Class walks the walk, 40 years later
In the video above, Clif Garboden (CAS’70) and Esther Wineburgh Rothkopf (SED’70) discuss the political turmoil at BU in the spring of 1970, the Kent State shootings, and what it means to finally graduate. Read more about the weekend’s coverage here. Video clips of alumni interviews and the Class of 1970 convocation are at facebook.com/bostonia.
They’re back. And they’re still marching. But this time, the Boston University Class of 1970 is walking in a Commencement ceremony that will replicate the one that was canceled 40 years ago, when political turmoil rocked the campus.
In photos from that May, students mob the streets not in caps and bright red gowns, but in antiwar T-shirts, protest signs in their hands, to march up Commonwealth Avenue.
One day shy of four decades later, roughly 225 alumni, along with 400 of their friends and family members, will return to campus this weekend to walk with the Class of 2010.
“We’re hoping they take away a feeling that the University has welcomed them back with open arms,” says Meg Umlas, executive director of alumni relations.
Umlas says BU invited members of the class to return to participate in the University-wide Commencement in 1980, but few showed up. She says this year’s events, inspired by a survey sent to Class of 1970 alumni in February, will be a “complete and comprehensive weekend for them to reconnect with the institution and each other.”
“We decided it would be meaningful for us to coordinate a convocation,” she says, “for these alumni to be able to walk across a stage, hear their name called, and receive a commemorative certificate.”
In addition to attending Sunday’s Commencement on Nickerson Field, the Class of 1970 will have its own ceremony, along with a reception and a celebration dinner, a memorial service at Marsh Chapel, and a presentation by photojournalist Peter Simon (COM’70), former photo editor of the student newspaper the BU News.
The returning alums are invited to stay in Warren Towers, known in their time as 700 Comm Ave — and in May 1970 as the emergency hub of student and faculty strikers.
“I’m beside myself,” says Esther Wineburgh Rothkopf (SED’70). “I’m so happy to think that the University remembered us after all these years.”
Rothkopf’s appreciation is a far cry from what she remembers of her first, abortive graduation, the only Commencement in the University’s history to have been canceled.
Clif Garboden (CAS’70) (left), Esther Wineburgh Rothkopf (SED’70), and Ed Boesel (ENG’70). Photos by Kalman Zabarsky.
On April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon announced the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Students at BU and around the country mobilized quickly to protest the escalation of the Vietnam War — and were met by unexpected force. On May 4, at Kent State University in Ohio, National Guardsmen shot and killed four protesting students and wounded nine others.
“The protest was clearly of a different character than others which have disrupted campuses in recent years,” Bostonia magazine editorialized at the time. “Its central purpose, as student after student stressed, was not disruption of the campus — though that happened — so much as registering the strongest possible expression of shock and outrage.”
The students made their point. Amidst bomb threats and a national student and faculty strike, more than 400 BU classes were suspended. On May 5, the University Council agreed to cancel the remaining final exams for undergraduates, as well as the University’s Commencement, set for May 17. (Graduate student Commencement exercises went off as planned.) Many universities around the country did the same.
Students from Boston-area schools swarmed the streets, leading a protest to City Hall on May 5 and another, silent protest to Harvard Stadium on May 8.
“Things came to a peak around graduation,” says Carolyn Evans (CFA’70). The “Kent State massacre” and its aftershocks, she says, “weren’t Tiananmen, but it was scary enough that the powers-that-be in universities had to disband us.”
Clif Garboden (CAS’70), a former BU News photographer and then the photo editor of the BU yearbook, The Hub, had planned to cover Commencement. At the time, he says, the cancellation seemed like a victory, a sign of respect for the seriousness of students’ protests.
“I was not disappointed,” Garboden says. “Ted Kennedy, or whoever the speaker was, was going to go out and tell us to change the world. And in effect, that message got through loud and clear.”
But many alums have since found themselves feeling that they had missed something important in the midst of the political upheaval.
“It felt incomplete when they sent me my leather-bound, tiny diploma in the mail,” Evans says. “I watched both my kids graduate from college, and even graduate school, with caps and gowns. I thought, I want to walk, too.”
Where some will gain closure, others find symmetry. One of Ed Boesel’s last memories as a BU student is of rowing in the Eastern Sprints, an annual rowing competition for East Coast colleges, in the days following the Kent State shootings. In protest, oarsmen from each school had stenciled red fists on the back of their shirts. Boesel (ENG’70) was struck by the solidarity.
“It was a war that nobody believed in,” he says.
This year, as usual, Boesel will return to Worcester to watch the regatta. But this time, “I’m going there straight from Nickerson Field,” he says. “I’ll probably have to hop on my motorcycle with my cap and gown still on.”
A full schedule of events for the Class of 1970 on Commencement weekend can be found here.12 Comments