Letter to the Editor: St. Patrick’s Day 1970 and the Student Takeover of St. Mary’s Hall

Student protestors barricaded themselves in St. Mary’s Hall (cover photo) on St. Patrick’s Day in 1970, according to UD alum David Webber ’73. Photo from udayton.edu

David Webber
1973 UD Alumnus 

Editor’s note: David Webber is a UD alum who now teaches political science at the University of Missouri. You can reach out to him at Webber@missouri.edu

St. Patrick’s Day 1970 I was a UD freshman when students occupied St. Mary’s Hall, the administration building, from March 17-18. I made a decision that day that I’ve reconsidered almost every St. Patrick’s Day since. I decided not to stay in the barricaded St. Mary’s Hall. I would make the same decision today—50 years later.

I was on the fringe of several student groups who barricaded the building. I had prior knowledge of the possibility (but not the specific date), I attended a planning meeting, I “visited” the administration building via the fire escape during the protest, but I chose not to participate in the takeover.

My decision was only a big deal to me since I was not a student leader, and few would notice my absence. It was a critical time in my academic and political development when I was “finding myself,” as we said back then, and I was formulating fundamental beliefs about democracy, governance, and citizen participation. I still have a manila folder of student documents and newspapers that I’ve kept in my file cabinet for 50 years.

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Fifty years ago this spring, the United States saw the last year of several years of campus unrest across the nation. It was an exciting time to be a college student. While we were without smartphones and social media, it was always easy to find someone to rap with, or play frisbee with, or to listen to music with on the plaza. It seemed everyone but me played the guitar and that every day was a crisis.

We students felt powerful back then. We acted as if we believed we could change university investments in companies that profited from the Vietnam War and that we could change campus rules and practices if we only held together. We thought we could change the president in 1972. No one talked about “being in a bubble” and “appealing to your base” back then.

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For reasons probably due to my upbringing, I lean toward moderation and deliberation, and am distrustful of most mass movements. Only as a last resort would I engage in group disruptive actions. So far, I have not recognized the need, but I do wonder if I’ve not been a little too politically passive. I like to think I would have gone to Selma or the Mississippi Freedom Rides in the early 1960s had I been older.

The 1960s were a time of social change that is hard to image nowadays. Back then incoming college students were required to live on campus and could not have cars. Women students still had curfews; men were often required to participate in ROTC. Look at the Daytonian (UD’s Yearbook) sometime: the students of 1967 wore coats and ties. In contrast, few students in 1970 owned coats and ties. There was no rec center and Stuart Hall wasn’t air conditioned.

You can view past Daytonians through the university archives. Click here

The student protests that were widespread across the U.S. from 1968 to 1970 were fueled, in part, by opposition to the Vietnam War, but also the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy, the riots in many cities, and the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

In addition to “getting out of Vietnam,” there were often university-specific demands that campus protestors had. Among them at UD were: abolishing rigid academic requirements and restrictive dormitory rules, having a more transparent campus administration with student representation, involving students in hiring and promoting faculty, and providing more minority admissions and financial support.

My particular contribution to UD’s student activities in the spring of 1970 was organizing a campaign to have the administration reconsider the case of a professor who I liked but who refused to earn a Ph.D. “because it was a research degree, not a teaching degree.” Over the years, I see the foolishness of this argument and developed an admiration for the chair of the theology department who attended one of the meetings I organized and patiently discussed abstract issues like “the purposes of a university” and “academic excellence.”

My biggest and most enduring disagreement with many of my fellow students concerned a statement by the university president, Father Raymond Roesch, who also attended a mass meeting of angry students, where he said, “you didn’t have to come here.” Many students were outraged over such a clear statement that we did indeed choose to attend this particular university, so we should abide by its rules and philosophy.

Campus unrest ended rather abruptly on May 4, 1970 when four students were killed by national guardsmen at Kent State University (immortalized by Crosby, Stills, and Nash & Young in their song “Ohio”). The students were protesting President Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia on April 30, 1970.

There also were students who dropped out due to economic hardships but more likely lack of focus and alienation. Universities didn’t do much to “support” them back then.

I am grateful to have experienced the social changes of the 1970s, but it is easy to overstate their political impact. In hindsight, there were few educational and public policy changes that resulted from the student protests, but UD still had a big impact on me.

It’s hard to imagine that I would have had a career as a political science professor if I had not had several economics and political science professors who gave me just the right amount of direction or been exposed to a wide variety of students who I tried to figure out.

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