State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

We Have Met the Enemy

by on August 13, 2014 6:15 AM

All hell broke loose on the Penn State campus in April 1970.

On the 15th, a peaceful march against the Ordnance Research Laboratory turned into a riot when university President Eric Walker summoned state police to expel protesters from Old Main.

Gov. Raymond Shafer sent in the troopers without their riot gear, thinking it would be less of a provocation. It didn't work. The students were just as provoked and flying rocks injured 28 of the unhelmeted officers. Two dozen students were arrested. The troopers were quartered at Beaver Stadium.

During the next week, protesters, still unhappy with the police presence on campus, smashed windows in the university president's house (where the Hintz Alumni Center is now located) and started fires or smashed windows in several campus buildings. Amid chants of "Pigs off campus," "Power to the People" and "Sieg Heil," eight more students were arrested.

Then came the shootings at Kent State on May 4. Penn State students, faculty and administrators joined together for a memorial service, but there was no salvaging the academic year: The remaining three weeks of classes were canceled; students could attend workshops and discussion groups instead.

Thus ended the eventful 1969-70 academic year. Some other notable moments:

September: The freshman class is so big that some of the newbies have to sleep in shower stalls, laundry rooms and on the Old Main lawn until the university can figure out where to put them, according to the Daily Collegian. Members of Students for a Democratic Society protest "anti-worker, anti-woman and anti-black indoctrination" at freshman convocation.

October: About 4,000 marchers carry candles and sing songs of protest against the Vietnam War. Two students burn their draft cards. Supporters of Mexican farm workers urge students to stop eating grapes in the dining halls.

November: Members of the Black Student Union protest during halftime of a football game. Iron Butterfly plays Rec Hall. Student Betsy Aardsma is stabbed to death by an unknown assailant in the Pattee Library stacks.

December: Female students gain the right to live off campus. John Oswald is chosen to succeed Eric Walker as university president.

January: The Black Student Union complains about a sorority skit featuring performers in blackface makeup. Plus ça change, right?

There was also the normal Penn State stuff: Homecoming Queen elected. Penn State beats Missouri in the Orange Bowl, but finished second in the national rankings.

And then that riotous spring.

I'm calling your attention to what happened here 45 years ago (not exactly a milestone anniversary) because of my friend Richie, who visited last weekend.

You can't tell from Richie's car or his wardrobe that he is a Penn State alumnus. When he comes back to Happy Valley, it isn't to tailgate or watch football or booze it up with his old fraternity brothers. His trip down what he calls "amnesia lane" entails pointing out where the downtown head shops were, where he played Frisbee on the Old Main lawn on Gentle Thursdays, and where the riots took place.

Richie thought the new Millennium Science Complex was pretty cool, but he was much keener on continuing along Pollock Road to where Penn State's barracks-style dorms used to be, now the site of Nittany Apartments. There, he told us a story.

It was April 1970. He had just returned from the Vietnam War moratorium protest in Washington. He had seen smoke as he drove into town but had no idea there had been a riot on campus. He kicked open the door of the barracks' common area, hoping to make a grand entrance. But instead of being greeted as the conquering hero, he was greeted by a cop who swiveled around and aimed his gun at him.

Richie put up his hands. "Don't shoot, I'm a friend," he said, then proved it by taking the bloody handkerchief the cop was using to stanch his partner's head wound and rinsing it out in the bathroom. The cop never said a word.

Three years later, Rich's parents came to State College for graduation. On the return trip to Philadelphia, his dad fell asleep at the wheel. Their Buick Riviera ran off the road and crashed into a tree.

Everyone survived, but his father was hospitalized. While he underwent treatment, Rich and his mom checked into a motel. A cop came by to interview them for his accident report. He and Richie locked eyes. It was the same trooper who almost shot him at Nittany Barracks. This time, the guy hugged him.

"Until I met your son," the trooper told Richie's astonished mom, "I hated all people with long hair."

"Until I saw blood gushing from your friend's head," Richie said, "I didn't give a crap about cops."

Richie got teary when he told the story. "I know," he said apologetically. "It sounds like a bad movie."

On the contrary, we assured him. It sounded like a good movie.

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Russell Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State in 1998. He roots for the Yankees, plays blues guitar and harmonica (badly), bikes and hikes for physical exercise and does The New York Times crossword puzzle for mental exercise. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away all the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. He is the author of "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet." His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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