Forty years ago today, the Kansas Union burned during one of the most
tense periods in Lawrence history a time that saw protests, fires and bombs.
By Brenna Hawley
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
David Awbrey recalls sitting inside his house on Tennessee Street on
a dark Monday night when someone outside yelled that the Kansas Union
was on fire. He peered up the steep hill and saw an orange glow it
had to be the Union. He ran up the hill to get closer, and saw a fire
of Hollywood proportions flames were shooting into the sky. It was
spectacular, both in size and what it said about the turmoil on the
KU campus that April of 1970 exactly 40 years ago today.
Awbrey had just finished his term as student body president on a
campus that had more than 17,000 students. He was one of thousands to
watch the Union burn that night, as fire damaged rooms on the fifth
and sixth floors and collapsed part of the roof. Awbrey and his
classmates had witnessed a semester dominated by anti-Vietnam War
protests, bombings, racial confrontations and fires, all while in
fear of being called up for the draft.
For some, it was a relatively normal semester: they attended class,
studied and graduated. But the activism that exploded on and around
campus touched everyone. For more than three weeks that spring, the
University and Lawrence saw one of the most chaotic periods in campus
and city history.
Spring 1970 had all the ingredients of a political action flick:
suspected arson of the KU Union; homemade bombs flung through shop
windows and toward campus buildings; deep-seated hatred of the
Vietnam War; racial conflicts at Lawrence High School that brought
out tear gas and tire irons; a nightly curfew ordered by the governor
that landed many in jail; a march by an angry crowd who smashed
windows in the ROTC building in retaliation for deaths of Kent State
students at the hands of the Ohio National Guard; and, ultimately, a
controversial decision by the chancellor to end the school year and
cool the conflict.
The Times They are A-Changin'
Lance Hill remembers when young people began questioning the
government, racism, sexism and the lifestyles of their parents.
"It wasn't uncommon for people to change their political viewpoints
quickly," said Hill, 19 in April 1970 and today executive director of
the Southern Institute at Tulane University. "We had grown up on a
set of myths about the country with respect to equality and justice
and who we were as a power in the world."
Bill Tuttle, then a young assistant professor of history, said a walk
on campus in the '60s was like traveling back another decade. Men
sported short haircuts; women wore skirts instead of jeans and obeyed
"The KU campus seemed to me to be quite like my college campus in
1959," said Tuttle, now professor emeritus of American Studies. "Very
quiet, not much political activity, not a lot of long hair."
But by 1970, the campus had changed. Some people stayed the same,
such as Jim Barnes, who said he was there just to go to school.
Others turned into what Barnes called freaks, people who had long
hair and beards, wore sandals and used drugs or had an activist
agenda. Women could wear jeans and no longer had curfews. Students
started underground newspapers, and used advocacy journalism the way
The Kansan and the Lawrence Journal-World didn't.
The Oread neighborhood was a gathering place for students who
frequented two bars, the Gaslight Tavern and the Rock Chalk Café,
known most recently as the Crossing. Students, dropouts and others
formed what Hill called a "street community," which he joined when he
dropped out after a semester.
"It was people who were college dropouts, people who had been
expelled, people who came to Lawrence to be part of the
counterculture and to be engaged in politics," he said. "There were a
lot of runaways who found safe haven there. There were a lot of
Roger Martin, who came to Lawrence from Columbia, Mo., was excited to
see an underground newspaper, places hip people could hang out and
lots of drugs.
"The scene was very vibrant and alive," Martin said. He said there
was "a lot of pointlessness to the lifestyle, because people were
trying to redefine what it was that they were and who they were and
how they lived, and so you'd try things."
The political climate of the country was changing, too. The Vietnam
War was escalating, and young Americans were dying by the thousands
more than 16,500 were killed in Vietnam in 1968, a number greater
than that year's KU enrollment. Protests at the Democratic National
Convention devolved into a riot and a high-profile trial of the
Chicago 7, a court case that charged seven protesters for crossing
state borders to incite a riot at the 1968 convention.
Events around the world caused students in Lawrence to reconsider
their views. Beth Lindquist, who enrolled in 1966, originally lived
in GSP Hall and then Kappa Kappa Gamma. She was a student senator and
president of her residence hall.
"I did all the kind of traditional middle-class suburban girl
things," she recalls.
But after seeing racism in the mostly white Greek recruitment and
injustices in Vietnam, Lindquist made a new commitment to protest for
change. She wasn't the only one.
"Students were dropping out and living in communes and growing their
hair and professing a kind of anti-materialist view of American
life," said Lindquist, now a dean of instruction at Metropolitan
Community College of Kansas City.
Lindquist had been among more than 150 people who disrupted the
annual ROTC review in May 1969. To them, the ROTC represented the
military establishment and was one step away from Vietnam and the
massacre of innocent civilians. Protesters gathered at Memorial
Stadium, where the ROTC cadets were set to march, then moved inside
and sat down to block the soldiers. They danced, chanted, talked.
Despite the lack of violence, the protesters suffered severe
consequences. Some were expelled, thus losing their deferrals and
immediately becoming eligible for the draft. Lindquist knew men who
picked up and left for Canada to avoid being sent to Vietnam.
"There were others who were suspended who didn't return to the
University ever, or any university," she said. "There were some who
Soon the draft lottery catalyzed one of the most turbulent springs in
What's Goin' On
A 7-Up bottle filled with gasoline, a rag and a match was all it took
to get a story in a newspaper in the spring of 1970. Students were
frustrated with the Vietnam War, racism, local politics and the
conservative crackdown on the counterculture's free love and cheap
drugs. Some marched, some dropped acid and some threw Molotov
cocktails at windows of businesses, into the homes of prominent local
officials and behind KU buildings.
Randy Gould, 20 that semester, said peaceful protests were less
likely after he read about police assaulting members of the activist
group Black Panthers and racists abusing blacks.
"I don't think historically we've ever seen real change in this
country or anywhere else, for that matter, that wasn't also
accompanied by some type of violence," said Gould, a Kansas City
resident who now updates a blog called the Oread Daily, the same name
as the underground newspaper he started in mid-1970. "I also don't
want to glorify the violence aspect of things. There were mistakes
made that were too much."
Students and allies in the street community planned a strike for
April 8 after the state Board of Regents blocked the promotions of
two professors, one who had spoken negatively about the war. In a
Kansan article from April 3, 1970, student activist John Naramore was
quoted saying students should know about the "Regents' clamp" on the
mood of the university, and that students should get "dramatically
involved and should support the strike next week."
The strike strategy: Station someone at the doors of all buildings on
campus to encourage skipping class for the cause. Listen to a speech
by the visiting Abbie Hoffman, one of the Chicago 7. And be wary of
violence, a warning disregarded by some. The night before the strike,
more bombs and Molotov cocktails exploded. The next day, Hoffman
spoke to a packed Allen Fieldhouse, but to a mixed reception. He
described the people of Lawrence as unrevolutionary and offended many
when he blew his nose into an American flag handkerchief.
As reported in The Kansan, Hoffman said, "People have really got to
make up their minds that they are going to destroy the University. If
they accept the student's role, they accept the role as a slave. The
student is a nigger. Law is not for maintaining justice, it is for
Racial tensions added to the already explosive Lawrence atmosphere.
Two days after the strike, John Spearman of the Black Student Union
encouraged all black students to arm themselves, saying they weren't
safe and were receiving threats on their lives.
Racial conflict sparked at Lawrence High School that spring when its
Black Student Union demanded a black homecoming queen and black
cheerleaders in addition to the current ones. When the principal
didn't meet demands, students locked themselves into the school's
main office. Then fighting broke out over the next few days. One day
28 people were injured. Another day police threatened to use tear gas
to disperse more than 100 students, some armed with tire irons,
trying to enter the school.
As the situation escalated, the students demanded that the school
hire black teachers and a black counselor as well as meet their
previous demands. Police used tear gas later when black students and
residents broke windows at the high school.
Conservatives demanded that police and KU officials respond to
protesters with tear gas, arrests and expulsions. Wayne Propst, part
of the street community, called some of those conservatives rednecks,
and tells of one day when a "redneck" drove next to and began
antagonizing George Kimball, who was walking down the street.
Kimball, then 26 and later a candidate for Douglas County Sheriff,
challenged the man to get out of his truck, and when he started to do
just that, Kimball slammed the man's head in the door. The man's
friend tried to get out as well, but a friend of Kimball's punched
him through the window. Such confrontations weren't unusual.
"There was this fairly well-organized and well-armed right-wing
militia, the Minutemen type," Kimball recalled. "They were mostly
talk and mostly threats, but these guys had guns and they had a lot
Activists had to be careful whom they spoke to, said John Naramore,
then a 23-year-old activist. Protesters weren't always sincere and
some were trying to discredit the activists' goals. Naramore, who
later owned a printing business called Kansas Key Press, said people
who were violent were often not trustworthy.
"Who is this guy? Where did he come from and why is he always wanting
to do acts of violence?" he said. "We have a march down Massachusetts
Street and you've got somebody who wants to break windows. We're not
attacking the merchants on Mass. What we're trying to do is create
awareness or show our dissatisfaction."
Rich Clarkson, then photo director at the Topeka Capital-Journal,
remembers how the journalism school's photo instructor Bill Seymour
took pictures of student protesters.
"He was meeting agents at the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to give
them pictures to identify students," Clarkson said. "He was actually
working with the police."
Lawrence was burning, figuratively and literally. Fires were
discovered almost every night. The Kappa Sigma house caught fire, the
cause never determined. A rooming house on Indiana Street went up in
flames. Gambles, a furniture store downtown, caught fire and flames
burned 50 feet high, causing $200,000 in damage. Less than a week
later, a bigger fire would shock the community and make all the
others seem insignificant.
Fire and Rain
It was 10:30 on the night of April 20. Jim Barnes, 21, and friends
were grabbing a beer at the Bierstube, now the Bull, on Tennessee
Street. They had just finished orchestra practice when a man walked
into the bar and said the Kansas Union was on fire. Barnes didn't
believe him, but when he peered through a window so dirty it looked
like frosted glass, he could see flames flickering outside. They ran
up the hill, and sure enough, flames were already bursting through
the roof of the Union.
"It was the most beautiful fire you ever saw," Barnes said.
Stan Spring recalls watching from the safety of Potter Lake as the
fire burnt the fifth and sixth floors and the roof of the Union. Fire
trucks arrived 15 minutes after the fire started, the flames already
30 feet high. Spring saw the firefighters unwind their hoses, but
they weren't long enough to reach the top floors and lacked adequate
water pressure. So the firefighters fed all the hoses up the inside
staircases of the Union.
Spring and Barnes were among 2,000 students who saw the Union burn
that night. Inside, valuable art was in danger, and students jumped
in to help save it, including Jim Stratford, 22 at the time and now
vice president of instruction at Pratt Community College.
"I remember going to it like hundreds of other students did, getting
there pretty early on, evidently, and there were no barriers or
anything, and going inside and seeing that the firemen were trying to
drag hoses full of water," he recalled. "They were spraying water,
but they were trying to drag hoses up the stairs, and I just pitched
in to help them along with a lot of other people. I remember helping
hand pictures down trying to get them out of the building."
Wayne Propst lived just down the street from the Union and watched it
burn from his balcony.
"You couldn't help but see it. It lit up the whole street," said
Propst, now a local artist.
By 2 a.m., the fire was finally under control, but not before it did
an estimated $2 million in damage to a building many viewed as the
social and political center of the campus. Police suspected arson. No
one was ever caught, but theories still abound.
"Any time there's uncertainty, people's conspiracy theories crop up,"
said Monroe Dodd, then a Kansan staff member who would later become
managing editor at The Kansas City Star. "And you don't have to be
conspiracy crazy to think, 'Well, since we don't know, I wonder if it
was the KU authorities who set the fire to make the freaks look bad?
Or was it the freaks who set the fire? Or was it the Black Student
Union? Or is it just some working-class guy in Lawrence who wanted to
make the freaks look bad?' You can concoct all kinds of theory about
it because there's no final committer of the act."
George Kimball, who was active in the street community, hung out at
the Union and said he never understood why anyone would have set it on fire.
"There's no particular political motive to be achieved by this
thing," said Kimball, now a prominent boxing writer who moderated a
program this semester featuring boxer George Foreman in the same
Kansas Union ballroom gutted by the fire. "It wasn't anything that
was going to get you applauded. You weren't going to win any points
with anybody for doing it. It was probably someone who was stoned or
drunk or screwed up."
Beth Lindquist said the Union had been a place where activists could
meet for free and that she was shocked to see the fire after running
up from her house on Tennessee Street.
"I didn't know people who thought it was a good idea," she said.
"Most people who were anti-war and civil rights activists thought it
was a bad idea because it put a question mark on the values and the
moral choices of the anti-war civil rights movements. The inference
that student activists had something to do with that was very
negative for us."
The fire wasn't the end of trouble in Lawrence. Ahead was a nightly
citywide curfew, major protests and a decision whether to keep school
open in the face of possible violence.
Run Through the Jungle
The day after the fire, Kansas Gov. Robert Docking ordered a 7 p.m.
curfew on the city of Lawrence to quell the violence. Townspeople
were supposed to stay off the streets and inside residences; police
arrested 45 people, most for curfew violations, on the first night.
Snipers shot at businesses downtown, small fires were reported all
over town, and people threw trash and broken glass into the streets
to slow down police cars chasing curfew violators. Activists strung
wire in the Oread neighborhood alleys to slow police walking through
on foot, but Lance Hill said the tactic backfired.
"Someone did stretch wire between two trees, and then when the police
came down the street and all the kids ran off, they tripped over
their own wire, so it wasn't very effective," he recalls.
Many refused to take the curfew, which started later on the second
and third days, seriously. Caz Loth, a 23-year-old who lived in the
Oread neighborhood, said the street community had curfew parties.
"We would sneak through alleyways to get to the party," said Loth,
who now works in the racing industry.
Less than a week after curfew ended, President Richard Nixon
announced on April 30 that the United States would send troops into
Cambodia, expanding the hated Vietnam War. The protests weren't over.
"Once one thing kind of died down, then you'd have three or four
days, then another thing would happen. Every day was something new,"
David Awbrey said. "You could get up in the morning and by the end of
the day it would be a whole different world."
David Ambler was in the administration building on the Kent State
University campus on May 4, 1970. Ambler, who later became KU vice
chancellor for student affairs, was a Kent State administrator when
the Ohio National Guard moved in to suppress student protests. That
morning Kent State leadership had left campus to discuss how to make
the armed Guardsmen leave. When Ambler saw a crowd of several
thousand gathering to protest behind the building, he quickly phoned
administrators to return.
"I had no sooner made that phone call when we had a report on the
walkie-talkies that there had been shots fired," he said.
Four students were killed when the National Guard opened fire on a
peaceful crowd of students protesting Vietnam and the invasion of
Cambodia. The deaths ignited protests around the country, including
at Kansas. Chancellor Larry Chalmers canceled the annual ROTC
ceremony, which the year before had been disrupted by protests. He
immediately received critical letters, one telling him his "craven
display of cowardice in canceling the annual ROTC review on May 5th,
was a disgrace" and another demanding "Unless you expel all the
students who are rioting, shooting, destroying property and resorting
to violence, you should resign as chancellor of the University of
Students and the street community reacted to the deaths by marching
to the ROTC building and throwing rocks through windows. Protesters
later rallied in front of Allen Fieldhouse where students demanded a
strike and a decision about closing the school. Half the group went
up the hill to Strong Hall and camped in front of the chancellor's
office. When his locked door didn't open, they sat on the stairs of Strong.
Chancellor Chalmers had to find a way to defuse the tense situation.
In a May 8 speech given to most of the University inside Memorial
Stadium, he announced what he called a Day of Alternatives. It gave
students options. Those who wanted to leave the campus could, either
by skipping finals and earning the grade they had up to that date or
by taking an incomplete. Or students could stay and take their finals.
This decision was unpopular with many parents and alumni, many of
whom called for Chalmers' resignation and wished that Clarke Wescoe,
the previous and more conservative chancellor, were still in charge.
Ambler disagreed with the criticisms, praising Chalmers for
preventing further violence. "Anyone else and this place would have
blown apart a lot earlier than it did."
A Kansan article estimated that more than 83 percent of students
chose not to finish classes, leaving fewer than 3,000 students on
campus. Monroe Dodd opted to skip his finals.
"I chose the alternative, which was to take pass-fails," Dodd said.
"It really did wonders for my GPA."
And just like that, the tumultuous spring semester of 1970 ended
abruptly. Many students departed and what can be described only as a
school-wide uprising ended.
"Larry Chalmers really saved the University that day," David Awbrey
said. "It would have been pretty bad. There would have been another
The draft lottery
On Dec. 1, 1969, the selective service system conducted its draft
lottery. Dates were put into plastic containers and then drawn at
random, giving each birthday a draft number from one to 366. The
draft affected men 18 to 26 years old, the demographic at KU.
Draft deferrals were the way to stay out of Vietnam. Men could file
as conscientious objectors. Students could be exempt during school,
but once they graduated or stopped attending, they were immediately
eligible. Medical issues also often led to exemption.
• • •
Here are the stories of how some KU students stayed in the United States.
"To get out of the draft I went to visit a psychiatrist on campus. I
would always drop acid before I went so he really realized that I was
not fit for military service." Caz Loth
• • •
"Dropping out of school was a risky business. But actually, I had
been called up for a physical before I dropped out of graduate
school, and that was in November, because I was still eligible to the
draft. ... So I stayed awake for three days, taking speed, thinking
if I do this I'll jack my blood pressure up. And it was high. By the
time I got there it was 160/90, but what got me out, as soon as the
doctor looked at my skin, said, 'Oh that's psoriasis, you're out, it
gets worse in Vietnam. I was immensely relieved. … It's the best use
of psoriasis that exists, is getting out of the draft.'" Roger Martin
• • •
"I was dodging the draft. I was in ROTC at that time. They tried to
draft me my sophomore year. If you're going to go, go as an army
officer. So I went into Army ROTC. The thing was, if you were a male
and you flunked out of college, you had an all-expense paid trip to
Saigon." David Awbrey
• • •
"When it came time to be in the military, I went to the highest level
of performance mode and even though I've been a performer for a long,
long time, I have to say that was my greatest performance, at least
so far. Because that one had more on the line than any of the other
ones. It isn't even close, because I've done performances right here
in the Pig, and they never said, 'Now if you fuck this up, you're
going have to go and hide in the jungle with maniacs shooting at
you.'" Wayne Propst
• • •
"Many of these young men were so dead-set against going to the war
that they chose to take really Draconian methods to make sure they
would stay out of the war. One student dropped a heavy sofa on his
big toe so he had a broken foot, which kept him out of the draft.
Another guy who had come to KU on a basketball scholarship, a tall,
very physically well-built fellow, he knew there would be no way he
would get out of the draft. So he did two things. First of all, he
read all that he could on schizophrenia in the library…. He learned
how to answer as a crazy person. Secondly, when he was called up to
take the bus to the recruiting center where he would be tested
physically and psychologically, just before he got on the bus, he
shaved himself totally, from head to toe. And then he oiled himself
with a very strong fragrant lotion, the idea being that when he got
to he recruiting center, though he's a tall, physically well-built
man, they would see there was something a little off. And he was
counting on being judged as a homosexual, and as such, in those days,
this would be another strike against him…. I had another student who
did indeed leave for Canada." Beth Schultz, then a KU English
professor, now retired
Students left that summer, but activists and tension remained.
Lawrence streets often held the sting of tear gas in the morning and
the sound of gunshot at night. Activists were still unhappy with the
status quo and were determined to make it known. Police and activists
clashed in July when the tension snapped and police shot and killed
two young people.
Black activists gathered at the Afro House, a place they could feel
welcome and escape racism they found in Lawrence and in the police.
On the night of July 16, police were called to the house after
someone heard gunshots. A car left the house; one of the passengers
was Rick "Tiger" Dowdell. Police thought the car looked suspicious,
so they chased it until it drove onto a curb. Dowdell got out and ran
down an alley. Police Officer William Garrett followed and the two
exchanged gunfire. When Dowdell turned to run away, the officer shot
him in the back of the head and killed him.
Both the black community and the street community went into an
uproar, and the front page of the next Vortex, an underground
newspaper, proclaimed Garrett wanted for murder. The rest of the city
reacted and men started circling downtown in their trucks, said Beth
Schultz, who had just joined the KU English Department.
"I had never seen, in the United States, the open display of
firearms," she recalls. "I saw trucks down on Massachusetts street
with three rifles lined up in the back…. It created an atmosphere of
high anxiety, of high-pitched fear, because these are white
vigilantes and it was because of the reaction of a group of African
Americans to Rick Dowdell's death."
Only a few days later, police killed another activist. Police
responded to calls of small fires and an open fire hydrant near the
Rock Chalk Café on Oread Boulevard on July 20 and were pelted with
rocks, bricks and tomatoes. Later a crowd gathered and overturned a
Volkswagen Bug at the owner's approval. Police reacted by releasing
tear gas and shooting into the mob. When the crowd split, 18-year-old
white activist and student Nick Rice was shot in the back of the head
Reports vary on what happened that night. The Kansas Bureau of
Investigation's report claimed it couldn't determine if police shot
Rice, so no officers were ever punished. Activists remembered that
night otherwise, some saying they heard police say "Shoot 'em," and
then saw them throw tear gas to prevent Rice from getting medical
attention. They were outraged by what they felt was a police
cover-up. Those few days left Lawrence in a haze.
"It just seemed like there was this wave of campus killings, and in
every case it was the authorities doing the shooting, killing
students," said Tim Miller, then a graduate student and now KU
professor of religious studies. "I don't know if everyone has ever
really figured that out, why did they have to."
A generation ablaze: The photos
A generation ablaze: The people
A Generation Ablaze [interactive]
Research only touches tip of iceberg
By Brenna Hawley
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Editor's note: In her story on 1A, Brenna Hawley wrote about a
particularly tense period at the University of Kansas. She wants to
tell readers what she learned from the semester-long project.
In November I started a project about the history of campus buildings
for a class. As I was sifting through photos in Spencer Research
Library, I came to the box of Kansas Union photos. Halfway through
the box was a file folder filled with images of the historic Kansas
Union fire in 1970. I'd always known about the fire and hoped to
write a story about it. I was lucky enough that the 40th anniversary
of the event came in the same semester I would be enrolled an
in-depth reporting class.
I started researching what I thought would be simply a project about
a magnificent fire, the damage it did and what people remembered
about it. When I started making calls, though, I realized that what
happened in April 1970 wasn't just limited to that month. It was so
much bigger. The late '60s and early '70s were full of racial
tension, the looming draft lottery, murder, drugs and a multitude of
other issues. The more I researched and read through countless
articles, I realized that something happened almost every day a
major fight, a firebombing, a fire.
I want to emphasize that my story, while filled with as much
information as I could fit, still touches only the tip of the
iceberg. I could only fit a small amount of what happened in a
more-than-3,000-word story. And I suspect that even if I wrote a book
about the time period, I would still see only slightly more of the
iceberg. But I'm trying to stay loyal as possible to what happened in
the space and scope I had.
This has been my favorite project I've worked on, in both journalism
and the rest of college. The people I talked to and the stories I
heard were fascinating. It's also been the hardest project I've
worked on. Obviously I wasn't alive in 1970, and everyone I talked to
had a slightly (or vastly) different perspective of what happened
then. Memories of the same event varied from person to person, and it
was interesting to see what events stuck out for them. Fusing all of
these views into one story was difficult, and I'm sure in the
process, I left some experiences out.
What I wonder most after writing this story is what I would have
done. Would I have been an activist? Would I have quit school and
left my finals unfinished? Would I have stuck around that summer? I
have no idea. But it made me think. It's inspired me to continue
working on this project past this story and expand what I've already
learned. I love history, and there is so much contained in this
Lawrence movement. I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I did researching.