50 years later, CSU’s ‘beer-in’ legacy lives on
FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) — Doug Phelps wore a suit and tie for pictures.
His light hair was always neatly cut and combed. Camera flashes bounced off the thick lenses of his black, plastic-rimmed glasses.
At Colorado State University, he was the student who asked professors to mail him his final grades — on a postcard — at the end of each semester. He couldn’t wait for report cards.
He didn’t drink, either. Not even beer.
But in the fall of 1968, in front of 3,000 fellow classmates piled into CSU’s student center grand ballroom, Phelps stood behind a podium, cracked open a Coors and held it to his lips.
The moment would go down in CSU history as the famed “drink-in” or “beer-in,” which set changes into motion on a conservative campus that now embraces its town’s exploding beer culture.
Nearing its 50th anniversary, the story is still retold. Pictures of Phelps at the beer-in were recently shared on CSU’s Alumni Association’s Facebook page.
“Coors Banquet paved the way!” one commenter said.
For Phelps, that day was always about more than beer.
It was the day he — the picture-perfect student body president — defied CSU and proved that the student activism of the 1960s had landed in Fort Collins.
He became the clean-shaven, bespectacled face of a rebellion.
When asked about his college activism days, Phelps chuckles.
“The dean of students (at the time), Burns Crookston ... he always called the period when I was in student government, ‘the revolution,’” said Phelps, now 70 and living in Denver.
Though there were eventual protests against Vietnam and for civil rights, Colorado was a little slow to embrace issues like that, Phelps said.
The student revolution Phelps is known for focused more on CSU students’ growing discontent over how they were treated, Phelps said. In a modernizing world, they felt held back by antiquated curfews and campus-wide beer bans.
“It was a pretty old-fashioned agricultural school coming out of the early ’60s,” Phelps said. “So of course there were a lot of demands to liberalize policies on campus.”
The beer-in was part of that student revolution and the culmination of a roughly week-long “liberation” of the university’s student center in October 1968.
In an effort to gain more say in the operations of the student-fee-funded student center, students moved into and slept in the building, holding meetings and workshops there among a “carnival-like” atmosphere led by outspoken members of student government and beyond.
But it didn’t start there.
Under the guidance of then-president William Morgan, the university had changed its name from Colorado A&M to Colorado State University in 1957.
It started receiving more federal funds and built up its graduate and undergraduate programs, according to Coloradoan reports.
New campus buildings shot up and enrollment skyrocketed, increasing nearly 200 percent from almost 4,000 students in 1955 to almost 12,000 in 1965.
That following fall, in 1966, thousands of students returned to CSU to another kind of change.
Over the summer, the State Board of Agriculture — the university’s governing body — had inexplicably abolished the long-held practice of weekly co-ed visiting hours in its dorms.
Male and female students could no longer visit each other in the residence halls on Sunday afternoons.
“Of course, the students hit the ceiling,” Phelps said.
Male students planned to protest the change by going to female dorm rooms anyway.
Before that could happen, President Morgan met with Phelps and conceded.
“We thought, ‘This is easy,’” Phelps said. ”‘All we have to do is threaten to protest.’”
They next went after the university’s curfew, which required female students to be in their dorm rooms by 11 p.m. on weeknights. Male students had no such curfew.
After rallying in Moby Gym past 11 p.m. in protest, students pushed the administration to reconsider, and the women-only curfew was loosened.
But their biggest undertaking was the student center.
Robert Evans was 18 and a freshman at CSU when he first heard the hubbub.
Something was happening at the student center so, curious, he trekked over from his dorm room in Braiden Hall.
“I went over and a helicopter was flying around campus,” Evans said, adding that as it flew overhead, leaflets cascaded out. The flyers were promoting a liberation of the student center.
As the son of an Air Force officer, Evans was used to order. “Everything folded just right, you know? Straight-laced ... shirts always tucked in,” he said.
“That was me at that moment, and here I come into an environment that’s a carnival,” Evans recalled from a Lory Student Center bench one recent October afternoon.
Described as a usually “sterile administrative office complex and showplace for visitors,” student leaders believed the center didn’t meet student needs and, in response, they organized a takeover.
Students moved in and slept there. Leaders hosted workshops and formed the Liberation Steering Committee, which released unified statements to the university and media.
People draped parking meters with paper bags, decorated fire alarms and adorned walls with posters that read things like “Do Your Own Thing.”
“It was life-changing,” Evans said. “I moved into the student center.”
But, knowing CSU’s response would be to wait out the situation — as they’d learned to do during previous protests — the idea of a beer-in was born.
“We didn’t want to stay there forever,” Phelps said. “So someone got the idea to break the beer rule.”
As a dry town until 1969, Fort Collins didn’t allow liquor within its city limits then. The strongest thing you could have was 3.2 beer.
While legal in town, CSU refused to offer beer on campus. Though students voted down the idea of beer on campus in a referendum held that month, Phelps said he was confident that was only because the referendum’s language was confusing.
Student leaders repeatedly requested action on the beer issue. When the State Board of Agriculture dismissed that request on Friday, Oct. 18, student leaders made good on their promise of the beer-in.
Using beer as a symbol for the other changes students wanted to see, cases of Coors were wheeled into the student center ballroom.
Thousands of students and some faculty looked on as Phelps and other student leaders spoke to the crowd.
Then, they drank. Or, in Phelps’ case — remember, he didn’t drink — held an open beer to his closed lips.
The act itself was very controlled, Evans remembered. Only student leaders of legal drinking age participated in the drink-in, but the university took swift action.
According to Coloradoan reports, 179 students were detained by campus police and all faced disciplinary action from the university. About 30 students, including Phelps, were issued summonses to appear in city court.
“So he was arrested for drinking a beer that he never drank,” Evans recalled of Phelps, with a laugh.
“That’s what leaders do,” Evans added. “You do what it takes.”
But the response from the student body was mixed. While Phelps said many students agreed with him on the issues, many also disagreed with the idea of employing protests to spur change.
In the wake of the contentious beer-in, Phelps offered to resign if that’s what students wanted.
“Some genius in my entourage got the idea that we should hold a referendum,” Phelps said.
Held two weeks after the beer-in, students came out in full force to vote Phelps out of office with 4,087 votes for his ouster and 2,723 against.
Phelps’ vice president, Bruce Randall, took over the office. Phelps was put on probation by the university for his role in the beer-in.
Eventually, all seemed to be forgiven. Phelps continued his studies and graduated. By 1969, CSU allowed 3.2 beer in its campus bar, The Ramskeller Pub.
In spring 2017, the university was embracing local brewing culture and announced a teaching brewery would open on the Lory Student Center’s lower level. The beers produced there will be served in the Ramskeller.
In the 1980s, the Collegian took to running an article on the anniversary of the beer-in. The headline always read, “Thanks a lot, Doug,” Phelps recalled.
He still visits his old stomping grounds occasionally.
A few years ago, he was invited to attend the university’s annual 1870 Dinner, which honors CSU supporters and donors.
He sat among a sea of clothed tables in the Lory Student Center grand ballroom — the room where he rallied classmates decades before.
For old times’ sake, he had a beer.
Information from: Fort Collins Coloradoan, http://www.coloradoan.com