Jacksonville University: Book Burnings and the 1970 Riparian Scandal

by Tim Gilmore, 6/2/2023

“It runs totally against my grain and my core beliefs,” says retired airline pilot Richard LaVoy. He says I can quote him about the book burning, but only if I make his contrition clear. “That incident, however, and the way it unfolded, was so telling of the times and of the atmosphere on campus that we’re still talking about it half a century later.”

student candlelight peace vigil, 1970 Jacksonville University Riparian

Jacksonville University President Robert Spiro, an admiral in the Navy Reserve, called the 1970 yearbook “deficient in intellectual quality,” “unfair,” “inaccurate” and “offensive.” Spiro threatened to withhold Editor-in-Chief Robyn Moses’s diploma and newspapers reported she had been “called on the official carpet.”

Robyn Moses, 1970 Jacksonville University Riparian

Moses, a petite and dimpled English major from Delaware whom national news outlets called a “girl editor,” said she knew what the problem was. “I put the ‘dirty, longhaired hippies’ in,” she told the Associated Press. “Administration objects to the fact that fraternities and sororities are not spread throughout the yearbook and that the school is not shown as being dominated by fraternities and sororities.” Moses said the hippies were “more important, more predominant on campus, and are more interested in national affairs.”

Few copies of the original 1970 JU Riparian, the college yearbook, survive, and Valerie Kennedy Grisham has one. Like Moses, Val was an English major and took painting classes with the legendary Jax-based artist Memphis Wood. Her father was Gurney Kennedy, a professor of music theory, history and composition who wrote his own 900-page textbook.

Valerie Kennedy, 1970

She picked up her copy early, having no idea of what was coming. Val was shy, hung out with the hippies, read poetry under the moss-dripping live oaks. She says her father liked the hippie presence on campus, “because they cared about the arts and what was happening in the world.”

As we sit on a bench and flip through Val’s Riparian, she points out the offending pages, one after another. There’s the photo of students sitting beneath pines and oaks on a hill near the former home of composer Frederick Delius and smoking a joint. There’s the signed letter to the president and Congress asking for a repeal of the National Selective Service Act, which drafted young people to fight a war nobody understood or believed in over in Vietnam. There are photos of nighttime candlelight vigils on the campus green and protesters holding signs saying, “We have lost enough of our Jacksonville sons.”

The yearbook starts with three sets of pages, each with an image on the right and a white page with a single line of text on the left. The first set says, “All we are” across from a peace sign, and the second says, “saying is” across from an image of a dove. The last set says “give peace a chance” against a sneering caricature of President Richard Nixon.

The yearbook celebrated Artis Gilmore, Pembrook Burrows and the fact that a liberal arts college with just more than 2,000 students had sent a basketball team all the way to the NCAA championship, but other sports teams, though the yearbook dedicated sections to golf, crew, tennis and baseball, felt slighted. On the other hand, 13 pages celebrated JU’s theater department, its productions of Brigadoon and The Taming of the Shrew and The Pirates of Penzance and George Bernard Shaw’s anti-war play Arms and the Man.

from the George Bernard Shaw play Arms and the Man

The editors designated a fictitious “Eleanor Goodbody” the “Most Outstanding Athlete” beside an old photo of a girl in a 1920s basketball uniform, complete with bloomers and blouse and hightop shoes, holding a ball emblazoned with the word “DONK.” Sports photos, like a shot of an unnamed soccer player falling ignominiously, face hidden behind another player’s legs, were similarly unflattering.

Conservatives Art Linkletter and William F. Buckley had given speeches on campus, but the Riparian failed to represent them. On the other hand, the campus visit from Dick Gregory, the black former comedian and civil rights leader, received two pages, as did Richie Havens, the black folk singer who’d performed at Woodstock, and Tommy James and the Shondells, the psychedelic rock band who’d recorded “Crimson and Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”

Dick Gregory, speaking at JU, 1970 Riparian

Though the college president chastised editors for the Riparian’s inaccuracies, those faults seemed more like satirical barbs. You might as well call Monty Python’s Flying Circus “inaccurate.” Amidst several criticisms of campus food, for example, a section dedicated to the “Food Quality Control Committee” featured a photograph of seven empty chairs.

Richie Havens at JU, 1970 Riparian

The Riparian staff seemed to take direct aim at the Kappa Tau Kappa fraternity, which cultivated a reputation as Southern “un-Reconstructed” “good ole boys.” The 1969 Riparian KTK photo showed members displaying a large Confederate flag and one student sitting in a Jax Liquors trash can, holding an open beer can.

Kappa Tau Kappa fraternity photo

By 1970, however, the unprecedented success of the JU basketball team seemed to model racial harmony to a city with an ugly and brutal racial history both distant and recent. With “the palpable change of racial dynamics in Jacksonville,” Richard LaVoy recalls, “KTK seemed to be backing away from their Southern swagger.” Nevertheless the ’70 Riparian printed the same KTK photo from the year before and fraternity members considered it “a not-so-subtle shot-across-the-bow criticism of their image.”

The most controversial element, however, which also made national news, was a photograph at the start of the sororities section that showed two female students from behind, holding hands, naked except for boots and a belt, one student holding a cigarette. Across the country, headlines said, “Nudes and Doves: Florida School’s Annual Editor in Trouble Over Issue” and “Students Score Nudes in College’s Yearbook.” In retrospect, the photograph looks tame, innocent, not even sexual.

Rich LaVoy recalls that students in fraternities and sororities “assumed the Riparian staffed by the most liberal of the academic disciplines – theater and art,” and that, “rightly or wrongly, yearbook staff was thumbing their noses at the more conventional aspects of college life at JU.”

Then came the book burning. “Someone lit a yearbook on fire,” LaVoy says. “Then a box appeared on campus as a pseudo casket” and offended students “began depositing their yearbooks into the box.”

Tommy James at JU, 1970 Riparian

From there, spontaneity grew increasingly theatrical. Though book bannings and burnings bear connotations of Nazi Germany, the Dionysian broke up through Apollonian layers of order in a way that might have made Jim Morrison of The Doors or Friedrich Nietzsche or, perhaps, just maybe, a particularly Romanticist Riparian editor or Memphis Wood student proud.

“A funeral procession of sorts proceeded to a barbecue pit on campus,” LaVoy remembers, and dozens of fraternity and sorority members and athletes made “a funeral pyre” of the coffin full of books. An administrative investigation ensued, but, LaVoy recalls, “mostly aimed at the Riparian staff” and “not those involved” in the book burning.

By April 18th, the Associated Press reported that though, and partly because, “about 100 students burned theirs in a bonfire,” still, “copies of the book are already collector’s items.”

from The Green Bay [Wisconsin] Press Gazette, April 18, 1970

The president’s office and JU administration published an “addendum” to the 1970 Riparian called Focus ’70. Tellingly, and unwittingly substantiating Robyn Moses’s editorial points, the administrative corrective focused almost entirely on sports and fraternities.

Several years ago, Rich LaVoy met Robyn Moses at a Jacksonville University reunion. She’d landed a job in New York working for Time Magazine right after college. “I told her I’d burned my copy and I sincerely apologized,” he says. “I told her she was ahead of her time and that her avant-garde approach to the work was creative and reflective of the strange but wonderful happenings on the JU campus at the time.”

Robyn Moses, 1970 Riparian

LaVoy was a Navy Reserve member his whole time at JU and became a Naval aviator. He recalls the Secretary of the Navy gave a commencement speech at JU that year.

“That being said, I was not a fan of the Selective Service draft. Nor was I a fan of the war. Even though I was a member of the military, I had no compunction about my fellow students engaging in antiwar protests. It was their right and they were right.”

from Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert’s The Pirates of Penzance

Valerie Kennedy Grisham treasures her ’70 Riparian as an almost sacred document and object. “It’s become a personal symbol for me of a year that was a turning point in my life,” she says. “It’s also the year that inspired much of the decor in my little studio, where I resumed my artwork after a 50-year hiatus, trying to recapture the spirit and creative mindset of my youth.”

portrait of Willie Browne, by Valerie Kennedy Grisham

It was in that studio that she completed her portrait of Willie Browne, the strange old man who lived without electricity in the woods along St. Johns Bluff and left hundreds of acres to the Nature Conservancy when he died in December of the year of the legendary Riparian.

Jacksonville University, 1970

And even though Rich LaVoy placed his personal yearbook on that funeral pyre, he has another copy of that 1970 Riparian. “My future and now late wife, Barbara, who was a freshman at the time, also obtained a copy and I have her 1970 Riparian. I have the 1968, ’69 and ’70 Riparians,” he says, “but the 1970 is by far my favorite.”

Robyn Moses, 1970, image courtesy Florida Times-Union