Smile Politely

Revisiting the legacy of Chancellor Jack Peltason

In the N-G, I read that Chancellor Jack Peltason died at 91. He was the Chancellor during the 60’s demonstrations and someone I had a lot of contact with. Overall, in hindsight, he probably was not a bad man and certainly leaves this world with more notoriety than I will ever have, but I did engage him in the following ways:

We were arrogant in those days, as most true believers who think they know best are especially when they are supporting causes for justice. Such was the case when both the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War movement conjoined. Right during that time, Peltason became the Chancellor and it was his job to mollify the extreme right wing who wanted us all thrown out of school and the student leaders with whom, I think privately, he sympathized because he was a liberal politically and probably privately supportive of our causes. But he could not let us run amok on the U of I campus.

I have two memories of Chancellor Peltason. One, the height of my arrogance. Most days, as most faculty did, he ate at the Illini Union Colonial Room and afterwards would walk down the Quad to his office. I knew this and he was the target of our ire so I would intentionally walk directly at him and his aides and force him move when we confronted each other. His choice was to step aside or bump into me. He would always step aside and, just as he did, I would smile at him and ask, volubly: “How’s your ass, Jack?” much to the delight of those who were part of my entourage and were tagging along.

In hindsight, I can’t believe I actually had the temerity to do that (a number of times) and don’t, now, feel very good about the disrespect I showed to him, but these were tumultuous times and we were feeling our oats. The action was puerile but it did express some of the rage we were feeling about a system that wanted mostly to continue business as usual despite the images of the war we were seeing daily on the TV, none more graphically painful than that young, Vietnamese girl running naked and screaming down the street with napalm stuck to her burning flesh. Somehow the decision to creatively call the chancellor a Jack (his first name) ass, pales beside that pain that constantly lived in our psyches back then.

Do I wish I had done it differently? Do I wish I had carried the cause to him less disrespectfully (and we/I did in many serious ways)? Definitely so, but hindsight is what it is and at the time that arrogance and disrespect seemed a vital part of getting the attention of those who were paying no attention to the horrors of the war. Like, let’s say, throwing a brick through an innocent window.

A more salient encounter happened in the Spring of 1970, culminating in a very successful, about six week long, strike in which thousands of students refused to go to class and instead held classes on the Quad (with and without professors) on topics like racism, Cuba, the relationship between the University research and the military, women’s rights, etc.

I was one of those who architected that strike and was chosen to be the one who demanded and got a meeting with Peltason in his office asking the University to endorse the strike to show that they understood the seriousness of the anti-war movement. It was a contentious meeting and they did not agree and the paper this morning said that the U of I was one of the few schools that did not officially shut down (Columbia University even cancelled graduation!). We had some very negative exchanges, but they did again refuse to endorse the strike.

After that meeting, we went to the steps of Follinger Hall and I was one of those who spoke to thousands of students, declaring the strike any way which lasted from that March date until early in May when Nixon invaded Cambodia and major campus riots broke out everywhere, including at the U of I. Not until the student deaths at Jackson State and Kent State occurred in early May did the strike come to a screeching halt.

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