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“This Is No Joke”

December 11, 1970


At precisely 11:00 p.m. on this icy December night, a bomb tore through the KU Computation Center in Summerfield Hall, injuring three students and causing extensive damage next to the main computer room. Carol Duster, a liberal arts sophomore from St. Louis; Vernon Breit, senior engineering major from Scott City, and Victor Harrison, senior business major from Wichita, were injured though not seriously. No one claimed responsibility for the bombing.

About four minutes before the blast, Frank Janzen, the Computation Center’s switchboard operator received a call from an individual who said, “There is a bomb in the machine room set to go off in three minutes. This is no joke.” Janzen immediately told John Seitz, the second shift supervisor, who cleared the computer room. Seitz posted Janzen and the other student workers at four locations around the entrances to Summerfield Hall to prevent people from coming in.

After three minutes in the 20-degree weather with no jackets, Duster and Breit decided not to wait around in the cold for a bomb they thought did not exist. They returned to the building and were attempting to open the doors leading into the computer room when the bomb exploded a mere 10 feet away.

Harrison had also re-entered Summerfield building and was walking down the hallway towards them when the blast occurred. Duster received the worst injuries, suffering punctured eardrums, cuts, bruises, and scratched corneas when the blast literally blew her contact lenses out of her eyes. Breit suffered one punctured eardrum and some cuts; Harrison received only a few scrapes.

A Lawrence Fire Department spokesman initially estimated damage to be $100,000 to the building and $2,000 to the contents. A more detailed official analysis released on Christmas Eve put the total repair bill at $28,900. No structural damage was done to the building, nor was the University’s $3.5 million GE-643 computer impaired.

This was incredible considering that the blast blew out a cinder block wall, large metal doors leading into the computer room were bent and twisted, shredded computer paper hung from the trees outside, and shrapnel from the blast was sprayed across Sunnyside Avenue. However, the force of the explosion was blocked by the stairwell and absorbed to some extent by boxes of computer paper and blank student schedules. Authorities considered this to be the main reason why no one was seriously injured.

KU Chancellor E. Laurence Chalmers, who was attending a faculty party, arrived on the scene shortly after the blast. Chalmers called the incident a result of “psychopathic behavior” and was “greatly relieved” that injuries had been minor. He said that the administration had anticipated the bombing, and had increased security precautions as a result.

One of those measures, which entailed locking down the interior doors of all campus buildings after 6:00 p.m., probably prevented the bomb from being placed in a more damaging location. In addition, because of the volatile environment in Lawrence and at KU that year, the administration had invited 10-15 undercover policemen onto campus to infiltrate groups that might perform terrorist acts such as this bombing.

The blast came at the end of another tense week of an extremely tense year at KU and Lawrence. Reports of arson fires and vandalism had been daily occurrences for months, two young men had been shot dead during police-student clashes over the summer, and the Kansas Union had been rocked by a firebomb explosion in April.

Earlier on the day of the Computation Center bombing, the KU Board of Regents had angered the Black Student Union when it decided not to act on an appeal for re-instatement by former graduate assistant Gary Dean Jackson. The Board had dismissed Jackson from his job with the Dean of Men several months earlier after it was discovered that he had helped to purchase and transport 27 cases of ammunition from Topeka to Lawrence. The ammo had been purchased the day after Lawrence Police shot and killed Rick Dowdell, an African-American and former KU student, as he fled through an alley in downtown Lawrence. Since Jackson was a counselor and KU liaison with the community, the Board and Chalmers had decided to dismiss him for what they considered immature and dangerous behavior.

Jackson and his advocates, including the Black Student Union, claimed that the University had no right to dismiss him for actions taken off-campus without “due process.” The administration countered that Jackson served at the pleasure of the Chancellor and the Board and could be relieved at any time. The Black Student Union called for a university-wide strike to commence on December 8. That day was marked by the shooting of a white student by a black student in front of Watson Library, as well as vandalism – in broad daylight – of some 25 buildings on campus. Some people speculated that militant Black Panther elements connected to the Black Student Union perpetrated the Summerfield incident.

Others pointed out that the bombing of the Computation Center was very similar to a University of Wisconsin–Madison bombing earlier in the year that had killed a graduate student. Many believed “Weathermen,” a radical offshoot of the leftist group Students for a Democratic Society, were responsible for that bombing. Lawrence was known to be a haven for SDS members and some of the leaders of that organization passed through town regularly according to Laird Wilcox, a former student activist who had exited the movement after becoming disillusioned with the group’s drift toward totalitarianism.

The FBI investigated the bombing, looking for “out of state leads.” Authorities eventually determined that the bomb had been constructed of dynamite, but were unable to ascertain where the explosives originated. Investigators sifted six truckloads of debris and found Carol Duster’s cracked contact lenses, but no valuable clues.

The next day, KU received two more bomb threats, one at the Kansas Union around 5:30 p.m., the other around 7:30 p.m. at Ellsworth Hall, which was evacuated. Both threats were hoaxes. A reward fund of $2,000 was set up, one of three that had been established since the Kansas Union fire in April. Kansas Governor Robert Docking announced an additional $500 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators.

Summerfield Hall was repaired the following summer and the Computation Center was remodeled with increased security being a priority. It was never determined who bombed the building.

Douglas Harvey
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: University Daily Kansan, 21 July, 15 December 1970, 9 July 1971. Lawrence Journal World, 1-2, 7-13, 16, 23-24, 26, 31 December 1970. Topeka Pictorial-Times, 20 January 1971. Oread Daily Review, summary of the year’s events covered by the underground publication Oread Daily, 1970.]