Voices of protest at UConn: Exhibit looks back at anti-Vietnam War upheaval on campus

In the fall of 1967, as the bodies of more and more American soldiers were being shipped home from Vietnam, the peaceful campus of the University of Connecticut in Storrs barely reflected the nation's increasing turmoil.

But within a year, 200 students had staged a sit-in at the UConn president's office, and 21 were arrested at a violent protest. Two years after that, much of the student body burst into open revolt against the war, shutting down the campus.

"The 60s came late to Storrs, but they finally arrived," wrote Ron Compesi, a student at the time.

Half a century later, an exhibit at UConn's Thomas J. Dodd Research Center looks back at that defining moment for a slice of Connecticut's baby boom generation.

"Day-Glo and Napalm: UConn from 1967 to 1971" evokes four years when the boomers, as college students, realized the world wasn't what it was supposed to be. They responded by following a dream to make it a better place through sheer force of will.

To visitors of a certain age, the exhibit will stir memories of youthful idealism, passion and folly perhaps put away or forgotten over subsequent decades. To others, it will reduce the sweep of an epic moment to individual voices, showing how history was actually lived.

Filling one small gallery, the show features a colorful array of '60s memorabilia, from LPs by Cream, Arlo Guthrie and Joni Mitchell to posters showing Uncle Sam as a skeleton or proclaiming, "Fighting to end war is like loving to end love."

But these are just decorations. For the most part, this is an exhibit to be read rather than looked at. Its core is written recollections by students and an occasional faculty member or administrator. Printed on plain sheets of paper, they are everywhere amid the artifacts, recounting stories of protest, conscience and drug use.

"The social climate on campus had changed so quickly. In my freshman year, many students were pledging fraternities and sororities, participating in ROTC and wearing ties. Now, just 2 years later, these straights were wearing long hair, smoking dope and leaving fraternities for off-campus housing. One guy in my dorm, a Nixon supporter in the fall, quit school by the end of the year, and sent us a letter from some distant city where he was participating in riots. We felt we had created a monster."

— Ed Adelman, Class of 1971

Anti-war unrest at UConn focused largely on campus visits by recruiters from Dow Chemical, the maker of napalm, and Olin Mathieson, which produced other chemical defoliants used in Vietnam.

The budding protest movement blocked a Dow event in 1967 with just 45 students and faculty. A year later, students again targeting Dow announced their intention to napalm a dog. It was a hoax, but the ensuing uproar, which involved the Humane Society and the state dog warden, produced more fuss than anyone was making over Vietnamese civilians.

By then, the number of student activists had grown, and their goal had expanded from disrupting events to demanding UConn's divestment from the military industrial complex. On Nov. 26, 1968, known since as "Bloody Tuesday," students protesting Olin Mathieson were met by state police in riot gear. Several were injured and 21 arrested amid flying rocks and swinging clubs.

The military's on-campus presence through the Reserve Officers Training Corps was also a magnet for protests. The ROTC building became a symbol of the war and was occupied by students armed with paintbrushes.

"Someone had procured gallons of paint in every possible color. We painted peace signs, flowers and rainbows over all 4 walls. When the university painted our work over with battleship gray, it only went up to a certain height, and there were flowers sticking above their rigid line. This seemed significant to me."

— Larry Gag, Class of 1973

UConn's chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, the radical group that held sway at colleges nationwide, pushed for a moratorium on recruitment. In December 1968, its activities were vividly captured in a public television documentary called "Diary of a Student Revolution." The black-and-white film, which feels older than 50 years, finds the students full of high words and righteousness.

But the star is Homer Babbidge, UConn's polished, young president. Remembered for ordering hot chocolate for protesters outside his office and holding the door open when they occupied it, he is the reassuring eye of the storm that swirls around him. Though confessing to the film crew that he has no stomach for crisis management, he radiates a patient determination to keep things under control.

"My hope is that we can keep the lid on until the Christmas holidays arrive," he says evenly. "Hopefully ... a lot of people are going to collect their wits, calm down, start to think again ... a little less rhetoric, a little less posturing. I'm hoping very much to keep the lid on for another week."

Babbidge regretted calling in state police for the Olin Mathieson protest, and on a later occasion, he took a different course. Frank Napolitano, then an assistant dean of students, wrote that Babbidge ended an occupation of ROTC by waiting for the protesters' ranks to dwindle, then leading 30 administrators in a surprise, predawn march to retake the building. The Army issued Babbidge a commendation.

"I was honored to be a part of such a noteworthy event," Napolitano wrote.

Protesters remained a minority on campus until the Kent State massacre that left four students dead on May 4, 1970. The attack by the Ohio National Guard galvanized young people across the nation.

The day after the shootings, UConn's newspaper, the Connecticut Daily Campus, screamed, "STRIKE CALLED HERE." Joining 4 million striking students around the country, most in Storrs finally became disenchanted with the status quo. Classes stopped, and final exams were made optional.

"At about the same time, I was part of a group of students who went around trying to shut down classes that were still in session. We went into one of the science buildings and went to a chem class. The prof tried to shut the door on us, but I got my foot in the door so he couldn't close it. He went off and came back with what turned out to be a glass of water and threw it in my face. It was a shock, and I stepped back not knowing what he had doused me with, and he shut the door. ... I don't know how much I accomplished that day, but we did shut the school down."

— Bob Weinstock, Class of 1971

The exhibit is curated by George Jacobi, an artist, writer and member of the Class of  '71. He also attended the Woodstock music festival 50 years ago and timed the show to mark the anniversary.

Jacobi included sidebar sections on things like drug use and women's power, but one topic that doesn't get its due is the significant racial strife that coincided with the anti-war protests. That was a story all its own, culminating in a sit-in by black students at the Wilbur Cross Library in 1974. Jacobi said he wanted to leave the door open for someone to do a 50-year retrospective of that chapter in a few years.

Jacobi's lengthy, autobiographical essay on the UConn Archives website serves as an online introduction and explores what it meant to be young and radical in the '60s.

"Today America is again divided," he wrote. "Truth, progress, and respect for differences are in retreat; ever-present media make it seem like unrest bordering on fury is on our daily menu. Perhaps increased discernment can come with a look back at a tumultuous period right here at UConn."

Others touch on parallels between then and now.

"A friend who was very active in SDS approached me and said something like 'Come to Gulley Hall. We're going to smash windows to protest the war.' I did not feel that smashing windows would do anything to end the war and I declined to attend. His response to me was 'f#*@ing liberal!' In those days that was the worst thing a person who considered themselves a radical could be called. ... Some things never seem to change, as sadly, the fight between 'liberal' Democrats and Progressives/Radicals still exists."

— Henriette Herzfeld, Class of 1971

The changes in a half-century are just as interesting.

"To this day, I am not sure how people were mobilized so quickly," wrote Charlie Brover, an assistant professor and protester. "No social media, no text messages on smart phones. We talked to each other. We argued. We knew and cared for each other."

Jacobi looks back with pride on the legacy of the '60s protests, which spurred developments that ranged from environmental stewardship, organic gardening and yoga to the women's movement, gay rights, handicapped access, and even animal rights.

His classmate Ken Sachs put it succinctly: "We were on the right side of history."

j.ruddy@theday.com

If you go

What: "Day-Glo and Napalm: UConn from 1967 to 1971"

Where: Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, 405 Babbidge Road, Unit 1205, Storrs

When: Through Oct. 25

Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday

Admission: Free

Information: https://thedoddcenter.uconn.edu

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