Violence on Campus: How President Eric Walker Was Driven From His Home In 1970
Amid a climate of uproar during a grueling Vietnam War, a troublesome pattern of violent protests on college campuses was developing across America in the 1960’s and 70’s.
The degree of campus violence that was seen in the 1960’s and 1970’s is foreign to those of us who have walked the paths of Penn State in only the 21st century. Yet it wasn’t so long ago that students marched in droves to university president Eric Walker’s house and sent rocks crashing through his windows as the president ran to safety.
The following is a tale from the month of April 1970 about a series of events that sent shockwaves throughout the world of Penn State and garnered national attention.
On Thursday, April 30, 1970, Richard Nixon set off a chain of events that led to the death of four Kent State students just four days later. The United States was deeply involved in the Vietnam War when Nixon announced the Cambodian Incursion, a military operation that incited controversy on college campuses nationwide.
Students at Kent State immediately reacted to the series of attacks, starting with a demonstration of 500 students the following day. The protests increased in size and intensity from there, culminating in a 2,000-person gathering at noon on Monday, May 4.
The university handed out 12,000 leaflets in an attempt to ban the protest, but students arrived on the university Commons, a grassy knoll in the center of campus, just before noon. The National Guard arrived on campus and tried to disperse the crowd and break up the protest, but protesters threw rocks at a Guard jeep.
The National Guard came back shortly after with tear gas in hand, but the wind on campus rendered the dispersal technique useless and the rocks again took flight as students chanted “Pigs off campus!” at the Guard. That’s when a decision was made that would make American history.
A group of 77 troops marched toward the protesters. Things briefly calmed down, but when a group of students moved slowly towards the soldiers, Sergeant Myron Pryor turned and fired a pistol at the crowd. In the 13 seconds that followed that first shot, 67 bullets were fired, nine were wounded, and four students were killed. Two of those killed didn’t take part in the protest and were simply walking between classes.
One month later, folk rock group Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released a song called “Ohio” that told the story of the Kent State shooting.
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming.
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming.
Four dead in Ohio.
The climate at Kent State was not all that dissimilar to that Penn State and other campuses around the country. While the unrest at Penn State in mid-April of 1970 didn’t specifically stem from the Vietnam War, it was a time in American history during which students were extremely demonstrative. Protests often came in the form of sit-ins, where a group of people would essentially take over an area or building. Think Occupy Wall Street, but instead of a park, the targets on campuses during this era were often academic buildings or administrative offices. At Penn State, for example, Old Main was taken over by students on more than one occasion.
1970 was a starkly different time than today in many ways, but for the sake of recounting one of the more notable incidents in the history of Penn State’s campus, the primary difference was the lack of regulation on events like protests. Today, we see protests broken up the moment that things begin to get unruly. When students took to the streets on the night of Joe Paterno’s firing, riot police were on hand for crowd control. A news van was overturned, but the protest never really took on a life of its own, never reaching a point where the students seemed to be unmanageable.
On April 20, 1970, the exact opposite was the case at University Park. On that night, fires were set on campus and dormitory buildings were evacuated. Students stormed to President Eric Walker’s home, smashing his front door and windows with rocks and forcing Walker to flee out the back door with his wife and temporarily move out of the home for safety purposes.
Similar to the events at Kent State, a seemingly innocuous beginning to a controversy set off a chain of events that quickly led to an unthinkable climax less than a week later. It all stemmed from what should have and could have been a harmless sit-in.
Until 1970, the University House was home to Penn State presidents for more than a century. The house was first completed in 1864. Evan Pugh and wife Rebecca Valentine were supposed to be the first tenants of the new home, but Pugh passed away from typhoid fever eight months before construction was completed.
While it was renovated several times throughout the years, the University House in its original form was an Italianate-style farmhouse. In 1895, it underwent its first major addition, adding a third floor for President Edwin Sparks that transformed it into a Queen Anne architectural style. Sparks’ wife caused some controversy when she ordered silver wallpaper at $10 per roll for the parlor.
In 1939, the house was again redone, adding a large portico and columns to the facade in the style of a “Southern plantation.” When Milton Eisenhower was university president, his brother, United States president Dwight Eisenhower, often visited and stayed at the University House.
Eric Walker was the final Penn State president to reside in the University House. He eventually moved back in after the protest incident, but university officials decided that the president should live off campus in the future after the attack, and so they purchased a home in Boalsburg. If you’re wondering why you haven’t seen this century-old home on campus, that’s because the Hintz Family Alumni Center and its famous duck pond have taken its place.
The east end of the Hintz Center is still in part the original University House, though the kitchen and garage added in the last renovation were demolished. The new building, finished in 2001, is home to the Alumni Association and holds events in its large reception room.
Day One: April 14, 1970 – The Spark In The Powder Keg
A group of black students at the Penn State Ogontz campus (now Penn State Abington) held a protest in response to what they deemed a severe lack of diversity at the commonwealth campus. In essence, they likely felt that there was some discrimination or prejudice in the campus’ application process.
On the same day, students at University Park held a protest of their own in response to and in solidarity with those at Ogontz. Members of the Black Student Union held a sit-in at the Shields Building to express their sympathy. The administration at University Park obtained an injunction – listing the names of 11 black student leaders – that prohibited the students from remaining in the building. The students left the building. No police were involved, and no arrests were made.
Day Two: April 15, 1970 – “Support The People’s Demands”
Displeased by the injunction barring students from the Shields Building, a group of protesters marched to Old Main and held a sit-in as a message to the university administration. A group of about 60 students asked for a discussion on four political demands that they had for the university. A representative told the group that Walker was not available to discuss the issues, but they remained in Old Main despite the lack of discourse from the administration.
A statement was issued by the displeased students to publicly explain their demands. It read as follows:
“Today, the students of Penn State took over Old Main in support of the four demands. This is a significant political act. It is a signal to the Board of Trustees, Eric Walker and other members of the ruling class that Penn State will no longer act in their interests. The demands are as follows:
1. We demand open enrollment for everyone seeking a higher education.
2. We demand an end to all university ties to the U.S. military machines, specifically ROTC, ORL, Military Recruiting, and other “Defense” research.
3. We demand an end to administration intimidation and repression of student political activity by injunctions, suspensions, and other coercive mechanisms, all police agents and police institutions off campus.
4. We demand that the university support the freeing of Bobby Seale and provide funds for the New York 21 and all political prisoners.
SUPPORT THE PEOPLE’S DEMANDS!”
Bobby Seale gained recognition beginning in 1966 as a co-founder of the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary Black Nationalist and socialist organization that was active for 16 years. In its early years, the Black Panther Party primarily aimed to monitor police in an attempt to prevent occurrences of brutality. After three years of operation, the Black Panther Party implemented initiatives that were more socially acceptable in 1969, like community health clinics. As respectable as that may sound, the Black Panther Party is mostly remembered for its criminal and violent acts as well as its extremist policies.
Seale was initially a member of the Chicago Eight in 1968, a group charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot after leading Chicago protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The group was protesting Lyndon B. Johnson in response to policies involving the Vietnam War. As a result of outbursts during the trial, Seale was at one point ordered to be bound and gagged by the presiding Judge Julius Hoffman, who eventually sentenced Beale to the four-year prison sentence that the Penn State students were protesting.
With the exception of the first demand, it seemed that Penn State students were jumping on the opportunity to turn the injunction over impartial enrollment into a discussion of the Vietnam War. The university was widely rumored to have had connections to the Department of Defense’s research efforts during the war in various capacities, which sparked disdain within the student body.
When the group of 60 students refused to leave Old Main, 70 state police officers arrived to arrest them for violation of a court injunction. The students contended that the injunction was illegal because it was obtained specifically for the previous day’s Shields Building protest, but nevertheless arrests were immediately made by the officers.
Local newspapers reported that the police stepped over white students to arrest a black student first. An additional group of protesters formed outside to block the police from escorting out the arrested students, and a confrontation broke out that resulted in the injuries of nine state policemen.
Day Three: April 16, 1970 – Boycotting Classes
Students called for the boycott of classes in support of amnesty for the 29 students arrested. The call for a strike of sorts failed to gain much momentum, though Walker agreed to meet with students to discuss their demands. They told the president that they would refrain from any further disruptive activity if he promised to request the police leave campus, request the injunction be lifted, agree not to expel students who were arrested, and start a series of public discussions on the demands.
Day Four: April 17, 1970 – A Goodwill Gesture
At a rally presenting the results of the meeting, the students decided to limit activities to non-disruptive rallies and discussions as a “sign of good will in hopes that the university would live up to its promise.”
Days Five & Six: April 18-19, 1970 – Calm Before The Storm
For a 48-hour period, the tension on campus seemed to be sloping downward. There were no major incidents among the student body. No disturbances were reported, and it seemed as though things were settling down on campus. With the Shields Building sit-in six days in the past, Walker was likely breathing fairly easy when he sat down and wrote a press release that would be issued the following day. Little did he know that the violence would end up on his front doorstep in a matter of hours.
Day Seven: April 20, 1970 – Violent Times
A press release was sent out on this Monday by the administration and signed by Walker through a newsletter called “On Campus.”
It read as follows:
“In order that no misunderstanding as to my position should arise, I want it clearly understood just what I agreed to Thursday night in a meeting with student government leaders and representatives of the University Senate and the groups involved in the Old Main sit-in Wednesday.
1. On the question of continued presence of the Pennsylvania State Police on campus, I said I would request that they withdraw from campus. I did so.
2. On the question of whether the University would request a lifting of the injunction, I said I would canvass the Board of Trustees and that if a majority approved, I would request the court to lift the injunction. The canvass is now being made.
3. On the question of requesting the court to grant amnesty for students and nonstudents arrested Wednesday night or for whom warrants were issued, the answer was no. Furthermore, I said that no decision had been made with respect to university judicial proceedings.”
Walker met with students later in the day to further explain his position. The meeting was scheduled, called off, and then rescheduled, presumably because concerns arose within the administration when word spread that students weren’t pleased with Walker’s response. At the meeting, the president asked for a counter-proposal.
The students asked that Walker keep the injunction in place but grant amnesty to all students arrested previously for violating it. He didn’t exactly accept the terms, instead challenging the right of the angry students to represent those who were arrested. In fact, according to students, Walker told them that there “is no counter-proposal,” expressing that his terms were final. Negotiations quickly broke down.
The students decided they would hold a “peaceful rally” in front of Willard Building the following day, but some didn’t want to wait another day to protest in outrage to the president’s response.
On the night of April 20, violence inflicted an estimated $7,000 in damage on campus, which would amount to approximately $43,000 today. There were fires set in five campus dormitories and two classroom buildings, and firebombs were thrown in two other buildings.
According to an account from the Altoona Mirror, the president’s house was “pelted with rocks.” Students tore a street sign from the ground and tossed it through the front door of the home. Walker and his wife fled while other university buildings had windows broken.
The students who asked for the strike four days earlier announced that they “did not condone violence, but the isolated incidents were performed by individuals or groups frustrated by Dr. Walker’s lack of good faith.”
The statement didn’t openly support the acts, but at the same time opted not to completely condemn the night of campus violence, which was arguably the most serious of such occurrences in Penn State history.
Day Eight: April 21, 1970 – The Violence Continues
The peaceful rally planned the previous day was held in front of the Willard Building. Soon after, the protesting group of about 50 students took to Old Main to discuss the issues with administrators. They told administrators that they would leave at closing time, 5 p.m., but when that time came, the students were met by five busloads of state troopers with 175 officers onboard.
The troopers arrested three students, who were put onto the buses followed by squad cars and lines of policemen on foot. What was described as a “procession” travelled through campus as rocks rained onto the buses. Four more students were arrested and brought onto the buses for rock-throwing.
A crowd began to gather outside of Beaver Stadium. A group of 280 state troopers were sent to the scene. Student leaders asked the group to break up and reform that night at the HUB, where a massive crowd that varied in accounts from 2,000 to 6,000 students formed. They marched through campus, recruiting students to strike going to class the following day in support of amnesty for arrested students.
Day Nine: April 22, 1970 – The Strike
While many students didn’t take part in the boycott, a large contingency spent the day rallying on Old Main lawn while the administration tried to obtain a permanent injunction to prohibit the takeover of university buildings. A hearing was set for April 23 in Centre County court and as such, the student strike committee called for a foot march to the courthouse.
Day Ten: April 23, 1970 – The Dust Begins to Settle
The Harrisburg Patriot-News, then called simply The Patriot, published a strongly-worded editorial on the events:
“What Penn State is facing is no panty raid, no ritualistic genuflection to the cultus of spring on campus. This is the arrival in Pennsylvania of that state of affairs that William Kunstler, defense attorney in the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial, has been lecturing about to audiences across the country.
“The decade of demonstrations came to an end on Nov. 15, 1969. A new decade has been ushered in marked increasingly by the use of extraordinary means – violent means just short of revolution.”
The march was called off due to rain, but 100 students still packed the courtroom. The injunction passed, and a Board of Trustees meeting to discuss student protests was called in the afternoon at the Hotel Hilton in Pittsburgh.
Day Eleven: April 24, 1970 – Walker Speaks Out
Eric Walker again spoke out, issuing a nearly 700-word statement. He decried the actions of the students and emphasized that most on campus are there to learn. Walker said that he would keep the university open at all costs to ensure that said learning could happen.
“I don’t understand the reasoning of the students when they talk about amnesty,” he added. “They tell us the university should be destroyed, that this is a political belief, and that they must use violence. To them it becomes an act of conscience and they say they shouldn’t be punished for acts of conscience.
“They tell us it’s a political motive and when they are put in jail they become political prisoners and all political prisoners should be released. Why should we grant amnesty?” Walker asked. “If we do it this time and it happens again, do we grant amnesty the next time? And if we keep granting amnesty, where will this thing stop?”
Walker also asked for the violence to stop and said that he wants no further injury to students, faculty, police, or anyone else at the university.
“We want to keep this university going. We’re determined to keep it going. And with your help we will keep it going,” he said.
It took 11 days for some real calm to come to University Park. It’s hard not to compare the events of April 20, 1970 to those of that fateful Wednesday night in mid-November just three years ago.
In the late hours of that Wednesday night, the streets were finally clear and the air was tainted with the stench of pepper spray. A news van lay on its side on College Avenue. Street signs and lamp posts were pulled from the ground. Riot police had been the target of rock-throwers.
Then, the Board of Trustees made an announcement that was sure to come with backlash, but they never expected the end result.
When Eric Walker sat in his office drafting a statement that criticized the students and refused to lift the injunction on sit-ins, he too never expected the bedlam that would follow.