Retired Ohio Northern University Chaplain Vern LaSala traveled to Australia in 2004 to interview the surviving family of Dr. James Udy, ONU chaplain from 1963-69, to learn how he convinced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – one of the most famous men on the planet at the time – to come to Ada to speak as part of a new chapel lecture series.
The story began at the University of Boston, where Udy and King were both Ph.D. candidates in the School of Theology. The two men developed a friendship strong enough that when Udy contacted King with his request to speak at ONU, King said yes… eventually. According to his widow, Ann, Dr. Udy pursued King for a couple of years to get him to come speak at ONU. Apparently, King accepted invitations on two prior occasions but was unable to fulfill these commitments due to incarceration. In all, King was jailed nearly 30 times for acts of civil disobedience or false charges.
“Dad was known for his perseverance,” says Yelena Udy.
Upon becoming ONU chaplain in 1963, Udy sought a way to make the weekly chapel service more appealing to students. He had an idea to start a lecture series in which guest speakers would discuss issues pertaining to the Christianity. When King spoke in Taft Gymnasium, it was under the auspices of this lecture series and the theme “The Christian Faith and Contemporary Problems.”
On Jan. 11, 1968, classes ended at 10 a.m. to allow for students to attend the speech. It is estimated that approximately 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. CBS-TV recorded the 60-minute speech, and the University used it to produce an album. This recording is available on the ONU website and on ONU’s YouTube channel.
In the turbulent late 1960s, the announcement of King’s visit was not without controversy. Three confirmed death threats were each sent to Ada Mayor Irvin Vandermark, ONU President Samuel Meyer and Udy. The FBI was called in to investigate the threats, and the Ohio National Guard was stationed around Ada the morning of the speech.
In the end, peace prevailed, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic speech at ONU with no issues. It remains one of the most important events in the University’s long and proud history – and a defining moment in the lives of many who witnessed it.