By Carole Gieseke, VISIONS editor
During my first official month as editor of VISIONS magazine – April 1997 – a 19-year-old man was murdered during Veishea. I can still remember driving into Ames on that Sunday and hearing the words “murder” and “Veishea” used in the same sentence on the radio. I was horrified.
Since that time I’ve watched three presidents of this university struggle to understand and deal with the problems caused by Veishea, a celebration that now has more than 90 years of tradition on the ISU campus.
EVEN BEFORE I ARRIVED AT IOWA STATE, the after-hours student celebration surrounding Veishea had become a flashpoint.
In just the second issue of VISIONS magazine (summer 1988), my predecessors ran the headline “Veishea riots stun ISU / Turbulent weekend clouds event’s future” along with a photo of Ames police in full riot gear. Thousands of overzealous partiers had turned into drunken, destructive rioters in Campustown for three consecutive nights. In part, the story said, “Veishea will never be the same” … “Temperatures in the 70s made conditions good for huge outdoor gatherings” … and “Preventive measures will be investigated thoroughly [including] developing more evening activities as alternatives to drinking.”
(Does this sound familiar to those of you who have been around more recently?)
The 1989 celebration was quieter, with cooler weather, tougher alcohol restrictions, and alcohol-free activities.
But it would not last. In 1992, an estimated 8,000 rioters “smacked Veishea with its second black eye in four years,” according to the summer 1992 issue of VISIONS. President Martin Jischke responded, “I believe, in the absence of change, we’re on the path to a real tragedy.” He said that the “official” Veishea must be revitalized as a university celebration and this newer, “unofficial” Veishea must be eliminated.
(Um, again, does this sound familiar? This was in 1992, folks. Even before social media.)
Jischke established a Veishea Task Force, which supported the continuation of Veishea but declared, “If violence occurs again, Veishea will not survive.”
The spring 1993 issue of VISIONS put Veishea on its cover, with an illustration of Humpty Dumpty and the headlines “Veishea on the wall” and “Can we put Veishea back together again?”
Veishea survived in 1993 with well-behaved students and visitors.
But in 1994, Veishea was in the news again with an estimated 2,000 property-damaging, rocks-and-bottle-throwing partiers in west Ames. The Ames police had to break up the party with mace.
(Hello! Are you seeing a pattern here?)
The summer 1994 issue of VISIONS said, “Saving Veishea was an exhausting task, keeping it saved will be no less so.”
SO NOW WE’RE UP TO 1997, when 19-year-old Uri Sellers was stabbed to death during a Veishea party. It doesn’t matter that he wasn’t an Iowa State student. It doesn’t matter that the party was off campus. It happened during Veishea.
President Jischke said the university vowed to do its part to see that “this kind of senseless violence…doesn’t happen again.” VISIONS magazine devoted two pages to a series of opinions under the headline “What should we do about Veishea?”
In fall 1997, Jischke gave students an ultimatum: End Veishea, or make it alcohol-free. Five major student organizations signed the pledge to keep the campus and all related activities “dry” during Veishea 1998. The event was deemed a success, and students billed the 1999 Veishea as “the largest student-run alcohol-free celebration in the nation.”
By 2001, Veishea was still dry, but student groups were no longer required to sign a pledge. In 2002, the fifth year the festival was alcohol-free, arrests were down dramatically.
But in 2004, following a four-hour riot in the early morning hours of Sunday, April 18, ISU President Gregory Geoffroy announced that the 82-year-old student-run celebration would be suspended for a year while a task force assessed “the underlying cause of the disturbance and develop recommendations for minimizing the likelihood of similar disturbances in the future.”
(OK, so how many times have we done this now?)
But I have to give this group credit. It brought Veishea back in 2006 and made some major changes in the event.
“In the end, I decided I’m just not ready to give up on our students,” Geoffroy said optimistically during a March 23 press conference. I think most people agreed, although many in the Ames community were ready to put a stop to the festival then and there.
Locations were changed. Campustown activities were eliminated. More alternative activities were scheduled. A plan to educate students was put into place. And the “dry” Veishea policy was reworked, hoping to eliminate the growing problem of large, off-campus parties.
So in 2006 there was no special alcohol policy during Veishea, and the event was highly anticipated after a year without Veishea.
The next few years were fairly quiet. Veishea managed to fall on wet, cold, or even snowy weekends – which seems to help with crowd control more than anything else. But every year, Ames and campus police officers and ISU administrators held their collective breath.
AND NOW, HERE WE ARE, VEISHEA 2014. The VEISHEA that isn’t.
On Tuesday night – TUESDAY NIGHT!!! Not even the weekend! – 3,000 to 5,000 people converged on Campustown, flipping over two cars, tearing down light poles, damaging street signs and other property, and throwing full beer cans and rocks at police who tried to stop the alcohol-fueled riot. An ISU student suffered severe head injuries when he was struck by a falling light pole, and emergency workers were temporarily unable to reach the injured man because of the crowd. Hundreds of young people were gleefully Tweeting and Instagramming the whole thing.
Wednesday morning, President Leath met with his cabinet, and at 1:30 in the afternoon he announced that the university would suspend the remainder of this year’s Veishea celebration effective at 5 p.m. And he made it very clear that the future of Veishea was in serious jeopardy.
“A safe environment is my and my staff’s No. 1 priority,” he told the large crowd gathered in the Memorial Union’s South Ballroom. “Veishea has been overshadowed by too many acts of this nature. This conduct is not going to be tolerated.”
So, here we are, going into what was supposed to be Veishea weekend, with no cherry pies or parade or SOV or Veishea Village to look forward to. Do you know how hard the Veishea Committee and hundreds of other people have worked to make this weekend a success? Do you know how much money has been spent…and how much revenue will be lost?
But before you think I’m opposed to the decision, let me just say that I’m not. For the past almost 30 years we’ve done everything we can think of to solve the Veishea problem, and it just keeps rearing its destructive, unruly head.
What choice did President Leath have, really? We’ve tried stressing the family-friendly parts of the celebration, we’ve tried enforcing stricter rules concerning alcohol consumption, we’ve tried to be more lenient with students who consume too much alcohol… and IT DOESN’T WORK. Nothing works. I can understand why students, alumni, and others are complaining about this draconian solution – cancelling this year’s celebration all together – but it’s the only solution. Even though it’s sad. Even though there are no winners here – only losers.
It’s too early to say what will happen next year and in future years. But one thing is for sure: Iowa State University cannot continue to sanction an event that has caused so much destruction, so much drunken behavior, so many injuries and loss of life.
Please feel free to let us know what you think, but do keep the past 30 years in mind when you offer your opinions and solutions. Because we’re living proof that history repeats itself.