Explaining the GI Bill to Newark's WWII Veterans

by Nat Bodian

In 1946, the New Jersey Regional Office of the Veterans Administration moved over a single week-end from its temporary 'wartime' quarters in vacant space at the U. S. Veterans Hospital in rural Lyons in Somerset County to its permanent location in downtown Newark at 20 Washington Place.

In that year, the 26-year old six floor office building had been purchased from the Globe Indemnity Insurance Company1 to house its varied office activities involving veterans benefits.

At the time of the 1946 move, the New Jersey press described the VA Regional Office move as the largest single move of a New Jersey office facility in the State's history, involving over a quarter of a million tons of files, office supplies and equipment.

Once the move was accomplished, New Jersey's 560,000 veterans, 40,000 of them from Newark, had a central, accessible place where they could avail themselves of the numerous benefits which had now become available under the wartime-passed "GI Bill of Rights2 " signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on June 22, 1944.

The problem was that the benefits included in the "GI Bill" had never been exploited, and veterans returning from the War were, for the most part, uninformed of what was available to them.

The answer for the VA was the need for a major 'public relations' effort to acquaint the veterans with what the GI Bill had to offer.

Start of VA Public Relations

I was hired into the VA public relations office while the Regional Office was still operating out of temporary basement space in the Lyons Veterans Hospital.

I had been told that after the move to Newark, there would be a public relations officer in Newark and I would be his assistant.

But at the time of the move to Newark, I was the "P. R." man in the VA and dealt with the press, as an adjunct to VA manager Homer Rogers, during and immediately after the move in what was one of the major news happenings in Newark at that time.

PR Officer Completes 'Team'

When the PR officer, John McIntosh, was subsequently employed in Pennsylvania and transferred to Newark, we began our PR job as a team with a mountain of work awaiting us.

Our first and major chore was reading all the fine print of the GI Bill, developing an understanding of the various benefits it offered to veterans, and then disseminating this information to the veteran public in an understandable form.

We sent out news releases...we wrote and sent out radio scripts on 'question veterans ask'...we created a weekly question and answer column on veteran benefits that we circulated to all New Jersey newspapers...we wrote speeches that representative from the various VA division could deliver to veterans groups...we gave press interviews.

Early on in my days in the Newark VA public relations office, I had a surprise visitor early one morning.

"My name is Mort Holtzman," he told me, and "I'm the new VA Insurance Officer."

He explained that he had an insurance background at Met Life, but was unfamiliar with the National Service Life Insurance Program for veterans.

"They told me," he said, "that you have been writing releases about GI insurance and are the best one to explain the program to me."

I did.

Even for those working within the VA building at 20 Washington Place, it was a continuing learning experience, as we acquainted ourselves with the GI Bill program as it blossomed and flourished, and we constantly absorbed a steady flow of instructional releases from VA headquarters in Washington.

These were exciting times at the Newark VA and the job was a PR man's dream. I was so imbued with the VA PR working experience that I started attending The New School for Social Research in New York City at night as a participant in a program of Public Relations courses that would subsequently lead to academic accreditation in Public Relations.

Ultimately, I left the VA to attend The New School fulltime, under the GI Bill.

I was one of five in the first graduating class of the school's pioneering PR program, and went on to a new position in corporate public relations in New York City.

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