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The village constable gets deposed.
In the spring of 1964 I was
a senior at Kenyon College, in rural Ohio. Revolution was in the
air, nationally, but somehow it was not easy to find a subject for revolution
in that idyllic small town, and when the revolution came it was difficult
to make it quite as vulgar or noisy or violent as in more urban settings.
But we managed to rebel successfully, overthrow what needed overthrowing
(at least locally), and a good time was had by all.
Kenyon College was founded
in the 1820's. The large building now called Old Kenyon was built around
1827. Forty years later a second building was needed, and the builders
didn't want to make things too crowded so they built it one mile north,
the two buildings being connected by a gravel path that is still there,
called Middle Path. Slowly over the years some of the spaces in between
have been filled in, but no one would accuse the campus of being crowded.
And at some point it occured to someone that maybe a town was needed, so
a small stretch -- one sixth of a mile long -- was reserved in the middle,
for a village. The town of Gambier grew out to the sides, but at least
in that one-sixth of a mile of downtown it is still true that the
campus surrounds the village, rather than the other way around.
In the early days I'm not
sure that there was any distinction in government between the town and
the college, but eventually a town government was formed. Not uncommonly,
the same people were elected to town offices and college faculty offices,
but the system broke down by the early 1960's. By late in my student career
-- I was a senior in 1963-64 -- there had been an election when the faculty
wasn't paying enough attention. What we called ‘the farmers' took over,
the town council did not get on too well with the college, and we had a
bit of a town-gown problem.
The town council decided that
the college security man was no longer enough to keep order, and appointed
a village constable. From the student's point of view, they chose
the wrong man for the job. They erected numerous stop signs, which seemed
to us superfluous in such a small town, and the constable began enforcing
them. And to make matters worse, he was rather vulgar. Now, it may
not distress you if I admit, even though I am a loyal alumnus of the school,
that in the 1960's even we students could be rather vulgar. But we didn't
think the constable should be.
The constable had a talent for
noteworthy incidents, and two deserve mention. In those days the
college had a divinity school, Bexley Hall, located in the building at
the north end of campus. And the Rev. Desmond Tutu of South Africa turned
up to give a lecture. This was long before that first Black Episcopal
Bishop of South Africa became famous, and before he won the Nobel Peace
Prize for his role in keeping the changeover in South Africa so peaceful.
But he was a very peaceful and quiet little man, known to and beloved by
Rev. Tutu was being driven to
his lecture by Dean Almus Thorpe, Dean of the Divinity School. On the way,
Dean Thorpe stopped to pick up his mail. The Post Office was on the
main street, in the center of town, next to Middle Path. And as was
the local custom, Dean Thorpe left his car sitting in the middle of the
street while he went in to pick up his mail. This local custom had never
bothered anyone before, but apparently the presence of a Black man in town
was distressing to the constable (at least, the students believed).
Poor Rev. Desmond Tutu, who was completely innocent in the case, got a
stern lecture from the constable, and a ticket for blocking traffic.
Shortly after this, some enterprising
soul erected signs where one left the campus to enter the village. They
read "Achtung! Sie Verlassen jetzt den Americanischen Sektor" In German:
Attention: You are now leaving the American Sector. They were a reasonably
accurate copy of the signs in divided Berlin in those days, between the
American and Russian sectors. Dean Bruce Haywood of the College,
a German scholar by discipline, remarked to me on the quality of the signs
and said "If I knew who did it, I'd give him one of the Dean's discretionary
prizes for the work, for contributing an academic flavor to the dispute.
But I'm glad I don't know who it is, because if I did, and gave the prize,
[the constable] would probably sue."
And then came the
straw that broke the camel's back. One of the most popular faculty members
of the day was Professor Denham Sutcliffe, chairman of the English Department.
Like many faculty members then, he lived immediately adjoining the campus
and his children were well known to the students. He had an eleven-year-old
daughter, who was popular not only on her own but because she kept a horse
in the college barn and occasionally rode on campus. And one day
the constable flagged her down and gave her a traffic ticket -- for riding
her horse too fast. Now there is a real possibility, by hindsight,
that she was in fact violating a town ordinance of the 1890's, prohibiting
galloping a horse on Middle Path. But no one doubted her story that he
had been extremely vulgar with her, bawling her out in language that would
have been inappropriate for a constable to use (we thought) even
on a college student.
Shortly thereafter, a typed and
unsigned notice appeared on the bulletin board outside the main student
dining room. "The Student Body will assemble outside the Post Office at
2:00 PM Sunday, for the purpose of deposing the village constable".
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon
in early May, 1964. The perfect day for a hike in the country. Several
hundred students assembled in front of the post office, and a motion carried
to walk out to the country, to the farm of the constable, and to
sit in his front yard until he resigned. Accompanied by a fair number
of faculty and their families, who had come along to watch, we walked out
to the farm.
The constable reacted
as if he had an urban riot of the period on his hands. He called for reinforcements
from the State Police and from the Fire Department in Mount Vernon, eight
miles away. Three Highway Patrol cars and a pumper fire engine arrived.
Some students hoped they would turn on the fire hoses: it would seem more
like a demonstration, thought some, while others thought it would be fun
to play in the water. But the representatives of law and order found the
students sitting peacefully playing cards on the grass, or tossing Frisbees,
enjoying the pleasant spring weekend. And most of them relaxed, settled
in, and chatted with us, enjoying the nice weather themselves.
Then the head of the township council
turned up, very unhappy about the situation, and he was going to ruin everyone's
good temper if left to make speeches. So something had to be done.
A council of war was convened in one of the police cars: the student body
president, the editor of the student paper, the chairman of the town council,
a highway patrolman, and eventually the township attorney. After awhile
President Lund of the college was consulted, and then President Lund announced
to the students that a solution had been reached and we should all walk
back to the auditorium in Rosse Hall to hear the details.
President Lund explained at the auditorium, was a compromise he was sure
we would find acceptable. The Town council had apologized to the students
and the College for the behavior of the constable. They did not feel
that having him resign immediately was a good idea; it might he hard to
hire a new constable if it was too obvious that the old one had been fired
or resigned after a public demonstration (or, as the town council was inclined
to view it, a riot). They had however agreed to put an education
requirement on the job, a requirement that the present constable could
not meet. So, we were promised, he would be replaced by the time the students
returned in the coming Fall. In the meantime, they had agreed to
somewhat restrict the activities of the constable, "I'd better let this
part be told to you by the township attorney," President Lund said, "because
the phrasing is rather precise." The township attorney introduced
himself and said that the township council had met and given a formal instruction
to the constable, which he was now going to explain to us. They told
him he had been both too petty and too blunt in enforcing the laws. For
the remainder of his term, he was to give tickets only in cases where someone
was actually endangered, that is, where what the driver was doing was actually
unsafe. And in the course of giving the ticket, the attorney said, "and
now I'm going to read the exact words of the council's resolution on the
subject, and I want it clearly understood that these are their words, not
mine: In giving a ticket, it is O.K. to call a spade a spade, but you are
NOT to call it a God damned shovel."
President Lund complimented the
students on their fine behavior during our outing in the country, praised
them for having chosen such a beautiful day, and suggested that the entire
community should take a walk together in the country like this more often.
Edward Ordman ( C) 2001
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