Director of Campus Safety John Schlaf sits in his office, nestled in the northeast corner of campus. A police scanner emits static in the corner, and he wears a gray suit and a tie, similar to the one he’s wearing in an old black and white photograph from Galesburg in 1969.
Sometimes, the retired Chief of Galesburg Police thinks about the story he says saved his life, especially in light of recent protests like those in Ferguson, Mo, the student-led walkout last spring or faculty-initiated proposals to change Campus Safety’s structure.
Sometimes, he just wonders what happened to the girl in the kitchen.
He thinks the year was 1968; it might have been 1969 or 1970. The nation was abuzz with the Vietnam War and anti-conflict riots. At a time of distrust between young people and the police, Schlaf was both young and a police officer.
At the time, Campus Safety only consisted of one or two men, and Galesburg residents often came and bothered students in the Seymour Library. To defray the tension, Knox hired a few off-duty Galesburg officers to work in the library and keep an eye on the campus. Schlaf, then 23, worked second shift as a reserve librarian.
They weren’t fooled, Schlaf says. It took them “about 15 minutes” to realize the so-called reserve librarians were undercover cops.
“I’ve often said that, as the administration frequently does, they underestimated the wisdom of the students,” Schlaf says.
Part of his job was to close the library at night, which he did with a young woman — a senior — named Kathy. He doesn’t remember her last name, but he knows she was an English major.
They spent the evenings closing up the library and talking about anything and everything, but they often talked about his role as a police officer and her role as a student.
“We were comparable in age, but different in function because of just where we were at,” Schlaf says. “She’s a college student, I’m a police officer. If you read the paper, we’re not supposed to get along.”
Schlaf remembers one of their last nights together; they were shelving books and chatting. Kathy told him she had a different view of the police and current events because she had an opportunity to talk face-to-face with a cop. He agreed that his preconceived notions had been challenged, too.
“You’ll find that what you’ve seen with me is really the same across the board. The officers are just people. They’re doing a job, trying to do it as best they can,” Schlaf told her.
Maybe, Kathy said. But she said a bad experience with a policeman had previously colored her views of all officers.
Schlaf pushed back. It could have been a bad day for the officer, he said. It could’ve just been a bad encounter.
“John,” she said, “nothing you would tell me would change my mind about the way I was treated by this police officer.”
One year earlier in a fraternity house on West Street, Kathy and her boyfriend heard the back door open and slam. They heard someone run up the stairs. Then, the back door opened again.
Someone was in the house, they thought, but they couldn’t hear him.
They turned around to see a police officer looking directly at them. He was about 6’ 2” with blonde hair and wore a police helmet. He looked like a typical Gestapo pig, like out of a movie, Kathy later told Schlaf.
“He was just glaring at us. And then he said ‘Who just came in here?’”
They didn’t know. He asked again, seeking clarification. To Kathy, it seemed like the officer thought she and her boyfriend were lying. He glared at them with “utter contempt,” Kathy later told Schlaf.
Without saying a word, the police officer turned on his heels and walked out.
“Why did he treat us that way? Why would he be in our house?” Kathy asked Schlaf.
Schlaf mulled over this. He knew who the officer was, and told her it wasn’t as bad as she thought.
“No, I’m telling you, nothing you can say will change my mind,” Kathy said.
It was Schlaf.
He remembers it like it was yesterday. It was late spring, and he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, a jacket, a tie and a police helmet that made his young daughter cry every time she saw it. He was driving a Plymouth south on West Street, when he saw a man lying in the grass with a rifle.
Suddenly, the only thing Schlaf could think about was the Texas Tower Massacre just a few years earlier in the summer of 1966, when a man killed 16 students and wounded 32.
It was the deadliest shooting on an American college campus until the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings.
“It was a volatile time,” Schlaf said.
He parked his car and started running. The man disappeared into the fraternity house. Panting, he approached the young girl and boy in the kitchen.
They blew him off.
Frustrated, Schlaf ran upstairs to find the man and his weapon. It was a pellet gun.
Minutes later, Schlaf bounded down the stairs, satisfied with his encounter. Everything was squared away and safe again. He had done his job.
He had already practically forgotten about the girl in the kitchen.
As Schlaf’s sister would say, the reunion of the police officer and college student a year later was a “God thing.”
“I can’t tell you enough what a profound moment that was,” Schlaf says.
They realized that they had projected stereotypes onto the other.
“She had added inches to my height and changed my hair color to be more Aryan,” Schlaf says. “To be more German. To be more Gestapo-ish.”
He says what Kathy taught him probably saved his life a few times. It made him a better police officer.
“It’s about reading and understanding people, because that’s what being a police officer is all about — trying to support people and give people whatever their needs are at the time,” he says.
He learned not to be too opinionated or quick to judge. These are precepts he says have recently again become particularly relevant, both at Knox and across the country.
The interaction informed the way he served in his role as a police officer, later as the Chief of Police and now as Director of Campus Safety, especially in regard to protesting.
“I don’t have to agree, I don’t have to disagree. I don’t have to oppose somebody’s opposition just because I think I should,” he says.
Schlaf wonders where Kathy is now, or if the interaction had a similarly profound effect on her. He wonders if she’s a Supreme Court Judge, or if she’s married. She’s probably in her sixties, he realizes.
But to him, she’ll always be the girl in the kitchen.