Strange Days

Strange days are exactly what found the Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1972 during their first year in the spring of 1969.
By Audrey J. Boguchwal

Strange days are exactly what found the Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1972 during their first year in the spring of 1969. On April 9, 1969, after a year of political turmoil and rising tensions between administrators and students nationwide, members of the Harvard chapter of the activist group Students for Democratic Society (SDS) took over University Hall. Late that night, University Hall was set upon by state troopers and the Cambridge police, who put an end to the occupation. The reverberations from the takeover are still felt on campus today, in ways ranging from the riot-proof design of Canaday Hall, which was completed in 1974, to the Progressive Student Labor Movement’s own Mass. Hall takeover in the spring of 2001.

The takeover made a particularly strong impact on the Class of 1972, who found themselves locked within Harvard Yard during the imbroglio. It was their first year—all of the men lived in the Yard. (The women were still living at Radcliffe.)

Members of the class convened in Cambridge for their 30th reunion recently, and a few shared their memories of the takeover and the surrounding events with FM.

Susan P. Underwood ’72: I remember coming out of a science class that met from 12 to 1 and finding out that the SDS people had taken over University Hall. No one was blocking the way into the Yard yet, so I walked over to U-Hall and went on in.

People were everywhere. There were people in the dean’s office going through the student records, looking up things about themselves and their friends, going through all the private information that the University had about them. I didn’t get into that room, unfortunately. There were no administrators in the building at that time. I’m not sure if they had left on their own, or if they had already been kicked out or if perhaps they were just out to lunch.

There had been a discussion about whether to take over University Hall at one of the SDS meetings, but there hadn’t been a decision to actually do it. The people taking it over that day were a splinter group. Since we had been thinking of a takeover, we did have six demands—then we added two more to make eight at the takeover. Three of them had to do with kicking ROTC off campus. I don’t remember them exactly, I have a shirt at home with them all silk-screened onto it. The other original three had to do with stopping Harvard expansion into the community. One of the two demands added during the demonstration was to create an Afro-American studies department. That wasn’t an SDS demand, but there was a black students group that saw the takeover and decided to join, so we added that demand to our list. The last demand was for amnesty for all of the students involved in the takeover.

The SDS people were in U-Hall all night before anything happened. During the afternoon, people were coming and going—I remember leaving to go to dinner. The University didn’t call the police until about 5 a.m. At that time, I was on the steps of the building; I wasn’t inside. I remember the police pushed people aside on the steps and started pulling people out of the building. They came in with their riot gear, masks and billy clubs. All of the freshman boys, who lived in the Yard, were just looking out their windows. They had locked us all in there at that point—they had locked the gates to the Yard.

The takeover wasn’t my first radical experience. The summer before college I had worked on Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign and I got tear-gassed at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I think that event radicalized me. Still, I had come to college expecting to go into Boston to demonstrate. I had never expected anything to happen at Harvard.

I do think the takeover radicalized a lot of my classmates. If they had pooh-poohed the movement before, they changed their minds when they saw their friends getting hit in the head with billy clubs by the police.

William K. Martin ’72: I was on the steps of my dorm—Thayer South—that morning in ’69 that the bust took place. The Beatles song “Revolution” was blaring from a stereo in Weld Hall. All that afternoon, as the tension was building, my room became Ground Zero for all the reporters. It was on the first floor, so when the guys from the Washington Post and The New York Times needed a phone, they’d come knocking. Something would happen and they would need to get to a phone immediately—such were the days before cell phones.

The bust itself was very upsetting—at 5 a.m. there was a piercing shriek, a high-pitched buzz. The SDS had pulled all of the fire alarms in all of the dorms when they figured out that there was a bust coming. Buses pulled up between Mem Church and Thayer, right outside my window. The state police had come out for this. It was like a scene out of the movies, out of Spartacus—they got off the bus, lined up in phalanxes and marched over to University Hall. I wonder if this was just all in a day’s work for them or if the felt anything about marching towards these kids. The police marched forward, and Harvard was politicized.

It was an incredibly dramatic moment that gave me a complete sense of dislocation. All of the roots that I’d put down in the community were torn loose, making me wonder, “Now where do I fit?” And it didn’t stop there. It went on for another year, until the 1970 riot. I think the 1970 event was bigger. After the National Guard shot those kids at Kent State, there was a riot that started in Boston. A crowd of anarchists had gathered—hundreds of them—and marched down Mass. Ave., setting fire to things and exploding tear gas. At this point, I repelled all of it—I thought, “This isn’t the way to effect change. This is anarchy! We can’t survive like this, we need civil and social order.” I cut myself off from it. I thought, “This is not how it is done.” I went over to the side of the University because of what I saw, and I considered myself a political liberal.

Neil F. Martin ’72: Things were changing rapidly. There was a transition from the old Harvard. The classes before us, even ’71, accepted parietals [the regulations governing the visiting privileges of members of the opposite sex in dorms] and the old ways.

Scott A. Abell ’72-’73: I think that the demonstrations caused people to choose more diverse careers. They became much more aware of the world. Many went into journalism and public service instead of business or medicine. I think our class is sometimes seen as apathetic because we don’t have those core groups of businessmen for fundraising.

I think everyone on campus at the time shared a great passion for whatever they were doing. There were passionate conservatives, passionate moderates, and passionate liberals. Viewpoints were scattered, which made for an outward appearance of apathy. We weren’t polarized, either—that implies two distinct viewpoints. We were all focused on our own diverse interests. People would get involved in organizations that weren’t as vocal as the SDS, but they were still driven by genuine concerns. In general, people cared a lot about the University, but not all in the same way. There are so many misconceptions about our class because of the takeover and the riots.

John J. Crump ’72: I think it was the exact opposite of apathy. People had strong feelings against the University. There were certain people who harbored feelings of hurt, bitterness, antagonism for many years after school ended.

Abell: I think the demonstrations were driven by the openness of debate. The administration was very open at that time. There is a misconception that the takeover was a standoff against the University, but in reality, it was a multifaceted event with a real passion behind it. Everyone, not only the liberals, had a venue for debate and the right to speak out about their views.

Robert E. Shapiro ’72: We didn’t feel coerced, that we had to occupy University Hall. Many members of the administration encouraged debate. There was a huge movement to protect everyone’s right to speak.

While the political climate made the social atmosphere of the university very exciting, I think the academic side suffered. We were so distracted, but the exposure to world issues was galvanizing. We all muddled through our classes one way or another. It was sort of education by osmosis.

Crump: It was a tumultuous but interesting and exciting time to be at Harvard. The most interesting in the past two centuries, I think.

Gerald R. Toner ’72: I remember in ’69, my friend Bill [Martin] here called me at 5 a.m. to tell me that there was a bust coming. I lived in Matthews, he lived in Thayer. I knew about the takeover, but I’d fallen asleep. I think I heard the chaining of the gates, but I thought it was a dream.

I remember visiting Harvard when I applied in ’68. McCarthy had just electrified the country and Bobby Kennedy [’47] was campaigning. There were all these enlightened, enthusiastic people walking around the campus. All of the political organizations already existed at that point. But everything hit as I entered my freshman year. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, and McCarthy lost the nomination. I didn’t feel that I could join any of the campus political organizations or that I could get into legitimate political channeling.

I didn’t want the protests about the war to go over the line and become radical expressions with no meaning behind them. I remember when the police took kids out of University Hall in ’69, it all turned. Everyone felt differently because the police overreacted. But there were many strikes before the flame took to the tinder.

Elsie D. Wilson Thomas ’72: I was there, but nothing exciting happened. I saw it all.

I remember it was the first decent weather that we had in April. It was the most beautiful day after a long winter. Most college campuses go nuts in early April, but I think the reaction at Harvard that spring was excessive.

I was a Radcliffe student, so I didn’t live in the Yard. I actually climbed over a fence to watch the takeover because the gates had been locked, which I resented. I was a student there, too! I sat on the Widener Library steps.

The bust came at dawn. The National Guard saw these kids as punks. I don’t know if they were reluctant to do their job. It was terribly sad. I don’t think anyone anticipated that it would end how it ended—no one expected Harvard to call in the state troopers.

I think I became more cynical, seeing who left the building and who stayed until the end. It’s true, many people were very committed to the SDS movement. But it was interesting to see who left University Hall before the bust came. Many of the organizers, the older students left, leaving the freshmen locked in the Yard. Many freshmen were beaten by the police when the bust arrived, long after the organizers had fled.

Sharon R. Weinstein ’72: I was on the periphery of the takeover. I felt on the outs living in the Quad. Many of the Radcliffe students weren’t as involved. We heard about the takeover in the Quad and we went over to the Yard, but it was locked. So we walked back to Radcliffe. There was such spirit and intensity present in the Yard, and then when we got back to Radcliffe, they served us sherry, ostensibly to calm our nerves. It was such a contradiction.

Janette H. Harris ’72: The radical left had a huge presence. Their views were accepted as normal, so the less radical liberals, not to mention everyone else, were seen as reactionary, out of it, or even wicked. It was very painful and difficult. Everyone in certain professions was characterized as a vile person. It was actually very simplistic. The tone of the publications on campus was the same.

Timothy W. Peltason ’72: It was not a good time to be someone who got along with his parents.

Harris: I always felt that much of the impulse to protest came from anger and unhappiness in people’s personal lives.

Peltason: There was a youthful rebelliousness that took the form of the SDS movement. The excitements of that time, for me, had more to do with the music and the culture at large than the politics of Harvard University. There is a distinction between politics and unspecific acts of outrage for pure pleasure. There was a lot of admirable political passion and a lot of unadmirable self-righteousness.

Harris: Many of those people became doctors and lawyers and went on to live their own lives, but some of them did become organizers for various unions. Some of them are genuinely involved in politics and they weren’t just into it because it was the party of the moment. But there were some people who jumped on the bandwagon just for the fun of it.

Young men had been very worried about the draft. It was going to take over and possibly destroy their lives, this thing that they didn’t even want to do. The draft lottery was sometime during sophomore year, in ’69 or ’70. I remember watching the lottery on TV.

Peltason: I had two draft numbers, and the second was better than the first. Fifty-three, and then 188. The higher number meant that I had less of a chance of going.

I don’t think the events in ’69 and ’70 changed my academic and professional influences, but those years had the tremendous effect of giving me the flavor of the time. There were things about the period that I liked and things that I didn’t like.

Harris: That entire generation of college boys was at risk once they left college—both their careers and their lives. People did things to make themselves “unfit”—I had a friend who would fast and take a lot of drugs. I believe he was rejected.

Steven M. Berzin ’72: The 1969 riots were right outside my window in Stoughton. I stayed in the room with my roommate for the most part. I think we might have gone to the door, but we didn’t go outside. My Math 21 TF had been arrested and he was always urging us to go to demonstrations like this. But I wasn’t supporting it—I thought it was awful, taking over a University building.

During the 1970 riots, I was in the Phoenix Club, on Mt. Auburn Street. The anarchists from Boston were marching down Mt. Auburn Street. We were having a black-tie dinner at the time of the demonstration. The protesters broke the windows on the first level of the club and threw tear gas. I felt like I was in the Winter Palace. We went upstairs and stood out on the balcony—in black tie—and stayed there until it all cleared.

Those were strange days, though.

In The Meantime