Better late than never

by John Stiles

Better late than never. Well, at least that's the way the old saying has it anyway. And ya' know, the old sages who struck on that little bit of philosophical witticism just might have had something after all. When I was in college I was a very different person than the one who comes before you occasionally with these attempts at humor. In fact, when I say that that portion of my experience now seems like an entirely different lifetime, I'm being both literal and metaphorical.

Now, I know a lot of people say that sort of thing. But in my case it's really quite true. I was enrolled at Western Illinois University from 1967 to 1971, which was, for those of you not lucky enough to have been a party to that particular time in our nation's history, like most of America's institutions of higher learning at the time, one hell'uva ride. It was a time of anti-war and civil rights marches, when the smell of burning draft cards, overturned automobiles and more than just a few buildings filled the air. But, like just about every other pop craze to come down the pike, those tumultuous times came a couple of years late to the campus of WIU down in Macomb.

Now me, I was a 21-year-old freshman, six months out of the Army and just over 15 months out of Vietnam going to school on the G.I. Bill. I was anything but your raggedy-looking campus radical. In fact I was the antithesis of the movement. President of the WIU Veterans' Club and member of the Student Government Senate, Mrs. Stiles' oldest son was what was referred to at the time as a ''Hawk,'' (someone who was a supporter of the Vietnam War). In fact it would be more correct to describe me as a ''reactionary Hawk.''

During my tenure at Western it seems the radical faction, vocal in its opposition to everything from anything in the way of authority to the war in Southeast Asia, ended up taking control of the WIU student newspaper ''The Courier.'' So, unlike most of the rest of the campuses in this country at the time, it was the conservative, straight laced and quite honestly the Republican students who were forced to start an off-campus newspaper. I, not having the slightest idea of just what such an undertaking entailed, joined in. Hell, I couldn't even type at the time.

That's actually where I started writing columns -- Letters From the Straight World in Exile, as I recall. I used to have to print the things by hand on a large yellow legal pad and then stand over the typist to interpret as she transferred them to print. A word of explanation here, the word ''straight'' had a much different connotation in that era. It was a journalistic battle of gigantic proportions between ''The Courier'' and our publication ''The Catalyst.''

And, like most of the rest of the things that's happened in my life since, I found that I was along for the ride. I had no idea at the time just what I wanted to do with my education, such as it was. I once thought seriously about using my political science degree to get into law school, but wound up telling my wife as I approached graduation that I wasn't smart enough to be a lawyer and we had a child at the time which added quite a few other considerations. So I ended up drifting into newspapers, being offered a general assignment reporter's job with the Macomb Daily Journal where myself and the rest of the Catalyst staff put our paper together in the early days. But I can honestly say that I learned a great deal about journalism and especially the power of the printed word during those couple of years in that monumental battle for the hearts and minds of students on the WIU campus. And I can add that I learned as much from my adversaries as I did from my cohorts during that war.

Anyway, getting back to my original point, it was during that struggle of ideas that I and others tried to organize a campus referendum to withdraw student fees from the support of the Courier. The concept was to allow each individual student to choose whether or not his portion of student fees went to the on-campus publication. Well, as it turned out the movement collapsed. I can tell you that within a very few short years of my leaving Western the two papers combined and now only the Courier survives. The reason I know this is I was asked by the current Courier administration and by WIU to come back and give a bit of a history lesson as it were. I was talking to my ex-wife shortly after receiving the invitation to speak, and she was almost as confused as I about the turn of events. ''You sure they've got the right person?'' she asked in her usual serious tone. And, as it so happens I was even paid for the effort. The way I figure it, my honorarium will more than cover the amount in student fees I paid for the support of the Courier way back when. And, to think, it only took 32 years.

Uploaded to The Zephyr website February 1, 2003

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