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Your alumni memories from 1984’s beer riot

In the August issue of Illinois State’s alumni magazine, we published an oral history of what’s known as the “beer riot.” Thirty years after the infamous protest, we interviewed many of the student leaders, town officials, and university staff members who were there. How did it happen, and what’s happened in the decades since to so dramatically improve town-gown relations in Normal?

We also asked for our alumni readers to submit their own memories from the 1984 episode. Here are some of our favorite submissions. And if you haven’t done it yet, go read the original story.

“I remember being at Milner Library and looking down on College Avenue and seeing a large group of people marching toward Route 51 with a keg of beer. Walking back to my apartment, which was close to City Hall and Downtown Normal, I heard the crowd chanting. I woke up the next morning to the news that the crowd had trashed the downtown area. One kid made it into Time magazine showing him tearing down a stop sign. He was supposed have gone to Salzburg the next semester with our group and that was taken away from him.” — Christopher Zurowski ’86

Police officer kicks student

One of the most famous photos of the beer riot. (Photo courtesy of the McLean County Museum of History)

“So that night I’m looking out my 15th floor Manchester Hall window and see this throng marching down College Avenue. At the time I was into journaling via audio recording, so I attached an extension mic to a boom box and ran down to join the crowd, not knowing what was happening. I walked around collecting interviews from drunk and agitated participants. I wore a shirt and tie due to a class presentation earlier that day, so everyone THOUGHT I WAS A REPORTER! Not wanting to disappoint or be lynched as a fraud, when asked I said I was with the Pekin Herald (hoping they weren’t from Pekin and would know better). Afterwards a professor recommended I sell copies of the tape as mementos of the riot. I never did, fearing reprisal from the town or university.” — Guy Chamberlin ’85

“That was my sophomore year. I lived in Watterson. My roommate and I (with whom I’m still friends to this day) had a perfect view of police headquarters. We saw the mob get tear gassed as it happened. Quite an impressive display. I was embarrassed for our school, but nonetheless I am still very proud to be an alum.” — John Papaleo ’87

“I was in my south-facing, 12th floor dorm room of Hewett Hall. I think someone came in and told me there was a riot outside. When I looked out the window I could see a very large mob of people on the street near Watterson Towers walking towards downtown Normal. It was a bit unsettling and I couldn’t believe that a riot was really happening, especially at ISU, and over beer parties.” — Mary DeMaegd ’86

“I was a relatively new faculty member at ISU and proud to be. But after the beer riot was featured on the national news, I got calls and letters from colleagues asking me what the heck I was doing working for a ‘party school.’ I stayed and watched as ISU recovered from the incident and then thrived as a great university. Glad I did.” — Jeanne Howard

Students cause damage

At least five people were arrested in the days after, with more facing university discipline (Photo courtesy of the McLean County Museum of History)

“I remember watching the Cubs take a 2-0 lead on the Padres in the playoffs and a World Series appearance was one win away, the buzz was in the air. My roommates and I saw the flier for the rally on the Quad and thought we would check it out, so I brought my camera along. We joined in the middle of the rally and I was taking photos, then it took a turn (to Redbird Liquors and a keg) headed towards 51 and College Avenue. Next thing you know the intersection is shut down and the police chief is there trying to calm the situation, he is handed a beer and I get my photo of him with the beer in the middle of the intersection. The crowd moved on towards the police station and that’s when things started getting out of hand. We decided to call it a night. I printed up the photos and got the shot of Chief Lehr and the beer in the Pantagraph and Vidette. In 1985 I worked as a photographer at the Vidette. I have some more photos if you would like me to pass them along.” — Dan Bell ’86

“I was a sophomore, in the library studying when everyone went to look out the windows to see what was happening. You could see this massive crowd, like a flood, running and shouting and knocking over everything in their path! They had even turned some cars over! It was very alarming when a group ran through the library, yelling and tore down one of the turnstiles by the checkout counter. Afterwards, everyone’s parents were calling asking them if they were OK, and hoping their kids were not involved. I recall there was a debate about constitutional rights of journalists when the police tried to identify individuals by using photos taken by the reporters. Someone sold T-shirts that said, ‘Illinois State: It’s a Riot!’ I felt it had negatively affected the reputation our school. I remember saying to a friend, ‘Other students have protested social injustice … our school protested for beer.’” — Theresa Kelly ’87

“I shared a townhouse about a half mile off campus, and one my roommates came in from class right about dusk on October 3. He said, ‘You won’t believe what’s happening.’ We walked outside, and heard what sounded like a crowd from a football game cheering continuously from the direction of the campus. Naturally we went to check it out, and became part of the swelling crowd of thousands (not hundreds) of students who had become fed up with having any and all weekend house parties broken up as soon as they started for the first few months of school. The Greek system was kind of nowhere then, and those parties were the main form of blowing off steam for most of us. I’d say 95 percent of the crowd were just observers there for the experience, but a small percentage tore up the town pretty good. I remember the riot gear, the tear gas, the ISU president on top of a car with a megaphone. I also remember the procession down Main Street feeling like the start of the Boston Marathon, with someone carrying a large metal “COLD BEER” sign from a gas station up at the head of it. Crazy night.” — Gregory Higgerson ’85

Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.

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