By Charley Githler
Tompkins County in 1967 was very different from the Tompkins County of 1917. It had been an eventful five decades.
The prior 50 years had seen two world wars, Prohibition, the Great Depression, the New Deal, the Cold War, launching of the space program, radio, television, rural electrification, a new airport. Ithaca College had a campus on South Hill. The population had doubled to more than 70,000, and there were nearly 1,000 miles of paved roads in the county. If there was a theme to the year 1967, it would be Change.
Ithaca was undergoing a physical transformation, as well. The 1960s had ushered in a period of urban renewal, and Ithaca, like most northeastern cities, had gotten busy removing buildings considered to be outmoded and rundown. The Cornell Public Library on Tioga Street was torn down in 1959 to create a parking lot for the First National Bank, and the old city hall had been demolished to make room for the Seneca Street parking garage. Gas stations and convenience stores had started replacing Victorian homes near downtown.
In October, the Ithaca Hotel, after being in business for 158 years, closed for good, doomed to demolition. Ithaca residents and community members (many with Cornell connections) had banded together to form Historic Ithaca the year before, and the pace of urban renewal would slacken considerably, but the changes already wrought had not necessarily been kind to downtown Ithaca.
Meanwhile, the Flood Control Project to straighten and dredge the Inlet in the West End, which started in 1964, continued apace. It was a huge undertaking. In all, 185 parcels of land were acquired by the city and state. Thirty-one houses, the Beebe Chapel and the West Side House were demolished in 1967 and the area was a giant construction site, years from completion.
There was plenty of other local news that year. In March, the Cornell men’s hockey team won its first NCAA Championship in its first-ever appearance in the national tournament. The legendary 1966-67 team finished with a 27-1-1 record. The district attorney’s office was working with Ithaca school officials to address what a grand jury termed the “accelerated use of narcotics” in the high school. Cornell professor Hans Bethe won the Nobel Prize in Physics in October. Cornell’s synchrotron was completed in 1967. The Tompkins County Legislature approved a $1.7 million new library to be built at the corner of Cayuga and Court streets.
It was also a time of television, movies and new music. Ithaca College undergraduate and proto-shock jock Doug Tracht could be heard "cookin with grease" in Ithaca on WTKO in his first radio gig ever. Later, Tracht would take on the "Greasman" moniker.
Naturally, not everyone embraced the New. In November, WVBR withstood the pressure to change from its classical music format to rock music in what was called the ‘Rock-Bach’ controversy. (It should be pointed out, though, that the station’s ‘Bound For Glory’ show started in 1967, is still going strong and is still hosted by Phil Shapiro.)
The most tragic local event of the year occurred in April, when, at the Cornell Heights Residential Club (today the Ecology House) on Country Club Road, eight students and a professor died of asphyxiation in a catastrophic fire. At the time of the fire, the building had no fire escapes on the second floor, no fire alarm and no sprinkler system, though fire extinguishers had been placed throughout. Ironically, water mains had just been added to the building, and sprinkler installation had been scheduled for the morning after the fire. Soon afterward, Cornell invested in fire-safety building modifications throughout campus, adding fire escapes, enclosed stairwells, sprinklers and fire alarms.
Though the Vietnam War was daily headline news, the intense divisiveness that would accompany America’s involvement was only just starting to coalesce. That being said, the Cornell campus had come a long way toward being thoroughly politicized by the year 1967.
Historically, Cornell has a long military history, dating back to the Morrill Act of 1862. Cornell’s founding and designation as New York State’s Land Grant University imparted to it the responsibility to provide military training and education programs. The university formally established an ROTC unit in 1917 when the U.S. entered World War I, and Cornellians had a distinguished history of serving in both world wars.
Vietnam was different, though. Cornell students had joined the civil rights struggle in the South in 1963-64 and slowly awakened to the Vietnam War in 1965-66, and by 1967 there was protest in the air. The ‘first big blow-up’ of the year occurred in January with a demonstration of some 1,500 students involving an allegedly obscene issue of the student literary magazine The Trojan Horse. The incident, which involved the appearance of Tompkins County District Attorney Richard Thaler and city police on campus to shut the paper down, raised issues of local law enforcement’s role on campus that would play themselves out throughout the rest of the decade.
By spring, opposition to the Vietnam War had solidified and pitted coalitions of students and faculty against each other. In March, the Ithaca Journal reported that combat deaths in Vietnam were occurring at the rate of 160 per week. SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) activity that month included a sit-in at the proctor’s office and a teach-in that filled the lobby of Willard Straight Hall.
Though campus opposition to the war would in time become nearly unanimous, a significant minority of students and faculty still supported the war, as was obvious in April when 100 members of STOP (Students to Oppose Protest) staged a sit-in in front of three buses at Willard Straight Hall that were chartered to take Cornellians to a peace rally in New York City. That same month, 500 people showed up at a ‘be-in’ on the Arts Quad. Posters announcing the event requested everyone to “bring bells and flowers.”
Nor did mounting protests sit well with many alumni. In 1967, Joseph Coors (Class of ’39) and his father Adoph (Class of ’07) threatened to withhold contributions unless Cornell stopped admitting “long haired hippie types” and “rabid far leftists.”
By September, Daniel Berrigan, whose vehement pacifism would capture national attention, had begun serving as Cornell United Religious Work’s associate director and would lead a peace march down Buffalo Street to downtown that same month. There was a heated confrontation in November between protesters and marine recruiters in Barton Hall. In October and December, there were marches to the Draft Board at 310 N. Aurora St., during which dozens of students and at least two professors handed in their draft cards. As retaliation, the protesters draft status was reclassified as 1-A. That fall, articles in the Cornell Daily Sun were advising students on how to manage their draft deferment status.
This discord hadn’t necessarily spread yet to the larger Ithaca or Tompkins County community. Compared to today’s reputation as a liberal/progressive stronghold, Ithaca was still relatively conservative. 1967 saw an Ithaca Journal editorial titled “US Should Stay in Vietnam.” Another editorial fretfully described the dangerous precedent set in the recent decision in Miranda v. Arizona, noting tartly that Miranda had been found guilty in his retrial.
Still, it was growing, and Collegetown was becoming the center of Ithaca’s countercultural scene. This was a time that some consider to have been the neighborhood’s “golden age.” It was here that Richard Farina, confidante of Bob Dylan and brother-in-law of Joan Baez set his quintessentially ’60s novel, published the year before: “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.” Johnny’s Big Red and the Royal Palm were prospering. Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” drifted out of apartment windows (they would play it live at Ithaca College in December).
Others remember the pre-Commons (and pre-internet) State Street in 1967 as a halcyon time, with Rothschild’s, Montgomery Ward, Newberry’s, J.C Penney’s and Kresge’s stores all thriving downtown. 1967 is when what was then the largest Woolworth’s in the country opened on Green Street. (It’s now the Tompkins County Public Library building.)
The campus racial issues that would erupt in the Willard Straight takeover in April 1969 were also already stiffening in 1967. Before 1964, there were astonishingly few African American students at Cornell. Each freshman class of 2,300 had only four African American students. That had begun to change – in 1964, the number increased to eight, then 37 in 1965, 49 in 1966 and 67 in 1967. However, the university was ill-prepared to deal with the academic and social issues associated with what was a clash of cultures. Cornell was an overwhelmingly white institution in a rural setting, and African American students were exposed to taunts, hate speech and innumerable more subtle forms of racism and discrimination. In the context of the national Black Power movement and black identity politics, ideas of integration and assimilation were already giving way to a more militant separatism on campus. By September, the Cornell Daily Sun was reporting that “half of the negroes” (7 of 15) that had pledged to fraternities in the spring had de-pledged, and African American students were organizing in various ways to establish themselves as a vital and vocal part of the university community.
By 1967, the townships were far less isolated than in years past. The ubiquity of automobiles and the homogenizing effects of television and radio narrowed considerably the differences between urban and rural life. People were now commuting from outlying districts to Ithaca, Cortland and Elmira. The villages still had their own personalities, though. In November, 40 residents of Newfield met with Air Force officials to share their stories of numerous UFO sightings near Main Street the previous month.