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Guest Column

by John Whikehart, Chancellor of Ivy Tech Community College.
April 14, 2008

This election will be a rare opportunity

Indiana University’s campus in the fall of 1967, my junior year, blended the excitement of a football team that would play in the Rose Bowl, a campaign for student body president that would be won by Progressive Reform Party candidate Guy Loftman, and the unrest of student anti-war activity in Dunn Meadow.

Trucks Leaving for Yankee Stadium
John Whikehart, the chancellor of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana.

In January 1968, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive into South Vietnam, exploding our government’s myth of military success. In early March, Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s strong challenge to President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary revealed the president’s political vulnerability. Within days, Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York announced his decision to seek the presidency.

On Sunday, March 31, I sat in Willkie Quad with classmates and watched President Johnson’s address to the nation on Vietnam. At its conclusion, he stunningly announced that he would not seek re-election. The stage was set for the first confrontation between Kennedy and McCarthy — with Gov. Roger Branigan as a “favorite son” candidate — in the Indiana primary in May 1968.

That was the last time Indiana had the attention of the nation in a presidential primary.

I had three transformative experiences in April 1968. Robert Kennedy made a campaign appearance at the IU Auditorium, and I was one of hundreds of students in attendance. I discovered much later that also present were a couple of students named Gary Dunn, later Bloomington’s FBI agent, and Terry Clapacs. What I vividly recall was Sen. Kennedy asking the audience if we supported student draft deferments from military service. When our response was affirmative, he asked us why the burdens of war should be disproportionately borne by the poor and minorities while we remained shielded from them.

Later in April, I was among student volunteers who traveled one Saturday from Bloomington to Indianapolis to walk inner-city neighborhoods with literature for Sen. Kennedy. That evening, we slept on the floor of the Brebeuf High School gymnasium, then went back out again on Sunday and returned to the campus that evening. I had the opportunity to be at an intersection in Indianapolis that weekend when Kennedy arrived. Standing up in a convertible, the senator shook hands with the crowd. He shook mine.

But my most powerful experience was on April 4, 1968, 40 years from the day I write this. It was a day exactly as today, overcast and chilly. My friend Bill White and I drove from Bloomington to Indianapolis that evening for the opening of Kennedy’s campaign headquarters. When we arrived, we were told that plans had changed and he was going instead to an inner-city park, so we headed there. When Sen. Kennedy arrived, he stood on a flatbed truck and told the crowd the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed in Memphis.

He spoke of pain, and compassion, and healing.

A hundred big cities burned that night, but not Indianapolis.

Robert Kennedy said often in his campaign that “to whom much is given, much is expected.” Dr. King spoke as often of “the fierce urgency of now.”

We are a community blessed with a global research university on our east side, and the third-fastest growing community college in the nation on our west side. Each are full of “twentysomething” students, the same ages as Terry Clapacs, Gary Dunn and myself 40 years ago.

I hope students realize the awesome responsibility they will have in a few weeks, if they choose it, to make a contribution to their state and their nation on that first Tuesday in May.

It might not come back around again for 40 years.