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Elmwood grad makes waves

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Methodist Medical Center

Phil Luciano
NEWS COLUMNIST

Thursday, February 3, 2005

Ward Churchill's high school chums in Elmwood recall him as a friendly teen who liked to argue politics.

He's still doing the latter, but his detractors would call his writings anything but friendly.

Now a professor at the University of Colorado, the 57-year-old Churchill is engaged in a firestorm of controversy regarding an essay he wrote about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Headlines nationwide continue to follow an academic imbroglio that has led one school to cancel him as a speaker and the Colorado governor to demand Churchill's resignation.

By Wednesday, news of Churchill's troubles had reached Elmwood High School, from which he graduated in 1965.

"He's always been a friend, and we've always liked to argue (politics)," says Harry McFall, a member of the school's Class of '62 who teaches social studies there.

McFall says that during their spirited political debates, Churchill invariably would tilt left.

"Sometimes he has a ... flair for the dramatic," McFall says. "Sometimes what he says or writes is to elicit response from other people."

He's achieved that end with an essay he penned the day after the terrorist attacks, "Some People Push Back" (viewable at www.passionbomb.com/words/push_roost.htm).

Much of the lengthy piece echoes the theme of many far-left treatises. He says the 9-11 assailants weren't terrorists but combatants in a war started decades ago by U.S. foreign policy in the Mideast - especially bombings of Iraq's infrastructure that left a half-million children dead.

But it's his incendiary turns of phrase that have raised eyebrows and blood pressures. Churchill, a Vietnam War veteran, called the victims of Sept. 11 no "innocent civilians."

Rather, he described those slain in the Pentagon as "military targets." And he called the Twin Towers victims "little Eichmanns," a reference to Adolf Eichmann, who organized Nazi plans to exterminate Europe's Jews.

His essay states, "As to those in the World Trade Center, well, really, let's get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimmee a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire - the mighty engine of profit to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved."

Despite the bombast, his essay garnered little attention until recently, just before his scheduled appearance at Hamilton College in New York. The school, pounded by more than 100 threats, this week canceled Churchill's speech.

Meanwhile, the governor of Colorado has denounced Churchill's views as "at odds with simple decency" - and asked Churchill to resign his teaching assignment.

Churchill, who has tenure, has declined. However, after receiving numerous death threats, he has stepped down as chairman of the school's ethnic studies program.

"The present political climate has rendered me a liability in terms of representing either my department, the college or the university in this or any other administrative capacity," Churchill said in a statement. He did not return a Journal Star call for comment.

According to the Rocky Mountain News, Churchill's heritage is as debated as his essay. Though Churchill holds high his ethnicity as a Cherokee, the paper cited American Indian groups holding

polarized views of the man. One calls him "one of the most recognized Indian scholars on the planet." Another group raps him as an "academic fraud" who holds no true claim to Indian ancestry.

But certain aspects of his background are indisputable: His roots in central Illinois.

His family moved to Elmwood when he was a boy. He graduated from Elmwood High School in 1965.

Later, Churchill attended Illinois Central College, where he received an associate's degree in general education in 1973. In 1974 and 1975, he received bachelor's and master's degrees from Sangamon State University in Springfield, now known as the University of Illinois at Springfield. For both degrees, his field of study was "communications in a technological society."

Churchill's Class of '65 at Elmwood High School had 55 students, including Cathy Meyers.

"He was a great guy, fun to be around," says Meyers, now an English teacher at the school. "He was very quiet in some respects - very shy around the girls.

"He was an average student. He was an underachiever. (But) you knew he was brilliant. He always had answers in class - a lot of times, answers the straight-A students didn't have."

By Wednesday afternoon, Meyers was looking for Churchill's essay online.

"It bothers me if people are getting mad about him expressing his views. That's what America is all about," Meyers says. " ... He hasn't done anything like blow something up."

PHIL LUCIANO is a columnist with the Journal Star. He can be reached at pluciano@pjstar.com, 686-3155 or (800) 225-5757, Ext. 3155.

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