For the record: The Siskiyou chronicles 86 years of history both on and off campus

Did you know that the very first story published in the Siskiyou was about the “world-famous” Ukrainian National Chorus arriving to perform a concert in Ashland 86 years ago?

“This is a day of ultra-sophistication in the musical world as elsewhere,” the story declares. “[T]he songs of the Ukraine have grown from the soul, like the flowers and the trees.”

Buried in the Special Collections room and in the microfilms section of Southern Oregon University’s Hannon Library are old editions of the campus newspaper, going back all the way to its very first issue published on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 1926.

A look through this time capsule dispels the common assumption that the Siskiyou dates back only to the birth of the student power movement of the 1960s, an easy assumption to make since the Siskiyou office only contains bound copies of editions of the paper from the late 1970s through the late 1980s.

In addition, the “About the Siskiyou” page on the publication’s website states, “The print edition of The Siskiyou began over 40 years ago.”

Tom Pyle, former Siskiyou faculty adviser, sent an email last month alerting Siskiyou staff to the more impressive fact that the print editions go back to just over 86 years ago.

The Siskiyou’s first issue in November 1926 contained a dedicatory statement that reads:

“We, the members of the first staff to publish a newspaper at Southern Oregon Normal School, dedicate this paper to YOU, for it was thru the establishment of the Normal school that we were able to publish our paper. To YOU we give credit for its founding. We will strive toward those ideals of which you have dreamed for us. We ask your blessing in this our initial endeavor.”

The paper started as a bi-weekly publication which charged one dollar per year for subscription. It had an initial staff of ten, with Lawrence Mitchelmore as its first chief editor and Albie Beck as manager. The size of the Siskiyou staff has remained about the same from its founding to the present day.

The thousands of pages of Siskiyou material preserve the fullest record available of the life and times of the university, a history that showcases changing trends in how student journalists report and comment on the school’s activities.

“Without the student press, I don’t think the local newspapers or television stations would have any way of knowing what was actually happening on campus,” said Terrie Martin, an SOU journalism instructor and former feature writer and reporter for the Medford Mail Tribune. Martin started her journalism career as a reporter for the Siskiyou.

On Feb. 4, 1968, the American folk-rock band Grateful Dead performed a concert in the Britt Ballroom on campus, back when the SOU was called Southern Oregon College. The way some student reporters covered the event, in the Feb. 9, 1968 issue of the paper, shows evidence of different standards in comparison with how a similar event might be covered today.

In a column called “Dirty Linen,” authors W.E. Bennett and M.A. Surbeck wrote, “The concert was pulled off with the ease of a ‘Bay of Pigs Invasion.’ No one really knew what was happening. Other than damaged eardrums there were few problems. Perhaps the Administration, by using this concert as an example, will allow other supposedly ‘disruptive’ entertainers to adorn SOC’s weekend billings.”

At least one student reporter was unimpressed and even annoyed at the “disruptive” choice of weekend entertainment on campus. The front page story in the Feb. 16, 1968 issue announced a scheduled campus concert featuring the rhythm-and-blues soul band Fifth Dimension, which performed on campus on Feb. 19. Its author, Tom Carnes, enthusiastically endorses and praises Fifth Dimension but takes a very dim view of the Dead:

“The ‘Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service’ show was poorly attended by SOC students because of many reasons. The primary one was the price of admission. Few students could afford to pay three dollars to watch a bunch of has-been hippies.”

In the same Feb. 1968 issue for which Carnes wrote this front-page story, student reporter Michele LaBounty attempted a balanced commentary in her article “Mixed Emotions on ‘Dead'”:

“There were mixed comments about the quality of the performance and then there were some students who formed opinions without even seeing the show. All was not lost, though, some of the audience (about one-eighth) made contact with the vibrations and thoroughly enjoyed the music and the light show.”

“Then of course there was the strobe light. If anyone bothered to glance over in the corner they witnessed quite a sight. Those dancing seemed to be in a completely different world and loved every minute of it.”

LaBounty concludes by writing, “Not everyone has the same opinion, but I think this campus needs more variety and controversy.”

Back in the less-progressive 1940s, there was less “variety” on campus to report but plenty of controversy, as world events related to World War II affected small schools and colleges, including the Southern Oregon College of Education, as SOU was then known.

Some of these developments were positive. Several articles discussed school programs to benefit war veterans. Others necessitated inconvenient reorganizations of certain programs.

For example, an unattributed article with the headline “Physical Ed at SOCE Required for Duration,” printed on the front page of the May 14, 1942 issue, reported on the college’s participation in the United States Navy V-1 program and in the U.S. Army Air Corp’s enlisted reserve program. This participation by the institution required “getting every male student of the college physically fit and keeping them in tip-top condition for the duration.”

In addition to making physical education a required course for every male student enrolled at SOCE, the college’s participation required reorganization of the PE program, involving “a new emphasis on physical training and conditioning and the amount of time spent in such physical activity will be increased by 66 2/3%.”

Other stories depict unfortunate conditions at the school that would then and now make public relations and marketing officials for the school uneasy. In the Feb. 3, 1948 issue, Assistant Exchange Editor Dixie McCulloch writes, “A clean and well-kept campus reflects the spirit and pride of the college, but the present situation is deplorable.”

“The campus grounds are covered with bottles, paper, and debris of many types,” McCulloch continues. “Classrooms are strewn with pencil stubs, and the halls are a disarray of cigarette butts and gum wrappers. . . . Any student bringing a guest to the campus would feel ashamed to show him Southern Oregon college. This condition should be changed!”

Digging into old editions of the paper is also a good way to get a glimpse of what the city of Ashland was like in the past. Student feature writer Allen Reed tells a humorous story in an article titled “That’s Ashland” in the Feb. 3, 1948 issue. Apparently, a backfiring stove created more confusion and excitement in the town than would be expected for such an innocuous event.

Reed writes, “Your SISKIYOU reporter, hot for a story, crammed his car into second gear and burned out after it [the story] . . . We located the scene of the excitement down a side street, skidded around the corner and pulled up at the end of the line of parked cars. A crowd of onlookers had already gathered but we pushed through them shouting, ‘Make way for the press! Make way for the press.’ It is probable that the people thought it was someone from the Tidings and were so astonished at them being there that they hastily moved aside.”

Reed’s story ends with his report of a man coming out of the house and informing the crowd of the stove’s malfunction. “As the crowd started to disperse someone said, ‘Well, that’s Ashland.’”

The Siskiyou also occasionally contains some commentary on nationally historic moments, such as the assassination of then-President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Siskiyou news editor Hugh Engstrom wrote a piece about JFK’s assassination, titled “Thanksgiving” in the Dec. 6, 1963 issue. “The poor, demented soul who was moved to commit this act, is a product of our present generation,” Engstrom wrote. He continued with:

“The present situation is extremely dangerous. It is like a small boy waiting until the last minute to throw away a firecracker before it explodes. Small boys have lost their fingers. Are we going to wait so long that we will jeopardize our personal liberties? Can we not snuff out the fuse before it explodes in our face? The radical elements of the extreme right and left are silent at present. Indeed they could not be otherwise. This does not mean however that after a respectful lapse of time they will remain so. Now is the time for a conscious America to move into action. There are no laws, as there should not be any, to prevent these people from declaiming their monstrous lies and stories about our government and its officials. The weight of public scorn and ostricization [sic] is a much more powerful and effective weapon . . . The time has come for a conscious America to apply the cudgels of public opinion and right against these advocates of hate and violence.”

In the same issue, the Siskiyou’s then-Editor-in-Chief Margie Good commented on the way television networks handled Kennedy’s funeral. NBC had stated there would be no commercial announcements until the funeral ended, a move that was echoed by most other television and radio channels.

Good noted that this served well as a counter-argument against a famous statement made in 1961 by Newton Minow, then-chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to the effect that television was a “vast wasteland.”

“The coverage of every aspect of the weekend was tremendous,” Good wrote. “However, it seems somewhat ironical that on Tuesday morning we all went back to watching Captain Kangaroo and Romper Room again. But in a sense it was only illustrating a fact that was continually repeated, life must go on.”

Siskiyou reporting on campus life in the 1960s as a whole reflects the nationwide counterculture movement with which students at colleges and universities all over the country made history.

The tensions between “hippies” and the older generation to which most of the administration belonged are highlighted in much of the stories, commentary, letters-to-the-editor and columns of the Siskiyou throughout the 1960s. To the younger generation of students, dreams, visions and idealistic epiphanies were just as worthy of being published in the Siskiyou as any hard news story.

For example, W.E. Bennett and M.A. Surbeck wrote a regular column entitled “Dirty Linen,” which featured random thoughts, pithy proverbs and wisecracks relating to the goings-on around campus and in the college’s administration. In the Feb. 9, 1968 issue, Bennett writes:

“I was blessed with a dream last night: A long-haired, smug-faced hippie was standing beside a stone-faced SOC administrator. The hippie was holding a large hypodermic needle labeled “unum psychedelic experiencia.” The hippie’s only words were, “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Snapshots of what on the surface are monotonous and mundane campus events were treated by some student writers and reporters in a humorous way that likely served to make student life more interesting through the use of new perspectives. Another regular column which appeared in the early 1960s issues of the paper, entitled “Quincy’s Quips,” is representative of this outgoing approach:

“Talk about controlling the news, our Siskiyou editor won’t let us mention Rita Triep’s stretch pants (Fri., Nov. 22, 1963)”

“Man’s best friend is his dog but it gets a little ridiculous when they must be together twenty-four hours a day. There has [sic] been at least six of these canine companions on campus during the past two weeks. Must belong to freshmen who can’t get used to being away from home (Fri., Dec. 6, 1963).”

“The latest stretch pants come in an aerosol can. Just spray them on (Fri., Jan. 10, 1964)”

“Saw the ‘new’ library. It’s about time that some one realized students are not as honest as they would like them to be. The number of disappearing books should go down but it is easy to see that the incidence of page removing will be on the increase (Fri., Jan. 10, 1964)”

Terrie Martin said that the importance and value of a student press lies in the way it can provide students with information that enables them to be responsible citizens on campus, information not usually covered or focused on in news publication outside the university or college.

For journalism majors, a student press provides a much-needed and indispensable training ground for future reporting positions in the “real” world. This makes a student news publication almost as valuable, if not more so, than the internships journalism students are required to participate in for their degrees.

“As more and more newspapers reduce staff, that means that means there are fewer stories reported and often ‘news’ gets overlooked,” said Martin. “An active student press plays the role of watchdog on campus – keeping an eye on the administration as well as student and faculty government. They also bring good news from the campus to the attention of both the public and other media.”

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