Last year around this time, I wrote about my dad’s trips back to college, and some of my own as well.
My Aunt Elaine had a more interesting and eventful college experience than either one of us, I think.
So as college kids nationwide head back for another year on campus, we’ll focus this week on her days in one of America’s great college towns.
This calendar entry captures the beginning of my aunt’s two years of graduate school at Boston University. She chose the school for various reasons:
“I chose BU School of Social Work because I wanted to do social work in an urban area. BU had a good reputation in social work and certainly was urban. Your mother, upon learning that I wanted to work with people with all kinds of challenges, said I would probably like Boston because it had a lot of nuts! (She was right.)
“Also, Martin Luther King graduated from their graduate school (the one for ministers) and I had actually seen him in Stamford around 1963 and was impressed.”
(Hold on. My aunt saw Martin Luther King Jr. in person? That’s awesome. I had no idea. Another blog post for another time, perhaps.)
There’s an entry for the end of her days at BU, too:
During that period, the college on Commonwealth Avenue — like many other colleges and universities — was rocked by tremendous internal and external upheaval.
Massive student protests following the Kent State killings led BU to cancel its spring 1970 commencement ceremony and end the school year early. The Class of ’70 would not get its formal commencement until 2010.
Two months after the riots, BU President Arland Christ-Janer resigned, having apparently had his fill of campus social unrest. Christ-Janer’s two immediate predecessors as BU president had lasted 25 and 16 years. He lasted three.
His interim replacement, Calvin B.T. Lee, spent six months in charge before the school chose its next full-time president — a brusque, highly motivated former dean at the University of Texas. John Silber remained in charge for an eventful quarter-century, guiding the college toward educational and financial improvement while regularly clashing with critics.
My Aunt Elaine didn’t take much notice, as far as I know, of the turnover in BU’s ivory tower. But she certainly saw what was going on down on the streets:
“It was quite the tumultuous time in Boston and much of the country, as well as BU. There were racial tensions and anti-war protests which spilled over into a general distrust of anything establishment.
“My roommate and I would joke about how we would walk down Commonwealth Avenue and come home to our apt with stacks of literature about all types of issues that were being protested. Also, we learned to dodge panhandlers and hari-krishna people who positioned themselves on Commonwealth Ave.
“The first one I attended seemed weird because it took on the atmosphere of a football rally. We did have a professor at BU who had been in the POW camps in Germany , and he helped expand my mind to become part of the anti-war sentiment.
“I didn’t pay the tax on my phone bill as a protest to their supporting the Viet Nam War. The phone company called your Grandma and Grandpa, who didn’t understand the antiwar thing, and they paid the tax part of the bill to them.
And, she came into contact with one of the legendary street organizations of the 1960s and ’70s as it tried to improve its violent public image:
“While at BU, I and my project partner actually had contact with the Black Panthers and got to observe a school they were starting for black kids only. The Black Panthers weren’t too thrilled to hear from us, but when we said we were in Social Work, they allowed me to come observe at their school.
At that time, the Black Panthers were a big deal! They were trying to do some positive things for their community and I think they wanted people to know they did things besides shoot police officers.”
While Abbie Hoffman, the Black Panthers and anti-war protests were obvious icons of their time, other developments of that period at BU would not emerge as noteworthy until years later.
In December 1969, the first gay student organization in Boston, the Boston University Homophile Club, announced its presence with a typewritten flyer. While the club itself is lost to history, it laid a foundation for the LGBT organizations now publicly entrenched on college campuses, like BU’s current Spectrum group.
The protests of May 1970 inspired the birth of a new, independent student newspaper at BU called the Daily Free Press.
The Freep is still around today, having evolved from a ragtag enterprise fired by pot smoke and passion to an effective pre-professional training ground. It was there, between 1993 and ’95, that I learned the basics of the journalist’s trade. (And danced on desks.)
Also, in the spring of 1971, an upstart five-piece rock band heavily influenced by the Stones and Yardbirds began playing impromptu gigs at BU’s George Sherman Union and cadging rehearsal space in BU dorms.
I used to have — and may still have somewhere — a copy of a picture of the band that appeared in a spring 1971 issue of the Daily Free Press.
Its matter-of-fact caption: “Aerosmith, a rock band, played the George Sherman Union.”
My aunt got a social work job in New Haven after graduation and, as far as I know, has not lived in Boston since.
I arrived at BU 20 years after my aunt’s graduation and found it much quieter. There were no protests to speak of during my four years on Comm. Ave.
I’ll give my aunt the last word, again:
“It was a fascinating time, though sometimes disconcerting and mind-boggling. I have been amazed to see how Boston has returned to a rather quiescent state. When I was there, it seemed like this was where the whole country was going and would remain!”
Bonus multimedia content: For anyone feeling nostalgic, Flickr user AntyDiluvian has been kind enough to post an excellent set of photos of Boston in the 1970s.
The excellent Nick DeWolf Photo Archives on Flickr also has photos of a post-Kent State protest in Boston in May 1970 and an anti-war protest in Boston from October 1970, as well as sundry other shots from the city around that time.