My Recollections of
SDS at BGSU
by Bill Barrow

 

This is one participant's recollections of student activism at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, in the latter part of the Sixties and early Seventies. Mine was only one perspective of the times and my memories are fading or becoming altered, so I decided to write them down now before any further changes take place. It also gives me a chance to share some photos I took at the time and other documents tucked away in boxes in my closet. I use the history of the SDS chapter at BG as a central portion of this account, even though portions may deal with other counter-culture issues and have nothing to do with SDS, per se. I welcome any additions or corrections by other participants.

The Students for a Democratic Society chapter at the Bowling Green State University was formed in 1967(?), as part of the local student movement against the war in Vietnam, in loco parentis in American universities and racial injustice on campus and in the general social milieu. It followed from the national SDS emphasis on Participatory Democracy, by which some members meant the empowerment of individual members of society to fully partake of the decision-making, benefits and responsibilities of citizenship. It was a democratic organization, but more importantly, it was intended to build the kind of well-rounded political operatives that would be necessary to both affect the course of history and to be an effective citizen in a participatory democracy. Because citizens are not living in such a society then, it was believed, they suffered oppression, injustice, estrangement and psychological impairment. To build a Participatory Democracy, one had to live by those principles and radically restructure American society to insure that all citizens could equally share the benefits, power and wealth due them. This was viewed as requiring a "revolution," although just what that meant varied from individual to individual. more...

The founding five national SDS members necessary for chapter status were, in alphabetical order, myself, David P., William R., Kathy S., and Charles T..

Dr. R. was a member of the Political Science faculty and doubled as the required faculty sponsor for recognized campus student organizations at the time. I don't recall his exact political philosophy, but don't remember him as particularly radical. He may have joined the national SDS and sponsored the chapter primarily as a means of supporting student expression in these difficult times.

I also don't recall the details of how the organization was created, but Charlie was the most influential figure and probably the one who initiated the idea. He projected a blue-collar radical intellectual demeanor, read New Left Notes, Ramparts and other radical materials and wrote many of the chapter's manifestos.

Kathy, at some point, was an active member of another group, "WITCH: Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell," which while a radical feminist group, undoubtedly was neither international in scope nor terrorist in nature.

David moved in different circles than I did and I can say little about his background or activities except that he appeared in Kathy's company as much as anyone's, in reflection. Indeed, most of the five members pretty much went their own way and interacted little with one another, socially or politically. To some degree, this was the nature of SDS and true to its perceived creed of building independent, self-reliant radicals.

I was a typical suburban kid from Cleveland's far east side who grew up active in Boy Scouts, band activities, life-guarding and most recently had been a big supporter of Barry Goldwater's presidential bid. This resume was not particularly atypical as several members of the liberal/radical activist community at BG were found to be former Eagle Scouts and/or "Barry's Boys." From scouting, in those days before it became besmirched by its anti-gay stance, came the idealism of the Twelve Laws and from the Goldwater campaign came the notion of States Rights, which was a next-door neighbor of Participatory Democracy.

In addition to these five national members, there were upwards to a hundred local members, at the high point of the post-Columbia period. They were drawn from the general counter-culture crowd who tended to gather in the south end of the Student Union, hence the moniker "South Enders," and represented all manner of opinion from traditional liberals, socialists, feminists, civil rights activists, anti-poverty workers, hippies, Yippies, beat poets and some people who just liked to dress up, have fun, grow their hair, smoke pot, avoid the draft and/or hopefully enjoy Free Love. SDS "fellow travelers" included two consecutive editors of the BG News, the president of the student council, any number of council members and many graduate students in the humanities and social sciences. There were not any Communists, terrorists, fugitives, mad bombers, heroin users or other total lunatics known to be involved in the chapter and "outside agitators," if any, were pretty quiet and transient. There was also little representation of anti-war Vietnam Vets.

The SDS chapter was involved to the extent that its members were involved in the various political activities on campus. Few were directly or publicly sponsored by the chapter, but few took place without a lot of involvement by the membership, given the eclectic nature of the membership. Indeed, the history of the SDS local chapter in BG is pretty much indistinguishable from the history of student activism at Bowling Green during the same period. In this regard, here are some specific activities that undoubtedly involved SDS members (Again, this is only one person's perspective and may represent faithfully neither the range of events nor the details of any particular event mentioned):


Teach-ins:

Perhaps the first visible signs of anti-war activism on the campus was the "Dissent We Must" Teach-in held in front of Williams Hall. Various speakers told of the nation's involvement in the Vietnam War and protested the toll the war was taking on Vietnam and America. Here are three images from that teach-in.

This is a view from Williams Hall, showing the way the teach-in was set up and the size crowd it attracted.

Not everyone was in agreement with the speakers' positions, as evident this Vietnam Vet's attitude.

On the fringes of the teach-in were these two gentlemen, later identified by parties unknown as Sergeant Smith and Corporal Mudridge of the Ohio State Highway Patrol's Findley Office.


Kent State Shooting Reaction:

As it did nationally, the killing of four Kent State students and wounding of several more struck Bowling Green students hard. Kent and Bowling Green drew largely from the same northern Ohio region and many BG students had friends and relatives at Kent. Moreover, the use of National Guard troops on campus was controversial to start with and to learn that someone was irresponsible enough to let them carry live ammunition and ineffectual enough to let them use it was unforgivable.

Unlike many other schools, Bowling Green did not shut down, but a candlelight procession was organized and heavily attended. It began in front of Founder's Hall dormitory at the southwest corner of campus, traveled along Wooster Street downtown to Main Street, went north one block to Court Street, and then came back to the Administration Building next to Founders. The procession was several people abreast, closely packed and the people at the front of the line saw others still leaving Founders when they returned to campus! This was a well-attended event.

It was also a peaceful event, but it might not have stayed that way. The participants were a broad section of fairly-ordinary students, faculty and staff, who were quietly carrying candles, reflecting on the reason for being there and carrying on soft conversations with their neighbors. There were no banners, signs, bullhorns, chanting, or other symbols of a protest march. This was a sad, commemoration of the tragedy at Kent State and everyone was in a quiet, somber mood. However, upon reaching the Wood County Courthouse halfway back, tempers began to rise and a disturbance became a possibility. For reasons known only to him the County Sheriff had stupidly and provocatively stationed a wall of deputies in riot gear across the courthouse lawn! This was totally un-necessary and represented either incompetent law enforcement or a deliberate attempt to start something. There had been no sign of "outside agitators" in town and no militant actions were planned by the campus' radical community, so the Sheriff was merely showing his strength no matter how inappropriate and disrespectful it was to the occasion. Apart from some flushed, angry faces and mutterings, however, the crowd moved along and ignored the incitement.


Anti-Draft Leafleting of BG High School:

The war in Vietnam was on the minds of every draft-age male student in the late Sixties, regardless of political persuasion, and the anti-war movement had several counseling programs designed to help students avoid the draft in the first place, or if necessary either flee to Canada or carry the program of resisting the war into the military. Anti-war counseling was on the minds of a small group of SDS chapter members when they appeared out front of Bowling Green High School on the afternoon of December 4, 1967, and began handing out leaflets to students on their way home.

The leaflet was fairly innocuous and factual, and received a quiet but mixed reaction from the high school students. The town's newspaper, the Daily Sentinel Tribune ran page one story the next day, titled "Anti-Draft Literature Distributed," reporting the event. According to the article, the school authorities checked with the police to determine whether they could prohibit this activity and, when told that they could, asked the leafleters to leave. Which they did. The story also said that it "riled" the school, police and American Legion officials and identified Charlie as being connected with the mail box cited in the leaflet. Charlie was further identified as currently being free on bond on a charge of being in charge of a house where illegal drugs were kept, which was rather irrelevant to the nature of the event, but undoubtedly spoke volumes to the townspeople. A letter to the editor a week later from one irate townsperson, Jacqueline B., attested to the mood of some.

The author of these reminiscences was one of the party and photographed the event.

Charlie passing out leaflets.

David ready for action.

David at work.

"Dave the Jew" whose actual name I don't recall. This nickname, which bothers me today, was perfectly natural at the time and used by him.

Two students accept a leaflet.

And other one registers his opinion of one.

Here is the leaflet.

And the article the Daily Sentinel Tribune ran about it.

And the letter writer's rather heated comments on the event.

That she would choose her decorated Vietnam-vet son over "the rabble-rouser, long-haired, furry-faced, pot-smoking males, their friends and anyone who works with or associates with them" isn't particularly surprising, but the bit about "quick and permanent measures" to uproot us like crabgrass wasn't very friendly. To her credit, she still managed to recognize the right of SDS to exist.... on campus.


The Beachhead & Liberation News Service:

With the Sixties in full swing, we decided the only thing missing was an underground newspaper. My roommate, David C., and I undertook to correct that omission by launching The Beachhead in 1968. Subtitled "Filling the Vacuum Created by Expanding Horizons" -- the university's motto being Expanding Horizons at the time -- we put out one issue of a tabloid-sized 8-page paper and distributed it free around campus. It contained pieces written by us, or guest authors or gleaned from our subscription to the Liberation News Service.

The Liberation News Service was the AP or UPI of the underground press and mailed us a thick stack of stories every few days. I don't recall what we paid for this service, or even that we ever did pay, but long after our paper was a memory, we still enjoyed receiving the pile of stories in the mail. It was like getting The Berkeley Barb or East Village Other and made us feel quite connected to national counterculture events in sleepy little Bowling Green.

In retrospect, the paper was pretty amateurish. The galleys we prepared were affixed to the layout with rubber cement instead of the wax that our printer later introduced us to. One poor writer, History grad student Heather S., was chagrined to discover we'd headlined her like she was an Arnold Toynbee or similar celebrity with our headline "Heather S---- on Vietnam." And our attempts to spoof the silly titles of Ku Klux Klan officers for ourselves must have left readers wondering where we were coming from. We still wonder that ourselves today.

Another point was the division of labor in this "radical," "socially-aware" publication. Dave and I were the editors and owners, but all the real work -- typing the articles, for example -- was performed gratis by the female members of the operation, Jill and Joy. Having your wife, girlfriend, or mother type your school reports seemed perfectly natural at the time and this was an extension of that ethic, but it doesn't look very enlightened, in retrospect.

But, we had fun with it, learned a lot from the one issue and even managed to land a two-page center spread advertisement from A&M Records, promoting a campus concert by Phil Ochs.

The paper resulted in little comment, except that an official BGSU house organ mentioned us in passing as being mostly interested in birth control!


Thanksgiving Anti-Hunger Demonstration
at the Alpo Plant:

South Ender Max S. was a Sociology student and anti-hunger activist. He formed a group called "WHIP: World Health Instead of Poverty" and decried the fact that malnutrition was so rampant in the world. To dramatize the fact that American's fed their pets high-protein food when so many people were starving, he took a group of activists to Allentown, Pennsylvania, and protested outside the Alpo dog food plant on Thanksgiving Day in 1967. As part of the gig, they ate Alpo out of the can, which caused one worker still on duty to comment that they "certainly wouldn't do that if they saw how the stuff was made."


BG News - Black Student Union Starvation Controversy:

One surprising turn of events started off with all sorts of good intentions, but wound up pitting the campus newspaper, The BG News, against the Black Student Union. Every year the fraternities on campus sponsored a pizza-eating contest and a few days before the contest one time the News ran two pictures: one showing a few frat guys shoveling down pizza until they got sick and the other showing a picture of starving Biafran children with distended bellies. Underneath the photo the paper asked "Social insensitivity?"

The greeks just ignored it, but the African student association and the campus Black Student Union group assailed the piece on the grounds that it perpetuated the stereotype of hunger in Africa. Hunger, they pointed out, existed in many places besides Africa, but the choice of these African pictures were racist attempts to further the idea that Africans were starving, which wasn't the case. In defense of the News, a couple of people (me included) defended the choice of photos on the grounds that hunger did exist in one spot in Africa and the photo was chosen because Biafra was so recently in the news to be still a fresh horror in people's minds.


In addition to these more serious activities, there were some more-spurious, Yippie-type activities that the author was involved in that reflect the tenor of the times.


Richard Nixon's visit in 1967:

Tricky Dickie came to Bowling Green on May 27, 1967, as part of his rehabilitation campaign for the presidency. By supporting local Republicans around the country, he built up chits he could cash in during his subsequently-successful presidential campaign.

This visit was to benefit Delbert Latta, Representative of the Fifth District of Ohio, including Bowling Green, and was held in the BGSU Student Union. In the morning was a press conference, followed by a dinner in the evening.

I borrowed a camera and a friend, Fred, took out a big tape recorder from the campus A/V center and we crashed the press conference. Later we crashed the dinner and I got in trouble for popping out from behind the curtain to photograph the audience over Nixon's shoulder. There were no Secret Service agents assigned to him then, but Del Latta's people were filming it for a TV special and were mad that I was in the picture.

Here are some of my photos from that event:


Fred with recorder


Nixon signing programs


Nixon at the press conference


Another one at the PC


Nixon at the dinner


Over Nixon's shoulder
(about the last time I could've ever done this again)


Woodstock & Chicago:

I attended neither one of these key events. I had a ride to Woodstock, but my wife was having an operation in Cleveland, I was minding the house and pets and elected not to attend. Besides, before the event it wasn't the big deal it became. As for Chicago, the Democratic National Convention undoubtedly attracted some students from Bowling Green, but again I stayed put. It was interesting to discover later, however, that my moderate Republican parents watched it and had trouble deciding whose side they were on for fear they'd see me getting clubbed on TV.


SDS National Convention Spoof:

One of the things that broke up the SDS chapter was the turn to violence and violent rhetoric pursued by the national SDS with the coming of the Maoists and Weathermen factions. Frankly, most of us thought they were nuts and certainly a far sight from the Participatory Democracy, peaceful-resistance models we'd originally embraced. Still alienated from mainstream American politics and now disillusioned by national SDS, we decided to follow the Yippie model and just have fun pointing out the absurdities of American life and upsetting the status quo.

In 1968, Jack L. and I applied to the university's spaces allocations office for permission to host the next SDS national convention at Bowling Green. To increase the reach of this prank, we took out an ad in the Daily Sentinel Tribune, asking residents to "open your hearts and homes to delegates" attending our convention. Needless to say, the townspeople didn't exactly relish the idea of providing housing for Maoists and Weathermen and someone placed a classified ad asking whether readers were mad enough to do something about the situation. Evidently not.

Space assignments smelled a rat, but we played it serious as long as we could and eventually the university formally rejected our request. That was the end of that spoof as WE certainly didn't want those particular crazies to come to BG, either.

October 12, 2010: Here's something interesting that I found in Google Books, pertaining to the FBI's actions in Cleveland and Bowling Green. Seems they paid some attention to our lark about hosting the SDS national convention.


Pie for a General:

Our feeling of powerlessness about the war and how we were voiceless in the national press or university publications was part of the reason behind the pranks and spoofs we pulled. Learning from Abbie Hofman and Jerry Rubin that the press will give you a stage if you do something weird enough, we always had our fertile little minds at work.

One opportunity came when we learned that the military general in charge of the infamous resettlement campaign for disrupting the Vietcong, thereby destroying Vietnamese village life, was coming to BG to address the Army ROTC Department. We determined he'd be attending a luncheon in the Pheasant Room, the elegant dinning room on the second floor of the Student Union, so at the appointed hour Dave dropped me off at the back door and I marched in to confront the general. I was dressed in the most non-descript, impersonal clothing I could find, was wearing a ski mask and was carrying in a gloved hand a lemon meringue pie that I fully intended to deliver right into the general's face. Then, the plan went, I'd run like mad out the front door of the Pheasant Room, down some stairs that would be quickly blocked by some cooperative South Enders and around behind the Chemistry Building where Dave was waiting with the car. We had an appointment with the printer of The Beachhead, in Toledo, by way of alibi and a box all prepared to mail all the incriminating clothing to someone out-of-state, from the Perrysburg post office.

I had worked in the Student Union for a couple of years and knew the innards of the building well, but when I burst through the kitchen doors into the Pheasant Room, there were no military types anywhere in evidence. Later I learned that the dinner had been moved to a larger banquet room upstairs, but I couldn't very well go wandering around the building in a ski mask, so the timing was shot and the prank was off. Just as well, since some over-eager ROTC cadet might have tried running me through with a ceremonial sword or something.


Jerome for Governor Spoof:

William Travers Jerome, III, was the elegant President of Bowling Green State University during the late Sixties and early Seventies. He brought a whiff of Eastern pomp to little BG, and created a formal inauguration with all the academic trappings when he arrived from Colgate University.

At some point Jack and I decided to conjure up a fake grass-roots organization to draft Dr. Jerome for the upcoming Ohio gubernatorial race. The then-editor of the BG News went along with the gag and helped out by writing the press release and obtaining a list of major newspapers statewide. The idea was to tie up the university president's office fielding inquiries about this fake candidacy. To some extent it worked, as several newspapers ran the "story" and subsequent denials from Dr. Jerome's office that he was a candidate.

(As a postscript, during the Eighties I was researching local history in Tucson, Arizona, and came across a historical account of the founding of the Desert Sanitarium in the 1920s, now Tucson Medical Center and the city's biggest employer. In that article it mentioned that the "Desert San" was founded by a prominent New York City advertising man, whose attorney was one William Travers Jerome! Deciding there couldn't be a coincidence, I tracked down Dr. Jerome in Florida, where he'd retired after founding one of the new-growth state universities there and discovered that yes indeed that was his grandfather. WTJ the First had been the "Battling District Attorney" of NYC and prosecuted the famous Stanford White murder trial. Furthermore, Dr. Jerome said, there's a book out about his grandfather, titled Courtroom Warrior, and in it is a photo of himself at five years of age on his grandfather's knee. Dr. Jerome was very warm and friendly and we reminisced about the Sixties in Bowling Green.)


Drugs:

While there were undoubtedly psychedelic drugs and perhaps even heroin on campus, all I ever saw was marijuana and hashish. The times were liberal about pot use in our circles, but there was enough potential legal repercussions that the natural tendency to be a little paranoid when stoned wasn't entirely unjustified. There were enough true "pot-heads" around to serve as reminders that pot should be more of an occasional break from reality than its own permanent reality. Drugs were something of a common denominator for the social revolutionaries and the political ones* but the latter were pretty wary of leaving themselves open to being busted for drugs, much less trying to function on a decent level while stoned.

One example came to me through a good deed I was trying to do for a Brother and Sister in The Movement (we tended to think in terms like that). While cruising down Wooster, I noticed an unfamiliar hippie chick standing at the bus station, looking agitated. I stopped and asked what was her problem. Turns out "The Pigs" were hassling her and her boyfriend, who'd been passing through town. He was in jail and she had to keep moving for some reason. I promised to look into it and later called the police to find out what gives. They said he was in jail for tearing up a motel room the previous night, but could be released to a responsible party if he left town the next day. I found a liberal minister who'd be said party and I wound up letting the guy crash at my apartment for the night. The next day I accompanied him to the bus station, but before it left, he excused himself, ran across the street to Dorsey's Drugs and quickly came back. He displayed a couple of Vicks nasal inhalers he'd just purchased (maybe he shoplifted them, for all I know), cracked one open and swallowed the chemical-soaked cotton innards! That rather shocked me and educated me quickly to the fact that some people were in pretty sorry shape.

My take on the drug scene was pretty much that of Theodore Roszak, whose The Making of a Counter-Culture was pretty hard on the irresponsible, empty-headed pursuit of narcotic escape. He'd reviewed the other aspects of the counter-culture with some sympathy for the intellectual underpinnings and experimentation, even when it came to the pharmaceutical adventures of Aldous Huxley, but said of the psychedelic movement's grassroots that "There is nothing whatever in common betweeen a man of Huxley's experience and intellectual discipline sampling mescaline, and a fifteen-year-old tripper whiffing airplane glue until his brain turns to oatmeal." That was pretty much where I was coming from, too.

One contrast was found in music, which was another common denominator to some extent. The social radicals were following the Beatles in thinking that the way to correct society was for individuals to change their heads, as expressed in the Beatles' "Revolution." The political radicals felt that was a cop-out and sympathized more with the Stones' "Street Fighting Man." In this, I found myself following the Beatles, but that was after I'd become disillusioned with the direction SDS had taken.

* My mother once inquired why I chose to wear jeans, blue work shirts and construction boots. When I said so I could identify with the working class, she cheerfully retorted that I'd have more success with that if I got a job!


Wrap up:

After the events at Columbia University, SDS attracted more attention from the South Enders at Bowling Green. The first meeting that fall attracted a hundred students, about five times the usual crowd and some of the leaders were in a quandary about what to do to capitalize on this opportunity. They wanted to form printing committees, leafleting committees, public speaking committees and the like, to give everyone a chance to do something and stay involved. Several of us, however, thought that was an unwise policy, for if our mission was to create a society that stressed the rights and empowerment of the individual in opposition to the over-specialized bureaucracy, then setting up our own little bureaucracy didn't seem the right direction to go.

That and the rise of the Maoist-Communists and violent Weathermen factions pretty well took me and many others out of the picture and the group dried up.

I never finished my BA at BG, leaving to work high-rise construction in Toledo for my father-in-law in 1970. In 1972 I was hired by my former ROTC commandant, Wes Hoffman, who was by then the new City Manager of Bowling Green. He and the new Mayor decided they needed an animal control program separate from the county dog wardens, and since I was a member of the Wood County Humane Society's board, Wes hired me to set up their program. The position reported to the Chief of Police, effectively ending my long-hair era and causing some ripples in the department. But it had its lighter moments, too, such as when one of the plainclothes detectives tossed me a bag of green vegetable matter and asked if it was pot. "Gosh, how would I know?" was my response. It also caused a reaction amongst my friends in The Movement when I'd pull up in my police uniform (sans gun) and shades and call them over to my car. But the experience launched ten years of running animal welfare shelters in Tucson, AZ and Louisville, KY as I tried to find a new outlet for my residual Sixties idealism.


Turner Construction laborer


Bowling Green Animal Warden


Air Force ROTC days
Hmmm.. the caption's wrong. I'm 2 above the big guy in front


The opinions and recollections contained here are entirely Bill's, who cannot swear that his memory is entirely up to the effort these thirty years after the events.

Written April 5, 2001. Updated periodically.