Rick Robinson’s 1968: Chapter 1

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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 be publishing his book chapter by chapter in a recurring series here at linknky.com. This is chapter 1.

The news stories of 1968 offer a telling glimpse into the makeup of Boone, Campbell and Kenton Counties and a review of those articles published in January set an appropriate stage for exploring the region’s collective psyche. In January 1968 politics, civil rights, and Vietnam drove the news in Northern Kentucky. 

State and Local Politics

At the time, local and state governments looked quite different than they do today. 

Currently, the Kentucky General Assembly meets every year. In 1968, the state House of Representatives and state Senate met only in even numbered years.  The balance of party power in Frankfort was also quite different then, as well. Democrats controlled both chambers of the state legislature with commanding majorities. The governor in Kentucky wielded a great deal of power over the legislature.

Interestingly, the Governor and Lieutenant Governor ran independent of each other instead of, as they do today, as a ticket. Additionally, a governor could not serve successive terms. Months earlier when Kentuckians went to the polls, they had elected Louie Nunn (R). Nunn defeated Henry Ward (D) to become the state’s first Republican governor in over two decades.  However, the voters also elected Democrat Wendell Ford (D) to be Nunn’s Lieutenant Governor. Ford would be a thorn in Nunn’s side throughout his entire term in office.      

Louie Broady Nunn was born in Park, Kentucky, a small community located on the border between Metcalf and Barren Counties. His father was a farmer, and the family operated a general store. Nunn spent his early years attending classes in a one-room schoolhouse. After high school graduation, Nunn earned a Bachelor’s degree from Bowling Green Business College (now known as Western Kentucky University).  Nunn enlisted in the Army during World War II where he quickly rose to the rank of Corporal, but a childhood back injury caused him to be medically discharged two years later. He earned a law degree from the University of Louisville.

Nunn’s political career began when he won election in 1953 as Barren County Judge Executive. While he served just one term in office, Nunn became a political force to be reckoned with in the Commonwealth. He ran state-wide campaigns and bided his time before running for governor the first time in 1963 against Ned Breathitt (D). 

In his 1963 campaign for governor, Nunn blasted a civil rights Executive Order on public accommodations. The New Republic said Nunn’s losing effort was “the first outright segregationist campaign in Kentucky.”  In his 1967 primary campaign for the same office, Nunn referred to his opponent, Jefferson County Judge Executive Marlow Cook (R), as a liberal New Yorker and Cook’s supporters as his “Jewish backers.”  Louie Nunn was exploring the ugly bounds of populism long before today’s politicians. Racist and antisemitic remarks aside, Nunn defeated Cook in the Republican primary.

In the 1967 general election, Louie Nunn barely beat Henry Ward with only 51.2% of the statewide vote.  Despite registration favoring the Democrats, Northern Kentucky outpaced Nunn’s state margins and gave him 54% of the vote.  A pledge to support a four-year college in Northern Kentucky was key to Nunn’s local support.   

As the new legislature began, as opposed to today, there were fewer Northern Kentucky legislators wandering the halls of the state capital in Frankfort.  The Northern Kentucky Caucus was made up of Carl Bamberger (R), Ken Harper (R), John Isler (D), Phillip King (D), Leo Lawson (R), Carl Mershon (D) and James Murphy (D) from the state House.  Tom Harris (D), Don Johnson (R) and Clyde Middleton (R) were the region’s state Senators.        

Having been in office less than a month, Governor Nunn used the start of the new year to issue a dire warning to citizens about the future financial well-being of the Commonwealth. Governor Ned Breathitt (D) had left office with a deficit in the state treasury and Nunn wanted to let everyone know it was a major problem he had inherited.  “The decisions that are made in my office and in the General Assembly will determine how far and how fast Kentucky will progress in the years ahead,” Nunn declared.

Days later, when the legislature formally convened, Governor Nunn failed to submit a budget proposal, drawing sharp criticism from both Speaker of the House Julian Carroll and Lieutenant Governor Wendell Ford for not offering solutions for the shortfall.  Northern Kentucky legislators (Republican and Democrat) were more forgiving.

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Campbell County Rep. Art Schmidt (R) said Nunn “… got to the point and it was gloomy to look at.” Kenton County Rep. Ken Harper (R) called the speech a “… sound and deliberate approach to the problems we face.” And Kenton County Rep. Phil King (D) said Nunn “… evidently intends to work with the legislative branch on a bi-partisan basis and this is encouraging.”

Later in the month, when Nunn did present a budget it included raising the sales tax from three percent to five percent, eventually earning Nunn the nickname of “Nickel Louie,” a moniker that would haunt him in a later bid for Kentucky’s top office.

Along with budgetary issues, the state legislature in 1968 was faced with other critical issues of the day:  Sunday alcohol sales and requiring candidates for office to report the names of people and corporations donating to their campaigns.  Some issues proposed in January 1968 are still being debated today. Legislation on gun control, abortion, a state lottery, gaming, and teacher salaries all grabbed headlines.

This was the session of the Kentucky General Assembly where support for establishing Northern Kentucky University came together. In mid-January, the Kentucky Council on Higher Education recommended the new institution be established as soon as practical.  Although support for the college had been a campaign promise from Governor Nunn, his initial response was more than a bit cold. “[T]he prospects for the college certainly would well be to the actions of the entire Legislature in meeting their obligations to education in general.” 

Locally, officials in the various counties were planning for their new year. In Kenton County, Judge Executive James Dressman (D) looked forward to opening the new county golf course in Independence. Boone County’s Bruce Ferguson (D) was facing a “big boom year.” And Judge Executive A.J. Jolly (D) was worried about Campbell County’s budget. All three counties were concerned about infrastructure projects. Roads, parks, bridges, and sewers were on the minds of all county officials. 

Finally, joined from the merger of Summit Hills Heights and St. Pius Heights, the newly formed town of Edgewood, Kentucky met in January 1968 to organize its government.

Civil Rights

You could not tell it from most of the local stories, but a national campaign for President of the United States of America was slowly centering around Vietnam and civil rights.  In January, George Wallace the former governor of Alabama – who had declared five years earlier in his state inaugural address “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” – visited Kentucky in support of his bid for President. “Our purpose is to hurt both political parties,” Wallace told a meeting of the Kentucky Press Association.

Other stories, while not directly mentioning the presidential election, certainly had strong ties to the civil rights movement.

With a backdrop of unrest and civil disobedience occurring across the nation in 1967, Kenton County Rep. Philip King (D) introduced a very strong riot control proposal in the Kentucky House of Representatives. The bill would have given mayors and county judge executives extraordinary powers whenever they saw a clear and present danger of a riot in their respective jurisdiction. In addition to giving powers to disburse potential rioters, it also allowed the authorities to call upon citizens to aid and assist in putting down riots.  Citizens would be relieved of any legal civil or criminal liability in answering the call.  

It is hard to imagine this legislation calling for the legalization of lawless vigilante mobs was not driven by racial animosity and/or fear of anti-war protests and mounting civil unrest.

On the other hand, a bill to eliminate several state recognized holidays reflected the evolving nature of racial relations in the Commonwealth. Prior to passage of this particular legislation, Kentucky still celebrated Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee’s birthday.  The law eliminated those holidays and, thanks to a committee amendment, added the birthday of Abraham Lincoln to the calendar. While voting to eliminate Civil War holidays from the state calendar hardly seems like a courageous vote by today’s standards, it marks a historic move to racial reconciliation for its time.  

Also in January, a man from Lexington became the first African American to be sworn in as a Kentucky state trooper. Following the commencement of troopers in the rotunda of the state capitol, twenty-five-year-old Air Force veteran, Millard West said he had no idea he was the first, “… otherwise I probably would have never applied.”

Finally, a racial dust up involving a Kentucky politician during a White House visit made national news. As reported by the Kentucky Post’s Washington bureau, Katherine Peden had been invited by First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson to be one of three speakers at the inaugural Women Doers luncheon. Peden, a pioneering woman in politics and business, was the first female to serve as Commissioner of Kentucky’s Department of Commerce. She was to speak about “What Citizens Can do to Help Insure Safe Streets.” 

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In her comments, Peden offered she may be the only female member of President Johnson’s Civil Disorders Commission, a panel charged with examining the causes of urban riots that had occurred in the mid-sixties. In February of 1968 the 462-page report would become a best seller and reached a conclusion, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” 

 Also in attendance at the White House luncheon was actress and singer Eartha Kitt who, while not a programed speaker, interrupted Peden’s speech to offer her thoughts on why riots have broken out across America.  Kitt opined that young people were being snatched off the streets to be shot in Vietnam.  As to Peden’s speech Kitt offered, “Miss Peden may have walked in the gutters, but I have lived in them.” 

According to reports, First Lady Johnson was left in tears and Peden called the actions of Kitt a national disgrace.

It was the reporting of the incident that raises the eyebrows of today’s reporting standards. Compared to the pedestrian style of writing in other stories of the month, the Kitt/Peden story was quite colorful, giving readers the impression that Kitt was some sort of “mad woman.”  


The January local stories regarding Vietnam set the stage for the region’s conflicting emotions on the topic.  In January there were only a few local stories on the overall conflict in Southeast Asia. For the national perspective, readers had to go to the Cincinnati section of the paper.  Local stories were either “human interest” or sad obituaries.  Midway through the month, a new section began appearing on the editorial page of the Kentucky Post and Times Star – “Our Boys in Vietnam” – keeping readers abreast of the soldiers from Northern Kentucky sent overseas.

The human-interest stories focused on soldiers and their experiences at home and overseas. For instance, one story reported on the efforts of Airforce Staff Sargent Bill Gaither from Ludlow who was running a toy drive for an orphanage near where he was stationed in Phan Rang, Vietnam.  Gaither and a few of his fellow airmen had volunteered to rebuild an orphanage two years earlier. After the construction was complete, Gaither decided to have a Christmas party for the orphans.

“I was put in charge of the party. I wrote to friends asking them to gather up toys to give to the kids. Well, pretty soon I had 3000 or 4000 gifts,” said Gaither at the time. UNICEF helped him distribute the toys.

Following his stint in Vietnam, Gaither would become a world-renowned wildlife artist and sculptor. 

Another story described how Sargent Warren G. Carpenter had been seriously wounded near Da Nang, Vietnam and met his bride while he was back in Northern Kentucky convalescing.   The story of the marriage between Carpenter and high-school senior Charlene Beil led the story. However, the article also tells how Sargent Carpenter won the Bronze Star.

“Carpenter was in a search and destroy operation moving through the dense Viet Cong-infested jungle when he was fired upon.

He opened fire with his automatic rifle on the VC. With bullets flying he darted from spot to spot directing fire on the enemy.

Disregarding his own safety, he moved through the dense hostile fire to the casualties, administered first aid and helped them to a clearing for helicopter cleanup.

It was while he was carting a wounded buddy to a waiting helicopter that the VC grenade exploded near him, fragments tearing into his body.”

The reports of soldiers being wounded or killed stand in stark contrast to the well-crafted, human-interest stories. 

Geneva Hallou, the mother of slain Marine Sargent Monty Lyon of Beaver Lick, had been waiting for over a month for her son’s body to be returned from Quang Tri. The wait was agonizing for the family. Shortly before Sargent Lyon died, he sent his mother a letter.

“Start watching the papers again, Mom. We’re landing tomorrow at the DMZ, which is the line that separates North and South Vietnam. There will be a lot of news this time because we’re going to catch hell. Don’t start worrying because we’re all ready for it, Mom and proud to go.”

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Stories of other young Northern Kentuckians who lost their lives added to the region’s grief. A 20-year-old Lance Corporal from Elsmere named Paul H. Webb was killed by a mortar in Da Nang. Another young man of the same age, Navy medic Jeffrey Scott Aker of Taylor Mill was killed near Quang Tri. Aker had been a freshman at Eastern Kentucky University when Naval reserve orders called him to active duty. His mother reflected the mood of many parents with children in the military. “I’d rather have him the way he is,” she said, “than for him to be a draft card burner.”

A Simon Kenton classmate of Akers, Marine Lance Corporal Thomas Rick Retschulte was killed a few days later.  The Kentucky Post and Times Star called the deaths of the two Simon Kenton classmates who were killed days apart “War’s Grim Toll,” and wrote, “Service to their country made men of the youngsters and they died like men in the line of duty.”

In the first month of 1968, one particular news story and its editorial comment defined how many in Northern Kentucky felt about Vietnam.  

Earlier in the war, The Kentucky Post and Times Star began following a few local draftees, documenting their training and experience in Vietnam. In January 1968 one of those draftees, Army PFC Carl Fryman from Covington, took a piece of shrapnel from a mortar in his right hip during an ambush that killed sixteen and wounded fifty-six. Fryman was described in the article as a timid and religious soldier who had trouble with the thought of killing the enemy as a job.

The Fryman story is important because it explains how many in Northern Kentucky felt about Vietnam.  In January 1968, Kentucky had eighty-two conscientious objectors, including boxer Muhammad Ali (whom the local papers still referred to as Cassius M. Clay).  An editorial regarding Fryman praised his “Red Badge of Courage.”

“The important thing about Pvt. Fryman is that, despite his alleged timidity, his pacifism, his religious scruples and his puritanism, he completed his training, made PFC., and went out in the eelgrass and faced Charley in mortal combat. 

He didn’t run to Canada or Sweden. He didn’t burn his draft card.”

By contrasting the injury to Carl Fryman against the actions of those protesting and actively avoiding the draft, this editorial reflects the conflicting points of view in America at the time. Yet, despite growing anti-war sentiment nationally, support for the war was clear in the region’s newspaper. 

Moved by such support, Terry Carnes (pictured front right), and his brother Tom Carnes, along with friends David Wietholter and Harry Campbell enlisted together under the Army’s “Buddy System.” Carnes’ father was career Airforce. While Terry Carnes had been born in Covington, he never really had the opportunity to live in Northern Kentucky until his father retired. He was hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps in the Air Force, when his draft notice arrived. Like many young men of the day, he, his brother Tom (now deceased), Wietholter and Campbell enlisted together under a system that allowed them to attend basic training together.

Following basic training, Carnes spent time at Ft. Benning and then Germany. He was deployed to Vietnam as a courier for the First Cavalry in January 1970.  Carnes never expected raising his right hand near the end of January 1968 would lead to a career in the Army.  He left the military following his tour in Vietnam but rejoined and eventually retired a Sergeant First Class. Carnes clearly remembers the day his induction photo was taken.  In retrospect, he never really thought much at the time about being deployed to Vietnam. His father had served in Korea and his older brother had served in Vietnam. So he and his brother “were a family that was used to being deployed.”

About the time the Carnes brothers and their buddies enlisted, the impact of one headline from the Cincinnati Post would change everything to come for the remainder of 1968: The Tet offensive had started.

Rick Robinson’s award-winning books can be found at area bookstores and are available on Amazon. In a new book to be released later this year, he will be viewing Northern Kentucky through the lens of 1968.  If you wish to contact Robinson with a story or thoughts about 1968, you may do so at [email protected]. Photo credits Kenton County Library Faces and Places.  Unless otherwise noted, all stories and quotes from 1968 are from articled that appeared in the Kentucky Post and Times Star.

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