Friday, May 4, 2012

All week I've been back in 1972

The only thing I knew Monday morning was this: Mankato, in 1972, had been a hotbed of anti-war protests.

That, quite frankly, was an understatement. I set out to reconstruct an event that had literally shut down Mankato one afternoon that year. I thought I'd work on it a couple of days, and it would make a nice little lookback and offer some fodder for conversations among friends who had lived through it.

I put a little blurb on Facebook and Twitter, asking folks to call me if they were there on May 9, 1972, when thousands of students had occupied Highway 169 and a couple of bridges in Mankato. Didn't hear much except for an MSU professor and Vietnam veteran who asked we not dredge up a day that he felt highlighted disrespectful behavior. (I attempted to get a hold of him for his viewpoint, but was unable to.)

Then I decided at the last minute on Monday to put a blurb in Tuesday's paper asking the same question. The power of print is alive and well, folks. I was completely unprepared for the response the next day. Every five minutes my phone was ringing from folks as far away as California offering their memories. Ex-police officers were calling, numerous former students, even reporters who had covered the events at the time. It seemed everyone who saw that blurb was moved to talk about it again. There were also some who called to tell me that I should be leaving the past in the past.

It was clear that by simply bringing up May 9, 1972, I had struck a nerve. Forty years ago seemed like yesterday for some of them. And even though the day was eight years before I was even born, I did my best to bring their memories alive on the page.

As a couple of my colleagues in the newsroom have been quick to point out: I'm not reinventing the wheel here. The story's been told. But that doesn't make it unworthy of being revisited, reminding people of an important day in Mankato's history and offering fresh sources and fresh voices whose stories of that day and that time have yet to be told.

I devoted my entire week at work on this story, and I'm proud of how it turned out and of being able to share it with all of you. I was happy, just for personal reasons, to get to hear the stories that I was told this week. They're great stories, and I hope you will think so, too.

Whatever your viewpoints on Vietnam and the protest-era, I hope you'll pick up Sunday's paper and read about Mankato State President James Nickerson, Mankato Police Chief Charles Alexander, officer Steve Davis (in the thick of it all, as he said), Vietnam veterans coming home from war, MSU professors who participated in sit-ins, community members stuck in traffic, just trying to get home and eat pork chops. I talked to all of them and more, and their stories do not disappoint.

Be sure to also check out the multi-media component. Ron Affolter took Super 8 video footage of the protests, and it was so cool to see 1970s-era students, with long hair and bell-bottoms, and to see what Front Street looked like back then. We'll have all 13 minutes of footage on our website. And we'll have a taped interview with Mankato State alums Mark Halverson and Scott Hagebak talking about their memories of the protests, coupled with numerous Free Press file photos and those submitted by Donald Jay Olson that have never been circulated.

I'm excited. I hope you enjoy it.


  1. In mid-March 1972, in my Commencement address to my fellow Winter Quarter graduates at Mankato State College, I summed up the preceding two years of campus activism, by calmly suggesting that the more visible protests, strikes, marches, sit-ins, and placard waving days were behind us, as students had forged new relationships with the faculty and administration, and begun participating in more democratic processes on campus.

    Then President Nixon made that disastrous move that blew that prediction out of the water. Hello May 9, 1972!

    My view then and now of all of the events of Spring Quarter 1972, not just May 9, and my personal involvement therein, was focused by the previous two years of on-again off-again anti-Viet Nam war protests following the Kent State shootings, participation as a student in newly created seats on campus decision making committees, and as a reporter for The Daily Reporter, and as a news reporter for KYSM-AM & FM radio, as part of my work towards my Journalism degree.

    The College Reporter student newspaper had become the Daily Reporter not just because the brand new Journalism major had more writers looking to write, or because there were more Bob Dylan and The Beatles record albums to review. The Daily newspaper happened because of the tremendous growth in student activism on campus, arising from the spring 1970 anti-war protests, to the Nickerson administration's, and the Faculty's, inclusion of students in all (most) facets of college decision making, through seats on campus committees.

    And because then, Journalism was more about critical thinking, than about public relations, and blogger lobbying, as it is today.
    The afternoon of May 9, and the days surrounding it, were brightly colorful warm Spring day communal events, that saw a convergence of pro-war, anti-war, Earth Day, and pro-student's rights forces, even left-over Summer Of Love jubilance we missed then but later read about, all coming together for one last go at it.

    The Daily Reporter did an amazing job of capturing the colorful, thoughtful and thought provoking events, in dramatic black & white photography, worthy of a gallery display in and of itself, some day, some time.

    Following after-class, mid-afternoon speeches around the fountain that day, the impromptu call to march downtown was set into motion. I had been to the fountain rally, wearing my KYSM credentials. I was not interested in a summer walk downtown. It would have been more my style then to take the Inter-Campus Bus, but nonetheless.

    I was at the Centennial Student Union Ballroom awaiting the return of those who had marched downtown. As a news reporter for KYSM, my "position" that late afternoon was at the CSU, following the fountain rally, to get the story as the marchers returned.

    It was not until I found a table radio, turned to KYSM, did I learn, from hearing my colleagues Jim Tessien and Don Bendickson's live reports on air, of the violence that ensued. I wasn't there, at Hwy 169, so I can't describe it. But we did patch the live radio broadcast in to the CSU PA system, and the whole building became involved - and immersed.

    I was there, in the Ballroom, when they returned. I saw the rag tag survivors returning from battle, much as some (students and faculty) had done before from their actual tours in Viet Nam, or Korea, or what Hollywood showed us returns from war zone battles might be like.

    The Ballroom was not a pretty sight that evening, in contrast to the bright, colorful, communal, flower power Hippie days of the previous two, if not four years, on campus. Not in appearance, not in a brighter vision for the future.

    We felt then, like half of America did in 2000, when Al Gore got beat up (lost the election un-democratically).

  2. At KYSM, the management gave me a wide brush to help the downtown community participate vocally in that tumultous week, inspired by the campus events. One evening, I did a hour-long, in-studio dialogue with three guests, representing the three sides to the issue, with live calls from listeners, on an improvised 7-second tape delay.

    The three sides being the pro-war, in the form of a middle-aged Veteran of WWII or Korea, the anti-war (student or faculty, probably a friend or colleague, but I failingly don't recall who at the moment), and the MSU administration, by Public Relations spokesperson John Hodowanic.

    The Nickerson administration understood that the community wasn't pleased with the job it did that week, in its exclusionary world view that transient students should have been corralled up on Highland Campus, where they ought to have been corralled on May 9, or on any day of the week, from the time they arrive in town, to the day they leave, except to pay rent or buy things at the downtown stores, and then quickly go back home, and not be heard nor seen again!

    The Nickerson administration did a brilliant job of maintaining itself during the week and remainder of the quarter, and all of the 1970-1972 events, although only a year later, President Nickerson himself would retire.

    There has has long been speculation that the motivating forces behind the May 9 events, and Spring 1972 events, were non-students, non-campus persons, who came to rabble rouse. I was only one of 10,000 students, on the 12,000 population campus at the time.

    I truly believe the motivation for the previous two-years of student activism, and inclusion of students on campus committees, can be credited to, and actually came from faculty and staff, who lived out their own expectations for campus democracy thru their students, from their own lack of involvement when they were students in the 1950s and pre-Nixon era 1960s.

    But not the events of May 9, 1972. Some of the philosophical motivation indeed might have come from some faculty, after all, it was their role to make students think, and some had been in Viet Nam or Korea and WWII, and had philosophies for students to consider thinking about.

    But the motivation for the May 9 march and occupation of Hwy 169 was pushed from another force. I don't believe that has ever been resolved to any one's satisfaction. I always longed that that had been done so earlier, as all of us students and graduates were dinged going forward by the events of that day.

    It struck me then, and has never left me, being a reporter for The Daily Reporter and KYSM then, standing alongside TV news people from the Twin Cities, why TV news people from the Twin Cities took an interest in Mankato at that time.

    One vivid moment, I was standing next to Bob McNamara of WCCO-TV, later CBS News, who was visibly upset that "nothing happened" that day, to give him a news story worthy of the 90-mile drive. I found that odd, as my critical thinking training had not included daily quotas.

    Many newsmen then had made their careers from having covered wars, like Murrow and Cronkite did, but anti-war rallies at Mankato State did not equate with that, to me.

  3. I no longer carry my back issues of The Daily Reporter with me, so I cannot re-read the May 10, 1972 paper, or following, to see if it gave the name of the person speaking at the podium in front of the fountain, who called for the march downtown. Someone did.

    We didn't wear our MSC ID's then like military dog tags, nor as many corporations require staff to do these days. I don't know if there were non-students rabble rousing the Spring 1972 events. I do recall however, not recognizing some, many, and not seeing the same over the summer and then the next fall as the campus resumed. After all, I was involved at The Daily Reporter, and had just finished a term in office as the head of the Student Union events council, where we had just created the first ever coffeehouse, and widely expanded the lectures portion of the Concerts & Lectures committee, as well as the Film & Film Making committee, as well as a quarter or two as a support staff with the Student Senate.

    And being a full-load, full-term student, graduating a quarter early, before beginning grad school and my new role with the Daily Reporter in its new home in the CSU. I wasn't obscure on campus as a student.

    There may be some credence to the theory of outside involvement. But, unlike Al Qaeda, no one ever took "credit" for stirring the stew that day, individually, nor as a political action group.

    The day was the closing of one chapter, and the start of another, in the lives of MSC, its students, and its new graduates. Not all MSC graduates stayed in Mankato for the rest of the 1970s, and for those who did, he scars of the May 9 physical event would haunt the student body at MSC, and many of its graduates, for years to come,

    Most of the Mankato community did not take kindly to the closing down of Hwy 169, nor to the class action class as a whole, of that day and week.

    Nor do all people take kindly to Occupy, nor the Tea Party today.

    Protest and dissent is equal opportunity in the long term.

    Note - no conversation about the Spring Quarter 1972 events would be complete without the inclusion of Student Senate President Larry Spencer, now of Spencer Realty, Juneau, AK, nor faculty member H. Roger Smith, of the Twin Cities, or Ralph Bailey.

    For further reading, go to the Library and find the physical or microfilm Daily Reporter issues from the time, and also the amazingly illustrated Katonian 1972 year book, hand crafted and designed by Mankato native Mark Landkamer.

    - Brad Theissen
    Enjoying spring time in Berlin, Germany

  4. "literally shut down Mankato", eh? Name the businesses that were closed. List the government offices that were shuttered (except, of course, the schools abandoned by some students and some faculty). Just a few streets temporarily blocked and some drivers thus annoyed. Most Mankatoans didn't even know this was happening and only found out later, if at all. Amanda, you should be ashamed and embarrassed for making such false and hyperbolic claims.
    Mankato shut down -- yea, right.