By all accounts of those who knew him, Donald Eugene Henry was the quintessential All-American boy when he left home to attend KU in the fall of 1935.
Born in Dodge City in 1917, Don Henry’s life before college would have made Norman Rockwell proud – he was active in the Boy Scouts, had joined his high school debate club, and was a devoted Methodist who contemplated a career with the church after graduation.
It came as a considerable surprise, then, when a front-page story in the University Daily Kansan on October 3, 1937 revealed that “flaxen-haired Don Henry” had been killed in combat the month before, fighting in Spain with the left-wing Loyalists against right-wing Nationalist rebels led by General Francisco Franco.
Henry’s odyssey from small-town boy to campus radical and leftist martyr led to inquiries by University administrators and the state government into his death, and sparked debates over free speech and political action on campus.
In sum, the episode offers a glimpse of how the ideological crosscurrents of the 1930s affected student life at the University of Kansas.
The October 3 Kansan sketched only the broad outlines of the story. Henry and fellow KU student Kenneth Graeber had gone to the northeastern Spanish province of Aragon in June 1937. Once in there, they eventually joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a motley collection of American liberals, left-wing sympathizers, and anarchists that had volunteered their services to the Loyalists, who were aided by Soviet Russia in a desperate (and eventually losing) battle with the reactionary Nationalist forces backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.
Henry became a “crack first-aid man” with the battalion, and it was in this capacity that he was wounded gravely on September 2. He died the following morning, and Graeber wrote Henry’s parents with the news.
But the Kansan article was only the beginning of months of speculation, accusation, and debate. What had happened to Don Henry? What drove him to give his life for Loyalist Spain? Was his college experience a part of the answer?
Ed Henry, Don’s father, was certain of it. University officials had returned Don’s steamer trunk to his family, and items Ed Henry found inside – left-wing pamphlets, fliers, and newspaper clippings and articles about Spain - convinced him that communists on the KU campus had corrupted his son. College radicals, he claimed, led Don “from a normal love of peace, church and home to the communism [sic], and thence to the war in Spain that spelled his doom.”
Exercising the prerogative of an aggrieved – and grieving – father, Henry then demanded that KU Chancellor Ernest H. Lindley launch an investigation.
Ed Henry was right to a degree, for his son’s KU experience had indeed radicalized the KU sophomore. Depression-era America, wearied by years of economic ruin, was fertile ground for extremist political sentiment on both the right and the left, but particularly the latter. This was especially true of college campuses, which hosted everything from pacifist societies to Marxist revolutionary groups that believed Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was hopelessly reactionary.
KU was no exception to this trend, and shortly after his arrival, Henry became involved with some of Mt. Oread’s more radical associations. He helped organize campus peace strikes, served as president of the KU chapter of the left-leaning American Student Union, and even joined the YMCA, regarded by many conservatives of the time as a thinly disguised communist front group. By the time he left for Spain, Henry was a member of the Young Communist League, which helped pay his way across the Atlantic.
Within days of the Kansan article, Chancellor Lindley began a personal investigation, trying to trace Henry’s contacts on campus. The Kansas Board of Regents augmented Lindley’s sleuthing with an investigation of its own, appointing three members to look into “communistic activity” on the Hill.
Immediately, Henry’s death and the investigations became the talk of the campus. The Dove, a liberal campus newspaper, dedicated its October issue to him, headlining its lead article “John Brown Marches in Aragon,” and draping the fallen sophomore in martyrdom. Even the Sour Owl, the notoriously bawdy campus humor magazine, dedicated a portion of its second issue of the semester to a serious treatment of the Henry story.
Overall campus opinion about the investigations varied, but the general reaction appears to have been eye-rolling exasperation. If there were any communists on the Hill, many KU students and faculty felt that they were neither a threat nor even very radical, and certainly not worth the trouble of tracking down. Indeed, many worried that a minor “Red Scare” was about to descend on Mt. Oread, violating the spirit of free inquiry and exchange that the University held dear.
On October 13 a Kansan editorial compared the investigations to the Salem witch trials. “The ‘Red Menace,’ shed of exaggeration, misrepresentation, and an unintelligent emotional response,” it proclaimed, “has revealed . . . a group of ordinary persons just a little to the left of the rest of us. And like the witch burnings of three centuries ago, it [will settle] nothing.”
The investigations continued through the winter, when the Regents released their findings. There were some communistic groups at KU, the board declared, and Henry had been active with them. There was also considerable campus sympathy with the Loyalists and little counterbalancing support for the Nationalists, which had no doubt influenced him. But no faculty members had abused their authority in the classroom, nor were any of them affiliated with leftist organizations, though KU economics professor John Ise had spoken in favor of the Loyalist cause at a campus gathering on April 27, 1937.
Two members of the Kansas House of Representatives were not satisfied with these findings, however, and in February 1938 Donald Muir and Clay Carper introduced a bill appropriating $7,500 for a state probe into radicalism at KU. The bill passed overwhelmingly, and campus exasperation about free-speech limits, which had been dwindling since autumn, flared anew with even greater vigor.
Once again, the specter of a red scare haunted many on and off the Hill. The Kansan reprinted an editorial from the Kansas City Journal-Post titled “Topeka Sees Witches” that was probably written by Roy Runnion, that paper’s editor and a former editor of the UDK. “With such a sum at its disposal,” the editorial complained, “a red-hunting committee could magnify a rooming house argument into a Bolshevist congress and could detect in ‘I’m a Jayhawk’ the perniciously hidden strains of the ‘Internationale.’”
A group of student leaders, including the presidents of the Young Republicans and Young Democrats as well as ex-Governor Alf Landon’s daughter Peggy, (older sister of KU alum and future US senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum), journeyed to Topeka on February 23 to deliver a letter of protest to the legislature.
Esteemed journalist William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette described the situation in a front page commentary printed the Kansan as “a lot of whoop-te-do and no evidence…, gossip and tall tales multiplied by ten under the tongues of super-patriots.”
Alf Landon himself, asked by the Kansan for comment, declared that “the true test of our belief in freedom of speech comes when we listen to someone who expresses views which we abhor . . . . A frank discussion of theories of government should always be free and unrestricted.”
Some campus protest was a little less sedate. Two days earlier, someone had hoisted a red flag to the top of a classroom building. That same day a group of fraternities and sororities met to develop plans for satirizing the legislature’s proposed investigation, which included donning red shirts and calling each other “Comrade,” carrying wooden “bombs,” and “leaving their hair bushy” in stereotypical Bolshevik style.
The plans were quickly cancelled the next day when the Lawrence Journal-World reported that the police had detained three KU students the night before, after they were discovered driving up and down Massachusetts Street waving mock Soviet flags.
According to the paper, the three guilty “revolutionaries” had their flags confiscated, then received a stern lecture before being sent home. Their treatment nevertheless raised some eyebrows: Donald Voorhees, Men’s Student Council president, objected to the punishment, noting, “this apparently is a time when even our most innocent humor can become a boomerang.”
Also on February 21, one professor arrived at his classroom to find elaborate “plans” for bombing Strong Hall sketched on the blackboard. Meanwhile, his students jumped to their feet, gave him a stiff-armed salute and greeted him with “Heil, Comrade!” According to the Kansas City Journal-Post, “the prank was not received very warmly.”
But such protests would be short-lived, for on February 28 the Muir-Carper Bill failed to pass the Kansas Senate. One ultraconservative legislator then proceeded to send the Regents’ evidence to Washington, DC, in hopes of persuading the Special Committee on Un-American Activities (the so-called Dies Committee) to pursue the matter. He failed, and the “Don Henry Red Scare” on Mt. Oread gradually faded into history.
It was not without its casualties, however. Lindley resigned shortly afterward, in part suggests KU archivist Barry Bunch, because of the furor over the incident.
Nor had KU heard the last of Don Henry’s name. In July 1946, approximately a dozen male students formed the “Don Henry Co-op,” a residential housing facility that remained active well into the 1960s.
Whether its members were communists is open to debate, but at least some of the political ideals of its namesake lived on there. In the words of John Lord, its president in 1966, the Don Henry Co-op was “the closest thing you can get to socialism on campus.”
Department of History
University of Kansas