All the Rage

Forty years ago this month, Madison was burning

In May 1970, Madison was a much smaller city but growing fast.

West Towne and East Towne malls, still under construction, were literally on the city’s borders. The Beltline ran from Highway 51 to Nakoma Road. Population hit 170,000, up 43 percent from 1960, served by 125 churches, 113 taverns and sixty-five public schools.

The Hub, Penney’s and the Emporium were such central city mainstays their ads just said “Downtown,” or “Capitol Square,” without listing addresses. Manchester’s department store gave out Green Stamps and provided a pigeonhole parking ramp. Wolff Kubly Hirsig was “Madison’s Most Interesting Store,” while Montgomery Ward, 215 State, boasted “Low Low Prices.” There were four Woolworth’s, “the fun place to shop for the entire family,” but none farther west than Midvale Blvd. Castle & Doyle still dealt coal on State Street, where you could buy a diamond at Goodman’s, shoes at Jack’s and booze at Badger Liquor, and eat at Ella’s, Gino’s, or Nick’s Home of Good Food. Reporters worked out of the Madison Newspaper Building at 115 South Carroll, now a parking lot between Main and Doty. Yee Sam ran the city’s last Chinese laundry at 215 East Main St.

The No Hassel store, 610 University Ave., ran an “End of the World” sale—because once nudity was legalized, owner Eddie Elson explained, no one would need clothes.

But dramatic changes were in store, starting with Len Mattioli’s new American furniture and appliance store on the West Beltline, and Pete Gambino’s Appliance Mart, 3535 East Washington Avenue. The 850,000-square-foot West Towne prepared for its October opening, the 1.5 million-square foot East Towne set for 1971.

As for the general mood of Madisonians, it was not a happy month. And it wasn’t just the riots, a continuation of ongoing campus and downtown disorders. Racial incidents in the schools led the Equal Opportunities Commission to issue a report on the “deep divisiveness” that had emerged.

The local economy suffered, especially on the east side, as workers from seven construction and trade unions endured their second month on strike. At the Gisholt factory, sagging sales led to the layoff of 150. A nationwide truckers’ strike left the Sears, Roebuck and Co. at the East Madison Shopping Center short of paint and supplies.

Our second-greatest natural resource was threatened, as the State Highway Commission prepared to cut three thousand pines and spruce in the UW Arboretum’s Grady Tract for a frontage road just south of the Beltline off Seminole Highway, land for which it had paid $88,000. After two weeks’ public outcry, Gov. Warren Knowles directed a redesign to save about half the trees.
The fire department was roiled, as a state hearing into the suspension of union president Charles Merkel turned into a union challenge to the competence of fire chief Ralph McGraw.

Relations between the liberal council and the conservative mayor William Dyke were frayed. Dyke denounced the council for its “gross waste of time” talking about Vietnam; the council killed Dyke’s resolution supporting U.S. Savings Bonds, because the bonds raised money for the war; rejected all the citizens he named to the Airport Commission; and refused to confirm an aldermanic appointment to the Board of Estimates.

And the worst was yet to come.

Campus chaos: Tear gas blankets Bascom Hill, a recurring event the first week of May 1970.Fiery Nights in May

For five consecutive nights, a campus revolution flared.

Mayor Bill Dyke had banned parades, hoping to stop protests after President Nixon invaded Cambodia. After four students were shot to death at Kent State in Ohio, Dyke asked the governor to call out the National Guard.

It starts peacefully that Monday evening May 4 after word spread about Kent State. Several thousand people jam the Memorial Union Terrace for a United Front rally calling for a student strike and immediate end to the Vietnam War. Speakers include James Rowen, Daily Cardinal contributing editor and future mayoral aide to then-Ald. Paul Soglin.

Then someone from the Mother Jones Revolutionary League calls for a march on the Army Math Research Center. But when the crowd gets to Sterling Hall, University Police hold them off—so the crowd surges to the ROTC training building, breaking most windows and setting fires. Dispersed by heavy tear gas, the militants split into smaller “affinity groups” to set fires, smash windows and throw rocks at cops. Five hundred law enforcement officers respond with more tear gas, blanketing the first two floors in the Union.

In the usually sleepy Nakoma neighborhood, a Molotov cocktail hits the second-floor bedroom at 706 Miami Pass, home of Air Force ROTC chief and professor Joseph Meserow, doing about $2,500 in damage.

About twenty to two Tuesday morning, UW sophomore Lester Pines makes an emergency call to report flames coming out of the Kroger grocery store, 515 University Ave., which Pines could see from his apartment on Gilman. The store was known to gouge its student customers, and “Kroger smiles” abound when it’s gutted by arson.Edwin Young

After Tuesday afternoon’s rally, there are intense battles at the Monroe Street draft office, Bascom Hill and Library Mall; winds whip the tear gas around, as crowds of several thousand pelt police with rocks. Chancellor Edwin “War-Maker, Strike-Breaker” Young declares a state of emergency; it lasts sixteen days, restricting outsider access to campus.

After that evening’s rally, thousands again march on the ROTC building and again are met with tear gas. Militants and militia resume their mutual hit-and-run. Radicals torch eight buildings and start twenty street fires; police again pump heavy tear gas into the Union and make forty arrests. Thirty-three demonstrators and twenty-three lawmen are hurt (nineteen hospitalized after being hit by rocks).
Governor Knowles calls out the National Guard, the third time in fourteen months. Tuesday night, a thousand guardsmen march in and take up position on Park Street. About 1:30 Wednesday morning, firebombs fly at 10 Babcock Dr., the campus home of elderly former UW president Edwin B. Fred; one hits and does minor damage.

Wednesday afternoon, another eight hundred National Guardsmen arrive. Fire chief Ralph McGraw bans the sale of gasoline in containers. About 125 high school students at Madison Memorial boycott classes, and 242 UW professors stop teaching. The wife of police sergeant Robert Uselman suffers facial cuts when rocks crash the glass of the New York Life Insurance Co., 148 E. Johnson St., where she is a secretary.

That night, the Battle of the South East Dorms ensues, as police surround and gas several thousand students. Police also gas Mifflin grocery co-op, University YMCA and several fraternities. A National Guard helicopter swoops overhead, its high-intensity spotlight searching for students.

At Da Nang Air Force Base, Airman 1st Class Dennis F. Haack of N. Marquette St., East High ’69, has reported for duty.

Thursday night, cops saturate the entire area from the Capitol to Bascom Hill with tear gas. For days, walking on the Hill kicks up clouds of choking residue.

WAR & PEACE: UW student Mark Messer snapped this photo as he was walking between classes—a study in what campus life was like at the end of the spring semester 1970.

Militants set flaming barricades and attack State Street (whatever wasn’t trashed during the April 17 rampage that did $100,000 worth of damage). One business never attacked? Gargano’s Pizzeria, because it hires longhairs.

Friday, a stunning announcement—UW System president Fred Harvey Harrington resigns after eight years, effective in October. The regents, increasingly conservative, would have fired him if he hadn’t quit.

After a tense, tumultuous meeting in Stock Pavilion, the UW faculty vote for an immediate end to U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia and suspension of classes. Neither President Nixon nor Chancellor Young complies.

Late Friday, police deliver the coup de grace, ripping protective plywood off the Mifflin grocery co-op windows and pouring in several high-intensity tear gas cartridges. Then they hit a couple of houses in the 500 block of West Mifflin, just for good measure.

There is some disruptive picketing during classes the next week but the attempted strike peters out. A chaotic meeting in Great Hall dissolves into indecision. Police spies inside the movement continue their work.

Among those arrested that week is future Circuit Court Judge Michael Nowakowski for allegedly cursing at a cop, a charge he still stoutly denies. Married with an infant, Nowakowski was working while going to school; unable to post the $500 bail, he stayed in jail for a couple of nights—something that made him sensitive to timely bail hearings in his career as a judge.

One positive move—Young bows to student demands by making commencement’s cap and gown optional; senior class president David Zucker urges the $5.50 rental fees be donated to the student bail fund and the National Peace Commencement Fund.

“If I had to do it all over again, I would have worn the damn caps and gowns,” Zucker (co-director of Airplane!, et al) says now. “That was just ridiculously dumb.”

The Common Council adopts a weakened resolution calling for the immediate return of troops but defeats Ald. Dennis McGilligan’s resolution that Madisonians could refuse service in wars not declared by Congress. Liberal icon Sen. Gaylord Nelson is jeered, and cheered, in an appearance at UW Stock Pavilion, and booed loudly when he mentions “the three brave men” of Apollo 13.

The Sunday before Memorial Day, law enforcement officials and students use bats on each other—and balls, in a softball game at Picnic Point. The student “Red Army” team prevails, forcing police to bring a half-barrel of beer to the Mifflin Co-op.

The month ends with the Council adopting Dyke’s ordinance banning parades on State Street. But the fire next time would not come in a parade up State Street. It would come about 3:30 a.m. on August 24, at the Army Math Research Center in Sterling Hall.


Dateline: Pivotal events in May 1970

Music's Greatest Month

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