This story originally appeared in the March 17 edition of the weekly LINK Reader. To see these stories first, subscribe here.
Rick Robinson is a local author who is writing a book based on life in Northern Kentucky in 1968 and what we can learn now. LINK will publish excerpts from the book regularly in the LINK Reader, as well as on linknky.com
March 1968 was a banner month for the region as Gov. Louie Nunn fulfilled a year-old campaign promise and signed legislation establishing a four-year college in Northern Kentucky. The all-encompassing impact of this singular stroke of the pen continues to resonate through the community to this day.
It is hard to imagine life in the region without Northern Kentucky University. Yet, its establishment was anything but a cake walk. The legislation enabling NKU’s founding faced numerous and substantial obstacles.
“All the other state universities were opposed to it,” said former State Representative Ken Harper (R). “They saw it as a threat to their own enrollment.”
At the time Art Schmidt (R) represented Highland Heights, the community where Northern Kentucky University sits today. In an oral history, Schmidt remembered the opposition.
“You’ve got to realize that a lot of kids from Northern Kentucky went to Morehead and went to Eastern and to UK,” said Schmidt. “Morehead and Eastern depended a lot upon this, so none of the universities wanted Northern to be established. They were opposed to it. Kentucky … the University of Kentucky didn’t want it either.”
Harper remembered that on top of the opposition from college presidents, the state was facing a deficit in the budget. Success in the establishment of a four-year state college was tied directly to increasing the sales tax from 3% to 5%.
“And man, did we take some heat for supporting Nunn’s Nickel,” Harper said.
Harper’s assertion is backed by newspaper articles about caravans of people traveling to Frankfort to oppose an increase in the state’s sales tax.
Clyde Middleton was a freshman in the State Senate in 1968. In his oral history, he recalled how Nunn broke the log jam.
“[A]ll of the Northern Kentucky legislators favored it. Louie Nunn likes to tell a story about how Julian Carroll was riding both sides of that issue. And so Louie called all of university presidents in and got them in his office and then he called Julian Carroll down and said, ‘Julian, here are the presidents of all the colleges; now, tell me. Are you for Northern Kentucky University or against it?’ And I guess Julian said he was for it. And it went through.”
Many students and teachers were also opposed. The University of Kentucky operated an “extension” campus in Park Hills allowing students to work on a degree from the state’s flagship institution. Teachers were concerned that a new college could not obtain proper certification and student’s degrees would be worthless.
But as Ken Harper pointed out, “When Louie made a promise, it was etched in stone.”
Schmidt mentioned how Nunn used the power of his office in establishing NKU: “Also happens at the time, the governor by virtue of being governor was chairman of the boards of regents of all the schools, so even though the presidents and so on didn’t want it, they weren’t about to buck the governor too bad on this thing.”
When discussing the establishment of Northern Kentucky University, the work of State Representative Phillip King (D) is often overlooked. While the Republican governor may have set the agenda for the legislature at the time, the General Assembly was controlled by Democrats. Rep. King cosponsored the legislation establishing Northern Kentucky State College and authored the bill appropriating its initial funding (a whopping $200,000). Years later Rep. King was instrumental in passing legislation making it a university.
In King’s personal files, he kept copies of the Kentucky Labor News. King was a switchman on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad while he was earning his law degree. His voting record reflected his blue-collar background. Yet, King’s daughter, Kenton Circuit Court Judge Terri King Schoborg, recalls her father’s dedication to NKU as being steadfast.
“He was committed to making sure we had our own university,” she said.
The Kentucky Post and Times Star covered the proceedings throughout the first quarter of 1968, but editorial support was noticeably absent. Early in the legislative session the paper pointed out that the region already had a four-year college – Villa Madonna College. In fact, the paper spent more editorial ink on Villa Madonna changing its name to Thomas More than to the establishment of NKU.
In an editorial issued following passage of the legislation, The Kentucky Post and Times Star wrote: “By 82 to zero in the House and 38 to zero in the Senate, the state’s legislators recognized the real need for a full-fledged state college in the commonwealth’s second most populated area. Reality may be some time away, but we’ll be officially on the way to our college goal with Gov. Nunn’s signature of approval.”
At the signing ceremony for the budget, Governor Nunn explained how the new college was tied to the sales tax increase.
“You … and other sections of Kentucky … would not have your college, or the planned bridges, roads, highways and other projects were it not for the new tax program,” he said.
While Northern Kentucky University would have never happened without the backing of Louie Nunn, the funding mechanism of an increase in the state sales tax haunted Nunn for years.
“Nunn’s Nickel made NKU happen,” said Harper. “But Louie never recovered politically. It cost him his career in politics.”
As education grew, so did the war
All the while the debate over Northern Kentucky’s four-year university was happening, Vietnam was becoming more visible in the community and driving national politics.
Based upon a call from the United States Department of Defense for an additional 48,000 troops, local Selective Service boards increased their induction numbers. For the first time, so-called “Kennedy Husbands” would be included in the ranks of those to be drafted.
President John Kennedy was the author of an Executive Order declaring that single men should be called in the draft before married ones. The Executive Order had been rescinded by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, but the exemption continued to apply to men covered during the active time of the Order. Thus, men who were married between Feb. 16, 1963, and Aug. 16, 1965 were referred to as “Kennedy Husbands” and their classification was such they would only be drafted if the supply of single men ran out.
Due to a shortage of draftees, the delayed sequence of calls for local Kennedy Husbands changed, and they were moved to the front of the induction line. In its first substantive position on Vietnam in 1968, The Kentucky Post and Times Star opposed a policy calling “…men who had planned their families and future with civilian confidence who now find themselves being summoned for war.”
Also in March, Fourth District Congressman Gene Snyder (R) took to the floor of the United States House of Representatives and called for President Johnson to stop the war or have “the blood of dying Americans on his hands.”
In the 15-page speech, Snyder alleged Johnson violated the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (allowing American forces in Vietnam to retaliate) by actually escalating the war.
“This mess transcends politics,” said Snyder. “The end of this war should not wait. The slaughter of Americans should not have to await an election.”
With these comments, Congressman Snyder joined Kentucky Senators John Sherman Cooper (R) and Thurston Morton (R) in war criticism.
Congressman Snyder was not the only person upset with President Johnson’s handling of Vietnam. Local Democrats supporting New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D) and Minnesota Senator Eugene “Clean Gene” McCarthy (D) met to try and get delegates to the Democratic National Convention to attend unpledged to any one candidate.
In the week following the meeting, President Johnson’s election vulnerability would be shown when, in the New Hampshire Primary, he would eke out a win over McCarthy. Johnson’s narrow victory also pushed Kennedy to formally enter the race.
By the end of the month, in a nationally televised speech, President Johnson would announce he was abandoning his reelection effort.
With 79% of the New Hampshire primary vote, former Vice President Richard Nixon solidified his drive for the Republican nomination for President.
And when former Alabama Governor George Wallace ditched his Democratic party affiliation and joined the race for President of the United States as an independent, The Kentucky Post and Times Star said:
“We’re glad the Bluegrass voters will have an opportunity to express their preferences in the white supremacy while electing a new United States Senator and helping to elect a president.
Our impression has been that most Kentuckians are not strongly racist in their attitudes, but we shall see.
On Nov. 6 will come the final separation of the ins from the outs, the sheep from the goats, the eagles from the hawks, doves, buzzards and other aves.”
While all of this was happening nationally, the local men continued being shipped overseas and the regional death toll from Vietnam continued to grow.
The Covington parents of twenty-year-old Army Sgt. Ronald McCollum got word that their son, missing in action for over a month, had been killed. He was stationed in Dac To near the border of Laos when he went missing. “I hated to see him go,” said his young wife.
In a letter home, McCollum told his family, “But there’s a job that must be done there and I’m no better than my buddies. My men look to me for guidance.”
Army Second Lt. Dennette Edwards, III, was killed. Edwards had moved to Florida following his 1963 graduation from Simon Kenton High School but had kept in close contact with his former classmates. Marine PFC Gary Wayne Litton from Edgewood was killed by mortar fire just north of Hue.
And Marine Lance Cpl. Sam Marshall of Erlanger was killed while trying to pull a comrade to safety. His brother John, at the time stationed in Okinawa, accompanied his brother’s body home for funeral services.
Feature stories in The Kentucky Post and Times Star focused on life in and out of Vietnam. William G Wilson was happy to be home with his parents in Boone County but admitted his time in the military had changed his way of thinking.
“I heard thunder the other night and I thought, ‘Incoming fire.’ In Vietnam we’d have jumped in a hole,” he said.
Northern Kentuckians also read the story of 52-year-old Master Sgt. Lloyd Saylor from Newport. A veteran of World War II and Cincinnati-based recruiter, Sgt. Saylor had put in for retirement and instead got orders to head up helicopter operations in Saigon.
Two Newport Catholic High School graduates from Highland Heights, PFC William Bailey and PFC William Stratman, were reunited in Hawaii. Bailey, wounded by shrapnel, was recuperating in the hospital where Stratman had been assigned. Stratman wrote to his parents about the reunion.
“Boy, I’m so very, very glad I saw him. It’s kind of hard to describe the feelings inside of you when you meet someone under these conditions,” he told them.
Moved by the Tet Offensive and the growing number of local casualties, The Kentucky Post and Times Star sent a team of reporters into the field to talk with its readers about Vietnam. Nearly half of the persons interviewed supported the presence of United States troops in Vietnam. The remaining group was split between being opposed and having mixed emotions.
A Newport woman said, “I think we should bring peace to that troubled country if we can, but not by pulling out. Quitting never accomplished anything.” A Covington man worried his son would be sent to Vietnam, but added, “I guess it’s a good war. I don’t understand it, but I feel it has to be fought.”
The article reporting the responses noted the people opposed to the war “answered more quickly and emotionally,” describing it as “‘pointless, a scandal, drain, lost cause, mess, useless, and unnecessary.’”
A Fort Thomas businessman called the war “just plain monkey business.” He added, “I don’t understand why a big country like ours lets little countries dictate to us.”
A Warsaw laborer said it was a repeat of Korea. A railroad worker from Covington said plainly, “We ought to mind our own business.”
While this story was not a scientific poll, it certainly shows the growing discontent of the country’s presence in Vietnam.
Near the end of the month, Students for a Democratic Society held its largest national conference to date in Lexington. According to reports, there were over a hundred delegates and some 350 observers at the two-day meeting.
Covington resident Thurman Wenzel attended the conference. A former Naval officer and math professor at the Naval Academy, Wenzel was one of the observers and he credits attending the meeting for transforming him from math professor to life-long activist.
“The Lexington meeting was the first time I had been around a large group of anti-war demonstrators,” he said. “After Tet, people started taking the anti-war movement more seriously.”
The March 1968 meeting of Students for a Democratic Society in Lexington was not reported on in Northern Kentucky.
One other incident not reported on in Northern Kentucky (or anywhere, for that matter) was a U.S. military raid on a small village of Mỹ Lai, where hundreds of villagers were slaughtered by American military forces. The Pentagon would cover up the story for more than a year and its eventual revelation in 1969 would force the public to face the brutality of Vietnam once again.
Hair Mattered in ‘68
Marking the times of 1968 were two incidents involving hair.
First, a Louisville based motorcycle club – the Louisville Outlaws – went to Frankfort to discuss legislation. The Kentucky House of Representatives passed a resolution telling them to go back to Louisville and not return until they “improved their appearance.” Specifically, the resolution to get haircuts and shaves.
Another story was about a young man being suspended from Campbell County High School because the superintendent disliked his long hair. As additional punishment, his photo was going to be removed from the school’s annual yearbook. As a point of reference, the haircut in question looked more like Donny Osmond than Duane Allman. Nevertheless, it took a lawsuit to reinstate the offending longhair and get his picture back into the yearbook.