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A couple of days ago I went with my son on his first formal college tour.

More tours are planned for this coming summer, including several in New England. I look forward to the chance to fill the trunk of my car with Narragansett Bohemian Pilsner — er, I mean, accompany the kid as he gathers information to help him make the biggest decision of his young life.

During Friday’s college tour, we saw just about the entire campus, with one significant exception: We didn’t go inside the dorms.

Perhaps they were left off the agenda because of the security hassles involved in bringing 30 strangers inside the building.

Or maybe it was because, well, kids are still living in ’em.

(You can never be entirely sure what you’ll encounter if you lead a gaggle of guests into an occupied dorm. At the very least, you might run into some kid who’s been up for 36 hours, cranked up on Mountain Dew and advanced physics, giving it his best Raoul Duke. Not a great vision for a tourload of kids and parents just in from Altoona.)

My grandpa never got the chance to go to college himself. Never drank Mountain Dew either, so far as I know. But he worked to send both of his kids off to college.

And this week’s calendar entry finds him in a college dorm.

wilkinson

April 28, 1968. Yanks split a doubleheader with Detroit; the Mets beat Cincinnati. Neither team troubles the leaders in their respective leagues.

Not far southwest of Stamford, a major American university was being torn by student revolt on Sunday, April 28.

My grandparents, and maybe even my great-grandma, were headed in the opposite direction, though.

They were headed to the campus of what was then Southern Connecticut State College in New Haven for a student event at Wilkinson Hall, the college dorm where my Aunt Elaine lived as an undergraduate.

This was not their only trip there. A previous Hope Street blog post makes passing mention of their going to Wilkinson Hall in May 1966 to see “Wilkinson Follies,” a dorm talent show fondly remembered by my aunt.

My aunt was involved in the ’67 Wilkinson Follies, too, earning her a brief mention in the Naugatuck Daily News newspaper. (The content is intentionally jumbled here, so’s to make you pay for a clear view, but you can make out what you need to in the article text box at the bottom of the page.)

I wonder if my grandpa got a chance to actually go up into the six-story building during any of his visits, and if so, what he thought of his glimpses of college life. Maybe there were posters, and music pouring out through half-open doors, and maybe even a shaggy-haired guy visitor here or there.

(I wonder what I’ll think the first time I go into my son’s dorm. It won’t be quite so much an excursion into alien territory as it would have been for someone my grandfather’s age in 1968 — I think — but it will remind me how old I am.)

Wilkinson Hall is still there, as it happens, retrofitted for the 21st century with microfridges, cable TV hookups and wireless Internet. Freshmen and sophomores live there now, and presumably, prospective members of the school’s Class of 2022 will soon be pouring in for summer visits.

You can also “tour” a standard double room such as those found in Wilkinson online; they don’t look any too large, but what dorm room does?

An online search for the phrase “Wilkinson Follies” suggests the dorm variety show may be an extinct tradition. Somehow I find that easy to believe: I imagine today’s college dorms are full of kids who are either staring at their cell phones or listening to music through earbuds.

I guess I’ll find out whether that’s true soon enough, when circumstances require me to make my own excursions into alien territory.

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The time period many of us think of as “the Sixties” — for now, we’ll place it at roughly 1963 to 1974 — is reaching its 50th anniversary.

This will doubtless produce a flood of think-pieces, retrospectives, grasps at clarity and, from time to time, outright revisionist spin, as the still-lively Baby Boom generation continues to tangle with its legacy.

But I think the history of that period is a little too hazy and complex to produce many clear-cut conclusions, even now.

This week we drop in on a late-’60s college commencement, where some of the decade’s big questions get grappled with in public:

June 7, 1969.

June 7, 1969. The Mets are eight games behind the streaking Chicago Cubs; the Yanks are coughing along in fifth place.

I’ve written at some length about my Aunt Elaine’s tumultuous two years of grad school at Boston University.

I’ve only occasionally mentioned, though, that she earned an undergraduate degree from what was then Southern Connecticut State College (now University) before going on to BU. June 7, 1969, found my grandparents and great-grandmother headed up to New Haven to attend her commencement.

It just so happens that the 1969 edition of the Laurel, the Southern Connecticut State yearbook, is online.

You have to pay to see all the pages in full detail, but a page summing up that year’s commencement can be easily read. I’ll reproduce the relevant passage here.

(I’m not sure if there’s a copyright issue in reproducing this chunk of text. But if the copyright belongs to anybody, it ain’t the people who are trying to make me pay to read it. So I’m gonna go ahead and copy the text. I believe the Class of ’69 referred to this as “sticking it to The Man.”)

Anyway, here’s part of what was said that day:

ln a departure from tradition a member of the graduating class, Frank Wargo, delivered the Commencement address. He called today’s college student protesters “a distinct minority who do not represent the feeling of 98 per cent of the students across the country.” “That 98 per cent,” Wargo said, “is the ‘Other Voice,’ and somehow it must be heard above the protesters.”

In his address Wargo said, “At 6:30 every evening when Americans sit down in front of their television sets or pick up their newspapers to see and hear what is going on in our country, they always seem to hear about that two per cent. It is no wonder, then, why the American public is being turned on by the younger generation.

“The rest, the overwhelming majority,” Wargo said, “are rarely seen or heard. But they’re there. They go into industry, business or teaching, they enroll in graduate school or join the Peace Corps or go into the service.”

“These are the people who help keep our country strong, these are the people who go unnoticed, but who are always there. Ask the two per cent what they want or where they are going and most of them won’t be able to give you an answer.”

Wargo conceded change was both healthy and necessary, but that it must be accomplished in a non-violent manner because “violence begets violence.”

“Somehow,” he concluded, “the voice of the 98 per cent must be heard above the protesters so that at 6:30 when Americans pick up their newspapers or turn on their television sets and see our colleges and universities in the hands of that small minority and throw their hands in the air and ask what is wrong with our younger generation, they will hear that ‘Other Voice’ saying: ‘We are here, we are trying hard, won’t you please give us a chance?”

Young Mr. Wargo went on to make the “Other Voice” proud. He earned a master’s degree in city and regional planning, worked for 30 years, served on several town government boards and commissions, and has been active in community organizations.

It’s not my intent to pick his speech apart with the hindsight of 45 years. In any event, I imagine my grandparents pretty well agreed with him as they sat in the crowd and heard him speak.

Still, his address raises some challenging questions in retrospect.

Just how big was the “two percent”? Of course the real hardcore radicals made up a small minority of the student population in 1969 — probably less, even, than 2 percent.

But what of all the kids, like my aunt, who never threw a rock or burned a draft card, but attended demonstrations and came to oppose the war?

What percentage of young America really did have significant concerns with the way the country was being run? How many of them discerned in the Nixon administration a hostility and dishonesty that turned out to be very much real?

I suspect the opinions and positions of college-age America covered every stop on the spectrum, with plenty of gray in between, and summing it up was much more complicated than a simple 2-percent-vs.-98-percent breakdown. I’m not sure historians will ever get a firm handle on it, at any rate.

– What did they want? The assertion that the radical wing of American youth didn’t know what it wanted or where it was going seems doubtful. Were the Weathermen truly that vague about their ideals?

I would imagine that a pretty big swath of the 98 percent were the ones who didn’t know what they wanted or where they were going. They were the ones who sat in late-night dorm-room bull sessions asking questions like:

– “Should I go to Vietnam, or go to Canada?”
– “Should I go to work for a company that makes materials used to fight the war?”
– “Do I want to work for a nonprofit in the inner city and make a difference, or get a corporate job and set myself up with some money?”
– “This country seems pretty well broken. Do we need some kind of revolution to make this society work the way it was designed to?”

Valid enough questions, one and all; and all confounding to future historians trying to get any sort of unified handle on the generation. They wanted any number of things, and the paths to most of them were winding and unclear.

Who won? The commencement speech — at least, the quoted part — asks that the older generation recognize the efforts of the kids who stayed on the straight and narrow, because they’re the ones who “keep this country strong.” (There’s an implication there that dissent is un-American and leads to weakness, but we’ll let it lay.)

We know the real hardcore revolutionaries of the ’60s didn’t achieve what they wanted. I wonder how many of the 98-percenters did.

Most of them, I suspect, joined The System and worked for 30 or 40 years to make the trains run on time … at the end of which, the country was still broken in a whole bunch of ways.

Most of them tried, as the speech said they would; I imagine only a small minority (2 percent, perhaps?) set forth to line their pockets and the hell with everything else.

And America, like the Class of ’69, is far too complex for an easy answer. No one could really expect one generation to sort out all its problems and challenges.

Still, when historians look back 50 or 100 or 200 years later and try to summarize what that generation truly achieved, I wonder how the lot of them — the bomb-throwers and the teachers and the ditch-diggers and the Peace Corpsmen — will be judged. How much of their diverse vision were they able to make real?

It will be interesting to see how much of that judgment the Baby Boomers will be able to guide or stamp before they fade away. History hasn’t passed from their hands yet, but it will, as it does to every generation.

I don’t pretend to know the answer myself. My area of historical specialty is the Blumenau family of Stamford, Connecticut; the big-picture stuff is going to have to come from someone smarter and better-versed.

So we’ll leave off with the image of a lawn full of capped-and-gowned graduates, their motivation clear and their ideals high, beseeching their older generation for their chance.

They got it, anyway.

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Nothing adds a little spice to the college experience like a parental visit.

Admittedly, I’m speaking from a distant perspective here. I’m 40 years old. It’s been almost 20 years since my parents visited me as a collegian — and that was for commencement. So I’m not exactly a current expert on the subject.

But memory says that Parents’ Weekend and other scheduled visits bring forth conflicting urges.

There’s that innate desire to clean up, do the big pile of laundry, wash the sheets, scrub the funk out of the bathtub, and show the folks you’re trustworthy and you’ve got your act together.

And then there’s the innate desire to rebel a little bit — to leave the beer bottlecap next to the kitchen sink, and the condom wrapper in the trash can — just to sting your folks with visible knowledge that you’re independent, and beyond their purview, and Charting Your Own Path, and Doing Your Own Thing.

(Not for years will you realize that they already know that. These are the people who remember changing your diaper and feeding you Ritz crackers to calm your three-year-old appetite as they cooked dinner, way back when in Nineteen Seventy-something. They already know you are functioning independently; the nightly silence in their house makes them keenly aware. But you feel the need to rub it in, all the same, because you don’t have the perspective to know any better.)

This week’s calendar entry captures that kind of moment.

May 13-14, 1966.

May 13-14, 1966. The Mets, mirabile dictu, are outperforming the Yankees. The luckless Johnny Keane has been jobless for a week; he has fewer than seven months to live.

If there was any tension between my grandparents and their only son/elder child, I suspect it had played itself out by May 1966.

At that point in time, my dad had completed his undergraduate degree, and had pretty well finished the additional work required for his master’s of science in management — the degree that kept him an extra year at RPI.

I’m fairly sure he was no longer living at the fraternity house where he’d spent some undergraduate time, as well. I believe he was living in a rat-infested off-campus apartment — the exterior of which I’ve seen two or three times. (Hopefully, the interior’s been improved since the Lyndon Johnson administration.)

I don’t know if my dad had his job offer in hand yet. But I know that just about a month later, he started work at the only company he would ever really work for. So he had probably gotten past his college indulgences and was ready to join the working world. In the month following Parents’ Weekend, my dad would put away collegiate things forever.

(If you’ve never read my “Blues for Mother Yellow” post about my dad’s corporate career, go read it now. I’ve been forming words into narratives since Nineteen Seventy-something, and they’ve never gotten better than they did that week.)

Still, I imagine Parents’ Weekend and the Talent Show were a spur for a long-ago cleanup … the impetus to get the underwear off the floor,  and wash the dirty dishes, and open the windows to banish the reek of beer.

No matter how mature you are, or how close you are to turning your tassel, you never quite let it all hang out during Parents’ Weekend.

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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.

Sept. 4-5, 1969. “Registration B.U.”

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:

May 14 and 15, 1971. Good thing my grandpa got that last tuition check in the mail before the postage went up to eight cents.

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.

“I had a blind date with a guy who was in Officer’s Training School who wore his uniform, and he was hissed at when we went to dinner in  Cambridge.  A tad awkward.”
My aunt found her way to some of the anti-war rallies:

“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.

“Unfortunately, the anti-war rallies became more radical. I attended a huge one on Boston Common (or some major place)  with Abbie Hoffman speaking and he literally told the crowd to go out and burn the streets. There were fires in Boston that night and people were arrested for inciting violence (I think Abbie Hoffman was one of them.) This was in 1970 or 1971.”

My aunt at Hope Street, 1971.

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.

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“There’s a time and place for everything, and it’s called ‘college.’ ”
— “South Park

There are very few days in my life I would like to relive.

Seriously. For a guy who spends time writing about his grandfather’s 40-year-old calendar entries, I’m surprisingly in the now. Life moves in one direction; and while the past can inspire, inform or entertain, it’s no place to stay.

Still, just as a theoretical exercise:

If I could drop myself back into one day from the past, without cosmically altering any of the events to come, I might well choose the first day of one of my years of college. Maybe not freshman year, sure; but definitely sophomore or junior years, when I knew my way around.

The American pop mythos tends to celebrate the last day of school, from Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” to a movie popular in my college years, “Dazed and Confused.”

In “Grease” — one of my movie musicals of choice, and a musical I once had a lot of fun playing in a high-school pit band — the action begins on the first day but climaxes on the last.

(At least, I hope it was the last day. It would have been awfully anticlimactic if Sandy and Danny had gone soaring into the sky in their convertible, only to have to come down again for a perfunctory few half-days of standardized testing.)

But I remember the first day of college as a time of excitement. It was a time to ditch the parents, the summer job and the quiet of my suburban hometown, and plunge back into the intoxicating freedom of America’s greatest city.

I can remember being in my dorm room, alone, surrounded by a welter of still-unpacked boxes, thinking, “Hmmm, what to do first? Should I make some calls and see who’s around? Check in at the newspaper office? Go buy some beer? Play my guitar really loudly and piss off the new RA? Or just go walk up and down Comm. Ave. in the late-summer heat, listening to the clang of the trains and the flow of the traffic?”

I wonder if my dad felt the same way when he went off to college — as he was doing in this week’s calendar entry.

Sept. 15, 1963

The car in my grandpa’s illustration merits a few words of its own, albeit from my secondhand recollections. (I’m sure my dad will correct me in the Comments as needed.)

It was a ’59 Plymouth, if I correctly recall what I’ve been told. It really was orange. It had a dashboard-mounted push-button transmission, one of those classic ’50s “innovations” that probably carried some jazzy name like “Dyn-O-Shift.”  And, due to the car’s general ungainliness, my dad called it the Shrimp Boat.

(I am lucky that this land-trawler never went shiny-side-down on the Merritt Parkway some snowy evening. Otherwise, you’d be doing something more productive with your time right now.)

In the fall of 1963, my dad would have been a junior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York … an electrical engineering major, a proud member of Sigma Chi fraternity, and maybe even already involved with the young lady who would become my mother.

A year later to the week, much would have changed in America, including the assassination of President Kennedy; the arrival of a group of mop-headed, endearing young Englishmen called the Beatles; the federal government’s first declaration that smoking is hazardous to health; the high-profile murders of Kitty Genovese, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney; the introduction of the Ford Mustang; and the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which accelerated the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia.

But my dad was steaming unaffected from Stamford to Troy, in the same car, apparently with the same load:

Sept. 13, 1964. Ellis Burks is two days old. In April of 1992, when I am a freshman in college and see my first major-league ballgame, Ellis Burks will hit cleanup for the Red Sox.

I have no idea why my grandfather was so obsessed with recording the mileage of cars he didn’t even drive. I do enjoy his faithful rendering of the Shrimp Boat’s tailfins, even though they seem to have receded slightly in comparison to the rest of the car.

I have trouble imagining that arrival in Troy, New York, occasioned quite the same big-city thrill as arrival in Boston.

But, who knows? It’s fun to imagine my dad at 20 and 21, lugging the last of his boxes into his room, and trying to decide whether friends, music, beer or a getting-reacquainted stroll will be first on his to-do list.

If he was me, he chose “all of the above” … and the semester only got better from there.

In lieu of more words, some value-added photo content. Me loading out (note industrial-sized box of granola) on Bay State Road, fall 1993 ...

... and my dad heading off for freshman year at RPI, September 1961. Someday, when I hit the lottery, I'll have a car that color. (Sorry, no pix of the Shrimp Boat. And no granola to be seen.)

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