Cultural revolution grabbed city from all sides

On the scene
On the scene
Pianist Charles Allen, left, and singer Steve Black were part of the entertainment scene in the late '60s, when bars replaced coffeehouses as the centers of musical activity.
By CONNIE HAAS ZUBER of The News-Sentinel

Steve Black remembers the time he turned someone in to the police for selling pills at the Vibrato Coffeehouse, where he was hired in 1961 as a house musician.

"A guy was selling pills in the coffeehouse, and I turned him in to the cops because it was bad for the business,'' he said. "I didn't know anything about marijuana, and it was before the popularity of LSD.''

In the early '60s, Fort Wayne and its coffeehouses were on the folk music circuit, adding an artsy touch to a town where young people also attended TV show dances, went to Cold Springs Resort on Hamilton Lake and Bledsoe's Beach on Lake James for concerts, and participated in First Presbyterian Church's youth canteens.

That artsy touch was part of what opened the city to the rest of the '60s culture.

The institution

Two institutions of higher learning also played a key role: the Fort Wayne School of Fine Arts, now Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne's Fine Arts Department, and the Indiana University extension, now also part of IPFW.

"Fort Wayne is a lot hipper town because of the art school,'' said Gandalf Slick, who went off to college in 1964. "So many people went through the art school and didn't become artists but settled in the area and did other things.''

Slick remembers John Brennan, IPFW English professor, as the first really hip faculty member. Perhaps it was because he came here in 1967 from the University of California, even though he had been at the Davis campus, not the fabled, liberal Berkeley.

Brennan, for his part, found Fort Wayne students to be about the same as those he'd left.

"I suppose the students I encountered here were a little more conservative than the students in California, but there wasn't that much difference. They had the same popular culture,'' he said.

But the same powerful forces at work nationwide were pushing change on Fort Wayne: The Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which allowed President Lyndon B. Johnson to commit troops to the war in Vietnam, passed in Congress on Aug. 7, 1964. The bill that began the War on Poverty was passed just four days later, and the ongoing civil rights movement could not be ignored. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then Robert Kennedy were assassinated a few months apart in 1968.

Free your mind

Slick remembers how different life on campus in Bloomington, where he enrolled in 1968, was from his high school experience here.

"There were lots more blacks at school,'' he said. "That was the first time I was experiencing their culture a lot.

"A big thing, you know, was there was a lot of cool black people. It was really hard to learn their language. It took me a long time before I could hear black dialect very well. They weren't (seen as) full, normal students back then, but they were wild and interesting.''

Back home, mainstream life had taken a sobering turn as the Vietnam War intensified, as soldiers went off never to return, and the politics of the war raised more and more questions.

Serious doubts about the war were everywhere.

Talk about destruction

Black, who would have been drafted in 1964 if he hadn't enlisted and been assigned to Army intelligence, developed an anti-war attitude while on duty. "While I was in the Army, I realized what a great mistake the war in Vietnam was,'' he said. ". . . I certainly don't regret having been in the military. In some ways, I was serving a really stupid and wasteful cause, but that was one of those things where feelings ran high in both directions. The people who really understood the situation were the ones in it. Some were persuaded one way and some another. It's all a matter of personal philosophy.

"I certainly realized what a waste of humans and resources it was. A lot of career military realized it, too, but that was their job.''

Such realizations became action.

"We were the first generation that really challenged and questioned government,'' said William G. Williams, who left a job as a fund-raiser for United Way in 1965 to lead the local War on Poverty as the first director of the Allen County Office of Economic Opportunity. "That's been a hard one for government to swallow, particularly when you have a practically monolithic government system like here in Allen County. It's difficult to go against the grain, and at that time you had people from all over asking questions.''

A real solution

Williams left the OEO post in 1971, and it was later reorganized as Community Action of Northeast Indiana, which still operates here. He retired in early June as patient advocate at the State Developmental Center.

His crusading style was a good match to the challenge of leading the War on Poverty here.

"A lot of people then, especially business leaders, had a hard time believing there was any poverty here,'' he said. "I rented a PTC bus and took them to migrant camps they didn't even know existed and to Riverhaven. I showed them. They were flabbergasted.''

His agency got off to a strong start in 1965, qualifying for one of the first summer Head Start preschool programs and winning funding as one of the first 21 Foster Grandparent programs nationwide.

It's evolution

Black came home from military service in 1967 to a different city.

"When I got back, there weren't any coffeehouses, but hippie culture had definitely come into its own,'' he said. Head shops were open, and sounds of acoustic instruments playing folk music in the local coffeehouses had been replaced by electrified bands like the Beatles and Jefferson Airplane.

"There was a lot of wonderful music during that pre-Beatles era because it was when almost everyone played something,'' he said. "That was one of the contributions of the folk era – that so many people got instruments into their hands so you had a larger number of people who got good.''

It's gonna be all right

Meanwhile, some of the VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) workers had discovered the activities at St. Mary's Catholic Church and began working alongside the church members who established its soup kitchen and the Matthew 25 free health-care clinic.

VISTA volunteer John Perlman, now a first-grade teacher in Arlington, Va., remembers how the activists attended 10:30 a.m. Mass and sat in the back pews plotting projects. He and his cohorts called it the "Revolution Mass.''

Fort Wayne's high schools blossomed with socially conscious literary magazines such as Northrop's Upfront, then-journalism teacher James P. Sweeney said. At least two alternative papers achieved some circulation in the late '60s and lasted into the '70s: the artsy and politically conscious Where It's At and the Fort Wayne Free Press, which dealt with free speech and free assembly issues, said Michael Patterson, now a Frost Illustrated staffer but then part of the Free Press.

Frost grew out of the '60s, starting in 1968, its publisher, Ed Smith, said. It originally had three competitors also providing news coverage for and about the minority community, and it chose to market itself as the illustrated paper.

"We took a niche on photography,'' he said. "We had no reporters, so we had to take a lot of pictures and fill up the paper with pictures and cutlines.''

He is not the only alternative press veteran who believes the alternative papers pushed the city's mainstream newspapers to cover issues they might have devoted little or no energy to before.

"I think during that time they had an impact on the two major newspapers,'' said Dave Miller, now a U.S. attorney who ran a youth program for the Allen County OEO then. "And I can remember a meeting with various people at the (News-) Sentinel and (Journal Gazette) regarding trying to broaden the scope of the newspaper coverage, particularly to increase the coverage regarding minority issues and poverty issues as well as some political issues.''

Change the world

The young people whose view of the world had been changed by the circumstances in which they lived were changing the way things worked.

"There was lots of involvement of young people who had been greatly stirred by the civil disobedience that was vogue and by the message of Dr. King and the rising crescendo relative to Vietnam,'' Williams said.

The changes didn't end with the decade, of course. As Slick says, many of the things people now think of as the '60s actually happened in the early '70s.

And some of the decade's high points just weren't much of a motivation here; for example, Woodstock in August 1969.

"You're talking the summer of Woodstock,'' Slick said. "Everything was pretty laid back around here. I listened to it on the radio, all the people coming. I didn't go because my car wouldn't actually make it. I was aware it was happening and wanted to go, but not sufficiently enough to drop everything else.''

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