In the fall of 1968, just as Richmond Professional Institute was about to become VCU, Jeffrey Kelso, who was a student government representative for the Students for Liberal Government (SLG), allegedly asserted at an SGA meeting that “a live dog would be sacrificed at VCU on a wooden funeral pyre to protest the horrors of the war in Vietnam” Oct. 29 at an anti-war event called “Time Out.”
The rumor of a “puppy burn” — fired both by Kelso’s nebulous metaphor and spurred by a factually incorrect story in the student newspaper the Proscript — exploded on campus.
“The Students for Liberal Government are about to hang their organization on an ever-shortening rope of rash ideas,” Proscript editor Christy Cooke wrote in the Oct. 18, 1968 issue. “Who can assure us that, in the frenzy of mob spirit, the puppy would not be sacrificed? We need only to look at history — the Nazi party, for example — to see that a mob spirit can actually commit the foulest of crimes once a crowd is uncontrollable.”
The Richmond Times-Dispatch and Richmond News-Leader newspapers picked up the story. Undeterred, and sensing he had everyone’s attention, Kelso played up the rumor, stating that he had a permit and had not broken any laws, without revealing any other details.
Student Government formed a committee solely to study the proposed “puppy burn,” and the RPI administration released a statement Oct. 25 from acting provost Francis J. Brooke, stating nervously in part that “the administration has been repeatedly assured by numerous students that no students intend now, nor had they ever intended, to engage in any act of cruelty to any animal.”
The Proscript realized it had probably made a mistake, and in their Oct. 25, 1968 edition had to issue a part-retraction, part-apology, titled “Comedy of Errors: We should have realized the act was a cheap publicity stunt.”
On that fateful “Time Out,” about 500 students and an untold number of police, animal rights activists, FBI agents, probably CIA agents and even members of the KKK nervously gathered in Monroe Park to hear speeches by SLG reps and national student groups. No dogs were allowed anywhere near the park.
Kelso took the stage to a chorus of boos.
“Why are you really here?” he asked the crowd. “Not to protest the war in Vietnam — no, you are here today to protest the alleged destroying of a puppy … Right now, there is a child-burning taking place in Vietnam.”
Kelso used the opportunity to denounce America’s use of napalm in Vietnam, and the “frenzy of mob spirit” as warned by Cooke never materialized. No puppies were harmed during the rally.
The VCU Board of Visitors stated abruptly in the Oct. 31, 1968 special meeting minutes that “the Rector departed from the prepared Agenda to receive a report from Dr. Charles M. Renneisen, Dean of Students, with respect to the recent ‘Puppy Burn’ matter. Signed and approved by Virginius Dabney, Chairman.”