The family was transferred home in 1966. Edwards eventually enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where her father was appointed to head the naval ROTC. Stateside, she began piecing together what she had absorbed in Japan. Surrounded for the first time by a wide range of independent news sources, she found herself compelled to join her classmates in protesting the Vietnam War. "The movement was so powerfully alive on our campus that no one could be on the sidelines," says classmate Grady Ballenger, now a dean at Florida's Stetson University. The spark for Edwards came in May 1970, when she saw on TV that Ohio National Guardsmen had killed four students during a protest at Kent State University. Running from her room, she blurted out the news to a group of dorm mates sitting in the common area. One of them looked up from their game of cards. "They probably deserved it," he said.
The moment was pivotal. "I realized I only had two choices," Edwards recalls. "I could either protest what had happened or be exactly like that guy playing cards." Soon she was participating in the rallies and a class boycott that practically shut down the campus. At the same time, she remained close to her parents, who frequently invited her friends to their Chapel Hill home. Ever the military daughter, Edwards found herself defending the soldiers even as she protested the war. "I'd met these people when I was in Japan," she says. "My father had gone to Vietnam. Other family friends had gone. I didn't have any hesitation saying that it's the people in Washington that we have to be mad at, not these kids." Likewise, her father never took a hard line against the protesters. When dozens of professors agreed to grant amnesty to the students who boycotted classes, Vincent Anania announced that he would too.
One day C. Hugh Holman, who taught the only class Edwards continued to attend, an American novel survey, asked the reason she was striking.
"We have to," she told him.
"You know, it's not going to make any difference," Holman insisted.
"We know that," Edwards replied. "We still have to."
"Why don't you just comb your hair?"
Lewis Leary's comment came from nowhere. The iconic literature scholar—he had been teaching since the '30s—was leading a graduate seminar on Henry James, and his long conference table was a coveted place for Chapel Hill students. "He was a charismatic, rascally guy," says classmate Ballenger. "He loved provoking and annoying us. He especially loved Elizabeth because he could challenge her and she wouldn't back down." That afternoon Edwards sat next to the professor. "She had the blackest, shiniest hair and the palest blue eyes, and the contrast was startling," says John Auchard, a classmate who went on to coauthor John Edwards's book Four Trials. But she had bicycled to class that day. Her hair was tousled.
Shocked by his comment, Edwards turned to the professor. "I cannot believe you said that to me." Leary—"a little cowed," as Elizabeth puts it—backed off.
"We were so proud of her," Ballenger says. "We all knew he had a crush on her—as we all did."