A Firsthand Account of the Anti-Vietnam War Movement at IUP during the 1969-70 School Year
By Dane Konop ’75
(Warning: This account includes an image and caption that use strong language and may offend some readers.)
The IUP campus is so quiet and peaceful these days that it is probably difficult for today’s students to imagine and for older alumni to remember the protests, many of them violent, that were breaking out on campuses across the country during the start of the 1969-70 school year, my senior year, as US military involvement in Vietnam’s civil war escalated.
To be honest, the Indiana campus was not a hotbed of protest. The daily fighting and dying in Vietnam seemed remote to many of us, with the evening television news broadcasts providing our only glimpses of the carnage. Like many students of the day, I didn’t own a TV.
Although many local residents doubtless were members of President Nixon’s “silent majority” that he believed supported his war policies, there were pockets of opposition to the war throughout the Indiana community, led early on by several local churches. There was also an emerging student protest movement at IUP, which by happenstance I fell into.
In September 1969, as IUP students returned to campus for the fall semester, student leaders across the country began organizing protests against the war. The seminal music event, Woodstock, had taken place the previous month, turning the spotlight of national attention on a music-driven, youthful, “hippie” counterculture dedicated to peace and love. As I recall that September, most of my fellow students at IUP, myself included, were not hip. That began to change for me when I moved into an apartment at 553½ Philadelphia Street.
A Student Union poolroom pal of mine told me he was moving out of his apartment and that his roommate Chuck (Charles Taormina ’70) needed someone to take his place. I visited Chuck in his two-rooms at 553½ Philadelphia Street, on the second floor above Red and White Taxi, where a bar called Boomies is today. There were three other two-room “suites” and one large, windowless bedroom, all of which shared an entrance, a bathroom, and a kitchen. The place was run-down, with cracking plaster everywhere, decrepit windows that barely kept out the rain and wind, and a kitchen that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in years, maybe ever. But for $100 a month, shared by six guys, it beat the camping trailer I had been living in. My girlfriend, Kathy (Kathleen Durkin ’70, M’76), a guiding force in my life and a counterbalance to my counterculture leanings, helped me move my few belongings.
My new roommate Chuck, a transfer student from the Coast Guard Academy, was smart, articulate, energetic, and—I was to discover—very charismatic. Chuck had immersed himself in New Left ideology and was a sympathizer with the Students for a Democratic Society, which had been a leading national force against the war. We hit it off right away. I became especially impressed by his ability to attract earnest, like-minded students, many of them female, who would gather around him in our living room to discuss New Left politics and ways of protesting the war. Much of the talk focused on how and where IUP students could protest. Chuck was adamant that whatever form their protests took, they should remain nonviolent.
Since college reserve officer training programs were viewed as the manifestation of the military on campuses, they became an obvious and frequent target of student protests. At the time, two semesters of military training with the IUP Reserve Officers’ Training Corps were mandatory for all male students.
Although I listened in on Chuck and his friends’ discussions, I was not particularly politically minded, considering myself instead to be a good foot soldier in the sexual revolution.
On September 16, Chuck and I joined a group of about 100 students that marched from the Student Union Building on Pratt Drive across the Oak Grove to Clark Hall, the IUP administrative building, to protest mandatory military training at IUP. We were met by President Hassler, who thanked us for our orderly behavior and said he respected our opinions. As reported by the Indiana Evening Gazette, my friend William Davis ’73 told him we weren’t against ROTC training, but that students should be given a choice. I agreed with Bill and, in fact, had gotten two Bs in military science and had been a squad leader my second semester freshman year.
We then moved en masse to Flagstone Theater, an outdoor arena with a stage and a grassy seating area that used to be along Pratt Drive next to Keith School. There were speeches against the war and live music. I was mesmerized and won over.
On September 30, the University Senate at IUP met to consider making ROTC training optional. I joined a group of about 50 students who had gathered outside Cogswell Hall while the senate deliberated inside. There were rumors that some “anti-peaceniks” planned a counter-protest. Walking over from the Student Union, I had actually picked up some small rocks for self-defense, stashing them in the front pockets of my Army surplus field jacket. We were barred from entering the meeting. The situation got a little tense when someone in the crowd blocked the exit doors. The campus police appeared. The doors were unblocked. No anti-peaceniks showed up. The senate voted 226 to 27 to make ROTC optional. I emptied my pockets. The crowd of students that had gathered dispersed peaceably.
National antiwar leaders had been calling for a “Moratorium to End the War,” a series of demonstrations and teach-ins, for October 15. The idea was for every college to do something to protest the war. Late in the evening of October 14, I joined a group of students who had gathered to begin a candlelight vigil at the old ROTC hall, a small building where Delaney Hall now sits that had a classroom and offices for the military science teaching staff. The protest had been organized by an officially sanctioned campus organization called HELP, short for Humans for Education, Liberty, and Peace. I didn’t see it happen, but as reported by the Gazette, “a ‘Molotov cocktail’ was hurled from a passing car. The firebomb failed to ignite the structure along Grant Street and Pratt Drive.” I recall that campus police, who were already on hand, were joined by town police and dispersed the crowd peaceably.
Although some of us believed the Molotov cocktail might have been intended to intimidate or discredit the protesting students, the next day, as reported in the Gazette, Indiana Borough police arrested two ex-student musicians—Robert Beach, who was another 553½ roommate, and Danny Miller, the bass player in Bob’s band, the Harps of Papa, charging them with attempted arson. Although the charges were eventually dropped in 1971 for lack of evidence, Bob’s indictment did have one unexpected impact on 553½. We soon discovered we apparently were under surveillance from the second floor of a building across the street. We could see what looked like a telescope, and occasionally binoculars, peeking out between the curtains of the windows. This unwanted attention did not unnerve Chuck and his friends, and the political gatherings continued.
A month later, Chuck asked me if I would sit in for him on a panel discussion on New Left politics, I think convened by the Political Science Department, so that he could join a massive demonstration against the war scheduled for November 15 in Washington, DC. My freshman friend Suzie Reef (Susan Reef Petteruti ’73), a gentle pacifist from New Castle, decided to come along. Petite, with long blonde hair, and wearing her father’s green Marine Corps suit-like jacket over blue jeans, Suzie looked to me like a beautiful angel of peace. Two of my fellow panel members seated at a table for our discussion in front of a small audience were a retired Army officer and an active duty officer who was an ROTC instructor. As we arrived, it was clear they misread Suzie’s antiwar wardrobe statement, viewing her attire as an insult to the military and scowling at me as her likely corrupter. I can still remember their undisguised contempt for us, but I don’t remember much of the substance of the discussion. I had planned just to fill up a chair but found I had become the voice of the New Left on the panel, as the fourth panel member was a middle-of-the-road grad student, who at least had a moustache. The military men came down hard on student protestors as un-American and the New Left as an ideology lacking in substance. I countered with what little New Leftist rhetoric I could muster and argued that student protestors against an unjust war were true patriots. The discussion degenerated into a shouting match between the three of us and ended, as I recall, when I took a page from Yippie leader Jerry Rubin’s theatrical tactics, leaped onto the table before us, raised my right hand in a clenched fist and shouted, “I’ll see this country burn!”
Dane Konop, shown in 1969, wrote, “I had a small poster in my living room in the form of a petition with the two-word message ‘Fuck War.’ About 70 students who passed through our digs at 553½ signed the petition. It’s as if they logged into that place and time. Some are still friends. Others are only fading faces.” (Photo by Kathleen Durkin ’70, M’76)
It was becoming evident to many of us that rational discussion would not end the war. After Chuck and 500,000 other protestors descended on Washington on November 15, the Gazette reported President Nixon said he was aware of the protestors, but that their protests would have no effect on him or his war policies.
On December 1, 1969, the first nationwide draft lottery was held for all young men born between 1944 and 1950. A number was drawn for each day of the year; the number drawn for your birthday was your number. Local draft boards would then start with 1 when issuing draft notices to meet their Defense Department quota. Chuck drew 271. I drew 52, which pretty much assured I would be drafted when my deferment ran out at the end of the spring 1970 semester. This Vietnam War suddenly was becoming a lot more real to me.
In February and March of 1970, there was a wave of bombings across the country, many at draft boards and ROTC facilities, to protest aerial bombings and troop movements in Cambodia and Laos ordered by President Nixon. In response to this expansion of the war into other parts of Indo-China, violent protests erupted on hundreds of campuses.
On May 4, during a protest at Kent State University, partly against the war but mostly against the presence of 1,000 Ohio National Guardsmen on campus, a small group of guardsmen fired on students, killing four students and wounding nine others. The shootings sparked even more violence on campuses and elsewhere across the country. The Guard claimed self-defense, but one of the female students killed was not part of the protest and was just walking to class. One of the male students killed was a sophomore ROTC cadet. Four students were shot in the back, including one who died. Two students were hit while lying prone on the ground. Although some protestors had been harassing and throwing rocks at the guardsmen, whom they felt were intruding on student turf, the guardsmen were not under any immediate threat and no officer had given an order to fire. In its 1970 investigation, the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest determined, “The actions of some students were violent and criminal and those of some others were dangerous, reckless, and irresponsible. The indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”
The Indiana campus remained calm.
By way of protest at IUP, a student-organized “Ball for Peace” was held in what was called the Student Union Annex, a large former warehouse located on the west end of campus, the same night as the ROTC Ball. While the cadre of cadets showed up at the ball in Sutton Hall in full-dress uniforms with their dates in evening wear for a dignified, formal affair, it seemed like every hippie and would-be hippie on campus descended on the annex, dressed in a wild array of colorful garb. Students had decorated the annex with strobe lights, psychedelic displays, and interactive, freestanding artworks. The tunnels were my favorite. There was face painting. Bob Beach and his new band, Madison Blue Shoes, played. Bob and I met his future wife, freshman Debra Hefelfinger (Debra Hefelfinger Beach ’73). I felt a little like a hippie myself.
The feeling didn’t last.
Chuck graduated and moved out of 553½. He married a girl from Kent, had a daughter, and became a photographer and a prolific author, with 32 fiction and nonfiction books and other works to his credit.
A week after the spring semester ended, I received a notice from my draft board in Kittanning to report for my pre-induction physical, which I passed with flying colors. My options: get drafted, enlist, or burn my draft card and head to Canada, which was not extraditing draft resisters. A friend of mine also facing the draft, Robert Sohn ’70, got wind of possible openings in the Naval Reserve in Johnstown. On Saturday, June 13, I shaved my beard and got a haircut. On Monday, June 15, Bob and I enlisted.
Short a few credits to graduate, I remained in school and at 553½ while attending weekly reserve meetings with Bob in Johnstown. After a trip to the Jersey shore the following summer, I returned to Indiana to find we had been evicted from 553½, my few possessions were stacked in the kitchen, and there was a new lock on the door to my rooms. Kathy took me in.
Protests against the draft and the war continued, of course, but I suddenly found myself on “the other side.” In September 1971, after a rousing evening with Kathy and our friends gathered at the Coney Island to see me off, I went on active duty in the Navy. After serving honorably with the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, I returned to IUP on the GI Bill to finish my BA in English in 1975. As it turned out, my Navy experience was the deciding factor in my being selected over a Harvard University graduate for an entry-level writer-editor job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where I spent a 30-year career before retiring in 2006.
At least that’s how I remember those heady protest days. If you’d like to share your memories, and photographs, I urge you to e-mail IUP Magazine at email@example.com or me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
These were my two principal sources for the Kent State shootings:
I’d also like to thank Lauri Steffy at the Indiana Free Library for researching the Indiana Evening Gazette for me.