June 19, 2021
Lawrence, US 87 F
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Who killed Nick Rice? Part 2: Staying carefree in a time of strife

About this article: In July 1970, 18-year-old Nick Rice was shot and killed on the KU campus. The circumstances of the killing were murky, and the shooter was never publicly identified. Now, with the help of newly obtained investigative documents, The Lawrence Times is shedding light on the case in this extended series. Read the whole series here.

Harry Nicholas “Nick” Rice was known for his carefree disposition, which he tried to maintain as much as was possible for an 18-year-old in 1970. 

His friends described him as a nice guy who was always willing to do a favor for someone. Laura Klock, his neighbor and landlord at the Kansas City, Missouri, apartment where he was living in the summer of 1970, told FBI investigators that Rice was, in a nutshell, “wonderful people.”

Although he was supportive of the anti-war movement on KU’s campus and described in news reports at the time as “sympathetic toward progressive change,” Rice seemed to be someone who actively avoided more bombastic political topics — at least as much as someone who drew number 27 in the Selective Service draft could.

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During Rice’s freshman year at KU, he also seemed to avoid much of the protest and unrest that rocked the campus. In fact, he was one of several KU student volunteers who received a commendation from the city for helping extinguish the fire at the Kansas Union on April 20, 1970. 

But otherwise, Rice, who had grown up in Leawood, lived an easygoing life. He loved playing pinball, had many friends and acquaintances across campus, and liked to hang out at the Rock Chalk Café, a dive bar that stood on the site that is now the Oread Hotel. 

The biggest news for Nick during that tumultuous year was in his personal life: he had begun dating a woman named Cecily “Sam” Stephens, a Lawrence native, and they got engaged on July 18. Nick proposed in the early morning hours of that Sunday while the couple was sitting on a hill in Lawrence near the house where Stephens lived. Since Nick seemed likely to be drafted to go to Vietnam, he and Sam planned on getting married as soon as possible. 

The Rock Chalk Café stood for years at the site of what is now the Oread Hotel, on the north end of the University of Kansas campus. (Photo courtesy KU digital archives)

Their love for each other is what brought them to Lawrence on the night of Tuesday, July 20. Neither of them were thinking about the civil unrest that was gripping the city; Sam just missed Nick, who had started his work week in Kansas City as an orderly at Baptist Hospital.  

She sprung for the $2 bus fare from Lawrence to Kansas City and arrived around 6 p.m. But when she called Nick from the bus station to tell him she was in town, he said she could’ve saved the trip — he was about to leave for Lawrence. He needed to pay a minor traffic ticket for parking in a yellow zone in front of the Rock Chalk Café, and he didn’t want to have to take off from work the next day to go to court.

Chris Rice Nick Rice’s traffic ticket

Before leaving Kansas City, Rice chatted with his neighbor and landlord, Klock, and said he was going to Lawrence to pay the traffic ticket and take his girlfriend back to town. He stopped at the bus stop to pick up Sam, and the two also gave a ride to Jim Shoftstall, a mutual friend who lived in Kansas City and had also just finished his first year at KU. 

By the time the three got to Lawrence, it was close to 7:30 p.m., and when Rice tried to pay the fine for his ticket, he found the court had closed for the day. He told Sam and Jim, however, that an official inside the court had said he could mail in the payment rather than having to show up for court the next day. 

Since they’d made the 50-mile trip into town, Nick, Sam and Jim decided to hang around. Around 8 p.m., they parked Nick’s blue Volkwagen near the Oread neighborhood, and he and Sam went to the Rock Chalk Café for their favorite activity: playing pinball. Jim visited some friends in the area and rejoined Nick and Sam within the hour.

Engrossed in a strong game of pinball, Nick was oblivious to what was taking shape just outside the café. With his carefree attitude, he “hadn’t read the papers and didn’t know” much about the unrest in Lawrence, his parents Harry and Esther would later tell the press. 

Outside, a crowd of 150 people had gathered in and around the café, kicking off the beginning of an unseasonably cool night that had, according to the Lawrence Daily Journal-World, elements of “both a frolic and a tragedy.”

Note:

Unless stated otherwise, all information in this series comes from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s full report into Nick Rice’s death, which includes law enforcement records and interviews with eyewitnesses.

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