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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Theodore J. Kaczynski

By David Song, Crimson Staff Writer

Theodore J. Kaczynski ’62 entered Harvard in the fall of 1958 at the age of 16 as a shy, Chicago-raised mathematics prodigy. Twenty years after he took his first class in the Yard, he would mail his first home-made pipe bomb.

Kaczynski, known in the media by his FBI code name “Unabomber,” has been described by the students who remembered him at the College as “shy” and “quiet.”

“He was a loner—he didn’t talk to anyone,” said Patrick S. McIntosh ’62, one of Kaczynski’s Eliot House suitemates. “He seemed to be okay to talk to at first, but then after a while he wouldn’t connect to anyone else.”

But the uncovering of his connection with a string of bombings that would kill three and injure 23 over 17 years, cementing his status among Harvard’s most infamous alumni, only complicated the memories of Ted Kaczynski for those who knew him in college. For the students he interacted with while at Harvard, Kaczynski had seemed a socially reserved genius, but showed no inclination to violent or revolutionary action.

“It’s just an opinion—but Ted was brilliant,” said Wayne B. Persons ’62, another Eliot suitemate. “I think it was a huge tragedy. He could have become one of the greatest mathematicians in the country. He wasn’t a domestic terrorist when I knew him.”

A RESERVED GENIUS

Kaczynski began his college years in the relative isolation of 8 Prescott Street, currently the Harvard College Writing Program building. Dean of Freshmen F. Skiddy von Stade Jr. ’38 initially began the Prescott housing to accommodate some of the most promising, precocious freshmen in a smaller, more intimate living space, according to an article published in the L.A. Times shortly after Kaczynski’s arrest in April 1996.

But the reality of Prescott as a low-rent housing option led to both a physical and social separation of Kaczynski from the Yard and its more well-to-do students. This isolation seemed to only reinforce Kaczynski’s asocial, serious nature—something that carried over to his move to Eliot N-43 the next year.

Kaczynski’s Eliot suite had formerly served as maids’ quarters before being converted into a room with one of the cheapest rates on campus, Persons explained.

“I didn’t have much money, and at that time, Harvard had different room rates for dormitories,” Persons said. “I went for the absolute bottom.”

Persons and other suitemates recalled Kaczynski holing up in his single, avoiding contact with the other six who shared N-43.

“He would just rush through the suite, go into his room, and slam the door,” McIntosh recalled. “And when we would go into his room there would be piles of books and uneaten sandwiches that would make the place smell.”

Both McIntosh and Persons remembered one of Kaczynski’s distinct rooming tics—playing his trombone late at night.

“And he liked bumping his chair on the wall of my room [while playing],” McIntosh said. “I think he was pretty good at it, just at times he had to tone it down.”

McIntosh recalled that Kaczynski would often eat in the corner of the dining hall, not talking to anyone.

“[We] tried to sit next to Ted to see what he’s like, but he would only sit there for five, 15 seconds, then just get up and go,” McIntosh said. “He would not have anything to do with us.”

But other students recalled Kaczynski being far less socially withdrawn.

John V. Federico ’62, a resident of Eliot House, recalled sitting at the same table with Kaczynski from time to time.

“He was very quiet, but personable,” Federico said. “He would enter into the discussions maybe a little less so than most...but he was certainly friendly. He was younger, and he seemed to be on the shy side, so you needed to make some effort to draw him in. But he could do that.”

Already somewhat distant from other students, Kaczynski seemed to have hinted to his suitemates of his future self-sufficient seclusion in Lincoln, Mont.

“I remember Ted explaining something once on Montana,” Persons said. “He said his father used to take him and his brother camping and taught him advanced outdoor survival skills, which may explain why he was able to live in Montana for so long successfully.”

BECOMING THE BOMBER

After graduating in 1962, Kaczynski chose graduate school and a university job, but only ten years after leaving Harvard he had physically isolated himself from the rest of the world, marking a transition that would set him on the path to the creation of the Unabomber.

Kaczynski earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Michigan, becoming an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley in 1967 before suddenly resigning two years later.

In 1971, he moved into a secluded cabin in Lincoln, Mont., intending to use survival skills to become self-sufficient. But the industrialization and development around his rural retreat would lead him to begin a string of mail bombings.

Over the course of more than a decade of investigation, the FBI dubbed the anonymous terrorist the “Unabomber,” a reference to his targeting of universities and airlines.

By 1995, Kaczynski outlined his call for revolution against industrial society in a 50-page essay, “Industrial Society and Its Future,” threatening further bombings if this “Unabomber Manifesto” remained unpublished.

“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race,” Kaczynski wrote in the first line of the Manifesto, published anonymously in The Washington Post and The New York Times in September 1995.

After Kaczynski’s brother, David Kaczynski, read the Manifesto, he began to suspect that his brother was the Unabomber. David Kaczynski turned samples of his brother’s other writings in to the FBI, leading to an arrest on April 3, 1996.

Kaczynski currently serves a life sentence without possibility of parole in a federal supermax prison in Florence, Colo.

—Staff writer David Song can be reached at davidsong@college.harvard.edu.

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Commencement 2012Class of 1962