Back Then

Photograph from The Collegian, May 15, 1970

In the moment, it seemed like a good idea. Jon Lewis, R’73, inflamed by President Richard Nixon’s “Cambodian Campaign” and the killing of Kent State University students by Ohio National Guardsmen, organized a protest on UR’s campus on May 10, 1970.

Fresh from attending an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Washington, D.C., where organizers urged participants to return to their institutions and establish their own campus-based movements, Lewis gathered “a handful” of his peers in the Freeman Hall parking lot. The group marched on the university’s ROTC building and then made its way to President George Modlin’s home, packing the front lawn.

“The whole incident was very spontaneous,” said Lewis, who recounted the incident this summer for a Boatwright Library staff member gathering oral histories. “I can assure you that six hours before this happened, nobody was planning or thinking it.”

As pictured in The Collegian, Lewis made quite the impression. But in his recollection, the reality was far more anticlimactic, thanks to Modlin’s deft handling of the situation.

Modlin came out to his front steps and asked Lewis to speak his piece. After instructing his fellow students to quiet down, Lewis shared his belief that the university should take a position on Vietnam. The president ended the respectful conversation, telling the first-year student that he wouldn’t discuss it that evening, but they could resume the conversation in the morning.

Lewis now has a more nuanced view of his shirtless, bell-bottom-wearing youth.

When Lewis and Richard Newman, another of the march’s leaders, reported to Modlin’s office the next morning, the president took on the role of disciplinarian. Modlin, flanked by other administrators, “didn’t mince words,” Lewis said. He told the pair that the protest frightened his wife and disturbed “the tranquility of the home.” Then he called Lewis’ father, spoke with him a few moments, and handed the receiver to a mortified Lewis. After the call, Modlin and Lewis agreed that nothing similar would occur in the future, and Lewis left disappointed at being unable to engage in a deeper dialogue with Modlin about the war.

In retrospect, Lewis is “grateful for the way things turned out,” he said. He was surprised to learn that Modlin made an administrative record of their interaction, now preserved by the Virginia Baptist Historical Society in a folder called “Dr. Modlin’s Student Unrest.” In it, Modlin called Lewis “a fine young man.”

“I’ve grown to respect Dr. Modlin for the way he managed that,” said Lewis, who went on to a four-decade career as an educator in Virginia. “Looking back as a principal and school superintendent, when you have responsibility for other people’s children, it’s a huge responsibility.”

Acknowledging that his outspoken, anti-war bloc “were outliers” in the conservative culture of the university, Lewis now has a more nuanced view of his shirtless, bell-bottom-wearing youth.

“I think my heart was in the right place back then, but I don’t know that I was really mature enough or sophisticated enough to be able to really come up with a plan to promote my view,” he said. “One of the reasons I’m so fond of the University of Richmond is …you’re just under this kind of umbrella of support and concern.”