A Nation Divided

Much like the Waterman affair cannot be comprehended without reference to the wider events taking place in the U.S. at the time, Frericks’ success securing funding for the arena requires an understanding of the dramatic political changes taking place across the nation. On March 31st, just seven days after the Flyers’ NIT victory at Madison Square Garden, President Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973) shocked the county by announcing he would not seek reelection. Johnson’s decision followed a series of events that had lost the confidence of the American people and put the nation in turmoil. The memory of the riots of the Long Hot Summer of 1967 were fresh when, on January 30, 1968, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops launched the Tet Offensive. This campaign contradicted Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s declaration in that same month that the Vietnam War would soon end. In the midst of the Tet Offensive’s shocking success, and just days before the UD Flyers closed out their season, on February 27th, influential CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite told the nation it was time to negotiate an end to the war. While the oft-quoted claim that Johnson declared that “if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” was never uttered, the assessment appears to have been correct. [93]

That same January, the front-running Republican candidate for President, Richard Nixon (1913-1994), announced his intentions to run for President of the United States. As many historians have argued, it was the beginning of a new Republican Party, the end of Democratic Party’s post-war political dominance, and  a major shift in U.S. political culture. Employing a new brand of emotional populist rhetoric that labeled the “noisy” Civil Rights and Vietnam War protestors as radical subversives, Nixon claimed to speak for what he’d soon called the nation’s “silent majority.” Armed with his “Southern Strategy,” Nixon would play upon the racial politics of outrage, such as those animating white reaction to the Waterman affair in Dayton, to reshape the nation’s political landscape. Southern and ethnic whites, among both the working class and modest middle class, began to abandon the Democratic Party and create the “Emerging Republican Majority,” just as Nixon’s senior presidential campaign strategist Kevin Phillips predicted. [94]

In Ohio, the political figure that was working the same emotional levers was Republican Governor James Allen Rhodes (1909-2001) who occupied the office from 1963-1971 and then again between 1975-1983. He was a populist Republican who won over longtime working class Democratic white voters by carefully avoiding rhetoric suggesting he would attack New Deal policies that helped them, while capitalizing on brewing resentments they held against elites, college kids, and minorities. [95] For Frericks, who would ultimately utilize connections with this emerging new Republican establishment to secure funding for the arena, the politics presented something of a double-edge sword.

Rhodes was playing with emotions that were already driving a wedge between Dayton residents and UD students. Just two years later, Rhodes would preside over the May 4, 1970 Kent State shootings by National Guardsmen that left four students dead and nine wounded. Twenty-four hours before the incident, at the news conference in which he announced having called out the Guard, Rhodes had pounding on the desk and branded the demonstrators “un-American,” “revolutionaries,” and “Brown Shirts,” while promising to “eradicate” the problem. [96] Back in Dayton in mid-1968 the wider public support Frericks counted upon to get the arena built was already being threatened by an emerging rift between city residents and UD students.

Campus on the Verge of Losing a City

The week-long “Crises in Black and White” event in early 1968, which led to Waterman’s accusations against the Athletic Department and his teammates, was part of a wider student movement emerging on campus. This movement sought to open a dialogue about university policies on a series of social issues such as race, free speech, military research on campus, and the Vietnam War. Some on campus, for example, believed that the university’s deepening pursuit of defense department research dollars was incompatible with the university’s core Marianist values. [97] In the coming months of 1968, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy—a favorite son among students who had won an on-campus poll of who they preferred to become the next President—followed by chaos of the Democratic Convention in Chicago, intensified student activism. [98]

UD’s campus in the late 1960s witnessed less student activism than many other universities at the time; still, a protest movement emerged, as did community dissatisfaction with this movement. Between 1960 and 1970 a growing but still minority number of UD students embraced the anti-war movement, questioned the school’s mandatory ROTC training, and began to use tactics such as marches, hunger strikes, and –at one point – occupation in St. Mary’s Hall, to demand change. Nearly a year and a half after Waterman’s complaints, student leaders both for and against U.S. involvement in Vietnam debated on the Phil Donohue. [99] Activists realized that much of the university’s technological research was being driven by Department of Defense-related research directives, as the University of Dayton Research Institute experienced major growth between 1962 and 1977. The DOD-related worked “invoked uneasy feelings in many parts of the University.” [100] Protests on campus that emerged around such issues exacerbated the wedge between the students and city residents.

As early as the summer of 1966 fights between local kids and college students erupted along Brown Street, even though administrators had already initiated a temporary curfew in February of 1966. [101] Newspaper headlines such as “Neon-Lit Brown St. Battleground” blamed both sides for such incidents but also emphasized the arrival at UD of “students from large urban areas” who were different than and prone to mock the locals. [102] Enrollment figures from the 1960s reveal that “there was a definite decline in Ohio [students] and a gradual increase from eastern states during the late 60’s.” [103] Letters to the paper by residents indicate that the opinion of journalists and editorialists did not reflect what the average Daytonian believed. Based on the letters published in the papers, many in the city took a less tolerant view of the student protestors. They described the students as entitled brats who had embraced bad habits and become seduced by un-American ideas, while scolding the papers for “devoting too much space to the coverage of bearded, unkempt radicals.” [104]

Through it all, however, Daytonian’s interest in college sports, especially the basketball team, created a bridge between the city and campus. As one student wrote at the time, the “large beer and fraternity crowd was seemingly uninterested in issues” or actively hostile to those that were shared with the locals an interest in basketball recruiting and the coming arena. [105]