40 years ago, NIU riots placed Northern Star student journalists in spotlight

By Barry Schrader

Greetings to my fellow Star survivors from your Northern Star Alumni president. I wrote this column below for the Daily Chronicle this May as a look back on the 40th anniversary at the student protests in May 1970. Some of you were either students here at the time, Star staffers, or alumni who were covering it for a paper or broadcast station. I was there every night along with the other DeKalb Daily Chronicle staffers.

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Several readers who were part of or witnessed the rioting and protests during May 1970 at Northern Illinois University and in the city had comments about their experiences.

When reading the old news accounts, something that intrigued me further was the tug of war between the campus newspaper and law enforcement.

As you might expect, the journalism department and Northern Star taught students all about First Amendment rights as journalists and how to exercise them. Then they faced a real world test of those Constitutional rights and found something amiss.

In talking with former Star photographer John Patsch, now a staff photographer for the Herald-News in the Joliet area, he said he learned that it was not smart to hang with a group of journalists when TV crews are using bright lights to illuminate the action. He was close by when someone threw a rock that smashed the lights out. But Patsch is 6-foot-8 and an easy target himself. I stood near him on the police side of the Kishwaukee River bridge one night, knowing they would not aim at me first.

But two student-newspaper staffers got busted while exercising their First Amendment rights. The first was Larry Spohn who doubled as a reporter-photographer and was with a mob of roaming students near Lowden Hall. I reached him by phone at his Albuquerque, N.M., home last week, and he said he didn’t feel it necessary to run when police started advancing on the crowd, telling police he was a Star staffer. The cop clobbered him with a “billy club” as he calls it and ordered him to disperse. He made the unfortunate decision to confront the officer and argue about his rights. Soon he found himself under arrest, tightly cuffed with plastic bands, and carted off to the Sycamore jail in a busload of student protesters. He stayed in the lockup overnight until other Northern Star staffers collected enough money to bail him out, and eventually the charges were dropped by DeKalb County State’s Attorney James Boyle.

It did bring Spohn some degree of fame as the Rockford Morning Star ran a front page photo of him and the cop during their confrontation. The Chicago Tribune wrote an editorial defending his right as a journalist to be there covering the story, and the Society of Professional Journalists took up his cause at their next meeting in Chicago. He was a sophomore at the time and recalls this as the most exciting event in his college career. Later Spohn went on to become an award-winning science writer and then deputy editorial page editor for an Albuquerque newspaper.

The other arrestee was Star editor Ken Trantowski. Last week, I found him in the Chicago area where he is president of his own public relations and marketing firm, KGT Communications Group Inc.

Trantowski said he was counseled by the late Roy Campbell, then faculty adviser to the student newspaper and an old hand at newspapering. They knew that law enforcement might want their newspaper negatives or photos to use as evidence when prosecuting student protesters, and they also believed they had the right to refuse to turn them over to officials. But then three state police officials showed up at the newspaper’s campus office with a subpoena for the negatives. When the young editor said the negatives were no longer there and would not turn them over, they used the subpoena as an arrest warrant and off he went to the same Sycamore jail. He said Campbell had contacts at the Chicago Daily News, who quickly dispatched lawyers to get him released.

Trantowski relates how the negatives were being spirited out the door almost the minute the officers arrived at their building and were moved around from place to place for fear there would be a search warrant issued later. Retired NIU J-Department photography professor Hallie Hamilton recalls receiving a package of them, which he stored in his freezer for a while before they were retrieved by a staffer and moved elsewhere. No one seems to know where they ended up. I checked out the NIU Regional History Archives and they aren’t stored there. The statute of limitations has run out by now, so they are only of historical value today.

What an exciting time for young journalists who learned their classroom lessons well and put into practice what they had been taught, despite facing daunting circumstances.

Barry Schrader is a J-grad from the Class of 1963, retired from careers in newspapering and public relations. He now lives in DeKalb and writes a weekly column for the Daily Chronicle. You can find it at www.dekalbcountylife.com. Contact Barry at schrader94550@sbcglobal.net. This column first appeared in the Daily Chronicle on May 25, 2010.