Where were you 40 years ago, when America got its first glimpse of a woman sitting on the Supreme Court, a shuttle blasting off to space and a cable channel that played nothing but music videos all day and night?
In a new anniversary-themed Big 10 miniseries, we rounded up a panel of special guests to narrate this look back at 1981.
444 days after being taken hostage, 52 Americans — including Homer High graduate and U.S. Marine Paul Lewis — are released on Jan. 20.
Says PAUL LEWIS, now a financial advisor who calls Sidney home: “I remember the flight home as if it were yesterday, but is something I seldom discuss, even with friends that were there.
“As we entered the plane, it was very business-like. We were all very aware that we were still in Tehran and not entirely safe yet, though there was a small contingent of Algerian commandos on board to assure we were under Algerian protection on the plane.
“The charge d’affairs, Mr. Laingen, had a list of who was to be on our plane. We settled into seats so he and a couple other diplomats could get an accurate head count before we left.
“After some time, they seemed to be satisfied all were aboard and the engines began to whine and we could feel the wheels lock into place. The mood remained subdued as we flew over Iranian airspace, though the flight crew did their best to create a lighter atmosphere with champagne.
“We were mostly wandering around the aisles looking for people we were close to and making small talk. We were very much aware that it would not take much for an Iranian fighter plane to drop us from the sky and the Iran-Iraq war continued, so we were not in a safe airspace.
“At some point, the pilot came on the intercom and told us we had just entered Turkish airspace and were now being escorted by two U.S. Air Force F-4 fighter planes. At that point, the celebration began.
“We took turns filing into the cockpit in small groups to see the planes and wave to the pilots, and drink our champagne that now seemed appropriate.
“I still struggle to sort out the first few days after landing in Wiesbaden, going to West Point to meet our families, then on to Chrystal City for a few days. My sense of time was out of kilter and I did not want to sleep as it seemed like such a waste of time.
“When I enlisted in the Marines in February of 1976, we were a nation in recession and the hangover of the Vietnam War was still prevalent in our society. I was overwhelmed by the warm welcome home by my fellow Americans.
“The first indication of this was on the drive of in excess of 20 or so miles from Stewart Air Force Base to West Point. The entire route was full of cheering people. As I began to talk to people after our return, there was a stronger sense of unity in the land that was absent when I left.
“My reflex answer for years was that I am the same person that left in 1976, but that is not true. The time in the Marines — and particularly the time in Iran — did have profound changes in who I am, and I think I am a much stronger person, as I was determined to come home with my dignity intact and get on with my life.
“I refuse to be a victim of circumstances beyond my control, and reject that I am a survivor. I simply dealt with the challenges I faced, and gained a degree of strength that has helped me move forward in the rest of my life.”
Two months after inauguration day, deranged drifter John Hinckley fires six shots outside the Washington Hilton. One strikes his intended target, President Ronald Reagan, in the left lung. Two others hit University of Illinois graduates — Press Secretary James Brady, who’s left with brain damage and is permanently disabled, and Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy.
Says 1972 UI alum TIM McCARTHY, the recently retired Orland Park police chief: “I was raised in a police family — my father worked for Chicago PD — so the thought of being injured was something that had crossed my mind. But never did I think it would happen while I was protecting the President of the United States.
“In the Secret Service, you train constantly for that actual event, but never think it will happen to you. When it does, you also hope that you will do what you are trained to do at that critical moment.
“And thank God afterwards that you survived.”
Meanwhile, some 150 miles away in Philadelphia, two college basketball coaching icons — North Carolina’s Dean Smith and Indiana’s Bob Knight — huddle with NCAA officials about whether to play that night’s national championship game.
Says Hoosiers Hall of Famer and 1983 Big Ten Player of the Year RANDY WITTMAN: “Obviously, being in the hotel room the day of the game and seeing the President get shot on national TV was a surreal experience and one you will never forget.
“I think the best thing Coach Knight did was keeping our preparation leading up to the game exactly the same as any other game day. We had our pregame meal, and our departure for the arena the same as if nothing happened.
"You knew things were going on with different administrators from the NCAA continuing to come in to talk to Coach, but we as a team really never had a thought we might not play. And so, as they say, the rest is history and we go out and win the championship.
“Not till after the game were we made aware that they were waiting for the President to get out of surgery and he was cleared of possibly dying to go ahead and play the game.”
‘The most trusted man in America’ signs off one last time on the ‘CBS Evening News.’
PBS NewsHour anchor JUDY WOODRUFF says: “My first, most vivid memory of Walter Cronkite came in November 1963, when as a high school student, I sat for hours on the living room floor of our small home in Augusta, Georgia, in front of a big, clunky TV set.
"President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated a couple of days before, the country was in shock, and all of us were struggling to understand what had happened and why. Cronkite’s deep, soothing and authoritative voice helped carry me, and I’m sure millions of others, through those dark and frightening days.
“For me, he was most trusted because it felt as if he was telling the truth, sticking to the facts, and he came across like a beloved uncle or grandfather. This was a time when our news sources were limited, there were only three broadcast television networks, no cable, satellite or digital.
"An average of 16 million Americans watched the ‘CBS Evening News’ every night in 1980, the year before Cronkite retired from anchoring, an era when three-fourths of everyone watching TV at the dinner hour were tuned in to an evening newscast.
"On those occasions when he did express his opinion, as he did on the war in Vietnam after returning from a trip there in 1968, he carefully explained why he was speaking up and why he reached the conclusions he had.”
President Reagan’s choice to succeed Potter Stewart — Arizona judge Sandra Day O’Connor — is confirmed, becoming the first woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Says the Hon. RITA GARMAN, who’d go on to make her own history closer to home: “I was living in Danville and serving as an Associate Circuit Judge for the Fifth Judicial Circuit — the only woman judge in the Fifth Circuit.
"When I became a judge in 1974, there were no women on the circuit bench in our circuit and only eight women judges statewide—none on the Appellate Court in any district and none on the Illinois Supreme Court. At the time, it was sort of an anomaly to see a woman judge.
“Thus, when Sandra Day O’Connor was nominated and confirmed for our nation’s highest court, it was a time for rejoicing. Gradually, over the past 40 years, women have made terrific strides in making our profession more open and diverse.
“Justice O’Connor was a distinguished jurist and a broke many barriers. Today, three members of the Illinois Supreme Court are women and there are a considerable number of women judges at all levels of our court system.”
1979 brought the launch of ESPN. In 1980, CNN hit the air. And just after midnight on Aug. 1, 1981, the Buggles’ ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ marked the arrival of MTV.
We asked a dozen singers and leaders of bands in as-seen-on-MTV-in-the-'80s videos: Which video by another artist were you wowed by? (Click on the song title to watch the video).
Says Urbana-born IVAN DOROSCHUK, of Men Without Hats and 'The Safety Dance' fame: ”Definitely Michael Jackson's ‘Thriller.’ It really made me feel like we were on the verge of something new.”
Says EDDY GRANT, of ‘Electric Avenue’ fame: “‘Electric Avenue’ and ‘Billie Jean’ cleared the pathway for so many great songs to be seen on MTV that they should not be included. In the absence of those two, the song that immediately comes to mind is ‘Sweet Dreams’ by the Eurythmics.”
Says THOMAS DOLBY, of ‘She Blinded Me with Science’ fame: “David Bowie's 'Ashes to Ashes' was ‘The Wizard of Oz’ for the MTV era.”
Says TONI BASIL, of ‘Hey Mickey’ fame: "Devo’s ‘Satisfaction’ because it was so innovative nothing like it ever before. You could tell that they were the complete package — the music and the video was all theirs and no record company had interfered with their creativity. Iggy Pop and I went to see Devo in Hollywood at the club Starwood in 1977 so we knew what was coming.”
Says ASTRID PLANE, of Animotion and ‘Obsession' fame: “I loved ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun,’ by Cyndi Lauper. Playful, colorful and exuberant — to me, it depicted the fun of ’80s fashion and music so well."
Says NICK VAN EEDE, of The Cutting Crew and '(I Just) Died in Your Arms' fame: "Two standout videos would be the quirky, unique stop-motion of 'Sledgehammer' by the brilliant Peter Gabriel; and for pure audacity, fun and rock ‘n’ roll purity, U2 on the rooftops with 'Where the Streets Have No Name.'"
Says CAROL DECKER, of T'Pau and 'Heart and Soul' fame: “Don Henley’s ‘The Boys of Summer.’ Filmed in black and white, there is a back projection of a young carefree couple running like a haunting memory on a beach behind the other lonely isolated characters. It's a very evocative song. We all have a ’one that got away.’”
Says HOLLY JOHNSON, of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and 'Relax' fame: “MJ took the prize with his song and dance act that blew us all away in ‘Thriller.’”
Says VALERIE DAY, of Nu Shooz and ‘I Can’t Wait' fame: “Not only was ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ the first video played on MTV, it was the announcement that the music world was changing forever.”
Says DAVID FENTON, of The Vapors and ‘Turning Japanese' fame: “Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer.’ Never seen anything like it before.”
Says JAY KING, of Club Nouveau and 'Lean on Me' fame: “DeBarge’s ‘I Like It.’ The song was catchy, the sound was unique and their initial release created excitement like the early Jacksons.”
Says ALDO NOVA, of ‘Fantasy’ fame: "The answer would be the video would be the first one MTV ever played and that's 'Video Killed the Radio Star' by The Buggies. It's a great song and video."
Major League Baseball strikes out with fans when 713 games are canceled during a 50-day work stoppage over free-agent compensation.
Says Hall of Famer MIKE SCHMIDT, that year’s National League MVP: “I remember the 1981 strike-shortened season for several reasons. First, it was the best Phillies team of my career and we didn’t get to the postseason, being defeated by the Expos in a best-of-three playoff.
“Players had to stay ready to return and at the same time find use of the free time. Personally, I went to work for the local CBS affiliate as a sports anchor, where I wrote my own copy and assembled my own videos for the sports extra segment on Sunday nights. Tug McGraw and I played catch and to keep our arms ready at a local playground.
“When the season resumed, I hit a home run to win the All Star Game, and eventually won my second MVP. Most importantly, I got to experience normal summer life with my wife and two young children, something I hadn’t done in a long while."
A new era of NASA is ushered in when Space Shuttle Columbia sets off on mission STS-1 with two astronauts aboard and returns safely to Edwards Air Force Base two days later.
Says Danville native, UI grad and retired NASA astronaut JOE TANNER, who'd be selected for the first of four shuttle missions 13 years later: “I was in between my Navy pilot active duty period and my career at NASA.
"Martha and I were in our first year of marriage. We decided we would live somewhere completely different than where we met in Florida. We landed in Summit County, Colorado, where she got a job in a legal office in Frisco and I went to work for Copper Mountain Ski Resort. I started the winter of 1980 as a snow maker. It was a great job but probably not one normally seen on an astronaut's resume.
“A first level management position opened shortly into the ski season so I applied for it. The title was 'Supervisor of Base Operations,' a very military-sounding title so I figured it was a good fit for me. They gave me a small cubicle office in which I hung a large cut-away poster of the space shuttle that showed all the various sub-systems.
"I guess I became the resident expert on the shuttle. Other employees would come by my office to look at the poster and hear my feeble attempts at explaining how the shuttle would operate. Yes, I was what one would call a space nut.
"One of my former Navy squadron mates was a pilot in the first class of shuttle astronauts so I felt I had a special connection. I definitely wanted to be him but could only dream that it would actually happen one day. I had applied for the second class of shuttle astronauts hired in 1980 but didn’t even come close to being interviewed.
“We all watched with great anticipation as the April 12, 1981 launch date approached. Everyone congratulated me after the very successful mission as if I had something to do with it. My resolve to become a part of the space program in any capacity got even stronger from my very small experience as an emissary for the first launch.
"I have maintained friendships with many of the Copper Mountain employees during our first year in Colorado. I went back to the resort after two of my missions to give a presentation to the employees. I was able to talk about how the shuttle operated with a little more authority.”
Says UI grad SCOTT ‘SCOOTER’ ALTMAN, who 17 years later would go on the first of four shuttle missions: “In 1981, I started my final semester at the University of Illinois, studying aeronautical and astronautical engineering.
"I had already completed a summer session of Aviation Officer Candidate School and had returned to Illinois for my senior year to be followed that summer by another 10 weeks of AOCS before being commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy and then heading off to flight training.
“I was thrilled to see the launch go, although, as I was not often awake at 0600 on a Sunday, it took some extra effort and planning to be up. I also have to admit I never envisioned myself finding my way to NASA.
"In fact, while I was going through flight training in Kingsville, Texas, I drove up to Houston to see Dave Thornton, a fellow U of I grad and high school friend who was working for IBM supporting shuttle missions, which were becoming more routine in 1983.
“He asked me if I ever wanted to be an astronaut. I replied: ‘At $10,000 a pound to low earth orbit, why would they want to ever fly me, a 220-pound, 6-foot-4 tall man?’ Fortunately, by the time I finished test pilot school and applied, I knew enough not to ask that question.”
It’s the year of the must-see wedding: Luke and Laura on ‘General Hospital in November (still the highest-rated hour in U.S. soap opera history), Princess Di and Prince Charles in July, seen by an estimated 750 million people worldwide.
Says ‘Royal Fever’ author and Gies College of Business Professor CELE OTNES: “Prince Charles was in his 30s when he got married, and the saga of his finding a bride had become huge fodder for pop-culture magazines and royal watchers. People had followed his love life for quite a while; the pressure on him to marry and produce heirs was certainly growing.
“Princess Diana was, in many people's eyes, the perfect princess-to-be. An 'English rose’ in appearance and demeanor, and also from a titled family with no more scandals than most of them, and positioned as possessing the looks, breeding, youthfulness that would improve the Royal bloodline — which had seen a lot of marrying of cousins to cousins, including Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. More generally, royals tended to marry royals, and this wasn't the case here.
“So in that regard, it was much more of a Cinderella tale than had been the case previously — a ‘commoner’ marrying a Prince.”
Says former Soap Opera Digest editor-in-chief LYNN LEAHEY: “Soap operas had had many super couples before — Doug and Julie on 'Days of Our Lives,' Mac and Rachel on 'Another World' — but Luke and Laura had an edginess and freshness that was unexpected and exciting.
"Credit Gloria Monty, who was under the gun to turn the show’s ratings around quickly, with recognizing the sex appeal of an offbeat — and wildly talented — actor, Tony Geary, as well as anticipating and fostering the chemistry he’d have with ingenue Genie Francis. To have the audience rooting for a shady criminal to win the girl he’d raped — as horrifying as that sounds today — was a master stroke, ratings-wise.
“To have another Luke and Laura on daytime would mean another Tony Geary, and he was one of kind as Luke - not classically handsome, but charismatic and dangerous, damaged but with heart.
"There have been so many wonderful actors on daytime, but I think the closest to have the appeal of Geary's Luke is Roger Howarth. But while he had successful pairings on daytime, it never reached 'Luke and Laura' level.”