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In Their Own Words

Above: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks before a packed house in the former Taft Gymnasium. An estimated 4,500 people listened to King that day: 2,500 in Taft and another 2,000 in Lehr Auditorium, where the audio from Taft was carried live.

Alumni remember Jan. 11, 1968

The late 1960s were a turbulent time in America. The nation faced challenges at home and abroad, and college campuses were increasingly becoming hotbeds of conflict. Ohio Northern University, nestled in the rural expanse of northwest Ohio, remained mostly insulated from the social and societal changes that were occurring elsewhere. On Thursday, Jan. 11, 1968, the University welcomed a speaker whom some feared might change that. Incredibly, during the height of his fame and influence, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at ONU as part of the Chapel Speaker Series. His visit did change things. It changed hearts and minds, and it helped students see beyond themselves.

Now, 50 years later, some of the students who were there share their memories of that day.

William S. Alge Jr., BA 68, JD ’73: 1968 was a troubling year in America. There was much unrest primarily surrounding the conflict in Vietnam. Veterans returning protested America's commitment there. Some protests were violent, and veterans were shown little respect for their service.

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Schuttenberg, BA ’69: I vividly recall Dr. James Udy, our University chaplain who personally knew Dr. King from seminary, saying how excited he was that his friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was coming to speak at ONU. 

John D. Dial, BSME ’70: I recall the excitement on campus preceding the event.

Jack Watchorn, BSEd ’70: The anticipation by the student body to hear a world-renowned person speak at ONU was overwhelming. 

Barbara Lee (Wenger) White, BSEd ’71: We were filled with wonder that someone as famous as Dr. King would visit our small campus.

Bob Roberts, BSEd ’70: There were students who just did not want to go listen to Dr. King. Some were against him even being on campus. 

Karl E. May, BA ’71: Sadly, I recall one person on my floor in Founders Hall saying he would not “walk across the street” to hear Dr. King on racial grounds.

Bob Foster, BSBA ’70: I remember that there were large trucks from the “big three” news agencies parked outside the old gym for about three days setting up to broadcast.

Rollin L. Wellington Jr., BSPh ’69: I was a second-year student dorm counselor at Founders Hall. Many of us were asked to serve as ushers for Dr. King’s speech. I remember laying out the only suit I owned the night before.

Gary D. Spahr, BA ’71: Jan. 11, 1968, was a very cold, blustery winter day.

Dr. Joel M. Weaver, BSPh ’68: That morning, fellow pharmacy student Al Gatewood and I were walking to the student union for coffee after our early morning class when Dr. Udy approached us and asked if we would like to join him in his car to drive to the Lima airport to pick up his longtime friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We immediately agreed, and the three of us went to the airport. Unfortunately, when we got there, we were told that his flight was delayed and that he was driving to Ada, so Dr. Udy drove us back to Ada without our meeting Dr. King in person.

Bob Foster: A large contingency of visitors came to Ada the day of his speech, and suddenly our small campus was front and center in the national news. Security was noticeable, but nothing like today. We had to have a ticket to get in the gym.

John Lambert, Defiance College: I didn't attend ONU, but I was there that day. My entire religion class traveled by bus to ONU's campus on that cold, wintry day. I was a dumb 18-year-old kid, but I wasn't clueless. I was eager to hear the great man, and was not surprised that we were seated among a packed house. After some delay, Dr. King walked to the podium and with his first words, I was enthralled by his presence.

James L. Meredith, BS ’70: On that day I saw more police cars than had ever been seen in that village before.  

Jan Hanna-Simon, BSEd ’69: I lived in Clark Hall, which was next to Taft Gymnasium. I could look out my window and see people going into the gym. We were all so excited.

Bill Starrett, BA ’70: The Theta Chi houses were right across the street from Taft. It was very crowded and it was very exciting to be there at such a historic moment to see one of the prominent people of our day in person. It was a very impressive speech, and I still have the record of the speech that I bought!  

Bob Roberts: I was pulled by some force I did not understand to leave the Theta Chi house for a few minutes, to go across the street and enter Taft Gym that day.

Dennis Rectenwald, BSEd ’69: After a little coaxing from some dorm buddies, I headed over to Taft Gymnasium for a look-see. I envisioned a small crowd gathered at Taft to listen to this relatively unknown person (at least in my provincial mind). Boy, was I shocked! I could not find a space to set foot in Taft Gymnasium. 

Dr. Joel M. Weaver: The Taft Gym was overflowing.

Karl E. May: It was packed.

Barbara Lee (Wenger) White:  I remember standing in a very long line waiting to get into Taft and trying to find a seat. The whole gym was filled. There were even people standing up on the running track.

G. Leonard Beller, BSEE ’71: My friends and I wanted to go listen to him, but the venue was filled up with people, so we could not get in. 

James L. Meredith: A morning class prior to the assembly in the gym kept me from camping out in order to get a seat. I was disappointed not to find a seat in Taft Gymnasium, but fortunately, Lehr Auditorium was set up to provide overflow seating. That’s where I went to hear Dr. King’s words.

Leonard “Bud” Lance, BSPh ’70: I was one of the ushers that day. I led the guests to their seats in Taft Gym.

Joy C. Dial, BSEd ’70: Because I played in the brass choir, I got to be up close for Dr. King’s speech. I was thrilled. 

Tom Billing, BA '70: I was in the brass choir, which performed that morning at the Chapel service. Dr. King was so inspiring that I left with a very warm, electric feeling.

Gary D. Spahr: There had been threats of violence received by the University prior to his speech, and the band director suggested the brass choir be relocated to some place other than directly behind where Dr. King was going to speak. We elected to stay where we were.

Dr. James Udy, ONU chaplain from 1963-69, greets Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. upon his arrival in Lima, Ohio.Jim Pyle, BA ’68: Dr. King had flown into Lima, where he was met by Dr. Udy, his teenage son and myself. I was privileged to photograph Dr. King’s arrival in Lima.

Bob Parsons: Due to the weather, Dr. King was running late, and Dr. Udy drove the car back to Ada, trying to “make up time.”

Gary D. Spahr: By the time Dr. Udy and Dr. King arrived at Taft, he was nearly two hours late. 

Rollin L. Wellington Jr.: The gymnasium was packed, and the crowd had an anticipatory excitement that was somewhat new to my experience. As Dr. King came to the podium, I remember a veritable hush coming over the assembly. 

Bob Roberts: I remember sitting in the bleachers on the right side of the stage. I was not far from Dr. King, just perhaps about 50 feet or so. He had a commanding presence.

Gary D. Spahr: He received a thoroughly warm and welcoming applause, and after greeting us and thanking the University for having him, he apologized profusely for being so late.

David Louis Bondor, BA ’71: Dr. King opened with a friendly and humorous anecdote about that trip to campus. He told us that Dr. Udy was in a hurry and was apparently exceeding the posted speed limit.

Bob Parsons: He was tempted to tell the driver that he would “prefer being Martin Luther King late to being the late Martin Luther King.”

Rollin L. Wellington Jr.: I sat on the bottom row of the bleachers. When he began speaking, his delivery and charisma was almost palpable from my perspective. Details of the speech escape me, but his presence left a lasting impression of a man incredibly committed to improving civil liberties for all.

Karl E. May: In the preceding months, Dr. King had come out in opposition to the Vietnam War, and he reiterated his opposition in his speech. This got a very mixed reaction from the crowd and seemed to create discomfort for many in the audience.

Larry Lepard, BA ’69: I was sitting in the bleachers directly across from the podium, at a right angle to Dr. King. I can recall my amazement that he could preach such an inspiring message from his head and his heart without a single note in front of him.

Craig McSherry, BA '70: My now deceased first wife Scarlett McSherry and I were sitting in the bleachers at about mid-court to the right of where Dr. King spoke that day in the gym. She was an employee of the Pharmacy College and I was a chemistry major. While she was initially reluctant to attend, I made sure we both arrived early. The most striking thing about Dr. King's speech was that we each felt he had chosen every word specifically for us. It touched our souls and had a profound impact on the balance of our lives. Remembering that day brings tears to my eyes and at the same time makes me feel that was the most privileged single day of my life.

Bob Roberts: His commanding voice did not command; it urged. His voice made clear his intention to never stop loving others, to never stop pressing for equality, and to never stop trying to make this world a better place for all, for his children and grandchildren, and our children and grandchildren to come. 

Jack Watchorn: The speech was magnificent, and it was very mesmerizing to hear a leader of Dr. King’s stature bring his views and philosophy to such a small Ohio college. 
Sheldon W. Schuttenberg: Dr. King challenged us students to stand for what is right. He talked about faith informing action to do justice.

Christine (Murdock) Kucklick, BA ’70: The image that remains with me from the speech is that of the African-American church ladies who traveled from Lima to see Dr. King. They were all dressed up as if for Sunday morning worship. It made me realize how important this visit was, not just to ONU, but to the larger local community.

James Williams, BA ’68: What I remember most is the speech had many of the lines from his famous “I Have a Dream” speech given in Washington, D.C., in 1963. It was an extremely inspiring speech. 

Bob Foster: Dr. King’s speech was inspiring and very thought-provoking. 

Dennis Rectenwald: The closest I came to the stage was the vestibule of Taft listening to Dr. King over speakers installed for those standing outside the gym in an overflowing crowd. I don’t recall much about the verbiage in the speech, but I can readily reflect the passion I heard in his voice and the cadence synonymous with Martin Luther King Jr.! 

James L. Meredith: After his speech, Dr. King took questions from the audience. By then the crowd had thinned out a bit, and I was able to find a seat in the gymnasium for the question-and-answer session. I was even more impressed by the depth and the warmth of Dr. King’s voice seeing him in person.  

Karl E. May: I felt very privileged to be able to hear this great man speak in person.

Jan Hanna-Simon: Dr. King was well-known and respected then, but now he has become a legend. I feel fortunate that I got to see him and hear him.

Joy Svehla Dial: It remains one of my favorite ONU memories.

Sharron (Dickinson) Newman: It was an inspiring thing to behold. I was very much encouraged to fight for justice and the common man. Currently, I stand in front of the federal building in Bellingham, Wash., twice a week to protest the current administration’s policies and actions. Thanks to Dr. King, 50 years later I am still fighting for justice!

William S. Alge Jr.: Dr. King's persona and his involvement in America left me in awe of his message to us that day. Certainly, his messages and example inspired many of us, as we struggled to make decisions for our future. Dr. King's appearance at ONU is lifelong memory for me. I have shared it many times with family and friends.

John Lambert: I have heard many great speakers over the years but none who rivaled him. There is no question that for me, his speech sowed some seeds that for the past 50 years have formed the basis of my views on race and inequality. There is no single day of college that I remember better or that probably had as large an impact.

Harold (Bud) Hughes, BSME '68: I remember him being a powerful speaker that was passionate about his desire for peace. His message was one of love that we should all share. I wasn't ready to hear it then, but I believe in what he said now.

Gary D. Spahr: Dr. King’s line about being late, which generated much laughter then, became very haunting less than 12 weeks later.

David Louis Bondor: When I heard of the murder, all of what I recalled from his presentation was lost. To this day, I only recall that tragically prophetic anecdote.

Tom Billing, BA '70: Following his horrible assassination in Memphis, Dr. Udy asked the Brass Choir to perform at a Memorial Chapel service for Dr. King. My roommate and I put together a special brass choir made up of volunteers to play for the service. We spent a long night in the music files to get appropriate music for the service. Dr. Udy was very pleased with it. It was our tribute to a great man.

Dr. Joel M. Weaver: Three months later, the Phi Delta Chi pharmacy fraternity held an evening meeting at the home of professor Lou Vottero, where we heard on the television news that Dr. King had been assassinated. I remember it vividly. At age 72, I am still very disappointed that I came so close to have shaken his hand and personally spoken with him.

John A. Gill, BSME ’70: I remember all the security that was in place for his speech in Ada, but I was still absolutely stunned when he was killed a few weeks later.

Martin Denes, BA ’70: On the day King was assassinated, I remember going out and walking the streets of Ada in sorrow. A year later at a tea at his home, Dr. Udy reminisced about his friendship with Dr. King. 

Jack Watchorn: After his assassination in Memphis, Tenn., I reflected on what I had seen and heard in Ada on Jan. 11, 1968. It was truly uplifting and special.

Bob Foster: We were one of his last college stops prior to his death. I feel very honored to have been a part of his visit and legacy to ONU.