Vietnam-era students finally get to graduate
4 May 2010
By Sean Coughlan
Students in the United States caught up in the campus protests
against the Vietnam War are going to re-stage graduation ceremonies
cancelled in 1970.
Fearing violence on campuses, some US universities shut early that
summer and cancelled leaving ceremonies.
Forty years later, students who missed out are now returning to hold
the events that were cancelled.
Boston University says students in 1970 missed an "important milestone".
It will mean that former students, who are now grandparents in their
sixties, will be able take part in the rites of passage that were
interrupted 40 years ago.
"What memories, I remember getting my diploma in the mail, the world
was upside down then," says an entry on Facebook about the returning
students at Boston University.
At other universities, there is talk of "closure" for the "class that
In 1970, the symbolic end-of-term events for students leaving
universities were overtaken by political protests about the Vietnam War.
In May 1970, the shooting dead of four student protestors at Kent
State University in Ohio by national guardsmen sparked a wave of
Many universities shut down, cancelling the end of term speeches,
photographs and the caps and gowns of graduation ceremonies.
There were occupations, sit-ins, protest concerts and stand-offs with
the authorities, and fearing violence, many universities cleared
Boston University was one of the campuses that closed in the summer
of 1970, in what it described as a time of "national turmoil".
It meant cancelling the "commencement" ceremonies for those leaving
university that summer.
Now it is asking back the Class of 1970 for a weekend of events to be
held later this month.
They will join the current year group of students leaving the
university this summer.
However there will also be a remembrance for more than 150 students
from the university's class of 1970 who have since died.
The University of Cincinnati is also holding events for the students
who missed out on leaving events in 1970.
An event this summer is intended to give these students an
"opportunity to symbolically reclaim their lost commencement".
The university says it will give the students of 1970 the chance "to
finally walk across the stage to well deserved applause".
40 Years Later, a Proper Graduation
By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE
Published: May 16, 2010
BOSTON The telltale clues at this weekend's festivities, 40 years
late, included the tie-dye T-shirt on a woman who also wore a peace
symbol necklace and a garland in her hair ("I thought everyone would
be dressed like this," she said).
When the group stood for its class picture, even those in suits and
ties made the peace sign. Others raised clenched fists.
And one of them marched in the commencement processional with an
antiwar poster slung around his neck.
The accouterment and spirit of their era still radiate from the class
of 1970, despite the harsh and abrupt ending to their years at Boston
That spring was supposed to bring a flowery conclusion to their four
years of academe. But President Richard M. Nixon had invaded
Cambodia. National Guardsmen had gunned down students at Kent State,
killing four and wounding nine. Young men still faced the draft. And
this campus, like many across the country, was in turmoil, with
strikes, sit-ins, building takeovers and fire-bombings.
The situation became so incendiary that, for safety's sake,
university officials called off final exams, canceled graduation and
sent students packing.
This weekend, on what would have been the 40th anniversary of that
ceremony, the university sought to make amends with a proper graduation.
But more than pomp and circumstance, the university wanted to give
the students now in their early 60s, many of them grandparents a
chance to heal the wounds, reflect on what their time here had meant
and feel better about their alma matter.
"This is not an apology," Robert A. Brown, the president of the
university, said in an interview beforehand. "We did exactly the
right thing by calling off exams. It's an opportunity to reach out to
this cadre of alums and say, 'Come, be with us.' "
About 300 of the 3,000-member class showed up, many with their grown
children in tow, not to mention unfinished business.
"That was a big deal," Dr. Marcia Wells Avery, one of three black
nursing students in the class of 1970, said of her canceled
graduation. "It was worse for the parents and the grandparents, many
of whom are dead now and were robbed of that opportunity to see their
child march across that stage."
"My father vowed that B.U. would never get a penny from him," added
Dr. Avery, who is now a nursing professor at Northwestern State
University in Louisiana.
Still, Dr. Avery was enjoying the weekend. She decided to drop by the
bookstore and "buy up all the B.U. paraphernalia" she could find. She
said she would even consider making a future donation to the school.
And by the end of the ceremonies on Sunday, she was beaming. "It's
O.K.," she said. "I feel complete."
Although officials avoided any mention of fund-raising during the
weekend, many class members assumed that this was one of the
university's long-term goals as it sought to strengthen its bonds
with this class, many of them professionals, many on the verge of retirement.
Scott Nichols, the university's chief fund-raiser, said that "there
is no plan afterward to swoop in." However, he added: "These students
had this strange moment in time. Why not treat them nicely? In a
fund-raising sense, you never go wrong treating people nicely and
there's always payback, but we have no solicitation strategy."
On Saturday the class began trickling back to the urban campus. The
ice-breaking social event was an extensive slide show of photographs
taken by Peter Simon, a member of the class and brother of Carly Simon.
"Forty years ago I probably never would have gone to graduation
because I was such a hippie," Mr. Simon said to chuckles and
applause. But now, he said, "time has mellowed me."
Mr. Simon said that when he speaks about his photography around the
country, students frequently say to him, "God, I wish I'd been alive
and been part of your generation because it's really boring now." He
said he responds by saying: "But you have all this texting! You have
"And they say they'd give all that stuff away for the kind of
experiences we had," he said. "And I have to say, I agree."
Many of those who came said some classmates had no interest in
attending. "They felt like what's done is done and it has no
relevance to their lives anymore," said Amy Weiner Nathans, a retired
foreign language teacher who lives in Ohio.
But many came just for the fun of it. George Watson, who is now
chairman of the foreign language department at a local high school,
said he came back "to rekindle that passion that I felt back then."
Kit Coffey, who worked in medical sales and lives on Boston's South
Shore, said she came because she thought it would be "a hoot" to
remember her origins as a rebellious college student.
"How did I become a suburban housewife?" she asked. This era, she
said, "is hard to explain to people, then you forget about it because
you're in your everyday life. And then you look back at this time and
think, wow, what was that all about?"
This would not be a gathering of baby boomers without elaborate
attention paid to the music. As the class moved quietly to the pews
of Marsh Chapel for a Service of Remembrance, Jan Hill, a pianist,
played the soundtrack of their era: "Fire and Rain," "The Long and
Winding Road" and "Both Sides Now." Jessica Tardy, a soloist, backed
by an acoustic guitar, sang "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
From the lectern, James Carroll, who was the Catholic chaplain of
the university at the time, vividly recalled the vigil here for Kent
State students, when American soldiers, dressed in combat gear and
carrying rifles, encircled the students at a sit-in. "The real
meaning of that trauma sank in," he said of Kent State. "Our
government, having killed legions of Vietnamese, was now prepared to
kill you. Us."
Ms. Tardy, the soloist, led the class in singing "Let It Be," during
which many wiped away tears.
That sharp emotional reminiscence over, the events of the weekend
took a more joyful turn.
At their own convocation on Sunday morning, class members with
their gray hair tucked under their caps and lifetimes of experience
under their belts strode across the stage in their fire-engine-red
gowns and received their diplomas (actually, certificates, since
their real diplomas had been mailed to them at the time).
Swaying back and forth, they spontaneously sang "All we are saying,
is give peace a chance." They bopped and shimmied off the stage to
"Ain't No Mountain High Enough."
In the afternoon, they were given pride of place among 25,000 other
graduates, family and friends at the sun-splashed commencement
ceremonies on Nickerson Field. Younger graduates cheered them on.
Several speakers paid them homage as the big video screens featured
photos of their demonstrations, their love-ins and their long hair.
And the commencement speaker, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.,
singled them out.
"I love you all," he told the crowd. But gesturing to the class of
1970, sitting right in front of him, he said, "But these are my people."
For a day, at least, the establishment was honoring them, a turnabout
from 40 years ago.