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Pappas adds perspective to '67 riots

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August 06, 2013 | 11:22 AM
I sat down with John Pappas at Caribou Coffee the other day to discuss Lake Geneva's July 4th, 1967, riots.

He was dressed casually in a white T-shirt looking like a man who is as comfortable with himself as a man can be.

And as his grandson said in a recent letter to the editor, the 83-year-old Pappas has an infectious laugh that comes to him easily.

Pappas was born in 1930, his father was the patriarch of the Greek family behind many of Lake Geneva's restaurants.

As befits the man, he reflects on the riots with a mix of wit and seriousness that makes for something resembling perspective.

As anyone who is following our riot stories knows, that event ended with 20-something year old kids wreaking havoc, destroying property and pretty much acting like a group of anarchists. They didn't settle down until the National Guard came to town. When the rioters moved to elsewhere in the county, they were met by citizens with guns in their hands.

Most of the incarcerated rioters left town with a slap on the wrist, some finger wagging by their parents, and maybe a trip to the barber.

But they'd stayed long enough to make local history — history Pappas knows as well as anyone.

So what's his view on the the cause of the riots?

"The times," he said, speaking of the rebellious '60s.

The transition from youthful revelers to youthful rioters had started to build for years. In fact, Pappas said the only thing that stopped unruly crowds the summer before was rain.

But on July 4, 1967, there was no rain. It was hot, and the students were cordoned off.

Pappas said the police had barricaded a portion of the downtown. One barricade was at the corner of Cook and Main, another at Broad and Main and the third at Flat Iron Park.

That had the effect of jamming hundreds of kids into a small area on a hot day.

"It was an area for kids to congregate," Pappas said. "But that's what fouled everything up.

"If cars had been allowed to get through it would have lessened the trouble, Pappas said.

One of the early igniters occurred at what was then Anchor Inn (now Fat Cats).

Pappas recalls a fire truck coming to break up "a bunch of toughs mixing it up." The firemen used their hoses to try and quell the crowd, but it had the opposite effect. He recalls that the "toughs" took the hoses away from the firemen and gave them a dose of their own medicine.

Another igniter was the media – one of the TV stations.

"Nothing was going on," Pappas said. "So the TV people said 'get up and do something.'"

The kids starting passing people overhead as they might do at a rock concert.

Someone started throwing cue balls through the glass at the penny arcade.

"There weren't more than 10, maybe 12, bad ones in the group. The rest were followers," Pappas said.

The most notable damage from the rioters was the destruction of an American flag and the statue in Flat Iron Park.

Pappas also noted that windows were broken at the chamber of commerce building, and when boards were put up to cover the damage, the rioters ripped them off.

Paul Wertz, who ran a business located just south of what is now the Cove, brought out a shotgun, Pappas recalls. He fired it, too.

Did it stop the rioters?

"Not really," Pappas said.

The police used dogs, but Elmer Zingle, who ran the boat company, complained about being bit on the backside.

As always, Pappas saw humor where there was humor to see.

"He said the problem is the dogs don't know the difference between the good guys and bad guys," Pappas said with a laugh.

The dog tactic also affected Pappas' restaurant, then called Georgia's International Café.

A dog was unleashed by police on a long line of kids outside. The kids were spooked and crashed the restaurant's plate glass window.

The riot "wrecked business for the rest of the summer," Pappas recalled. Unfortunately, his restaurant had stocked up on food for the season — "200 dozen hamburger buns, 60 loaves of rye bread, 200 of white and 10 of whole wheat."

Pappas recalls with the precision required of a restaurant owner. Kids coming from northern Wisconsin hoping for summer restaurant jobs were stranded.

Business started to come back in 1968, Pappas said, but it took years to be robust again.

After the rioters had been pushed out of town, Pappas said, the locals came out to review the damage.

He compared it to the scene in the Western movie, "High Noon," when the townspeople who were hiding when the showdown occurred, finally came out to inspect the outcome.

Only in Lake Geneva, the locals were followed by glass repair trucks eager to offer their services to fix what had been broken.

Pappas said it was the Kent State shootings a year later that put an end to youthful riots in the country.

Years later, in the reporting on the riots, a magazine postulated that the Lake Geneva riots weren't far from turning into Kent State a year before Kent State happened.

If it had happened, the recollections of Pappas and others would have been painted in much darker tones.

As it is, any story told by Pappas is a joy to hear.

Halverson is editor and general manager of the Regional News.


Tags: Staff Editorial

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