At Long Last Commencement: Class of 1970
Feelings range from relief to grief to joy
When BU canceled its Commencement in 1970 amid the nationwide turmoil of campus antiwar protests, Rachelle Dinstein felt robbed.
“We felt we deserved to graduate,” said Dinstein (née Gabel), an English literature major. “We put in four years of hard work.”
But when the University invited the Class of 1970 back 40 years later for the graduation they never had, Dinstein was ambivalent. “I was reluctant,” she said. “Why didn’t they do this after 10 years, after 20. Why now?” In the end, she said, “my husband convinced me this is an experience I should have had and I should go for it.”
So on Commencement weekend, wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, a peace symbol hanging from a cord around her neck, and a halo of silk daisies in her hair, Dinstein (CAS’70) was back, along with approximately 225 alumni from the Class of 1970 and their families. The festivities included a slide presentation by photojournalist, author, and music historian Peter Simon (COM’70), a service at Marsh Chapel to honor deceased members of the class, and a reception at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. On Sunday morning, alums donned caps and gowns for their own convocation, at the College of Fine Arts Concert Hall. They then joined the Class of 2010 on Nickerson Field for the University’s 137th Commencement exercises.
Dinstein was happy she made the trip from her home in New York City. “I had the time of my life,” she said after the convocation (this time, the flowers were wrapped around her black cap). “It was a gas.”
Turmoil on campus
Members of the class recalled a highly polarized, volatile time. Dinstein remembered participating in all of the demonstrations, “anything that was going on”; she was among the students who helped an AWOL soldier who had sought sanctuary in Marsh Chapel. “We brought him food, visited him, took out letters for him, and supported his cause, which was, he didn’t want to go to Vietnam,” she said. “We didn’t want to see anybody go. There was always a little sense of terror, especially among the guys — all you had to do was flunk out one day and you would be crawling on your belly in the jungle the next.”
It was in this already charged climate that college campuses around the nation erupted in outrage after National Guardsmen opened fire at students demonstrating against the war at Kent State University on May 4, killing four unarmed students and wounding nine others.
At BU, fires were started at several locations, including the administration building on Bay State Road, at a CFA theater rehearsal room, and at Nickerson Field. Windows were broken; there were bomb threats. A student was hospitalized, apparently burned while handling a Molotov cocktail, according to Bostonia magazine. On May 5, the University canceled undergraduate final exams and Commencement, which had been scheduled for May 17.
The decision angered Charlotte Dinwiddie’s parents, who lived on Long Island. “They were somewhat removed from the potential for violence, so they were shocked that it would come to that,” said music major Dinwiddie (CFA’70). “They were really unprepared for the disappointment.”
Leslie Clarke believes that calling off the ceremony was the right thing to do. “There was violence all around,” said Clarke (SON’70). “Students had been killed. But it didn’t mean the decision didn’t hurt.”
Arthur Chagaris recalled that for many students, the ceremony wasn’t a priority. “A lot of people were being drafted,” said Chagaris (CGS’68, CAS’70). “It was very traumatic. People were leaving the country. People were dying.”
In 1980, BU invited members of the class to participate in the University-wide Commencement, but few attended. The University organized this year’s events after conducting a survey of Class of 1970 alumni, in February.
The weekend’s speakers evoked the music of the ’70s and the drug scene, as well as some of the era’s prominent figures, including author and political activist Howard Zinn, a BU professor emeritus of political science and a mentor to many students. Zinn died in January.
Simon, whose sister is the singer Carly Simon and whose father founded the publishing company Simon and Schuster, said he became involved in the antiwar movement shortly after arriving on campus and joining the staff of the campus newspaper BU News. He photographed the protests and the “love-ins,” the distinguished guests who spoke at BU, including Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59), and, he said, he “finally started smoking weed for the first time.”
He thinks it’s unlikely that he and his friends would have attended their graduation ceremony. “I was such a hippie,” Simon said. “And I didn’t believe in formality and pomp and circumstance and cap and gown and the whole attitude about being a BU student. We weren’t that favorably impressed with any administration, let alone BU, because of what was going on with our country.
“Forty years later how do I feel?” said Simon, who lives on Martha’s Vineyard. “Well, time has mellowed me, I have to admit. I still feel the same way about the issues we fought so strongly for: equal rights, female equality, a green Earth, pro-choice, opposition to Vietnam, breaking down the walls of oppression. I feel that our generation really got the ball rolling, and I’m proud of it.”
At Sunday’s convocation, the Class of 1970 marched onto the stage at CFA, waving at family and friends in the audience. Provost David Campbell delivered the convocation address. After collecting his certificate (graduates had received their diplomas in the mail after leaving campus in 1970), Simon picked up his camera and began photographing his classmates as they shook Campbell’s hand. And just as Arts & Sciences Dean Virginia Sapiro was to give closing remarks, Clarke started the group in a chant: “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”
“It just came,” Clarke said later. “That’s what we stood for. That’s what we were all about.”
Clarke, who lives in Beachwood, Ohio, said there was something “therapeutic” about the weekend’s events. “I’ll start talking about it, and I’ll well up,” she said. “There’s something going on; I think there’s a grieving and a letting go process that we’re going through. It’s a release, and it’s like, wow, this business is done.”