As 2002 came to a close, I was getting ready to go on Christmas break and start a new year at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. The hot issue of the day was the impending war with Iraq. Everyone knew it was coming, but no one knew when. UN weapons inspectors had been combing Iraq for several weeks, with no results. That December, a group of protestors would meet at Old Main on Lincoln Avenue to lend their voices to peace.
Having followed events in Iraq for quite some time, I was skeptical of the threat it posed or the utility of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Despite Bush Administration horror stories about weapons of mass destruction, I always suspected something worse might replace Saddam, and that starting another war in the Middle East wouldn’t help stamp out Islamic extremism. In 2002, however, the antiwar crowd seemed to be in the minority. A January 2003 CBS poll found 64% of Americans approved of military action against Iraq after all diplomatic options had been exhausted.
On the sixty-first anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 2002, a number of small campus groups, including the Green Party, junior art major Ryan McClure, and Newman Center director Roy Lanham, organized an antiwar protest to coincide with similar marches around the country. I showed up with my video camera to document the event and interview the participants.
When I returned to Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois for the fall 2002 semester, the potential invasion of Iraq was heating up. The looming war dominated news coverage, and we all believed this could be our generation’s Vietnam. Protests were held across the country, as well as on the campus of our small Midwestern university.
The 2002 midterm elections presented me with my first real opportunity to participate in politics. I was 20 years old and had never voted before. As a member of the campus Green Party, I had a front row seat for Carl Estabrook’s campaign for 15th Congressional District. I’d always considered myself more libertarian, but I was young and eager to get involved, and most of my close friends were on the left.
It was an uphill battle. Illinois’ 15th Congressional District consisted of east central Illinois, including Champaign-Urbana, Danville, Mattoon, and Charleston, and a narrow strip running south along the border with Indiana (the 15th has since been redistricted). Aside from the liberal outpost of Champaign-Urbana (home to the University of Illinois), this was deeply Republican territory. The incumbent, Timothy V. Johnson, won in 2000 with 53.2% of the vote (he would be re-elected five times).
During the 2000 presidential election, student groups around the country cropped up to support Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, a consumer and environmental activist. Nader ended up receiving 2.88 million votes, or just 2.74 percent of the popular vote. Never-the-less, many Democrats considered Nader a spoiler who cost Democratic candidate Al Gore the election. In retrospect, his impact on that race was probably overstated.
When I entered Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois in the fall of 2000, the Bush vs. Gore campaign was in full swing. I was idealistic, ready for change, and thought I knew everything. In other words, a typical college freshman. In late October, a friend convinced me to attend a meeting of the campus Green Party. Though I was more libertarian-leaning, curiosity and a desire to “get involved” led me to the former English lounge on the second floor of Coleman Hall (meetings were later moved to the Student Union).
Joining the Green Party at EIU turned out to be a fruitful decision, as I made several lasting friends and gained valuable experience. My first post-election political act was to write a five-page letter detailing what I believed to be the problems facing the country to newly elected President George W. Bush. I received a generic letter and a photo of him and Laura in reply.
Welcome to the fourth installment of my series reminiscing about my time at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. I attended EIU from 2000 to 2008, eventually earning a Master’s in History. Both the college and the town have changed a lot since then. I wasn’t much for the bar scene in Charleston, but these local watering holes are a staple of college life.
Panther Paw Bar & Grill, at 1412 4th Street, is one of the closer bars to campus. It’s a short walk up 4th Street from Pemberton Hall, across Lincoln Avenue. It was originally owned by Don and Louise Yost and John Budslick and known as Stix, built during the summer of 1990 over a former residential site. Yost and Budlick had previously operated a billiard hall in Carbondale, Illinois by the same name, and thought it would be successful in Charleston.
Stix opened in early September 1990 and was originally a full restaurant and billiard hall, employing up to 60 people as waitresses, cooks, bartenders, disc jockeys, and doormen. It featured 15 Top Flyte pool tables and served breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Ten years later, when I first stepped onto campus as a freshman, local tastes had changed. That summer, Stix rebranded itself as a dance club. They built a stage, refinished the floor with wood, and tore down several walls to open up a dance floor. Patrons ordered food through a window, rather than from a waitress.
On Wednesday, April 28, 2004 at a little after 3pm, the temperature was 72 degrees and rising, the sky was fair, and wind gusted south-southwest up to 32 mph. Humidity was low. By all accounts, it was a beautiful spring day, and Eastern Illinois University’s Spring Semester was quickly coming to a close. Students crammed for final exams, which would begin the following Monday.
I don’t remember what I was doing on campus (probably hanging out in the food court), but as I walked toward the north quad, I noticed a crowd gathering. At 3:14 pm, someone had called 911 from inside Blair Hall, an ivy-covered Gothic Revival building directly southeast of Old Main. Smoke billowed from the third floor windows.
Blair Hall is the third oldest building on campus. It was constructed in 1913 and originally called the Model School, then renamed after football coach Francis G. Blair in 1958. It completed the triad of buildings that made up the old campus, including Old Main and the fabled Pemberton Hall. Blair Hall was home to the anthropology and sociology departments, so I only ever took a handful of elective classes there.
Welcome to the second part in a series reminiscing about my time at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. I spent eight years there, from 2000 to 2008, graduating with a Master’s in History. I got accepted to EIU out of high school and moved into a room on the 7th floor of Ruth Carman Hall on August 17, 2000. Although I love EIU and my college years, living in Carman Hall is not something I’d want to repeat. It’s a blessing the building has been closed for several years.
When I first came to EIU, freshman couldn’t park on campus and had to live in a dorm. Carman Hall, at the southeast end of campus, was considered the “freshman dorm.” It was built in 1971 to accommodate the glut of Baby Boomers entering college.
It looked like a Soviet tenement, with twin featureless beige towers, segregated for male and female, connected by a corridor with a shared dining hall. There was a computer lab and laundry room in the basement. Males had to be escorted to the female wing, and every floor had a resident assistant to look after things and make sure everyone was following the rules. That worked much better on the female side than on the male.
Our tower was disgusting. The vomit-encrusted elevator was rarely functional, trash littered the hallways, wires were pulled down from the ceiling, and fire extinguishers went missing. Someone even stole the drinking fountain on our floor! It got so bad the spring semester of my freshman year the college newspaper, Daily Eastern News, ran an article about the vandalism.
This is the first in a new series reminiscing about my college years at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. I spent eight years there, from 2000 to 2008, graduating with a Master’s in History. Both my dad and my great-uncle John Kleen graduated from EIU, so you could say it was a family tradition.
When I attended, there were around 11,000 students at any given time. Attendance has since fallen to 7,500 (a 7.1% increase from the previous year). Carman Hall, where I lived my freshman year, was closed due to budget cuts and falling enrollment. This has been devastating to the local community, which was already struggling when I was there. On return trips to Charleston, I’m saddened to see all the abandoned buildings and empty storefronts.
So this series is meant to not only share some of my own history, but preserve these memories of a rapidly vanishing past. Hopefully there are readers out there who have their own memories of these places and events. Feel free to leave a comment with your own stories. Why start with Friends & Co.? It seems as good a place as any.
Friends & Co. used to be located at 509 Van Buren Avenue, a few blocks south of the Charleston town square. It was attached to a music venue called The Cellar. It opened in the early 1980s (I think), and the owner was a schoolteacher named David Gherardini. My impression was Friends & Co. attracted an intellectual crowd. It was a bar for English and Philosophy majors, and this review on Yelp from Sean R. confirms my impressions: