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Barry Schrader


I currently write a column each Tuesday for the DeKalb Daily Chronicle. The column will also appear on this website each week and be added to the archives.

The Articles started December 2007.


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When NIU was rocked by rioting

By Barry Schrader.................................May 11, 2010

Those living in DeKalb or attending Northern Illinois University in May 1970 probably have specific and contrasting memories of what happened in the wake of the Kent State shootings that brought campus unrest to a head around the country.
I had mixed emotions about what was going on at NIU, as well as the blame in the May 4 incident at Kent State, when members of the Ohio National Guard killed four students and wounded nine others. I had graduated from NIU seven years earlier and was back in DeKalb at the Daily Chronicle, covering the protests and rioting that caused one of the biggest rifts ever in town and gown relations.
On May 5 student violence spilled over into downtown DeKalb, causing the city to call for aid from state police and the National Guard. NIU President Rhoten Smith shut down the school for two days.
The first night of violence caught officials off guard as 300 to 500 students crossed the Kishwaukee River bridge and randomly broke windows in stores along Lincoln Highway.

NIU president Rhoten Smith (in NIU cap) sat down among students at the Kishwaukee River bridge on West Lincoln Highway during one night of confrontations between students and police in May 1970. (File photo courtesy of NIU Media Relations)

Considerable damage was also reported to campus buildings and vehicles, mostly windows. There were 115 police called out, and 37 were arrested.

It was a different story the next night, May 6, when an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 rallied on campus and took part in a mostly peaceful march. But DeKalb Mayor Jesse Chamberlain imposed a 10 p.m. curfew on the city. In addition to a large police presence, there was a contingent of National Guard troops standing by at the Sycamore Armory. But fortunately they were not needed.
Things calmed down after that, and students going home for the weekend helped reduce the tension. But more unrest began May 18 when students marched to the bridge on Lincoln Highway but were stopped by police. NIU President Rhoten Smith mingled with the students at the bridge, trying to talk them into returning to campus. He even sat down on the roadway among the students, which seemed to calm the tense atmosphere. The next night some 300 student protesters headed for the bridge again, but scores of police moved to break up the crowd before they got there. About 54 arrests were made and some injuries reported both among students and law enforcement. Four state vehicles were set on fire around campus but attempts to set building fires were thwarted by authorities. Then the university was closed again.

On the next night, May 20, more violence occurred after students learned that their attempts to remove the ROTC unit at NIU was voted down in a campus-wide referendum. The University Village shopping center on Lucinda was the target of vandalism, as well as Williston Hall where the ROTC program was headquartered. Earlier threats to “torch the building” were not carried out, but several windows were broken. State troopers and local police guarded the bridge into town, and no major confrontations happened that final night of protesting.

Pharmacist Jim Lehan, now retired, recalls the attacks on the shopping center where his store, The Campus Corner, lost the most windows “but nothing inside was stolen.” Sally Stevens, then secretary to President Smith, remembers a sit-in at the Lowden Hall offices of the president. She found herself surrounded by angry students who occupied both her office and Smith’s. She recalled they were taking things off her desk and milled around her, but she started talking with them and everything was returned to her when they left. “But,” she added, “a pair of silk-lined leather gloves disappeared from my coat in a nearby closet, and I wonder if they are framed on someone’s wall.”

As a result of the outbreaks, 30 people were appointed by the mayor, NIU and student government to discuss ways to repair the damaged relations between town and gown. The idea of such a committee had been proposed two months earlier by NIU Student Association President Pat McAtee. I served on that committee 40 years ago, and today I can’t recall what was accomplished after several meetings.
There is so much more to the story and my NIU classmate Jerry Smith helped my memory by providing copies of the DeKalb County Journal from 1970. Along with the articles and photos in the Daily Chronicle, this would make quite a documentary. Maybe a film-making class at NIU can make it a project.

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Barry Schrader
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115