Monday, April 26, 2010

Letter to a high-school girl, part 4

You asked: "Did you go to college during the 1960's?" and "What was your college experience like in the 1960's?"

I was at the U of M on and off from 1962 to 1972. The first two years were like a continuation of the 50's, as I've mentioned. My impression was that things started changing in the fall of 1964, when the first baby-boomers hit campus. The "weekly silent vigil to end the Vietnam War" started then - a few people standing by the fence surrounding the Armory at 17th and University for one hour, noon to 1 pm, every Wednesday. They kept this up every day until the last US troops left Vietnam in 1975, by the way, and it was written up in the papers at the time.

I had a distressing experience at the Newman Center in the fall of 1964. The Newman Center (named after John Henry Newman, an important figure in the Church of England in the 19th century, who converted to Rome) had daily noon Mass, and one day they started singing the Gelineau Psalms to guitar (quite an innovation in itself) accompaniment. Now in the psalms the word "Y-h-w-h" is spoken out loud in full, and I was shocked, because to pious Jews that is the Holy Name of God, too holy to be uttered by mortal lips. (I learned that from learning about Judaism in high school and after.) If you ever look at a Hebrew Bible you will see the word
often, and when a pious Jew reads Scripture aloud, he (or she) will substitute the word "Adonai" ("Lord") - which is why in Bibles you see the work LORD in small caps or italicized.

Anyway, this was the age of ecumenism, when people of good will of every faith were reaching out and trying to discover common ground. (There is plenty of it, I have to add. Your family is Lutheran, mainly, and I'm Roman Catholic, but what unites us is more important than what divides us, though the divisions are real and wide. And the Christian tree has its roots in Jewish soil.) So afte Mass was over, I went to one of the singers, a guy I knew from De La Salle, two years younger thanme, and I said, "Russ, the psalm contains the holy name of God that pious Jews will never say out loud - and if any kids from Hillel Foundation walk in here and hear that, they'll never come back, because it's offensive to them." And Russ said to me, "Bob, this is the way it's going to be around here, and if you don't like it you can get the hell out." So much for liberal tolerance.

I had another experience about 1968 or 1969, when a young black woman told me to my face I was a racist just because I was white. I could have told her about my fellow-workers at the hotel and our good relations there, but she had an "attitude" and it turned me off. So much for liberal open-mindedness.

In January 1969 (as I recall) a bunch of students (and some were not), mostly black, broke into the University administration building, occupied it for some time (some people say now only a day or so, but my memory is different), and trashed the place to the tune of dozens of thousands of dollars of damage. They refused to come out until the U met their demands, which included the creation of a Black Studies department funded by the U but administered by the Twin Cities black community. (The department did get started.) The general feeling on the part of a majority of the student body (as I recall) was that the University Police should just go in there and arrest them all. In the 1969 legislative session, the legislature slashed the U's budget request by about 1/3, and some of the legislators said in print that the action was deliberately punitive.

In the spring of 1970, US troops made an incursion into Cambodia, and there was a call for a nationwide "student strike," which many students and some teachers at the U took part in. I didn't. It was my last undergraduate quarter, and I wanted that degree and diploma. A few of the students in the theater department posted a "manifesto" condemning the war and the US involvement and especially the Cambodia incursion (fine) -- but claimed they spoke for the entire theater department, faculty and students. I went around posting up my own manifestos saying that they didn't speak for me. Sometime during the quarter, some of the self-proclaimed leaders of the strike in the theater department convened a big gathering in Scott Hall (the main theater) and demanded the theater faculty to shut down the theater department. I remember "Doc" Whiting, the department chairman, who had built the department almost singlehandedly during the 1930's and who had won accreditation for the BA program, plead with the students not to shut the U down. He had tears in his eyes as he told us that he had seen the intellectual lights going out in Europe in the 1930's (because of Nazism and Communism), that a university was parctically the only place where completely free speech was allowed and encouraged. He practically begged the kids not to do it. But they did it. I was working on my senior project at the time, designing furniture for a kids' production of "Don Quixote," and the scene shop was next to the Armory, which was a favorite target of the peaceniks' anger. When the students at UMD tried to burn down the armory on the Duluth campus, the U of M police ordered the scene shop closed, and I had to carry the furniture to another building, by hand with very little help. I couldn't force my crew to help me (nor dcould I give them bad marks), because the U authorities cooperated with the strike by saying that any student who "struck" would not be penalized. Well, I got everything done one way or another. I think the show opened on a Saturday afternoon and was to play two matinee performances. On the Saturday, the director told me he wanted some extra trimmings on the set and wanted me to coime in Sunday morning to do the work. I replied that I would be going to church, and he said "F--- church!" I didn't do what he wanted. So much for liberal acceptance of religion and my conscience.

In the winter of 1971, when I was in graduate school, working on my MA in theater, the legislature slashed the U's budget 2/3 (as I recall) and again made no secret that it was a punitive action. That made a big difference to me, because I was hoping for a career in academic theater, and with the budget cuts there were no new hires, and some cutting of staff. So there went nine years of work down the drain, so I thought at the time. I tried to keep on with the schooling, but I must have felt "What's the point?" and left the U for good in the spring of 1972. Not coincidentally, that was the last major upset on campus, when a great number of students did a sit-down in the middle of Washington Avenue, a major artery through campus and the bridge across the river. I realized then that my college career was over for good; part of it was that I was tired of studying, part was I was out of money, and part (as I look back) was that the U wasn't the same U that I had entered ten years before. It was all very depressing, and I remember the whole year of 1972 as sort of a gloomy dreary haze.

The world was a whole different place, so different from 1962 that I remember wondering where I fit in or even if I fit in. Well, I stuck at my job at the hotel until 1973, for lack of anything else to do, and in March 1974 I went to work for the Highway Department. Now this is kind of funny in a way, because I started in 1962 as a civil engineering student, got a degree and did graduate study in theater, but ended up working for the Highway Dept. and MnDOT for 27 years as a civil engineering technician.

You asked: "Looking back at the decade what are your feelings like about the 1960's?"

Looking back on it all, I feel it was a great change in American society, but not an improvement. We were a better nation when I was growing up. It was during that decade that the attitude "old is bad, new is good" crept into society and has stayed. It was then that Margaret Mead, the eminent anthropologist, said "This generation has nothing to learn from the past." I thought she'd lost her marbles. In the late sixties or early seventies, Alvin Toffler wrote Future Shock, the main point of which, as I recall, was that the pace of change in society was speeding up, and pretty soon changes would happen so fast that no one could keep up with them. I think he was right.

But I did get a very solid and well-rounded education at De La Salle and the U of M, and I still use it, and no one can take it away from me. My Christian faith was solidified and strengthened by being challenged by half-believers and unbelievers. I discovered through reading, study, discussion, and being challenged that nothing on earth can disprove the truth of the Christian faith. The country has changed, but insofar as I have kept to the ideals of my boyhood and youth, I have not; which makes me an outcast in the Land Of Political Correctness. But that's okay, and to be expected, because this is exactly what Jesus warned would happen to His followers.

"God writes straight with crooked lines," says an old proverb. For instance, if I hadn't joined MnDOT, I would never have met your mom, and I would never have known you, and I wouldn't be sitting here writing my story for you. God knows what He's doing. He put me on earth in exactly the right time and place to experience what I did and be able to pass it along. Praise the Lord!

"Rejoice in the Lord, always, I say, rejoice!"

* * * * *

Well, A----, I could go on and write another book for you, but you wouldn't have time to read it and process it. You'll be short on time as it is, I've given you so much. Allow me to sort of play "crusty old Grandpa" for a minute - look over my bifocals and shake my cane at you and say, "Young lady, don't wait so long to start the paper." Seriously though, I know how hard-pressed you are for time and energy.

My best wishes to you and all the family!
Take care and God bless,

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