C-U was one happening place 50 years ago

C-U was one happening place 50 years ago

There's no excitement around Champaign-Urbana these days like there was 50 years ago when the fastest-growing community in downstate Illinois (it still says so – in half-century-old paint – on the east-side roof of the old railroad freight house in downtown Champaign) was at the beginning of another decade of phenomenal growth.

Those were days of wild growth and change, or at least anticipated change. Today we're merely hoping for a change to better days.

Here's how things looked in Champaign-Urbana on Jan. 1, 1960. A new football coach – 33-year-old Pete Elliott, from Bloomington by way of the University of California no less – was preparing to take over the Illinois program. The long-awaited Assembly Hall – a basketball palace! – was under construction on the south side of town. The first long stretch of interstate highway in the area – Interstate 74 from Champaign to Danville – was about to open. The city of Champaign was to celebrate its centennial. Three new manufacturing plants – Kraft, HumKo and Magnavox – employed thousands of area residents. Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul was proclaimed by U.S. Rep. William Springer, R-Champaign, as one of the "three most important" bases in the United States. State leaders were promoting a $195 million bond issue, of which about $50 million was to go to the UI's Urbana campus.

And Jan. 1, 2010? Illinois football limps along with a coach with a five-year record of 21-39. There's talk of renovating the Assembly Hall but no money to do it. There's talk of renovating area interstate highways but no money to do it. The old HumKo plant in Champaign, down to about 60 employees, will close by April 1. Magnavox is long gone, as is Chanute. Illinois lawmakers passed a $31 billion capital improvement bill in 2009, but none of the bonds to support the construction have been sold.

At least the city of Champaign is still here, about to celebrate its 150th birthday.

Oh yeah, there's talk of furloughs and layoffs and deep budget cuts at the University of Illinois, the biggest employer in town.

Ugh. It's more fun to look back at those go-go days 50 years ago ...

"Almost overnight," News-Gazette staff writer Roger Ebert would report, "East Central Illinois had become one of the most energetic metropolitan centers in the midwest."

The 1960 Census would show that Champaign County's population was 132,436 – an increase of 23 percent in 10 years, making it the second-fastest growing county in Illinois. The University of Illinois' Urbana campus was the third-largest campus in the country (it's not even the third-largest in the Big Ten today). In October 1960, Gov. William Stratton opened a 30.6-mile stretch of Interstate 74 between Danville and Champaign-Urbana. And the cities of Champaign and Urbana finally built paved roads (along Neil Street and Lincoln Avenue) to I-74. Construction was about to begin on the first stretch of Interstate 57 near Champaign, and land acquisition was under way for a Champaign-Decatur freeway (eventually to become Interstate 72).

A new terminal opened at what was called the University of Illinois Airport. Ozark Airlines brought turboprop service to Champaign-Urbana. A nuclear reactor for research purposes opened on the UI campus. A vibrant young presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy, became the second politician to speak on the UI campus in 70 years (the Republican vice presidential contender, Henry Cabot Lodge, had been the first a month earlier). More than 10,000 people turned out for Kennedy's address on the UI Quad.

Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon appeared in the area three times in 1960 – in Sullivan, in Melvin and in Tuscola and Tolono – but never in Champaign-Urbana.

Champaign began an urban renewal project in a 10-block area of northeast Champaign. J.C. Penney started renovating the old Willis and Co. department store site on Main Street in downtown Champaign (now The News-Gazette). The Illinois Central Railroad, still a muscular presence locally, merged its Springfield and Champaign divisions and made Champaign the downstate headquarters. Ground was broken in Champaign for a Holiday Inn lodge, a Beatrice Foods plant, a Pepsi-Cola bottling plant and two bowling alleys. Strikes delayed the completion of Thomas Jefferson Junior High School and an outdoor swimming pool in Champaign.

Not all the news in 1960 was so positive. Ed Hoffman became the first Champaign firefighter to die in the line of duty. A veteran Champaign-Urbana Courier reporter, Dudley McAllister, was killed when his car collided with a Champaign firetruck. Former UI President Arthur Cutts Willard died. The old Illinois Glove Co., a local fixture for years, moved to Skokie.

But the biggest story of 1960 – and certainly the most bizarre, even 50 years later – was the UI's firing of a 44-year-old biology professor who, in a letter to the editor of the Daily Illini, endorsed premarital sex.

"With modern contraceptives and medical advice readily available at the nearest drugstore, or at least a family physician, there is no valid reason why sexual intercourse should not be condoned among those sufficiently mature to engage in it without social consequences and without violating their own codes of morality and ethics," Leo F. Koch wrote to the DI. "A mutually satisfactory sexual experience would eliminate the need for many hours of frustrating petting and lead to happier and longer lasting marriages among our young men and women."

Koch pleaded academic freedom, but UI President David Dodds Henry would have none of it. He called the letter "offensive and repugnant." The UI Senate voted to reprimand Koch but not to censure him. The UI Board of Trustees supported Henry.

"We do not condemn Assistant Professor Koch's actions in issue here merely because he expressed in his letter views contrary to commonly accepted beliefs and standards," the trustees wrote. "We condemn it because of the manner in which he expressed those views in his letter. We do not consider that letter as a 'responsible' and proper expression of the views stated in it."

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at kacich@news-gazette.com.

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