Revisiting Kenyon in a Time of National Crisis

Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies Donald Rogan recalls his days as the "chaplain of drugs and the draft" during Vietnam and the shootings at Kent State

Editor's note: When Don Rogan stepped down as Kenyon's chaplain in 1972, he was "almost totally burned out," he has written. Rogan had come to the College in 1965 to teach religion as well as to fill the chaplain's role. That position put him right at the center of the turmoils-political, intellectual, spiritual, emotional-which enveloped the generation of the sixties and seventies. As "the chaplain of drugs and the draft," Rogan became counselor, empathetic sharer of troubling questions, touchstone, fellow activist, and friend for students at a time when personal fate seemed closely bound up with the urgency and anguish of public events. Chief among those events was the Vietnam War, a conflict that fired the passions of young people at home even as it consumed the lives of their peers fighting overseas. Rogan writes of the war, "The classes of the late sixties and early seventies knew no college years without it."

Rogan stayed on at Kenyon, of course, in the religious studies department, retiring in 1999. As part of their alumni reunion last May, several members of the classes of 1968 and 1973 asked him to lead an Alumni College session on Kenyon during this tumultuous period, specifically on the College's engagement with the war and its response to the shootings of students at Kent State University in 1970. Rogan undertook a good deal of research, poring over old copies of the Collegian as well as other documents from the period. Here, he provides some background on the period of antiwar activism at Kenyon, along with memories of two particularly dramatic episodes on campus: the national moratorium of October 1969 and the response to the Kent State shootings in May 1970.

When I was interviewed for the dual job of chaplain/religion professor at Kenyon, it came up that I had recently been at a demonstration in Washington, D.C., for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. One of those interviewing me-we were at the Alcove Restaurant in Mount Vernon, I remember-warned me, "Don't think you will find Kenyon students interested in social issues; they just don't think those things are important."

Kenyon may have felt like a place apart, and people at Kenyon may have felt that their lives here were somehow insulated and protected from, even irrelevant to, the "real world." But although the College really was different from other places, and often handled the tumult of the times differently, this community did very much participate in, and find itself crucially affected by, the times and the issues. Then as now, Kenyon was part of the real world-"like it or not," as we used to hear.

Revisiting the Kenyon of the Vietnam era, the 1969 moratorium, and the Kent State shootings-"four dead in O-hi-o"-I must say that I'm moved and humbled by the mammoth things we attempted. Like the war itself, they started rather small and then escalated.

A chapter of the radical group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had formed at the College in the spring of 1965. Led by Terry Robbins '68, the group published a broadsheet called the Vanguard, which digested criticisms of the country's growing involvement in Vietnam. Kenyon, like most of the United States, was slow to respond to so thorough a challenge as the SDS was making. In February 1966, though, a new group convened, the Faculty-Student Committee on the War in Vietnam. Robbins, temporarily dissuaded from the SDS viewpoint, joined in.

The new group announced its existence in a letter to the Collegian signed by twenty students, two townspeople, and eight faculty members, myself included. We argued that at a college, especially at this college, taking sides without sufficient information was particularly unfortunate, and we promised a series of position papers on fundamental questions like "Who is Ho Chi Minh?" (my topic assignment), "Who are the Viet Cong?," and "What interest has China in Vietnam?"

As far as I can tell, these position papers have not survived, but they were widely circulated and discussed at the time. We prided ourselves on not simply mounting a crusade but making our concern an educational opportunity. We were, of course, regarded as simply "antiwar." The group grew in size well beyond the thirty who had signed the initial letter, but its members were always primarily faculty and students.

Terry Robbins, however, found Kenyon too conservative. He dropped out in the spring of 1966, after his sophomore year, to resume his earlier radical stance, with fateful consequences.

A year later, in February 1967, yet another group formed with the touchingly grand name of "The Kenyon Committee to End the War in Vietnam"-such was the rhetoric of the day. The group sent a delegation to a large demonstration in New York City.

Throughout this period, John Porter, who was the rector of Harcourt Parish, and I preached sermons criticizing the government's continuing escalation of the war. Gambier being Gambier, what we said in church was often shared at Sunday dinner and soon known throughout the campus. One-on-one discussions followed, and I remember the give-and-take of many of these conversations more clearly than many of the larger meetings at which I am reported to have spoken. I was always surprised when a student I didn't know came and talked with me about a sermon he hadn't heard.

Meanwhile, campus debate about the war was escalating, too. In the spring of 1967, a journal called Perspective published position papers by faculty members and students in support of the war, and their work was discussed and praised. There were many letters to the Collegian on both sides of the war issue. One indication that Kenyon continued to hold "the real world" at bay was that these discussions were always informed, serious, polite, and respectful.

The 1967-68 academic year was a year of loss. On campus, we lost Huibert (Bert) Ponsen '69, who died in a car crash in December 1967, as well as Richard (Rick) Kuebler '70, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in March 1968. In the "real world," Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April. I will carry to my grave the memories of stopping a film in Rosse Hall to announce King's death, and the memorial service in the chapel, and the solemn march in Mount Vernon organized by the seminarians of Bexley Hall.

So much happened that year. The Women's Strike for Peace held a "Stop the Draft" week in October, opening up a new dimension of protest. In the spring, the Tet offensive turned the war fiercely back upon us with skyrocketing casualties. In March, President Lyndon Johnson, a war casualty of another sort, announced he would not run for re-election. And then, in early June, after the students had gone home for the summer, Robert Kennedy was assassinated.

I had been counseling students about the draft for some time, and I spent more time on that than anything else until the draft lottery was instituted. President William G. Caples '30, coming into office in the spring of 1968, was hesitant about whether we should be offering such a service, but he became an enthusiastic supporter when parents began asking for it.

I was also holding special meetings in the chapel at 10:00 p.m. on Thursdays to try to interest students who didn't come on Sunday-and to engage them at a time when most were wider awake. Looking back at issues of the Collegian, I am struck by the topics we covered, many of them unrelated to the war: poetry, drama, theology, politics, the death-of-God thinkers, and on and on. I especially remember Professor Eugen Kullmann giving one of his expositions of the Sermon on the Mount.

Given all of this activity, it seems fair to say that Kenyon, while not one of the nation's hotbeds of protest, was more than ready to participate in the national antiwar moratorium of October 1969. True to Kenyon's difference, the event took a distinctive form here.

At Kenyon, the moratorium consisted of a chapel service, a teach-in at the Hill Theater (by President Caples, several professors, and several students), a group of workshops, and, in front of Rosse Hall, a silent vigil punctuated by readings of poetry. But most memorably, there was a solemn recitation, over an outdoor public address system, of the 40,000 names of the servicemen who had died in Vietnam by that time. (Eventually, 57,000 names would be carved into the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.) The scene was a moving one: people standing in line to take a turn reading names, people standing halfway across campus pondering, townspeople wandering in to watch, and, always, both faculty members and students participating.

Designed to emphasize peace and camaraderie with those who made the ultimate sacrifice, the Kenyon moratorium was far more than a questioning of the war. In a letter to an alumnus who had complained that the College was lending itself to forces of disunity, President Caples acknowledged that the College itself should not take an official position on political matters but staunchly defended the right of individuals to voice their opinions, especially when they believed that government policy was ill-informed.

Caples was particularly troubled by the notion that citizens should refrain from criticizing the government during wartime because criticism could help the enemy. Quoting Senator Robert Taft, who had been attacked in 1951 for criticizing the Korean War, he wrote: "If we permit appeals to unity to bring an end to . . . criticism, we endanger not only the constitutional liberties of the country, but even its very existence."

After describing the moratorium day as it was observed on campus, he wrote the alumnus: "I think Kenyon acted in its best tradition and, frankly, I am proud of the student body, the faculty, and others of this community for their actions."

The Kent State shootings took place amid widespread student protests following the incursion of American and South Vietnamese troops into Cambodia on April 30 and May 1, 1970. They also took place against a backdrop of violence, both in protests and in the response to them. Less than two months earlier, on March 6, Terry Robbins and two of his fellow Weathermen, Ted Gold and Diana Oughton, had blown themselves to bits in their makeshift bomb factory in a Greenwich Village townhouse. (The Weathermen were the more radical and violent successors to the SDS, which had espoused nonviolent resistance, at least in the beginning. Terry has been credited with giving the Weathermen and the less-sexist-sounding Weather Underground their names, taken from a line, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," from Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues.")

At Kent State, following the announcement of the invasion of Cambodia, the university's ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) building was burned down, and Governor Rhodes sent troops from the Ohio National Guard to keep order on the campus. On Monday, May 4, during a noontime demonstration, Guardsmen opened fire on protesters, killing four students and wounding nine.

Anguish and anger spread rapidly across the country. At Kenyon over the weekend, there had already been lots of talk, as well as meetings in the chapel, about the Cambodia invasion and what could be done. Then the news of the shootings came on Monday. That night, there was a long meeting in Dean of Students Tom Edwards's office in Ascension Hall. An attempt to cancel classes the next day failed, but it was resolved to have an all-campus assembly to discuss Kenyon's response. This was advertised by signs, tacked up everywhere, reading "Kenyon Strike!"

Tuesday, May 5, was marked by a mass meeting in Rosse Hall from 10:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m., presided over by Clark J. Dougan '71, the Student Council president. The discussion centered on how to respond to "Four dead in Ohio." Colleges were closing down all over the nation. "No business as usual" became a near-universal motto on the country's campuses. President Caples, it was announced, joined with forty-seven other college presidents in a telegram to President Nixon protesting the Cambodian venture.

The mass meeting resolved to send a telegram to President Nixon and to Governor Rhodes. That plan evolved into the idea of running full-page advertisements in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Columbus Dispatch. The hat was passed to raise money to pay for the ads: $1,750 in a couple of hours! Discussion then turned to whether to join in a demonstration that was to take place at the state capitol in Columbus over the weekend.

It is hard to convey the atmosphere of intense seriousness in this and other meetings, the feeling of participating in critical events as they were unfolding. Rosse was jammed, with people sitting in the windows. Between meetings or during a recess, students would draft new motions or amendments to motions, then bring them back into the hall when the session reconvened. News from other campuses, some of it accurate, was excitedly shared. Parliamentary questions were resolved on the dais, and rulings were imposed with remarkable ease. There were plenty of moments of enthusiastic or cynical shouting but seldom such as to interfere with serious deliberations. Many faculty members spoke, and the population of the meeting shifted with each class change.

Wednesday, May 6, brought another meeting, this time from 4:00 to 9:00 p.m. A motion to close Kenyon for the year was discussed and discussed and finally defeated as another, more thoughtful motion was substituted and prevailed. It is worth citing the entire text of that motion:

It is proposed that we as an assembly recommend the following course of action to the College in full recognition that these are extraordinary times not conducive to the normal order of business:

1. that the College remain open, but all examinations, finals, and comprehensives be suspended; present grades, including those of seniors, will suffice to satisfy all requirements, if that is the desire of the students;

2. that in the place of these examinations, faculty members, administrators, and students join in symposiums, open forums, and teach-ins on such matters as the war in Indochina; the right, manner, and limits of dissent; the use of force on campus; the psychology and history of violence; and so on.

3. that the program for each day be announced at an assembly.

4. that each day be concluded at an appropriate hour with a brief service of silent prayer in the chapel;

5. that the people of Mount Vernon not be excluded from the symposiums and programs formulated by the Kenyon community.

The vote on this motion was 377-156, with 28 abstentions. That 561 members of the community were present and participating was remarkable then, and would be now.

In addition, the Wednesday meeting passed by nearly unanimous voice vote the following resolution:

This meeting requests that a special faculty meeting be called for Friday, May 8, at 4:00 p.m., this meeting to include proper student representation from both colleges.

This simple resolution is noteworthy not only for proposing that students be present in a faculty meeting but that "both colleges" be represented. The women of the Coordinate College, who were finishing their first year on the campus, were thus recognized for their extensive participation in the mass meetings and in the deliberations therein.

All of these meetings-and many, many conversations-were informed by an almost automatic and widespread sense of identification with the dead students at Kent State, by a desire to distance ourselves from violence, by a strong need to convince the citizens of Mount Vernon (our "real world") that we were nonviolent, and, finally, by the sentiments of this motion and resolution to the faculty. There was a palpable sense that, whatever the politics of the situation, all members of the community were in touch with one another and profoundly concerned. There was great applause at the Wednesday meeting at the announcement that President Caples had sought an appointment with Governor Rhodes, an attempt that, alas, failed-the governor refused him. Many, indeed, felt that the governor's public statements reflected insensitivity to the magnitude of what had happened at Kent State.

Thursday, May 7, found Kenyon students mounting an impromptu demonstration at the Mount Vernon Post Office (our "federal building"), which citizens of the city thought remarkable for its peacefulness and seriousness. Seeds of what came to be called the "Mount Vernon Mobilization," or "The Mobe," were sown.

On Friday, May 8, at 4:00 p.m. and Saturday, May 9, at 1:00 p.m., the faculty convened in a two-part meeting. At the first part on Friday, student representatives were welcomed and spoke effectively about the resolution brought from Rosse Hall, and numerous presentations were made by faculty members. On Saturday, motions were entertained and actions taken: final examinations were postponed one week; convocations and seminars would be held during the coming week; the usefulness of taking an "Incomplete" in lieu of a final grade was commended.

On Saturday at 8:00 p.m., an all-college assembly was convened to receive the faculty's response. Their actions were met with a standing ovation.

"The Mobe" was a loosely organized effort to convey to Mount Vernon and Knox County the concerns of Kenyon students and, as noted, to make clear their nonviolent approach. It generated a number of activities that took place over the week of May 10-18. There were the convocations and seminars on campus, conducted mostly but not exclusively by faculty members. For example, Professor Kullmann was asked to repeat his moving presentation on the Sermon on the Mount.

On Sunday, May 10, Kenyon students were welcome speakers at no less than twenty-two Knox County churches. Starting on May 11, booths were set up downtown to enlist support from Mount Vernon citizens and to explain student views. Conversations on the street with Mount Vernon people were ventured. Students went in pairs from door to door in several Mount Vernon neighborhoods to offer to discuss the issues with residents and to leave an explanatory open letter to Mount Vernon at each house. Reports of the response were amazingly positive, including from many of the recipients of these attentions.

On May 18, another assembly convened on campus to discuss a fresh tragedy, the eruption of a Kent State-type melee at Jackson State University in Mississippi. During a demonstration that ended in police gunfire, one student and a passerby were killed, and other students were injured. In the spirit of the Kent State response, students and faculty members at Kenyon raised another $1,500 to send to Jackson State for medical and legal expenses.

In the climate of confrontation that marked so many campuses at the time, it is impressive that the Kenyon community responded to Kent State and Jackson State with passion but not violence, thoughtfulness rather than rashness. Robert Novak singled out Kenyon in his syndicated newspaper column, praising the College for not closing and for conducting itself as it did. He portrayed the situation a little too much as students vs. faculty members, but he got the praise right.

Soon enough, the real world of Kenyon reasserted itself. May 20-27 saw the scheduling of exams after the heady and busy week of talk, meeting, and money-raising. Long before May 4, I had scheduled oral exams in one of my courses, and I found myself giving them on Middle Path benches, catch-as-catch-can, over the whole two-week period. Some others were obviously doing the same. Also, "incompletes" suddenly became fashionable, and reliance on them was to continue into later, much less fraught springtimes. And, finally, the women of Kenyon, "Coordinates" for only a couple of years, proved they were just as important a part of the College as any men of Kenyon were.

As for me, the turmoil and mayhem of that spring provided an unanticipated gift. Immersed as I was, I found that I also needed to escape. And so my family freshly discovered the delights of the Knox County countryside. Whenever there was a break in the action, we piled into the car and drove out to where we could look at cows, or, yes, watch trains go by-just someplace where no phones rang, no meetings beckoned, and no nation, at least for the moment, teetered in crisis.

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