Janis Wrich

Janis Wrich recalls the terrifying sounds she heard in the dim hallway of the UW-Madison Commerce Building when police entered and began hitting and dragging out her fellow student protesters during a sit-in there on Oct. 18, 1967.

In October 1967, Janis Wrich was an English major just finishing her degree.

When she'd left home in Sturgeon Bay and headed off to college several years earlier, "It was just sort of a no-brainer that I'd go to UW-Madison," she said. "A lot of my friends were going. In those days, everybody got in from the state, pretty much, and then they kind of were winnowed out in the freshman year."

"So it was a much more diverse group of students" on campus, she said. "You don't have to have a 3.0, 4.0 grade point. You don't have to be wealthy. You don't have to worry about being burdened by student loans. It was affordable. It was a very different time."

The first time Wrich heard about Vietnam was in 1963, when she spotted a hand-drawn map of the country that a graduate student had set up on an easel in Memorial Union.

Next to the map was a sign saying, "This is Vietnam. Do you know where it is? Do you know what we're doing there?"

By 1967, "the air was heavy with resistance," said Wrich, who didn't buy the argument that American involvement was meant to stop the spread of Communism.

"I just felt (the war) was wrong," she said. "It looked like we were over there in a war that was a civil war, that had been lost by the French, the Chinese, and as the years went by we saw that civilians were being killed in horrible ways.

"Their villages were being burned. Our soldiers were being killed — and why? This was a civil war. We had no reason to be there."

Wrich did not attend a peaceful protest that students staged against Dow on campus on Oct. 17, 1967. But on Oct. 18, she entered the Commerce Building to join a sit-in in a first-floor hallway.

"I must have gotten there early because I was at the back of the hallway," she recalled. "I didn't know what was going on outside, but we could sort of hear people shouting and protesting. It seemed there was a crowd assembling outside, and it seemed to be a pretty big crowd.

"And the crowd inside was pretty big. We were just packed in that narrow hallway. I remember it was kind of dark, but there was a little bit of ambient light coming in through some windows.

"And that's what I remember specifically when the cops started coming in: We could hear people screaming and yelling in the building — and outside — and I could hear pounding. The cops were bringing their billy clubs down on people's heads, and I could hear the pounding. I could see the light glinting off their helmets," she said.

"People started screaming as they were hit. People were moving, trying to get away.

"I was toward the back so I wasn't one of the ones they hit. And I don't know how I got out of there. I have absolutely no memory of how I got out, and very little memory of what happened afterwards, except I got out of the Commerce building somehow and was very, very shaken up by what I'd heard there."

"The crowd outside was huge. Class had let out, and students were coming from (other buildings) and the cops started spraying tear gas," she said. "So even students who weren't involved in the demonstration became involved because they were sprayed with tear gas.

"There was a lot of violence — some people tried to fight back. Some people curled up as passive resistance. ….It was horrifying. It seemed to go on forever.

"I was lucky: I wasn't hurt. I guess I was able to stay on the fringes enough that that didn't happen to me," she said.

"I think I was numb, because my memory of that is so strange: The sun glinting off the helmets. The sound of people being hit on the head with billy clubs. I had not heard a sound like that before. And the screams. Those are the images in my head that I'll never forget."

Wrich went on to participate in other anti-war protests. After college she moved to Chicago, where she lived for 32 years before returning to Madison to head the Employee Assistance Program for the state's Department of Health Services.

Looking back to the Dow riot and the 1960s, "it makes me kind of sad," said Wrich, now 74 and retired.

Protesters thought they were making a difference.

"You know, we're supposed to learn from history. But we seem to forget," she said. "When we went into Afghanistan, the Gulf War — it seemed like many of the same things were happening again.

"The Vietnam War was horrific," she said. "But I don't think that changed people as much as we would have liked."

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

Subscribe to our Politics email!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.