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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

A 48-Year-Old Senior

In His 28 Year Detour From Harvard, Marshall Ganz Made History

By Stephen E. Frank

When Marshall Ganz left Harvard in the summer of 1964, he had every intention of returning in the fall.

But the 60s were "intoxicating times," Ganz says. And he was drawn into the fabled activism of the era.

After a detour that lasted nearly three decades, the 48-year-old Ganz is back at the College finishing his senior year.

Of course, calling the last 28 years a detour does not do Ganz justice.

In that time he was on the streets of Mississippi registering Black voters even before the passage of the land-mark 1965 Voting Right Act.

He worked side by side with Cesar Chavez, the founder and leader of the United Farm Workers.

And just after Robert F. Kennedy won the California primary in 1968, Ganz was walking alongside the Senator when he was shot.

"I was supposed to come back to school [in 1964]," Ganz says. "But making history was more exciting than reading about it."

From Bakersfield To Harvard

Ganz began his career at Harvard in 1960, coming to study at the College from his small town home of Bakersfield, California.

"Kennedy was just elected," he says, "and he took a large chunk of the faculty with him to Washington. It felt like [Harvard was] the center of the world."

After two years, though, Ganz decided to take some time off. He went home to California, where he spent eight months working in Berkeley, a hotbed of student activism.

"I needed time to reflect on what to do next," he says, reminiscing about halcyon days spent living in the shadow of the era's emerging hippie culture.

"The civil rights stuff had just started. There was a kind of political folk scene just starting up," he recalls. "Those winds were sweeping through the Bay area."

Ganz, who spent much of his free time that year on the University of California at Berkeley campus, says he "got turned on to the music scene."

The songs of Pete Seeger, Joan Biaz and Bob Dylan contained the important messages of the era, Ganz says, messages about the need for young people to become socially active.

"[Music] was part of the language of the era," he says. "It was a cultural critique becoming a political critique. It was very challenging to hear it that way."

That challenge was the first step in Ganz's political transformation.

Ganz says he returned more "Politically minded" to a Harvard campus "that had gotten a lot more political."

One of his roommates had spent the summer of 1963 in Virginia, working with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), while another had joined the Harvard chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Ganz, too, decided to get involved. He joined a group called Friends of SNCC, and started hosting visits by civil rights workers from the South.

Then, in the fall of 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

"I was in my room at the top of Winthrop House," Ganz says. "Somebody came in and said, "The President's been shot."

"It was like, Jesus, how could this be," Ganz remembers. "People began crying."

Ganz, whose father was a rabbi, sought solace in St. Paul's Catholic church.

"I just wanted to sit someplace where [I] could deal with it," he says. "The place just seemed to fill up."

"His presidency kind of communicated...a sense of the possible in a moral sense--to make things better, to make it a good world," Ganz recalls. "When he was killed, [there was] a tremendous sense of loss."

It wasn't uncommon for young people in the 60s to be inspired by Kennedy with a surge of idealism. But for Ganz, Kennedy's death was a formative moment in an unusually idealistic life.

Ganz says the president's death challenged him to get more involved in the civil rights movement. In the spring of 1964 he went to Atlanta for a SNCC convention. That summer, he and several other Harvard students worked for SNCC, registering voters in Mississippi.

"In Mississippi, Blacks still couldn't register to vote," he says. "After the Freedom Rides, the Civil Rights Act...registering to vote was still a problem."

On the way down to Mississippi, Ganz and the group of SNCC activists stopped in Oxford, Ohio for training in methods of non-violent protest and adjusting to the highly polarized culture of the deep South.

One student, Andy Goodman, left for Mississippi early and on his own. Goodman became one of the three civil rights workers thought to be lynched, a incident which was the focus of the film Mississippi Burning.

Sobered by the news of Goodman's disappearance, Ganz continued on to Mississippi where he worked to send protest delegates to the national Democratic convention. There they would confront the racist Mississippi Democratic Caucus.

The convention was a disappointment for Ganz.

"For those of us in the movement, [our] evaluation turned from Mississippi as the exception in America to Mississippi as an example of America," he says.

And after the convention, Ganz returned to Bakersfield a different man.

"I grew up in Bakersfield but never saw it like I saw it after working in Mississippi," he says. "It was such a transforming experience. I saw things I didn't see before."

Under the leadership of Cesar Chavez, the poor treatment of local migrant farm workers was beginning to attract national attention.

"Cesar Chavez was starting the grape strike, [and] I had a friend who was working with Cesar," he says. "I saw it as an extension of the civil rights movement in California."

Drawing on his experiences in Mississippi, Ganz played a key role in organizing grass roots movements for the Chavez's United Farm Workers (UFW).

In Jacques Levy's Cesar Chavez, the legendary UFW founder remembers meeting Marshall Ganz.

"When I went to Bakersfield ...Marshall was there," Chavez says. "After my talk, he came up to say hello, and someone told me he had just come from Mississippi. I made a point of talking to him some more.

Ganz was eventually elected to the nine-person executive committee of the UFW. And then, in 1968, at the request of presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy, Ganz helped direct a massive get-out-the-vote campaign in California.

After Kennedy's victory in the primary, the senator wanted to meet with the farm workers. Ganz was leading Kennedy through the Ambassador hotel when Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan.

"Me and another guy were sent up to get him," Ganz recalls. "Then all of a sudden, [as] we got up on stage heading to the kitchen, the crowd froze [and] started moving backwards. People began shouting, 'He's been shot.'"

"His assassination was more pivotal to the country than his brother's" Ganz says. "He really could have made it happen."

Ganz's interest in politics led him to campaign for Jerry Brown in the late 1970s. And by 1981, he had left the UFW to work with other unions and political campaigns full time.

"I needed a breather," he says. "It had been a long struggle organizing for 18 years [and] I wanted to see about making grass roots organizing more widespread."

Ganz says the decline in the strength of unions nation wide made his work more difficult. By the late 80s--having found ways to use computer technology to better target voters--he had become almost exclusively involved in working with Democratic political candidates.

Techniques of grass roots organization and voter targeting that Ganz pioneered were proven capable of winning campaigns for candidates on extremely tight budgets.

"We got Maureen O'Connor elected mayor of San Diego for $150,000," Ganz says.

And just six weeks before California Senator Alan Cranston's hotly contested re-election campaign in 1986--in which each candidate spent $13 million--Ganz received a call from Cranston asking for help.

Despite the longshot odds of being able to organize a grass roots campaign overnight, Ganz says, "I decided to give it a shot."

In the end, it worked.

"We turned out 160,000 voters for Cranston," he says, "and he won the election by 105,000 votes."

Later, in a major get-out-the vote campaign for Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988, Ganz helped deliver 750,000 votes.

By 1990, however, Ganz decided it was time for another pause to rethink his priorities. He had become disenchanted with the cynicism of politics.

"I had spent so many years on [learning] how to do these things, that I lost sight of why," he says. "Then I remembered--I'd never graduated."

Ganz contacted Harvard and arranged to return and complete his senior year. He and his wife, a Bunting fellow who graduated from Harvard in 1979, share an apartment in Cambridge. And he is still affiliated with Winthrop House.

"It's been really interesting," Ganz says. "I'm doing more reading than I've done in years."

Ganz spends most of his academic time concentrating on modern American history and government. His thesis is on--What else?--the decline in political participation in the United States since 1960.

"It's valuable to reflect on my experience in the context of my academic work," he says, "and it's great to find out what undergraduates are thinking."

Ganz says he has not yet decided what he will do when he graduates, although he is considering more academic work.

"I may want to do more academic stuff at the K-School," he says. "Or maybe I'll be ready to take a shot at round two."

"I'll Just take it as it comes," he says.

For Marshall Ganz, it's a strategy that seems to work just fine.

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