Reliving the Past: The Effects of the Vietnam War at Drury
University archivist William Garvin describes the Drury student controversy of 1969
By William Garvin
From The Mirror
Originally published April 21, 2010
Generally speaking, Drury College was not a hotbed of activism during the turbulent times of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was not the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where violent protests had erupted in 1967, nor was it Kent State, where Ohio National Guardsmen killed four student protestors in May of 1970. In October of 1969, though, the Drury campus was shaken by a controversy that reflected the bitter partisanship that afflicted this country during the Vietnam War. The controversy would pit student journalists against administrators and trustees, and call into question student rights and conduct.
It all started with a letter published in the Drury Mirror on October 10, 1969. A student had received the letter from a recent Drury graduate who was serving as an infantryman in Vietnam, and Rick Ayre, the editor of the Mirror, had decided to publish it. In a prefatory note, Ayre wrote that the entire text of the letter “was left intact to preserve the emotional context.”
The infantryman wrote to his friend, “I intended to write you a frivolous letter…. But the events of this morning have taken most of the humor out of me.” The soldier reported that he had been pulling duty in an observation post earlier in the day, when an American patrol “got ambushed right outside the perimeter.” Three soldiers were killed in front of him, and he had crawled back to safety under heavy fire. He wrote, “Three fuckin’ guys who were alive and bullshitting the rest of us last night, just aren’t anymore.” Other rough soldierly language peppered the letter.
In subsequent paragraphs, the soldier wrote that nobody at home could understand “what it is like to be in constant fear of your life.” He added that whether one was killed or survived was “not a matter of how good you are; it’s just where you happen to be at a certain instant in time and space.’ He reckoned that his chances of survival were less than fifty percent. Towards the end of the letter he said, “I want you and the rest of my friends to understand that even though I write and am in good humor, it might be the last letter you or anyone will get. It is just that bad.”
Reaction to the letter’s publication was swift. Only a few days later, a prominent alumnus saw a copy of the Mirror and fired off his own missive to a member of the Drury College Board of Trustees. He complained that the letter in the Mirror “purporting to come from a serviceman in Vietnam” had contained “enough filthy language and expressions to shock any but the most hardened and dirty hippie.” The alumnus also noted with dismay that the same issue of the Mirror had featured an “In Memoriam” advertisement to “the late notorious Communist agent of Fidel Castro, Ernesto Che Guevara,” who had directed “Marxist subversion” that was ultimately aimed at overthrowing the government of the United States. “At a time when our boys are fighting Communism and dying for human freedom in Vietnam,” he added, “it seems to me very inappropriate to give this sort of aid and comfort to our Communist enemies.”
|Alfred Canon |
Alfred Canon, then president of Drury College, was forced to react. He sent a memorandum to the student publications committee taking the Mirror to task for the use of “language which would be considered offensive and indecent by many persons on this campus and in the Springfield community.” The use of such language was “unacceptable,” and he told the publications committee to “take steps to assure that there will not be a repetition of this use of language in the Mirror or any other student publication.” (He made no mention of the Che Guevara memorial.) The reporting of the Mirror should be objective, Dr. Canon said, and the criticism “candid,” but the paper had to “set the tone or standard of good taste…without resorting to language which is offensive.” He noted somewhat darkly in his conclusion that “it will not be necessary for this office to take administrative action in the matter at this time.”
The student publications committee issued a respectful response to Dr. Canon. They acknowledged that Dr. Canon had to “sit in a different seat” which subjected him to “the pressures of non-students” and those of other constituencies and “forces.” Somewhat defiantly, though, they argued that “The Mirror is by and for students.” They assured the president that “the editor did not print the letter intact without serious consideration.” Before the letter had been published, the Mirror staff had been canvassed, and all present “favored the inclusion of the questionable words as relevant to the emotional context” of the letter. In addition, the committee felt that to omit the words “would have been too deleterious, and much more the improper way.” The committee believed that the editor, Rick Ayre, had used the requisite “caution and good judgment,” and was “consistent in his administration of the [publication] guidelines.”
On October 17th, the Board of Trustees met in its mid-year meeting, and much of their conversations centered around the now infamous October 10th issue of the Mirror. Some trustees advocated taking a tough stance. One expressed his concern about “a newspaper carrying a memorial to an avowed Marxist,” and said that a “stand” had to be taken. Said another, “the use of smutty language in the newspaper…is just a symptom of the total problem.” He advocated swift action by the administration: everyone should “read the charter, examine his own conscience, and have an administrator carry out those responsibilities.” This same trustee urged Dr. Canon to fire the Mirror editor and the chair of the student publication committee. Dr. Canon replied that he would only do so if there were further policy violations. At this point, another trustee said that he believed Dr. Canon’s position was correct, and that “the Board ought not to make a big issue [of the situation] and make heroes.” Doing so, he said, might be a “very bad error.” After further discussion, a motion was introduced to “reaffirm [the Board’s] confidence in the administration and in the matter in which it is pursuing this matter.” The motion passed, but President Canon continued to receive pressure from those trustees who felt that he was not being tough enough with certain “radical” elements on campus.
The controversy continued to be fought out in the pages of the Mirror over the next six months. Frustrated by the continuing controversy regarding proposed “guidelines” for the tone and content of the Mirror, a group of students published a “spoof edition” in February of 1970. Labeled the “Do-It-Yourself Drury Mirror,” it contained a series of pages with blank boxes for students to insert their own content.
Two months later, the year’s last issue, published on April 17th, 1970, contained front-page stories regarding the two principle players in the controversy. One article announced that Rick Ayre, the editor of the Mirror, had been elected Student Body President through a write-in candidacy. The other story announced that the Board of Trustees was scheduled to discuss the dismissal of President Canon. The trustees met later that day, and in a secret ballot, they voted to fire Dr. Canon.