Butler was founded in the struggle against slavery and through 166 years has survived during backdrops that included the Civil War, two world wars, two pandemics, the Great Depression and Great Recession, presidential assassinations, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, Watergate, presidential impeachments, 9/11, and so much more. Every generation has faced seemingly insurmountable turbulence and, so far, every generation has lived, learned, and come through wiser.
As our graduates from the 1960s and early ’70s will tell you, that’s a lesson worth remembering when times get rocky, as they have been this past year.
Butler Magazine spoke to three alumni and a professor emeritus about what we can learn from the toughest of times.
Jean Smith ’65 came to Butler in 1961 and knew all of the other undergraduate students of color personally. She recalls there were 10.
In 1964, Smith remembers, George Wallace, the Alabama governor known for his racist and segregationist views, received a rousing reception in a packed lecture hall.
“That told me everything I needed to know about what Butler was at that time,” she says.
A small counterpoint occurred later that year when Smith earned her own ovation when she spoke in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in her public speaking class. A larger counterpoint occurred 16 years after graduation, with Smith in the midst of a career that took her from journalism to the ministry, when Butler President Jack Johnson asked if she would serve as a trustee.
That “was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had,” she says. “It allowed me to see that the Butler I had gone to as a student was capable of change.”
This was reinforced just a few years ago when Smith attended a dinner for underrepresented students in the Fairview Community Room. “The room was filled. I felt that the changes that were happening at Butler were real.”
The lesson learned? For that, Smith paraphrases former President Barack Obama: “We’re never going to make things perfect, but we have to keep doing our part to make things better. And better is what you build upon.”
Terry Curry ’71 arrived in 1967 to a Butler University that was transitioning from what he describes as a stereotypical 1950s, early ’60s college to a school where the political and cultural revolutions were taking hold. By early 1968, he found himself immersed in Eugene McCarthy’s candidacy for president and participated in anti-war marches that took place in Indianapolis and elsewhere. (Protests on Butler’s campus at the time, however, were focused on the 10:00 PM curfew for women.)
Curry, who became an attorney and, ultimately, Marion County prosecutor, says he’s “absolutely” glad he went through the ’60s. Despite the fear and tension of the times, positive developments came out of that era, including civil rights, advancements of the rights of women, and ending the war in Vietnam.
“In spite of the fact that it didn’t feel like it at the time, there was positive evolution of the country,” he says.
Curry says the current atmosphere feels like the ’60s. “Today we talk about the urban-rural divide. It was kind of the same thing—it was the adults and middle class vs. the young people, and neither side was willing to even acknowledge or get the other. There was a lot of animosity, a lot of tension. I don’t know how we get past it, but historically we always have.”
And we will, he says. “Everything now has been exacerbated by the pandemic. So as we literally start to heal, we can heal as a nation also.”
Patty Wachel ’73 remembers a host of pressing issues during her four years at Butler: women’s liberation, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam, racial injustice, peace, the draft process, and the emerging drug culture.
“We did see some activism in all of these areas on campus, but it was respectful and without reckless behavior. It was a thoughtful environment among chaos at many other universities.”
At the time, Wachel was involved in Angel Flight, a women’s auxiliary for the Air Force ROTC program, eventually becoming a commander. The Angel Flight members wore a uniform that was similar to what ROTC members wore.
“And while this was a symbol of the war, and comments were made, I never felt threatened,” says Wachel, who went on to a long career in human resources. “No one burned down the ROTC building like on other campuses. Butler students may have been opposed to the war and critical of the ROTC program, but we coexisted in a respectful environment. Perhaps this was the early seeds of the Butler Way.
“Times were trying, change was happening at a record pace, and the country was being torn apart by an unpopular war, but Butler students were able to show strong character and respect for the diversity of ideas not supported by them.”
Butler History Professor Emeritus George Geib, who retired in 2014 after 49 years, says the generational divide that existed in the 1960s was due to the conflict between administrators who had grown up in the midst of the Great Depression and World War II and students who had known peace and affluence for most of their lives.
In trying to bridge that gap, the most important thing all of us do in growing up “is to try to bring others into the world we inhabit and try to create changes and improvements from it.”
At the time, Indianapolis leaders decided that one of the essentials for a strong community was a large, central college campus. Butler leaders declined to take on that role, but they recognized the need for what came to be called “the Butler Advantage.”
“You needed to reach out in a rapidly changing demographic and offer a campus advantage,” Geib says. “That is what sets Butler apart—particular professional programs, particular campus experiences, particular memories that you carry of the way the University helped you.”
And that, Geib says, is the lesson Butler learned from the ’60s.