The Illini Union was my home away from home during the 1960s. The original building had recently been renovated and greatly expanded, although my favorite hangout remained The Tavern, located in the basement of the original building. The Tavern had a bohemian coffeeshop feel and became a magnet for counterculture types like me. I spent most of my time in those days navigating between Turk’s Head, House of Chin, Union Tavern and Red Herring, all of which were within a block or two of each other.
I loved hanging out at the Union bookstore because they let students sit in chairs and read any book without buying it! I’d spend hours reading paperback novels. One of my favorite moments came when I walked out and just happened to bump into Carl Ellis and Timothy Leary, who had just crossed paths for the first time and instantly recognized themselves as long-lost comrades-in-arms. I think it began with Carl making some Oriental display of respect and offering his hand, but it ended with both of them embraced in a bear-hug. Leary was in town to give a speech later that day in one of the Union ballrooms.
After the Vietnam draft heated up, several anti-war organizations sprouted on campus and draft card burnings became a regular event on the south deck of the Union. Eventually, this deck became officially known as the “free speech area,” and impromptu rallies began manifesting that alternated between folk songs and speeches against the war. At this time, however, most people in the community still supported the war and a local fraternity responded to these anti-war efforts by holding a blood drive for soldiers overseas.
My favorite anti-war event happened when a big muckity-muck of the draft came to one of the ballrooms to deliver a speech on how the new lottery system was going to work. But after he’d been speaking for only a few seconds, a cue was given and a couple dozen people, including me, put on black hoods with skull faces and stood up on our chairs. Meanwhile, the double doors flung open and a casket paraded into the room. As the casket wound around the room, the black skulls lined up behind it in a silent death march. We ended up marching out of the ballroom pretty quick and planned to exit the building in an orderly fashion and go to the Turk’s Head. But as we left the ballroom, we saw campus police rushing towards us, so we quickly veered into a nearby elevator and pushed the “up” button.
Knowing the cops could see which floor we were headed for, we exited the elevator asap and ran down a long hallway to a different set of elevators, got inside and pushed the “down” button, returning to our original floor. Meanwhile, cops were running all over the building, trying to locate the casket while we stayed one floor and one step ahead of them, laughing all the way. It was a scene right out of the Keystone Kops.
Finally, the cops did corner the casket, and a kid from Uni High who was a year younger than me jumped on top and began delivering a passionate anti-war speech. He was standing under a portrait of Red Grange, the galloping ghost himself, and I remember thinking, “I wonder what Red might think of us now?”
I never see any references to this protest online, although it was my favorite action of all the ones I participated in. Later, there’d be a brief riot in the Union after the school tried to do something about the fact that out of 30,000 students at the U of I in 1967, less than 300 of them were black. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., statistics like that were especially revealing of the institutionalized racism that afflicted the state. So the U of I hastily set up a program designed to bring 500 black students into the school for the fall semester in 1968. Unfortunately, many of them quickly decided they were being treated like second-class students and demanded to see Chancellor Jack Peltason immediately, not in his office, but in the Union Art Gallery, where hundreds of them had assembled for a sit-in. Peltason was told the situation was too unruly for such a meeting so he decided to close the building instead. That’s when a few of the students began slashing paintings. I wonder today who those slashers were and what the point of attacking that artwork might have been? Today, that sort of activity seems more like the work of an FBI dirty tricks informant.
We knew the FBI was sending dirty tricks specialists to infiltrate our anti-war scene, as they could often be quickly identified as the guy demanding some crazy violent action, like trampling the Morrow Plots, the country’s oldest continuous agricultural research center, as if the Morrow Plots had something to do with the War in Vietnam. Despite knowing the FBI was orchestrating the violence, we were helpless to stem the tide, as radical actions got increasingly violent, finally erupting in full-scale riots in 1970.
It was strange for me to see these people getting hostile with Jack Peltason. To me, Jack was just a nice guy, a good friend of my family and the father of my brother’s best friend. Many of us had grown up together in Stadium Terrace, a low-cost housing development built as barracks during the war on the west side of the football stadium and later transformed into cheap housing for married graduate students. In the early 1950s, polio swept through the community, and Bugsy’s dad was one of the unfortunates who contracted that terrible disease. Many of the families that went through Stadium Terrace remained close long after the barracks were torn down.
After I graduated with a degree in playwriting, I sent an application to Yale Drama Graduate school, including a copy of my play that had been performed at the National College Theater Festival. Jack Peltason wrote a letter of recommendation for me. I remember going to his office for the first time to ask him for the letter. He was really shocked to hear I was applying to Yale. “Isn’t that the very heart of the establishment?” he asked me with a wink, well aware of my radical activities. As could have been predicted, however, Yale didn’t want me, so I took a year off to travel in Europe and then applied to get a Masters in Science in Journalism from the U of I.