The year everything changed

When the Class of 1968 holds its 50-year reunion in June, attendees may not view themselves as being part of one of the most pivotal classes in University history. But this class straddled what was probably the greatest transformation in UW student life.

It was, in fact, a revolution—in attitudes, politics, sexual mores, and the balance of power among students and between students and the University. When these freshmen wandered toward their first classes on Sept. 29, 1964, they encountered a campus that had changed hardly at all since World War II. When they left four years later, it was an entirely different place.

Therein lies a tale of University life.

I was a member of that class. When we arrived that fall, the Greek system dominated campus culture. There hadn’t been a non-Greek ASUW president since 1952. Nearly all the big-name athletes were Greeks (unless they happened to be Black; that barrier wasn’t broken until 1965, when basketballer Rafael Stone joined the Psi Upsilon house—an important milestone in the transformation then taking root). Furthermore, those of us who lived north of N.E. 45th Street set campus styles in manners, social attitudes, dress and the latest student slang. Fraternity guys wore khaki slacks, Bass Weejun penny loafers, V-neck sweaters over bleeding-madras shirts; there were no exceptions. They interjected into campus conversation such popular colloquialisms as “stud,’’ “bitchin,’’ “pre-function.’’

The significance of this went beyond the inevitable byplay of conceits and egos. The Greek system in those days was essentially conservative. The country’s most famous fraternity man of that era was the young television crooner Rick Nelson, who didn’t seem to have a lot of hot political issues on his mind. The Greek dominance of student life in those years was similarly devoid of serious policy concerns, preoccupied instead with the enjoyment of its favored place. The famous 1950s student “complacency’’ still permeated the campus.

One institution the Greeks didn’t dominate was The Daily, which was run by a motley corps of scribes from every enclave of student life. When I arrived there in the fall of 1964, I entered an environment far different from the uniformity of my fraternity house. At The Daily, I encountered the likes of Deb Das, a conservative intellectual from India with multiple Ph.D.s; a sports editor who clumped around in wooden shoes, which he pronounced infinitely more comfortable than penny loafers; and a female news editor with fiery red hair and a tough-broad demeanor that intimidated us freshmen (judging, at least, from her effect on me).

But while The Daily transcended the Greeks’ bland conservatism and sought to reflect the campus in all its varied manifestations, it harbored its own brand of conservatism. This stemmed from its ambition to produce quality news, as probing and thorough as the fare in the Seattle Times or P-I, which we considered stuffy and unambitious. Our hero was Sam Angeloff, who had parlayed his Daily editorship of a few years earlier into a high-profile writing job at Life magazine. Many of us wanted someday to be Sam Angeloff, and we wanted The Daily to be like Life. We certainly didn’t see our little paper as a weapon in any social or political movement.

But shortly after our campus arrival, social and political forces began to buffet the cozy campus status quo. Keep in mind that the class of ’68 was the vanguard of the Baby Boom generation, the first cohort (born in 1946) of that bulge of humanity that was moving through the national demography like a pig through a python. Its power was reflected in the fact that between 1964 and 1968, student enrollment at the university increased by 7,000, to more than 30,000. Ultimately, the Boomers realized there was power in numbers, and they could transform their surroundings by the sheer weight of their overwhelming enrollment.

But the Boomers didn’t ignite the new forces of protest. Those forces emerged in the famous Free Speech Movement at Cal-Berkeley, where students staged a protest against university rules restricting campus political activity. About a thousand students famously staged a sit-in at Sproul Hall in December 1964, resulting in nearly 800 arrests. But the university eventually softened its rules, awarding the students a rousing claim of victory. “It was the beginning of a seismic shift in American culture,’’ wrote the San Francisco Chronicle in noting the 50-year anniversary of the Berkeley protest.

Some 700 miles to the north, the possibilities represented by the Berkeley events settled into the consciousness of UW student Fred Kuretski, who in 1965 founded a political organization called the Campus Reform Action Movement, with the none-too-subtle acronym of CRAM. It was dedicated to reforms in student government—essentially, an effort to blunt the influence of those smug and snobbish Greeks. Some CRAM members shared a house tucked in the middle of the Greek neighborhood, which they mischievously called “Macedonia.”

One rebellious Macedonian was Tommie Powell, who got himself elected to the campus governing body, the ASUW Board of Control, as the designated “unaffiliated” male (meaning he lived neither in a fraternity nor a dorm). Then he staged a protest outside the HUB, where the food, by his estimation, left something to be desired. He bought a boxful of hamburgers from nearby Dick’s Drive-In, carted them up to a campus sales stand, and sold them at a small mark-up. That would teach university officials, he figured, that they couldn’t abuse students with bad food. Unfortunately, it was illegal to sell wares on campus without a license, and university cops soon shut down his operation and escorted him away.

In the context of what was to come later, it wasn’t much of a protest. But in the context of the era of complacency that reigned up to that time, it was big—splashed across the top of The Daily’s front page. Tommie Powell and CRAM had unleashed something new on campus—a protest impulse, the kernel of a political movement.

Out of that movement came a candidate for ASUW president in spring 1965 named John Hosack, unaffiliated and articulate, with an amusing sense of irony. He sported a large shock of wavy dark hair, the likes of which were not seen on N.E. 17th Street; his manner of dress also varied just enough from the typical fraternity man to convey a kind of “in your face’’ rebellion. The TYEE yearbook called him “one of the most prominent and out-spoken members of the Board of Control.’’ He lost to fraternity man Greg Douville—but only by 52 votes, after three recounts. Hosack promptly packed up his Volkswagen, drove to California, became a lawyer, and never looked back.

Back on campus, however, Douville knew he had to govern in new ways. A member of Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, with a boyish face and JFK haircut, he possessed a rare political sophistication. Although he was a traditionalist on education matters and never one to carry a picket sign (as he once said), he was influenced in subtle ways by the burgeoning protest impulse. Thus he broadened the horizons of student government.

Douville took on University President Charles E. Odegaard by fostering publication of a small, green volume called Course Critique, which rated UW professors based on student surveys. Odegaard blasted both the survey methods and the philosophy behind the book. But Douville maintained that students had a right to make their voices heard on fundamental academic issues affecting them—in this case, the ever-greater demands on faculty to pursue original research at the expense, it was assumed, of teaching.

The Douville approach—co-opting the protest impulse by carefully increasing the force and relevance of student government—was carried on by his successor, Judd Kirk, a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. Dismissive of flowery academic philosophies, the smooth, efficient Kirk believed the central role of ASUW government was to foster the expression of student attitudes. He encouraged student criticism of such perceived academic lapses as sloppy advising.

Kirk’s grand gesture was a protest against the University’s refusal to replace the old Meany Hall, damaged by an earthquake and razed, with a new campus auditorium. He led a movement to cancel all student activities related to the 1967 Homecoming. By marring a campus event cherished by thousands of alums, including many prominent ones, Kirk certainly made a statement destined to rile UW officials.

The carefully calibrated strategy of Douville and Kirk worked well until two developments emerged to overwhelm it. One was the Vietnam War, which infused a powerful new energy and force into the student protest movement. The second was a decline in the self-consciousness of Greek students. Soon it became impossible for even politically deft fraternity men such as Douville or Kirk to maintain a balance between the reform impulse and the old power distribution of campus politics.

Observing all this in 1967, I wrote in a campus publication called Tyee Magazine, “The Beatles, hardly the product of the American middle class, replaced fraternity man Rick Nelson. …[And] while few fraternity men would be without a sizable wardrobe of madras shirts and V-neck sweaters, they nevertheless periodically tug on their cowboy boots, sport paisley ties and postpone trips to the barber until their locks are hanging over their ears. … And neither are the nation’s sorority girls, following styles set by Mary Quant and enjoying Bob Dylan, any longer the pacesetters for the young adult set.” My article quoted John F. Scott, a UW sociology professor who had written on the structure of the American Greek system, as saying, “The hippie is the great innovator now.”

Thus, the stage was set for the 1967 ASUW elections, when only one Greek candidate emerged for the student presidency. That was Joe Schocken of Zeta Beta Tau, who ran against two residence hall candidates. That should have split the vote nicely for Schocken, but the winner was Rich Kirkpatrick of Haggett Hall, the first dorm resident to become ASUW president in 15 years.

Although Kirkpatrick had a Sunny Jim demeanor appealing to coeds, including sorority girls, his most noteworthy campaign trait was his negative tone. He savaged student government as “designed chiefly to construct egos for a handful of HUB-jocks dying to get to Olympia.” He railed against student-political “machines” whose philosophies centered on “promises, polish, buttons and kazoos.” Kirkpatrick’s anti-government populism was precisely the right message for the time.

Meanwhile, the new second vice president was the last remnant of the old CRAM movement. Mike Mandeville, popularly known as “Bootman” (because he favored boots over Bass Weejuns), ran the most stark protest campaign ever to prove successful up to that time. Upon winning, Mandeville promptly made plans to stick around campus an extra year and run for ASUW president.

Kirkpatrick quickly found himself buffeted by powerful winds of change. Corporate recruiting booths were disrupted, antiwar protests gathered force, and a new dissident organization called the University District Movement gathered several thousand students to a rally that snaked its way through campus on one particularly dramatic spring day. In the HUB, student politics increasingly focused on grabs for power as much as the wielding of it.

Over at The Daily, all this was hugely exciting. It was a hell of a story, and we were resolved to cover it dispassionately and professionally. Coinciding with this was a confluence of journalistic talent that seemed rare for any era. None of us followed Sam Angeloff to Life magazine, but one of our number wrote copy for Walter Cronkite at CBS News; another covered a presidential campaign for the Associated Press; two went on to enjoy prominent bylines at the Wall Street Journal; at least two are published authors. And many others emerged as important figures in Northwest journalism.

It was inevitable that the tides of change would lap at the shores of our little paper. The Daily was a campus power center and thus inevitably a power-grab target. It began mildly enough, with internal disputes about story selection and editing. But soon Mandeville was pressing to tilt the political balance of power on the Publications Board, which selected Daily editors. He succeeded in transferring control of the newspaper from the professionals to the politicos. The Daily became a cat’s paw in the ongoing struggle.

The campus realities in existence throughout the postwar era, right up to the fall of 1964, were gone forever. The revolution of 1964-1968 swept them away.

Robert Merry

Meanwhile, in the HUB, events were rushing toward the great watershed ASUW election of that great watershed year of 1968. The Greeks, losing morale and a sense of identity, didn’t even field a candidate, and it appeared the presidency would go by default to Mandeville. Then a group of students, almost on a lark, decided to put forth a totally obscure and exquisitely unqualified Greek candidate. The idea was simply to foil Bootman.

I must confess to a certain involvement in this ill-fated and probably ill-conceived venture. But for a time it appeared we might actually pull it off. “Your timing has been impeccable,” we were told as election day neared. “You’re peaking at just the right time.” Clearly, we had pulled ahead of Mandeville.

But we didn’t calculate the sprightly appeal of an equally obscure but hugely more resonant candidate, an unaffiliated gadfly named Thom Gunn. His was a protest candidacy, as was Mandeville’s, but Gunn’s was soft-edged and fun. He called for “a good five-cent bowl of soup in the HUB—you know, with things in it.” One Daily ad had him sitting atop a huge military cannon, which he was about to detonate. The caption: “Thom Gunn Declares War on the ASUW!” Another showed him sitting on a stoop with a lovely little girl on his knee and a St. Bernard dog at this side. “Thom Gunn,” said the ad, “Loves Animals and Children.”

Gunn stunned the campus establishment by winning the prize. He governed as he had campaigned, not as an angry activist whose roots stretched back to Fred Kuretski. Rather he was a joyful activist who simply refused to take seriously anything that represented authority or tradition. It was all for fun. For his inauguration he drew a huge crowd into the Quad, where he featured a Stanford coed who had become famous by posing nude in Playboy. She promptly went topless as Thom looked on with a mischievous grin and thousands of students cheered wildly.

The old order died that day. With Gunn’s election, the associated students declared they would not stand athwart ever-greater protest movements, growing waves of antiestablishment fervor, or even the cult of violence that would lead to the occupation of the Administration Building and the torching of the ROTC center. The consensus was: Go with the flow, and enjoy this heady time.

It didn’t last. The protest receded with the slow build-down in Vietnam, the end of the military draft and the powerful tragedy of Kent State. The Greek system faltered, with at least one leading fraternity actually going bankrupt, but it soon regained its footing (though never to be what it once was). The antiestablishment fervor gave way to much milder forms of intergenerational tensions.

But the campus realities in existence throughout the postwar era, right up to the fall of 1964, were gone forever. The revolution of 1964-1968 swept them away.

The UW’s Class of ’68 certainly isn’t unique in its student experiences. The same revolution unfolded at universities throughout the nation, in some instances with more violence and disruption. And of course the campus protests were merely a small manifestation of a much larger transformation taking place throughout society. But as members of this UW class congregate in reunion a half century after their fateful year of graduation, it’s worth noting that it was the only class to actually straddle the revolution—arriving when the old 1950s culture prevailed on campus and still around when 1968 finally washed away the last vestiges of that old culture.

I suspect that the ever-flowing rivulets of time will have washed away any gritty sands of animosity spawned by those times of turbulence so long ago, and thus the Class of ’68 will come together in appreciation of the fact that we all participated, in one way or another, in a little slice of a much broader cultural and political revolution of profound significance even to this day. After all, fifty years should go a long way toward placing into perspective even momentous and emotion-charged events.