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Looking Back 35 Years: The 'Possum Caused a Riot

Police Arrest 28 Students During Square Pogo Rally

By Julie L. Belcove

The image that lingers on in everyone's mind is of Cambridge police clubbing Paul R. Rugo '55, a young, clean-cut freshman, while he lay defenseless on a street in Harvard Square.

Virtually every student in the College saw the photograph that captured that moment splashed across the front page of The Crimson the next morning. And if they didn't see the picture there, they likely saw it a few days later when it was printed as Life magazine's picture of the week.

Rugo was beaten on a hot and humid spring evening during spring reading period 35 years ago. That night, police arrested 28 Harvard students in what has become known as the Pogo Riot, fought in the name of the famous 'possum from Okeefenokee Swamp in Florida who was eliciting a groundswell of grassroots support--in Harvard Square, at least-for election to the presidency of the United States of America.

The Harvard campus first learned of Pogo's candidacy on May 8, 1952, when The Crimson announced the formation of a political movement to counter campus support for the impending presidential candidacies of General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson.

Why Pogo? "It had the faintest possible whiff of social criticism," says Daniel Ellsberg '52. "It was slightly spoofing the establishment." Then, just as the races for the Republican and Democratic nominations were reaching a peak, The Crimson distributed 3000 free "I Go Pogo" buttons to students, who devoured the newspaper's supply of buttons in less than 90 minutes.

Crimson editors decided to take advantage of the new craze. They set up shop in the Winthrop House suite of Jay R. Nussbaum '52.

"The principle editors of the Crime were living in the room next to me," says Nussbaum, who now works for the Agency for International Development in Washington, D.C. "Their policy was never to have a story about their own people. My proximity made my name available to them."

The campaign--with Nussbaum as its figurehead manager--quickly snowballed, and The Crimson invited Pogo's creator, Walt Kelly, to Harvard to deliver a chalk talk for his character.

Everyone got in on the game.

The Harvard Band prepared "to provide cacaphonic background for the melee," The Crimson reported, and students made appropriate signs to welcome Kelly and show their support for Pogo. The student newspaper promised a fresh supply of "I Go Pogo" buttons. Cambridge Police Chief Patrick J. Ready gave his approval for the political demonstration, but warned that patrolmen would be on hand in case the crowd got out of control.

Organizers planned for students to rally across from the Yard, in the spot where Holyoke Center now stands, and then march to the New Lecture Hall to hear Kelly's speech. But things did not come off as planned.

Kelly's arrival from Logan Airport was delayed, and the crowd on Mass. Ave. grew antsy. It also grew large. As the clock ticked on, the number of students milling about the Square waiting for Kelly multiplied from about 200 to 1600.

The density of the crowd increased and the traffic in the Square became terribly congested. The electric trolleys, still in use in 1952, could not make their way through the Square because of the students blocking the streets and the back-up of other traffic. A handful of students, perhaps for lack of anything better to do, began to disconnect the poles linking the trolleys to their source of energy on the wires overhead. Police rushed the crowd, beating and arresting students.

Rugo, now a Boston attorney, says he remembers the evening "like it was yesterday." Dressed in his ROTC uniform, Rugo says, he was walking down Mass. Ave. with his date, now his wife.

"I had nothing to do with the Pogo parade," Rugo says. "All of a sudden it just erupted." Outside of J. August and Co., policemen honed in on Rugo and told him he was under arrest. He received no response when he asked what the charges were against him. "The police swung furiously, and I swung back," he says, adding that his flying punches landed him in the paddy wagon on his way to jail.

Five of the 28 Harvard students towed away by the police were Crimson editors. Meanwhile, Kelly arrived to deliver his speech, which was interrupted several times by spontaneous pogo stick races down the aisles of the auditorium.

The instigator of the mayhem, students who were here at the time say, was Crimson Managing Editor Laurence D. Savadove '53, whom two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning writer J. Anthony Lukas '55 describes as "a shrewd cookie." When Lukas, who later roomed with Savadove in Winthrop, speaks of him, he recalls the New Jersey native's silk chartreuse socks and his success with members of the opposite sex.

But Lukas also characterizes Savadove as brilliant: "a con-man of the first degree." So, Lukas says, when Savadove told him that he intentionally delayed Kelly's arrival in the Square, he believed him.

"Larry masterminded the Pogo Riot," Lukas says. Savadove, it turns out, picked Kelly up at the airport, but took him for a pit stop at at a bar before driving on to Cambridge.

"Savadove deliberately delayed the route so that the crowd would be large and restless," says David Halberstam '55. "Something was likely to happen," Lukas remembers.

Something did.

Others who were editors of The Crimson at the time say they are not sure Savadove planned to be late, but all agree such a stunt fell well within his bag of tricks. "I wouldn't put it past him," says then-Crimson President Philip M., Cronin '53.

A Bloody Town-Gown

The Pogo incident was but another instance of strained relations between Harvard and Cambridge. The student arrests prompted cries of police brutality from The Crimson, the Student Council, and the house committees.

After the paddy wagon pulled into the police station, Rugo was the last to be booked. He says he remembers hearing someone ask him if he were injured. "I thought, at last a civilized person," he says. He turned, and the man clubbed him on the head. Another policeman held off the assailant, as Rugo staggered in the stairwell.

"Cambridge City police were out looking for trouble that night," says Norman Weil '54, a Crimson photographer. Weil was not on duty the night of the rally, but was walking past the disturbance with a date and asked police why they were hassling a fellow photographer. The police then threw him in a paddy wagon, he says.

"The townies were spoiling for a fight," he says. He remembers bailing himself out that night with his $25 weekly allowance, and says the one effect the Pogo Riot has had on his life is that his arrest record delayed his being drafted into the Korean War.

"What the [riot] revealed," says Ellsberg, "was the rage, envy and fury on the part of the police, a hatred for Harvard boys, a chance to beat the shit out of them."

Lukas, who was editing at The Crimson the night of the riot, says he remembers Halberstam and his late brother Michael '53 coming back from the Square covered in blood. But 35 years later Halberstam downplays his injuries. "I had a little tussle with the cops," the author of The Best and the Brightest says.

Not everyone approved of The Crimson's role in the riot. Sidney Verba '53, now the Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the University library, wrote a scathing letter to the newspaper supporting the actions of the police and criticizing the student paper's reporting as biased.

Geyser University Professor Henry Rosovsky, then a Harvard graduate student fighting in Korea. was outraged at the rioting students and condemned them in a letter to The New York Times. "I was absolutely furious about it at the time," the former dean of the Faculty says. Rosovsky says that from his foxhole in Korea, Pogo seemed like quite a trivial reason to have a riot. "I thought it was in bad taste," he says, adding that now, "I'm sort of less taken with myself."

Cronin hired Cambridge Mayor Joseph A. Deguglielmo '29 to defend the five Crimson editors arrested in the rally. When their cases made it to court, most of the 28 students charged pleaded no contest and were let off with just a slap on the wrist.

Sign of the Times

Actively campaigning for a comic strip character, and a 'possum at that, may at first glance seem to be the height of sophomoric absurdity. Whether the Pogo Riot served merely as a forum in which restless College students could release pent-up energies or whether it was indicative of a social and political restlessness remains an issue for debate.

Some say it was just a case of spring fever, much like the panty-raids common to the youths of what has been called the Silent Generation.

"I suppose the Pogo Riot was like a football rally. There wasn't really any serious politics like, `get out and march,' " Verba says. "It was an era that was apolitical. It didn't have quite the bite of the '60."

Adds Weil, "It was a period of still some innocence perhaps."

The period was relatively calm, at least compared to the turmoil that would shake the University and the nation in the next decade. Yet, 1952 was the height of the McCarthy Era, and certainly politics must have played a role in the student population's embracement of Pogo. The Crimson already had a reputation for defying the establishment, as it was in the fourth year of publishing its "Academic Freedom Reports," which detailed stories of scholars around the country persecuted because of their political views.

"In part it was a political statement, a statement of frustration with the established candidates," says Cronin.

Why did The Crimson, normally a bastion of liberalism, fail to back Adlai Stevenson, one of the most respected liberal politicians of his time? Why, instead, did it choose to endorse a comic strip character? Was it all just a joke?

Says Lukas: "We weren't that superficial. We weren't that dumb. We weren't that apolitical."

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