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Augustana students protested Vietnam War

By Leon Lagerstam, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

Click here for larger view.
Protests against American involvement in the Vietnam War reached their zenith during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Here police and anti-war demonstrators are in a melee near the Hiltom Hotel on Michigan Avenue Aug. 28, 1968.
ROCK ISLAND -- An Augustana College classroom, painted from top to bottom with anti-war symbols and slogans, typified how local students reacted to the Vietnam War, professor and local historian Roald Tweet said.

Vietnam War protests in the Quad-Cities tended to be moderate, not violent, he said.

Augustana administrators tried to prevent protesters from painting anti-war sentiments on the outside of campus buildings by giving them access to an old East Hall classroom, and buying paint and supplies for them to use, Mr. Tweet said.

The room never was repainted before East Hall was torn down in 1978.

Students believed the college was sanctioning their expressions of outrage, according to fellow faculty member and former student Ann Boaden.

``Augustana was a place where students felt `I can genuinely question the issues and examine them,' as opposed to Kent State, where you could get shot for questioning things,'' Ms. Boaden said.

Senior college vice president Jack Hullett doesn't recall violent or heavily disruptive protests after he joined the faculty in 1965 as a psychology professor, but he does remember comforting a few frightened and weeping students after the 1970 Kent State shooting deaths.

``Augustana students very seldom have actually ever disrupted the education process,'' he said. ``It was more of a time of searching for answers. Many of our students began to wonder and think about the serious risks of being different in contact with the world of authority.''

Faculty member Harold Bell remembers being in Washington, D.C., for a meeting during the Kent State incident. ``I just sat on the side of my bed and couldn't believe American soldiers were shooting American students. It had a profound impact on a lot of us.''

However, Augustana students and Quad-Citians tended to blend their Vietnam concerns with a variety of other issues, according to Rock Island mayor, Augustana graduate, and former student body president, Mark Schwiebert.

Students paid less attention to national and global matters and focused more on having a greater say in their own governance, he said. The result was a ``Student Bill of Rights,'' he said.

Click here for larger view.
The Arsenal and other local federal facilities became favorite spots for anti-war protesters in the Quad-Cities. In a photo taken from the roof, protesters are seen blocking the davenport post office in a May 8, 1970, demonstration.
People weren't as clear about the nation's involvement in the war, Mr. Schwiebert said.

``It was a cutting-edge issue that, to some extent, divided young and old,'' he said. ``It wasn't really clear what we were fighting for. There was no clear national support or a belief that the cause was the right cause. It was fundamentally divided along the same lines as if Britain had gotten involved in our Civil War.''

It was a ``coming-of-age'' event, but generation-gap differences may have been exaggerated, he said. ``Some of the more articulate voices against Vietnam were of the World War II generation.''

Ms. Boaden remembers how the late Conrad Bergendoff, Augustana's president emeritus, surfaced as an early advocate for withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.

``He was a local icon, known for his high values, honesty and fairness,'' she said. ``For him to turn around and say the government was wrong was incredible.''

Vietnam took college officials by surprise as much as it did students, Mr. Tweet said. ``By being a small college, we're better able to instantly react to such things.''

An ability to discuss issues and concerns about Vietnam with faculty also may have prevented students from taking extreme measures, Ms. Boaden said.

``People tend to turn to violence when they get no response,'' Mr. Tweet said.

Both remembered students marching to the president's office to voice their concerns about the war. En route, they were asked by an administrator to ``keep off the grass,'' Mr. Tweet said.

``We were staying within the lines,'' Ms. Boaden said, ``to step out of line.''

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.