I had just turned eighteen that summer, and I my idealism was still rather lofty. I had plans to take it all with me when I started at Kent State in a few weeks. And, of course, it was at Kent that I would once again witness turmoil and violence during the next few years up close and personal all too often. And my earlier idealism would take off in a much different direction during that time.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the time my family and a good friend, who was in for a visit, were caught up in the violent demonstrations/riots of the 1968 Democrat Convention in downtown Chicago. At that moment in time, I was about to begin the next stage of my life that coming fall at Kent State University. What I didn’t realize then, however, was just how much of a “preview” of things to come for me during the next few years at KSU the accidental experience in downtown Chicago that August night would be.
Call it culture shock or a new awareness of the way the world had become, that period of my life was disturbing, to say the least. To put it bluntly, I didn’t care at all for the nasty tone and constant mayhem that had become the norm in our world in the late 60s.
I was a law-abiding white kid, with conservative upbringing and values, being forced to choose between respecting authority or taking it to the streets and shouting obscene slogans and fomenting any kinds of anarchy that would tear the system down! Couldn’t do it.
It was everywhere, this “counter culture,” and no more evident than in in the music of the day, which seemed to be all about “drugs, sex, rock and roll…if it feels good, do it!…kill your parents…down with pigs…pigs off campus…start the Revolution!” Anything that would tear down respect for authority was the all-encompassing theme.
I trekked off to Kent, Ohio, that first fall, believing I could eventually earn a degree and be a worthwhile, contributing citizen of this great country of ours–eventually–despite being surrounded by negativity and a different kind of direction in which our country was going.
Of course, for me there were many bends in the road that freshman year. Trying to survive some of the courses in which I had very little interest and figuring out how to curtail the social life that could swallow me up if I wasn’t careful, were prime examples of those “bends.”
Other than the usual distractions and normal challenges, there were also numerous social issues that had found their way onto campus that fall, which seemed to echo the unpleasant tone of the Chicago riots. In November, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which had organized as a campus group the previous spring, and Black United Students (BUS), held a sit-in for several hours to protest police recruiters on campus.
The next spring (1969) SDS began efforts to get rid of ROTC, law-enforcement degree programs, and to have the Liquid Crystals Institute (funded by Defense Department) removed from campus. And all of this was met with contentious feelings and often violent pushback by the protestors, clashing with the police at the administration building. Soon after, the SDS took over the Music and Speech Building (where several of my classes were) and fist fights among demonstrators and counter-demonstrators occurred. Several arrests followed. After this incident, Kent State banned SDS.
But the stage had now been set for more of this kind of upheaval on an otherwise beautiful and glorious peaceful campus. My previous expectations of what my college life would be about had taken a wild ride that first year, and I couldn’t know then how much wilder it was to become in the years to follow.