while there was a limit on how often he could write, there was no limit on packages he could receive. His understandably worried parents sent him supplies constantly. However, several months later he wrote again saying he had not received any supplies.

Leigh eventually was able to escape from his camp and join a German underground organization in Munich until the American forces arrived. During this time he occupied one of Hitler’s hideouts and brought home several survivors.

There are many other fascinating stories of the NSTC and World War II. Each individual had their own unique experiences and the College itself underwent extreme changes as a result of the war.

The Nancy Thompson WWII Scrapbook Collection will soon be fully available for people to search online along with student work, and teaching resources at

Thank you to the Kean University Archives and Special Collections for the images and information and to the History Department for all of their work with the collection.

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