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Vandalism and Politics Bring the Heat

By M. AIDAN Kelly, Crimson Staff Writer

For the Class of 1981, the first weeks of spring came in a blaze.

A local Vietnamese immigrant attempted to set a visiting scholar on fire in late April. When the Margaret Full House went up in flames the following fall, a member of its board of directors blamed neighborhood terrorists. And one local teenager set fire to Harvard Stadium in the closing days of the ’81 school year.

Most of the stadium’s massive concrete amphitheater was left unharmed, but the arsonist found easy kindling in the wooden press box.

The ancient structure had played home to decades of reporters and commentators, and it has hosted such diverse events as Harvard football games, Olympic soccer matches, and a Bob Marley concert.

The aging 46-year-old press box provided almost no resistance to the encroaching flames. High winds made the fire difficult to control, and by the time the six-alarm response from local firefighters had tamed the blaze, the press box had suffered irreparable damage.

An 18-year-old Arlington, Mass. man was arrested in connection with the crime. The Crimson reported in September 1981 that it was “rumored” that the man was AWOL from the U.S. Navy and had been whisked back by his superiors after he admitted to starting the fire.

‘PHOENIX OF A PRESS BOX’

Reactions following the loss of the venerable press box were mixed, especially among those who knew it best. Though The Crimson called the box “one of the best in the country” in its early years, the structure did not age well.

Bruce G. Schoenfeld ’82, a Crimson sports editor, referred to the box as a “nemesis of sportswriters and broad-casters and, really, no better protection against chilling wind than a tent of Saran,” burned to the ground “by a well-intentioned (and reporter-funded?) arsonist.”

And the fire was not a media spectacle, according to Schoenfeld today, even among those who covered College sports.

Schoenfeld began covering Harvard football in the fall of 1981 from the shiny new press box. He said that he had heard about the fire the previous spring but that “it didn’t really register...by the time the fall came, there was a press box.”

Still, there were concerns that the new press box, constructed on a tight budget of $400,000, would not live up to its predecessor’s legacy, holding 90 fewer seats.

But sports writers have praised its design. Unlike the press box at the Yale Bowl, for instance, the Harvard press box is directly above the field, which gives it a great view of the action. And the latest incarnation of what The Crimson dubbed a “phoenix of a press box” boasts one major advantage over its wooden predecessor: It was built of concrete and would play tough defense against visiting arsonists.

WORLD ON FIRE

The Harvard Stadium press box was not the only flash point that spring. On April 23, 1981, a 28-year-old Vietnamese immigrant named Nguyen Cheu hurled a Molotov cocktail at Long V. Ngo ’68, who was participating in a University forum on Vietnam. Ngo was unharmed, but the firebomb injured one of the policemen escorting the scholar to his car.

The attack sparked a fierce debate between those who claimed Ngo was an apologist for the reeducation camps of an oppressive Vietnamese government and those who claimed his views were being misrepresented. Ngo was “sympathetic to the [communist] regime” and “very dangerous to public opinion,” according to Tran Quang Tuan, a leader among local refugees.

Cheu, who had spent time in a Vietnamese reeducation camp, was found innocent by reason of insanity the following May.

And in what appeared to be another act of arson in October, the Margaret Fuller House sustained severe damage.

The Phillips Brooks House Association had recruited Harvard students to organize an after-school teenage drop-in program at the Cambridge neighborhood center before the blaze, which opened according to schedule in November.

At the time, Lorraine Y. Scott—a member of the House’s board of directors—thought the fires might be part of a planned attack on the center.

“It wasn’t just a vandalism act by a kid,” she told The Crimson. “There’s a reason behind it.”

The incident prompted a visit from Edward J. King, then-governor of Massachusetts, who announced a statewide anti-arson campaign. But despite a $1,000 reward posted to apprehend the culprits, Cambridge authorities could not uncover any information as to who might have set fire to the House.

—Staff writer M. Aidan Kelly can be reached at makelly@fas.harvard.edu.

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