Quirky Berkeley— I Return to My Roots


Sproul Hall

Sproul Hall, the administrative center of UC Berkeley, looks imposing. It comes with a welcome sign now but it wasn’t so welcoming when I gave a speech while standing on the Dean’s desk at the height of the Free Speech Movement in 1964.

Last week went on forever. By Sunday, the events at the beginning of the week seemed like ancient history. Maybe that’s not a bad thing; time slowed down. Lately it’s been zipping by like a hummingbird on sugar-water. Zoooooooom!

I began my week by being a guest lecturer in a writing class at Southern Oregon University where I talked about changes in the publishing industry. Mainly I discussed how authors are now responsible for marketing their own books. Grump. It is not my favorite activity. “Go start a blog,” I urged, “at least you can have fun. And it is great writing practice.”

Thursday found me keynoting an author’s day at a local community school. I had jumped from talking with seniors in college to kids. And how in the heck do you tailor a talk for a group with an age range from 7-14? Tell stories, I decided— and started with the tale from The Bush Devil Ate Sam about Rasputin the Cat and the Cockle Doodle Rooster. Afterwards I taught classes of fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders. My message was that we are all storytellers.

It was fun. The eight-hour drive to Berkeley immediately afterward wasn’t.

I drove down to attend a national conference of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. I was one pooped pup when I arrived. It was lights out for Curt. I hardly even needed my noisemaker to drown out the clamor on University Avenue.

Berkeley is many things, among them a world renown center of education.

Speaking of tired puppies, I found these hemp collars and leashes on Telegraph Avenue. In addition to being home to one of the world’s greatest educational institutions, Berkeley can be a bit quirky.

I went to the conference to participate in some workshops relating to Peace Corps writers, of which there are legions. I also wanted to hear presentations by Congressman Sam Farr and Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet. Sam had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in South America in the 60s and, like me, worked in Peace Corps recruiting afterwards. He is known as “Mr. Peace Corps” in Congress for the strong advocacy role he plays for the organization.

He argued that Returned Peace Corps Volunteers also needed to become advocates. It’s budget time in Washington, and there are a lot more countries requesting Peace Corps Volunteers, and people who want to be Volunteers, than Peace Corps has money to fund. As usual, the money goes elsewhere. For example, we are spending a billion and a half dollars this year to keep Egypt happy— four times the total budget of Peace Corps.

On the good news side of the equation, Carrie announced that Peace Corps Volunteers would be back in Liberia this week. As you may recall, they were pulled out in the fall because of Ebola. Carrie also mentioned a major new initiative that Peace Corps is working on with Michelle Obama, Let Girls Learn. It is a worldwide effort to provide girls with the same education opportunities boys now have.


We listened to a pre-recorded message on Let Girls Learn from Michelle Obama in Wheeler Auditorium, which was the site of my first class at Berkeley. I had walked right by the classroom, incapable of imagining that there would be over a thousand students in the class. Berkeley gave me a new understanding of mass education.

I must confess— I also had an ulterior motive for the trip. Any journey to Berkeley is a trip into the past for me. I think of it as a pilgrimage, a return to my roots. I still hear echoes from the 60s when I was caught up in Berkley’s Free Speech Movement. This time the echoes were real. A resounding expletive caught my attention. I turned around to see Cliff Marks descending on me. Cliff and I had shared an apartment during out senior year and Cliff had also served in the Peace Corps. The last time I had seen or talked with him was at his wedding in 1969. We had a grand time catching up. Now it is time to catch up on the blogs I have missed this past week and a half.

But first, let’s go on a tour of Berkeley.

Sather Gate

Every student who has ever been to Berkeley passes through Sather Gate…


And at some point, stops to admire the Campanile, which is Berkeley’s best known landmark.

Bay Bridge

The campus looks out over San Francisco Bay. The Golden Gate Bridge can be seen in the distance.

Steps of library

I had spent the day buried in the Bancroft Library and surfaced for a break when I found a young woman crying on these steps. The campus was deathly quiet. “What’s the problem?” I had asked. “They’ve shot the President,” she told me in a broken voice. It was November 23, 1963 and President Kennedy had been killed, shot down in the streets of Dallas.

Sproul Plaza

Sproul Plaza was a major location for student protests in the 60s. This entrance to the campus, at the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Avenue, was the location of Berkeley’s Free Speech Area that the University arbitrarily closed down in the fall of 1964, thus leading to the beginning of the Free Speech Movement.

Ludwig's fountain

The Student Union and Ludwig’s Fountain are under renovation. Ludwig was a 60’s type dog who wandered wherever he chose. He came down from his house on the hill daily and frolicked in the fountain that would eventually bear his name. I petted Ludwig and watched as a police car was taken hostage and then used as a speaker’s podium. Jack Weinberg, a Civil Rights organizer, was being held in the car. It was Jack, now 75, who coined the phrase, “never trust anyone over 30.”

Cafe Mediterraneum

I learned as much outside of the classrooms as I did inside at Berkeley. The Cafe Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue was my main hangout. It was one of America’s first European style Coffee Houses in the 1950s and proudly claims to be the creator of the caffe latte.


One of my primary forms of entertainment in the 60s at Berkeley was perusing bookstores. It still is today when I visit the city. Moe’s was and is one of the greats. Sadly, my favorite, Cody’s, is now closed.

Amoeba Records

Amoeba Records is next to the Cafe Meditteraneum. Street booths, like those in front on the left, have become a permanent  fixture along Telegraph Avenue.

Crystals on Telegraph

As one might expect, many of the items for sale have a New Age connection, such as these ‘healing’ quartz crystals.

Dream Catchers

And these dream catchers.

People's Park

“If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with.” –Ronald Reagan’s response as Governor of California to students who were protesting his closing down Berkeley’s People’s Park as a community garden in the late 60s. National Guard troops were sent in and local police were armed with shotguns loaded with buckshot. One student, apparently a bystander, was killed and another was blinded. The whole city was tear gassed from the air.

Tree sign

A sign thanking trees that live in the park today.


A mural on the side of the Amoeba record store depicts events surrounding People’s Park as well as other Telegraph Avenue happenings.


The mural.

Pan Handler

Berkeley has always been a mecca for young people,  both those seeking an alternative lifestyle as well as those seeking a first class education. Many who came looking for alternatives arrived without money, as this young man shown in the mural.


Today, Berkeley is the ‘home’ for numerous homeless people. I took this photo on Dwinelle Plaza on campus.

Street Spirit

This homeless man was selling the newspaper “Streetsmart” in front of Moe’s Bookstore. Headlines announced a recent protest that the community’s religious leaders including Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist representatives had made against the city’s efforts to criminalize homelessness as a means of driving homeless people out of town.

Berkeley sign board

A sign of the times? Not really. Berkeley’s sign boards have always been plastered with notices on top of notices. I was amused to find help wanted notices for Berkeley’s Call Center. I hear from these young people several times a year as they solicit money for Berkeley. I found it interesting that the University, who charges them $14,000 a year in tuition ($38,000 if out-of-state), only pays these kids $11 per hour.

South Hall

South Hall, built in 1873, is the oldest building on the UC Berkeley Campus. It’s an appropriate photo to end this post, and also to raise a question about the future of public education in America. Tuition was free when I went to Berkeley and I was able to pay for my living costs by driving a laundry truck in the summer. I graduated debt-free. Today’s young people graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. It’s close to tragic. All I can think of is how incredibly stupid our state and national leaders are when the future of our nation, and indeed the world, depends upon an educated and knowledgeable population. Germany can somehow find the money to provide a free college education. Why not America?






UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Moment— 50 Years Later: Part III

The student newspaper at UC Berkeley used headlines from its 1964/65 coverage of the Free Speech Movement on its front page issue that summarized the tumultous year.

The student newspaper at UC Berkeley used headlines from its 1964/65 coverage of the Free Speech Movement on the  front page of its May 19, 1965 issue that summarized the tumultuous year.

In preparation for writing these blogs on the Free Speech Movement, I broke out my old files from the FSM days. Included were aging, yellow copies of the Daily Cal, a Christmas carol song book and record with the carols modified to reflect what had happened on campus, hurriedly mimeographed sheets documenting the most recent administration ‘outrage,’ and my own personal picket sign I had carried following the arrests in Sproul Hall. Memories came flooding back. I even found a picture of Ludwig, the German Short Haired Pointer. Since then I have discovered numerous sources covering the movement and its impact including an excellent book, “The Free Speech Movement,” edited by Robert Cohen and Reginald Zelnik. FSM even has its own website where I discovered pictures of white-haired aging men and women looking remarkably like me. Fifty years ago is now the ancient past.

I also returned to campus on one of the periodic pilgrimages I make to Berkeley. Sitting on the edge of Ludwig’s fountain under a fine mist of spray, I stared at the steps of Sproul Hall while searching my memory for the ghostly reminders of past demonstrations. Naturally I had to visit the Café Med for an obligatory cup of cappuccino. I also visited the Free Speech Café in the Moffitt Undergraduate Library. Every seat was full so I wandered around and looked at pictures. Mario, who died in 1996, was there in spirit. A picture captured him in a characteristic pose haranguing a sea of upturned faces.

In hindsight, the Free Speech Movement has become an important part of Berkeley’s history, honored even by an Administration that once characterized it as a Communist inspired plot. And what about my hindsight; have the years blurred or substantially modified my vision of what took place? I tried in writing about FSM to be faithful to what I felt at the time as an involved observer, struggling to understand what was happening and why. I feel now, as I did then, that it didn’t have to happen. The attitude of the Administration so aptly demonstrated in the 1963 student government meeting I described went beyond naïve to dangerous. If the more radical students found ground for ‘revolution,’ it was a ground fertilized and plowed by the Administration. The desire to protect the campus from outside influence became a willingness to limit the rights of students to participate in the critical issues of the day and, in so doing, take the side of the people whose vested interest were in maintaining the status quo on civil and other human rights issues.

What changed as a result of the Free Speech Movement? Certainly the concept of in locus parentis took a major hit. Students at Berkeley and other colleges across America would have much greater freedom in the future, on both a personal and political level. We had graduated from being older teenagers needing strict guidance to young adults capable and responsible for our own decisions. Human rights and equality, the anti-war campaign, and the environmental movement would all benefit from the infusion of young people dedicated to making positive changes. Berkeley students had participated in one of America’s great transformations.

The New Left, being more issue oriented and less ideological than the Old Left, considers the Free Speech Movement as an important source of origin. A similar claim might be made for the New Right. Not surprisingly, both the left and the right saw the unrest on the Berkeley Campus as an opportunity waiting to happen.

Certainly Ronald Reagan exploited the student unrest of the 60s and 70s to gain power. Following the Free Speech Movement and for the next the next decade, he would use the student protests at Berkeley and other California colleges as a launching pad for his career in politics. One of his first moves as Governor of California would be to fire Clark Kerr for being too soft on the students. There is a picture from the early 70s of Reagan turning around and flipping off student protestors at a U.C. Regent’s meeting. It was a clear message of intent. There would be little love lost between the future president and young people opposing the war in Vietnam, supporting the environmental movement, and fighting for human rights.

In the spring of 1965, after most of the tumult of the Free Speech Movement had ended, Sargent Shriver, John Kennedy’s brother-in-law and the man Kennedy asked to create the Peace Corps, came to Berkeley and addressed the student body. He told us the Peace Corps was looking for unreasonable men and women. Reasonable people accept the status quo, Shriver noted. Unreasonable people seek to change it. We were noted for being unreasonable at Berkeley. His words:

“You have demonstrated your leadership in the generation of the ‘6os,’ the generation that will not take ‘yes’ for an answer, which has shown an unwillingness to accept the pat answers of society— either in Berkeley, in Selma or in Caracas, Venezuela,” Shriver noted.

“Once in every generation,” he went on to say, “ fundamentals are challenged and the entire fabric of our life is taken apart seam by seam and reconstructed… Such a time is now again at hand and it is clear that many of you are unreasonable men (and women)— restless, questioning, challenging, taking nothing for granted.”

“We ask all of you to take what you have learned about our society and make it live… to join us in the politics of service, to demonstrate to the poor and the forgotten of villages and slums in America and the world what you have learned of Democracy and freedom and equality. The times demand no less.”

We gave Shriver a standing ovation. I joined the Peace Corps.

On the Edge of Radicalism— UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement: Part II

Jack Weinberg looks out the window of a police car on Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley Campus.

Jack Weinberg looks out the window of a police car on Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley Campus. He had been arrested for signing up students to support the Civil Rights Movement. Jack was the person who coined the rally cry of the 60s: “Never trust anyone over 30.” (Photo was on the front of Berkeley’s literary magazine, Occident.)

I came back to Berkeley in the fall of 1964 with a new living arrangement. Before summer break, two of my dorm-mates, Cliff Marks and Jerry Silverfield, had agreed to share an apartment with me for our senior year. Landlords had a captive student population to exploit so prices were high. We ended up with a small kitchen, bathroom, living room, and bedroom. Things were so tight in the bedroom that Cliff and I had a bunk bed. He got the top. I would later wonder why this was superior to dorm life. We had more responsibility and less privacy.

We christened the apartment by consuming a small barrel of tequila Cliff had brought back from his summer of sharpening Spanish skills in Mexico. While Cliff, Jerry and I were recovering from our well-deserved headaches, the Administration moved decisively to eliminate on-campus political activities. There would be no more organizing of community-oriented demonstrations from campus, no more collecting of money from students to support causes, and no more controversial speakers on campus without administrative oversight and control. The Bancroft-Telegraph entrance free speech area was out of business, closed down, caput. That incredible babble of voices advocating a multitude of causes would be heard no more.

The Administration’s actions were a testament to the success of the Civil Right’s struggle taking place in the Bay Area. It wasn’t that the activists wanted change; the problem was that they were achieving it. Non-violent civil disobedience is a powerful tool. Base your fight on moral issues; use the sit-in and the picket line to make your point. When the police come, don’t fight back; go limp. If they beat you over the head, you win. Sing songs of peace and justice; put a flower in the barrel of the weapon facing you. It is incredibly hard to fight against these tactics.

As the protests in the surrounding community became more successful, the power structure being attacked struck back. Calls were made to the Regents, the President of the University system, and the Chancellor at Berkeley. ‘Control your students or else’ was the ominous message. One of the people making the threats was William Knowland, owner of the Oakland Tribune and a former Republican Senator from California who had been a strong supporter of McCarthyism. The Tribune was one of the targets of the anti-discrimination campaign.

The Regents, President and Chancellor bowed to the pressure. Some members of the Administration undoubtedly agreed with Knowland and saw the protesters as part of an anarchic left-wing plot. Others may have believed that the students’ effectiveness would bring the powers that be down on the university. Academic freedom could be lost. Some likely felt that the activities were disruptive to the education process and out-of-place on a college campus.

One thing was immediately clear; the Administration woefully underestimated the reaction of the leaders of the various organizations and large segments of the Campus population to its dictum. Maybe the administrators actually believed the message they had received from their student leadership the previous fall or maybe they just needed to believe: the outside pressure was so great it didn’t matter how students reacted.

But react they did. These were not young adults whose biggest challenge had been to organize a pre-football game rally. Some, like Mario Savio, had walked the streets of the South and stared racism in the face, risking their lives to do so. That summer while I was driving a laundry truck over the Sierras, three of their colleagues had been shot dead and buried under an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Many had cut their political eye teeth four years earlier in the anti House Un-American Activities Committee demonstrations in San Francisco and had participated in the numerous protests against racial discrimination since. They understood the value of demonstrations, media coverage and confrontation, and had become masters at community organization. They were committed to their beliefs and were willing to face police and be arrested if necessary.

The Administration wasn’t nearly as focused. Mainly liberal in nature and genuinely caring for its students, it utilized a 50’s mentality to address a 60’s reality. Its bungling attempts to control off-campus political activity combined with its inability to recognize the legitimacy and depth of student feelings would unite factions as diverse as Young Republicans for Goldwater with the Young People’s Socialist League and eventually lead to the massive protests that would paint Berkeley as the nation’s center of student activism and the New Left. Over the next three months I would spend a great deal of time listening, observing and participating in what would become known world-wide as the Free Speech Movement. As a student of politics, I was to learn much more in the streets than I did in the classroom.

What evolved was a classic no win, up-against-the-wall confrontation. The Administration would move from “all of your freedoms are removed,” to “you can have some freedom,” to “let’s see how you like cops bashing in your heads.” The Free Speech leaders would be radicalized to the point where no compromise except total victory was acceptable. Student government and faculty solutions urging moderation and cooperation would be lost in the shuffle. Ultimately, Governor Pat Brown would send in the police and Berkeley would take on the atmosphere of a police state.

The process of alienation that had started for me with the student leader conference in 1963 continued to grow, but I never made the leap from issue to ideology. It was no more in my nature to be left-wing than it had been to be right-wing. However, I would journey across the dividing line into civil disobedience.

Within hours of the time that Dean Katherine Towle sent out her ultimatum to campus organizations, the brother and sister team of Art and Jackie Goldberg had pulled together activist organizations ranging in orientation from the radical to conservative and a nascent FSM was born. Shortly thereafter the mimeographs were humming and students were buried in an avalanche of leaflets as they walked on to campus. I read mine is disbelief. The clash I had foreseen a year earlier had arrived. There was no joy in being right.

Mimeographed sheet on Free Speech Movement from the files of Curtis Mekemson.

Hastily run off mimeograph sheets such as this one kept students up-to-date on what was happening with the Free Speech Movement. It seems terribly quaint in the age of the Internet and cellphones.

As soon as it became apparent that the Administration had no intention of backing off from its new rules, the FSM leadership determined to challenge the University. Organizations were encouraged to set up card tables in the Sather Gate area to solicit support for off campus causes. I had stopped by a table to pick up some literature when a pair of Deans approached and started writing down names of the people manning the table. Our immediate reaction was to form a line so we could have our names taken as well. The Deans refused to accommodate us. The Administration’s objective was to pick off and separate the leadership of the FSM from the general student body.

A few days later, on October 4, I came out of class to find a police car parked in Sproul Plaza surrounded by students. The police, with encouragement from the Administration, had arrested Jack Weinberg, a non-student organizer for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) who had been soliciting support for his organization. Someone had found a bullhorn and people were making speeches from the top of the police car while Jack sat inside. I situated myself on the edge of the fountain next to the Student Union and idly scratched the head of a German Short Haired Pointer named Ludwig while I listened. Ludwig visited campus daily and played in the water. He’d become a Berkeley regular.

Eventually I stood up and joined those on the edge of the crowd thereby becoming a part of the blockade. It was my first ever participation in civil disobedience. It was a small step. There would be plenty of time for more critical thinking if the police showed up in force. I did duty between classes and took breaks for eating and sleep. Eventually, after a couple of days, the FSM negotiated a deal with the Administration. Jack was booked on campus and turned loose, as was the police car. A collection was taken up to pay for minor damages the police car had sustained in the line of duty while serving as a podium. I threw in a dollar. Weinberg, by the way, was the one who coined the rallying cry of youth in the 60s: “Never trust anyone over 30.”

The situation did not improve. Each time a solution seemed imminent, the Administration would renege or the FSM would increase its demands. In addition to the right to organize on campus, the disciplining of FSM leaders became a central issue. Demonstrations took place almost daily and were blasted in the press, which wasn’t surprising considering the local press was the Oakland Tribune. I learned a great deal about media sensationalism and biased reporting. One day I would sit in on a very democratic and spirited discussion of the pros and cons of a specific action and the next day I would read in the Tribune or San Francisco Examiner that I had participated in a major insurrection of left leaning radicals who were challenging the very basis of law and order and civilized society.

Older adults, looking suspiciously like plain-clothes policemen or FBI agents, became a common occurrence on Campus. It was easy to become paranoid. If we signed a petition, demonstrated, made a speech or just stood by listening, would our pictures and names end up in some mysterious Washington file that proclaimed our disloyalty to the nation? These weren’t idle thoughts. A few years earlier people’s careers had been ended and lives ruined because someone had implied they were soft on communism. J. Edgar Hoover was known for tracking Civil Rights’ leaders and maintaining extensive files on every aspect of their lives. While we weren’t up against the KGB, caution was advisable. We looked warily at those who didn’t look like us. One day a small dog was making his way around the edge of the daily demonstration, sniffing people.

“See that Chihuahua,” a friend whispered in my ear. I nodded yes. “It’s a police dog in disguise. Any moment it is going to unzip its front and a German Shepherd will pop out.”

The wolf in sheep’s clothing was amongst us. It was a light moment to counter a serious time. And we were very serious. I sometimes wondered when the celebrated fun of being a college student would kick in.

One day I was faced with a test more serious than any I had ever faced in the classroom. On Friday, December 3, 1964, FSM leaders called for a massive sit in at Sproul Hall. Once again communication had broken down and the Administration was back peddling, caught between students and faculty on the one side and increasing pressure from the outside on the other. I thought about the implications of the sit-it and decided to join. It was partly on whim, and partly because I had a need to act. For three months I had listened to pros and cons and watched the press blatantly misrepresent what was happening on campus. I was angry, knowing that the public had little option but to believe we were being manipulated by a small group of radicals and had no legitimate concerns.

It was not wrong to utilize an edge of campus for discussing the central issues of the day, or for organizations to raise funds for supporting various causes, or even to recruit students to participate in efforts to change the community. It didn’t disrupt my education. I was free to stop and listen, to join in, or pass on. What it did do was irritate powerful, established members of the community. And for that reason, our freedoms had been curtailed.

Maybe if enough students joined together and the stakes were raised high enough, the Administration would listen, the press would dig a little deeper, and our basic freedoms would be returned. I told my fiancé I was going inside and then joined the thousand or so students who had made similar decisions. It was early in the afternoon and we were in high spirits. I believed it would be hard for the Administration to claim 1000 students were a small group of rabble-rousers bent on destroying the system. And I was right. They claimed we were a large group of rabble-rousers bent on destroying the system.

Inside I was treated to one of the more unique experiences of my life. The sit-in was well-organized. Mario Savio and other FSM leaders gave us directions on what to do if the police arrived. There were clear instructions that we were not to block doorways. The normal business of the University was not to be impeded and we were not to be destructive in any way. Floors were organized for different purposes. The basement was set aside as the Free University where graduate students were teaching a variety of classes. These included normal topics such as physics and biology and more exotic subjects such as the nature of God. One floor was set aside as a study hall and was kept quiet. Another floor featured entertainment – including old Laurel and Hardy films.

After administrators left, the Dean’s desk became a podium for speech making. I felt compelled to participate. There was a long line of speakers. We were required to take off our shoes so the desk wouldn’t be damaged. The real treat though was an impromptu concert by Joan Baez. I joined a small group sitting around her in the hallway and sang protest songs. The hit of the night was “We Shall Overcome.” It provided us with a sense of identification with struggles taking place in the South. I felt like I belonged and was part of something much larger than myself. Mainly I walked around and listened, taking extensive notes on what I saw and felt. Later I would sit in the Café Med and write them up. They would become the basis of talks I would give back home over the Christmas break.

Along about midnight I started thinking about my comfortable bed back in the apartment. The marble floors of Sproul Hall did not make for a good night’s sleep and it appeared the police weren’t coming, at least in the immediate future. Yawning, I left the building and headed home. I would come back in the morning.

I did, but I came back to a semi-police state. Berkeley was an occupied campus. Armed men in uniforms formed a cordon around the Administration Building where students were being dragged down the stairs and loaded into police vans. Windows had been taped over so people or media could not see what was transpiring inside. The great liberal governor of California had acted to “end the anarchy and maintain law and order in California.”

I am sure Laurel and Hardy would have seen something to laugh about. Dragging kids down stairs on their butts while their heads bounced along behind could easily have been a scene in one of the old Keystone Cop films. The Oakland police weren’t nearly as funny as the Keystone Cops, however. As for Clark Kerr, President of the University, he felt we were getting what we deserved and argued that the FSM leaders and their followers “are now finding in their effort to escape the gentle discipline of the University, they have thrown themselves into the arms of the less understanding discipline of the community at large.”

An aging copy of the Daily Cal, Berkeley's student newspaper, announces the arrests at Sproul Hall on December 4, 1964.

An aging copy of the Daily Cal, Berkeley’s student newspaper, announces the arrests at Sproul Hall on December 4, 1964.

Later Kerr claimed he had an understanding with Governor Brown to let the students remain in Sproul Hall over night. He would talk with the protesters in the morning in an effort to end the sit-in peacefully. But Brown reneged on the agreement. One report was that Edwin Meese, Ronald Reagan’s future Attorney General and, at the time, Oakland’s Deputy DA and FBI liaison, had called Brown in the middle of the night with the claim that student’s were destroying the Dean’s office.

I had participated in the “destruction,” i.e. stood on the Dean’s desk in my socks. Either the DA had received an erroneous report or he had deliberately lied to the Governor. My sense was that the right-wing of American politics, which Meese represented, had much more to gain from violent confrontations than it did from negotiated settlements.

The campus came to a grinding halt and a great deal of fence-sitting ended. Whole departments shut down in strike. Sproul Hall plaza filled with several thousand students in protest of the police presence. When the police made a flying wedge to grab a speaker system FSM was using, we were electrified and protected the system with our bodies. It was the closest I have ever come to being in a riot; thousands of thinking, caring students teetered on the edge of becoming an infuriated, unthinking mob. Violence and bloodshed, egged on by police action, would have been the result. Kerr, Brown, Knowland and company would have had the anarchy they were claiming, after the fact. A few days later we were to come close again.

Kerr, in a series of around the clock meetings with a select committee of Department Chairs, had arrived at a compromise he felt would provide for the extended freedom being demanded on campus while also diffusing the outside pressure to crack open student heads. Sit-in participants arrested in the Sproul Hall would be left to the tender mercies of the outside legal system and not disciplined by the University. Rights to free speech and organization on campus would be restored as long as civil disobedience was not advocated.

Kerr and Robert Scalapino, Chair of the Political Science Department, presented the compromise to a hastily called all-campus meeting of 15,000 students and faculty at the Greek Theater. There was to be no discussion and no other speakers. When Mario Savio approached the podium following the presentation, he was grabbed by police, thrown down, and dragged off the stage. Apparently he had wanted to announce a meeting in Sproul Plaza to discuss Kerr’s proposal. Once again, Berkeley teetered on the edge of a riot. We moved from silent, shocked disbelief to shouting our objections. Mario, released from the room where he was held captive, urged us to stay calm and leave the area. We did, but Kerr’s compromise had become compromised.

A full meeting of the Academic Senate was to be held the next day and the whole campus waited in anticipation to hear what stand Berkeley’s faculty would take. We knew that most faculty members deplored the presence of police on campus and the violent way they had responded to the nonviolent demonstrators. Dragging Mario off the stage had not helped the Administration’s case. Some departments such as math, philosophy, anthropology and English were clearly on the side of FSM while others including business and engineering were in opposition.

My own department of political science was clearly divided. Some professors believed that nonviolent civil disobedience threatened the stability of government. Others recognized how critical it was for helping the powerless gain power. To them, having large blocks of disenfranchised, alienated people in America seemed to be a greater threat to democracy than civil disobedience.

The Senate met on December 8 in Wheeler Hall. Some 5000 of us gathered outside to wait for the results and listen to the proceedings over a loud speaker.

To the students who had fought so hard and risked so much, and to those of us who had joined their cause, the results were close to euphoric. On a vote of 824-115 the faculty voted that all disciplinary actions prior to December 8 should be dropped, that students should have the right to organize on campus for off-campus political activity, and that the University should not regulate the content of speech or advocacy. Two weeks later, the Regents confirmed the faculty position.

We had won. Our freedom of speech, our freedom to organize, and our freedom to participate in the critical issue of the day were returned. While we were still a part of the future so popular with commencement speakers, we were also a part of the now, helping to shape that future.

NEXT BLOG: The aftermath of the Free Speech Movement and a 50-year perspective on the results.

1964— The Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley… A Student Revolution: Part I

Wrinkled and showing signs of age, this is the original sign I carried in December of 1964 when the police occupied UC Berkeley and participants in the Sproul Hall Sit-in were arrested.

Wrinkled and showing signs of age, this is the original sign I carried in December of 1964 when the police occupied UC Berkeley and participants in the Sproul Hall Sit-in were arrested.

A large celebration is taking place at the University of California, Berkeley on October 4th to mark the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, one of the world’s most important student revolutions. From 1963-65 I was a student at Berkeley and had a front row seat. Unfortunately, I can’t attend the celebration this weekend due to prior commitments. To honor the event and share my perspective, however, I will use earlier writings I have done on the Free Speech Movement to post three blogs over the next three days.

In the fall of 1963, I transferred from Sierra College, a small community college in the Sacramento Valley of California, to the University of California at Berkeley. Sierra was like driving down a country road on a lazy summer day; Berkeley was like being caught on a six-lane Los Angeles freeway during rush hour.

Telegraph Avenue became my mecca. Exotic smells emanated from a dozen different ethnic restaurants while numerous languages assaulted my ears. I quickly discovered the Café Mediterraneum. In an era before Starbucks made coffee houses safe for middle-class America, Café Med was an original. It was a microcosm of the Berkeley I would come to love, filled with offbeat characters, esoteric discussions and great coffee. I became addicted to both the cappuccino and atmosphere. I would grab my coffee and climb the narrow wooden stairs in back for a coveted balcony seat where I would watch the ebb and flow of the city’s unique flotsam.

A quick jaunt across Telegraph produced another treasure, Cody’s bookstore. Started on a shoestring by the Cody family in the 50s, it had become one of America’s premier bookstores by the mid-sixties. I saved my explorations for Saturdays when there was time to indulge my passion for books. I would disappear inside and become lost to everything except the next title.

I was equally fascinated by the ever-changing kaleidoscope of soapbox oratory provided at the south entrance to the campus on the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph. During any given hour, a dozen speakers could be found there espousing as many causes. I considered it high entertainment and would sit on the steps of the Student Union and listen during breaks from my studies. Over one lunch period, I reported in a letter home, I listened to a student who had spent her summer working in the South registering voters, a black South African talking about apartheid, a socialist railing against the evils of capitalism, a capitalist railing against the evils of socialism, and a Bible thumper detailing out the many paths Berkeley students were following to hell.

Many of the speakers urged that there was more to college life than studies, football and parties. Change was in the wind and we should be part of it. Work for fair housing in Berkeley; oppose the unfair hiring practices at Safeway; sign up to help on a political campaign. Join CORE, SNCC, SLATE, SDS, YAF or a world of other acronyms. I struggled to take it all in, absorb it through my pores. It certainly wasn’t Kansas, Dorothy, nor was it Sierra College or the small Sierra foothill town of Diamond Springs where I was raised. I attended classes at Berkeley that had more students than the total population of Diamond and were close in size to matching Sierra’s full student body.

To simplify my first year I opted to live in a college dorm. I would have a room, a bed and regular meals. The University assigned me to Priestly Hall, which was ideally located a block away from campus and a block away from Telegraph Avenue. As for life at Berkeley, I wanted it all. There were student politics to jump into, classes to master, a love life to support, bookstores to explore, cappuccino to consume, and a thousand causes to sort out. Moderation was not an option.

It was easy to be overwhelmed. I was assigned 15 books in one class and actually thought I was expected to buy and read each one in detail. I was a fast reader but not that fast, nor that wealthy. It would take a year to master the art of skimming, buying old books, using commercially prepared notes and pursuing all of the other tricks of the trade that getting a higher education entailed. For all of that, there was an excitement to the classes. I might be sharing my professor with a thousand other students but he or she might also be a person who was a confidante of Presidents.

I had been student body president at Sierra and gamely jumped into student politics at Berkeley. The dormitories were new, so the residents were new. They hadn’t had time to get to know each other. The fact that I was a community college transfer made little difference. Within a week of my arrival, I was president of Priestly Hall.

Student politics seemed dull and almost frivolous compared to the real thing, though. What truly fascinated me about Berkeley was the palpable sense of being involved in the events of the day. I was drawn toward these issues and the call to action tweaked my interest. Limiting the future of a person because of his or her skin color, sex, or religion went beyond being counterproductive. It was stupid; we all lost. But I wasn’t ready to take up a picket sign. This was my first year at Berkeley and my hands were full with studying.

I did strike one tiny tap hammer blow against Berkeley’s depersonalized approach to undergraduate education, however. Our dorm was expected to participate in the annual Ugly Man Contest. Its purpose was to raise money for charity by having someone or thing really ugly as the dorm’s representative in competition with other dorms, fraternities and sororities. People would vote by donating money (normally pennies) to their favorite ugly man. In addition to being pure fun, it was on the top of the Dean’s list as an acceptable student activity.

I proposed that our ‘Ugly Man’ be an unfortunate Joe College Student whose computer card had been lost by the Administration. Consequently, he no longer existed. Early computers used punched cards to contain data and had become ubiquitous in our lives. They came with the warning “do not fold, spindle or mutilate.”

We made up a casket and wandered about campus in search of poor Joe. It was a small thing but it reflected a growing unease I had about the alienation that happens when numbers became more important than individuals. Apparently the student body wasn’t ready for the message. A popular bartender, selected by a fraternity as its ugly man candidate, walked away with the prize.

While my concerns about assembly line education were evolving, the administration was monitoring off-campus student activism with growing concern. The University perceived its primary objectives as carrying out research and preparing young people to become productive members of American society. There was little room in this view for students seeking social and political change— in Mississippi, in Oakland or on campus.

But the world was changing. A young President in Washington was calling on the youth of America to become involved and had created the Peace Corps to encourage involvement. Racial equality seemed attainable in the United States, and people the world over were yearning for and demanding freedom. It was easy for idealistic young Americans to believe we were at the dawning of a new age and natural to want to be involved in the transformation.

Had the students restricted their political efforts in the early and mid sixties to the far off South, the eruption of conflict on the Berkeley Campus may not have taken place. But they chose local targets as well. When the students marched off campus to picket the Oakland Tribune, Sheraton Hotel, United Airways and Safeway over discriminatory hiring practices, they were challenging locally established businesses with considerable power. Not surprisingly, these businesses felt threatened and fought back. Rather than deal with the existing discrimination, they demanded that the University, local authorities, the state government and even the federal government do whatever was necessary to reign in the protesters.

Their arguments for the crackdown were typical of the times. A few radical off-campus agitators with Communist connections were working in conjunction with left leaning professors to stir up trouble. The participating students lacked mature judgment and were naively being led astray. The vast majority of students were good law-abiding kids who just wanted to get an education, party, and get a paycheck.

The University was caught between the proverbial rock and a very hard place. The off-campus political activism was creating unwanted attention. Public dollars could be lost and reputations tarnished. There was a justifiable fear of reprisal from the right. The ugliness of McCarthyism was still alive and well in America. Only a few years before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had held hearings in San Francisco in its ceaseless search for Commies. UC had been a target.

HUAC created a deep paranoia and distrust within society and may indeed have constituted the most un-American type of activity ever perpetrated on the American public. Clark Kerr and others had worked hard to protect and restore the academic freedom on campus that loyalty oaths and other McCarthy-like activities had threatened. Student activism might refocus right-wing attention on the Berkeley Campus.

My greatest insight into the mindset of the Administration was when the Dean of Students called student leaders together to discuss the growing unrest on campus. Our gathering included members of the student government and presidents of the resident halls, fraternities and sororities. Noticeable in their absence were student representatives from off campus organizations such as CORE, SNCC, Young Democrats, Young Republicans and other activist groups. We sat in a large room in a huge square; there must have been at least 40 of us. I was eager to participate and imagined an open discussion of the issues.

The Dean welcomed us, thanked us for agreeing to participate, and then laid the foundation for our discussion. A small group of radical students was disrupting the campus and organizing off-campus activities such as picketing and sit-ins that were illegal in nature. While the issues being addressed were important, there were other, more appropriate means available for solving them that did not involve Berkeley. The Administration had been extremely tolerant so far but was approaching a point where it might have to crack down for the overall good of the University.

The Administration wanted our feedback as student leaders. What did we think was happening, how would our constituencies react to a crack down, and how could we help defuse the situation? We were to go around the room with each student leader expressing his or her view. I expected a major reaction— hopefully a protest or at least a warning to move cautiously, to involve all parties in seeking some type of amenable agreement.

The first student leader stood up. “The radical students are making me extremely angry,” he reported. “I resent that a small group of people can ruin everything for the rest of us. The vast majority of the students do not support off-campus political action. I believe the student body would support a crackdown by the Administration. You have my support in whatever you do.”

I could not believe what I was hearing. Was the guy a plant, preprogrammed by the Administration to repeat the party line and set the tone for everyone else? If so, he was successful. The next person and the next person parroted what he had said. I began to doubt myself. Normally, I am quite good at reading political trends and sensing when a group leans toward supporting or opposing an issue. My read on what was happening at Bancroft and Telegraph was that the majority of the students were empathic with and supportive of the causes the so-called radical students were advocating.

The Martin Luther Kings of the world were heroes, not bad guys, and their tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience were empowering the powerless. Sure, the majority of the students were primarily concerned with getting through college. To many, an all night kegger and getting laid might seem infinitely more appealing than a sit-in. But this did not imply a lack of shared concern. Or so I believed. Apparently, very few of the other participants shared in my belief. Concerns were raised but no one stopped and said, “Damn it, we have a problem!”

As my turn approached I felt myself chickening out. I was the new kid on the block, wet behind the ears. What did I know? Acceptance in this crowd was to stand up and say, “Yes, everything you are talking about is true. Let’s clamp down on the rabble rousers and get on with the important life of being students.” And I wanted to be accepted, to be a part of the establishment. I stood up with shaking legs.

“Hi, my name is Curt Mekemson and I am the president of Priestly Hall,” I announced in a voice which was matching my legs, shake for shake. This was not the impression I wanted to make. As others had spoken, I had scribbled some notes on what I wanted to say. “I believe we have a very serious problem here, that the issues are legitimate, and that most students are sympathetic. I don’t think we should be cracking down but should be working together to find solutions. Now is not the time to further alienate the activists and create more of a crisis than we presently have. I believe it is a serious mistake to not have representatives from the groups involved in organizing off campus activities here today.”

I was met with deadly silence. A few heads nodded in agreement, but mainly there were glares. “Next,” the Dean said. No yea, no nay, no discussion. I was a bringer of bad tidings, a storm crow. But it wasn’t ‘kill the messenger.’ It was more like ‘ignore the messenger,’ like I had farted in public and people were embarrassed.

After that, my enthusiasm for student government waned. I should have fought back, fought for what I believed in, fought for what I knew deep down to be right. But I didn’t. I was still trying to figure out what to do with 15 books in Poly Sci 1. I had a relationship to maintain on campus and a mother fighting cancer at home. The dark, heavy veil of depression rolled over my mind like the fog rolling in from the Bay. Finally I decided that something had to go and that the only thing expendable was my role as President of the dorm. So I turned over the reins of power to my VP and headed back to Bancroft Library. Politics could wait.

Without student government concerns, Berkeley became more doable and even fun. I disappeared into the library for long hours whipping out term papers, devouring books and becoming a serious student. The end of my first semester approached. Christmas vacation was coming. There would be a break in the endless studies and a time for long walks in the woods. Maybe I could get my head around what was happening on campus and where I fit into the scheme of things.

One crisp fall day in November I came blinking out of the library to a brilliant sun and a hushed silence. Students and faculty were emptying out of classes; a young woman with long dark hair was standing on the library steps, tears streaming down her face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“They’ve shot the President in Dallas,” she replied as her voice broke.

John F. Kennedy was dead. It was November 23, 1963. The young president who was standing up against racism in the South, the man who had created the Peace Corps, who called for international justice and inflamed people’s hopes worldwide, had been shot down in the streets of Dallas. And with his death, some of the hope he had created died with him; it died on the Berkeley Campus that day and it died in me. Each of us lost something of the dream that things could be better, that we as individuals could be better. School stopped and we headed for the nearest TVs, newspapers and radio stations. Time and again we watched the car speeding away with the wounded President, watched Walter Cronkite announce that the President was dead and watched as Lyndon Johnson was sworn in. It was a day etched into the collective memory of our generation.

Thanksgiving arrived and Christmas followed. The battle between the Administration and the student activists continued during the spring semester while I focused on studies. On March 3, 1964, I turned 21 and became, according to law, an adult. Soon I would have to decide what I was going to do with my adult life.

NEXT BLOG: 1964: On the edge of radicalism

Who I Am… A Brief Bio for the Book

Peace Corps recruitment poster from 1967.

An early poster I used as a Peace Corps Recruiter after I returned from West Africa.

Since I am still receiving input on the title of the book about my Africa Peace Corps experience, I decided to put together a brief bio for the end of the book. Following recommendations from the book industry, the bio is written in the third person. It will be shortened somewhat.

Curt was raised in the small foothill town of Diamond Springs, California. He grew up wandering through the woods and communing with nature. It was a great life. But he also learned a lot about transparency. Everybody knew everything about everybody else, which was more than he wanted to know. So he escaped the confines of his small universe in the mid-60s and headed off to UC Berkeley where he learned that integration was good, war was bad, and that young people who held such views should be bashed on the head and thrown in jail.

He was waiting for his turn with the Oakland police while sitting on the floor of the UC administration building and singing protest songs with Joan Baez when he had an epiphany: he should make America a better place and leave the country; he would join the Peace Corps. Eight months later he was chopping off the head of a chicken in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California as part of his training to teach African history to high school students in Liberia, West Africa.

Berkeley and the Peace Corps ruined Curt for living the American Dream. He decided that obtaining an 8-5 job, moving to the suburbs, buying a big house, and driving a fancy car were not for him. “If you would only make babies, become a good Christian boy, and take up photography,” his father had grumbled.  Instead, Curt became an environmentalist and a health advocate, happily making war on polluters and the tobacco industry.

Wanting to get back to nature, he created the American Lung Association’s long distance backpack and bike trek program. The Lung Association needed a new fundraiser; Curt needed an excuse to play in the woods. He added wilderness guide to his ever-growing resume and spent two decades leading wilderness adventures.

Every three to five years Curt quits whatever he is doing and goes on an extended break. Travelling through the South Pacific and Asia, backpacking throughout the western United States, and going on a six-month, 10,000-mile, solo bicycle trip around North America are among the highlights. This lifestyle came to a temporary halt when he climbed off his bike in Sacramento, met the lovely Peggy, and decided to get married– in about one minute. It took a while longer to persuade Peggy and her two teenage kids.

Today Curt and Peggy live on five wooded acres in Southern Oregon where he pursues yet another career, this time in writing. Visit him at his blog wandering-through-time-and-place.me. He’d love to hear from you. Or you can Email him at cvmekemson@gmail.com.

Born in Ashland, Oregon, I moved with my parents, sister Nancy, and brother Marshall to the Bay Area. I'm the little one.

Born in Ashland, Oregon, I moved with my parents, sister Nancy, and brother Marshall to the Bay Area. I’m the little one.

Photo of Curt Mekemson as a child with pets.

I grew up wandering in the woods of the Sierra Nevada foothills of California, usually with an assortment of pets. There may be a rabbit between the dogs.

Free Speech Movement protest at UC Berkeley in 1964.

A protest at UC Berkeley in 1964 when police occupied campus. I am in the middle of the photo looking up at the camera.

My first house in Liberia when I was teaching second graders. Later I would teach high school students and move to another house.

My first house in Liberia when I was teaching second graders. Later I would teach high school students and move to another house.

A photo of my dad.

A photo of my dad in his 80s– a good man who read the bible daily, wanted grandkids, and loved to take photographs.

 In 1996, I put together an effort to increase California's tobacco tax, which would eventually lead to one of the most extensive privation campaigns in history. Today it is estimated that the effort has saved over one million lives and one hundred billion dollars in health care costs.

My focus on health and environmental issues took me from California to Alaska and back. In 1996, I put together an effort to increase California’s tobacco tax, which eventually led to one of the most extensive prevention campaigns in history. Today it is estimated that the effort has saved over one million lives and one hundred billion dollars in health care costs.

Wanting to spend more time in the woods, I set up the American Lung Association's Trek Program. The photo is of me leading a group in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

Wanting to spend more time in the woods, I created the American Lung Association’s Trek Program. The photo on the front of ALA’s National Bulletin is of me leading a group in the Sierras of California.

Ever wonder what it takes to bicycle 10,000 miles? One of my friends has suggested strong legs and a weak mind. I was half way through my trip bicycling up a very steep hill in Nova Scotia when this photo was taken.

Ever wonder what it takes to bicycle 10,000 miles? One of my friends has suggested strong legs and a weak mind. I was half way through my trip and bicycling up a very steep hill in Nova Scotia when this photo was taken.

It took me two years to persuade Peggy to put on a wedding dress.

It took me two years to persuade Peggy to put on a wedding dress.

The view from our sunroom, which is one of my writing locations.

The view from our sunroom in Southern Oregon, which is one of my writing locations.



Chapter 4: The Dead Chicken Dance… Peace Corps Tales

Welcome to “The Dead Chicken Dance and Other Peace Corps Tales.” I am presently on a two month tour of the Mediterranean and other areas so I thought I would fill my blog space with one of the greatest adventures I have ever undertaken: a two-year tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. Every two days I will post a new story in book format.

When I have finished, I will publish the book digitally and in print.

The Sierra Nevada Mountains about 20 miles south of where we did our training and at a slightly higher elevation.

Graduation from Berkeley, marriage in Auburn, a three-day honeymoon in Monterey, and reporting for Liberia VI Peace Corps training at San Francisco State College transpired in one whirlwind week.

My best man, Frank Martin, played his role superbly… from hosting the bachelor party at the Diamond Springs Hotel to making sure our escape car was appropriately decorated.

Frank grew up with me in Diamond Springs, California. We also attended Sierra College together. Somewhere along the line he discovered he was gay. Later on, he and his partner Hank would host several elegant but offbeat anniversary parties for us at their home on Clay Street in San Francisco.

Given our three-day honeymoon, Jo and I figured we would hold the record for newlyweds arriving at Peace Corps training. But we didn’t. One couple spent their honeymoon night flying out to the San Francisco State.

“Gee, Hon, let’s check out the airplane’s toilet again.”

Upon arrival, the married couples were crammed into one wing of Merced Hall, a student dormitory. Tiny rooms, paper-thin walls and a communal bathroom became our new home. We soon knew a lot about each other.

Peace Corps staff wanted to know even more; Beebo the psychologist was assigned to follow us around and take notes. First, however, they pumped us full of gamma globulin and explained deselection. Our job was to decide whether Peace Corps was something we really wanted to do. Their job was to provide stress to help make the decision. Initially this came in the form of a SF State football coach hired to shape us up.

“Okay you guys, let’s see how fast you can run up and down the stadium steps five times!” I hadn’t liked that particular sport during my brief football career in high school and still didn’t.

Beyond mini-boot camp, our time was filled with attending classes designed to teach us about Liberia and elementary school education. We were even given a stint at practice teaching in South San Francisco. There wasn’t much for Beebo to write about.

In case Peace Corps missed anything, we were given a battery of psychological tests to probe our miscellaneous neuroses. These were followed by in-depth interviews. “Answer honestly. Say the first thing that pops into your mind.” Yeah, sure I will.

A few people did wash out and were whisked away. Naturally it was a topic of conversation. What had they done wrong? Were we next?

The true stress test was supposed to be a camping trip up in the Sierras. This may have been true for the kids straight out of the Bronx who had rarely seen stars much less slept out in the woods but Jo and I considered it a vacation. We had been raised in the foothills of the Sierras and were going home.

The ante was upped when the camp leader arrived the first night.

“Here’s dinner,” he announced casually as he unloaded a crate of live chickens from the back of his pickup. They clucked a greeting.

Fortunately, I had chopped off a few chicken heads in my youth and knew about such things as chicken plucking and gutting. I couldn’t appear too eager in the chopping department, though. Beebo might write something like “displays obvious psychopathic tendencies.”

“Close the door, lock and latch it, here comes Curt with a brand new hatchet!”

My chicken spurted blood from its neck and performed a jerky little death dance, turning the city boys and girls a chalky white. Their appetites made a quick exit in pursuit of their color when I reached inside a still warm Henny Penny to yank out her slippery innards. It seemed that my fellow trainees were lacking in intestinal fortitude. If so, it was fine with me; I got more chicken.

Beebo’s biggest day came when we faced the wilderness obstacle course. Our first challenge was to cross a bouncy rope bridge over a deep gorge. Beebo stood nearby scratching away on his pad. We then rappelled down a cliff… scratch, scratch, scratch. Our every move was to be scrutinized and subjected to psychological analysis. We rebelled.

“Beebo, you’ve been following us around and taking notes for two months. Now it’s your turn. See that cliff. Climb down it.”

“Uh, no.”

“Beebo, you don’t understand,” we were laughing, “you have to take your turn.”

Reluctantly, very reluctantly, Beebo agreed. About half way down he froze and became glued to rock with all of the tenacity of a tick on a hound. We tried to talk him down and we tried to talk him up. We even tried talking him sideways. Nothing worked. Finally we climbed up and hauled him down. Note taking was finished. We wrapped up our wilderness week and our training was complete. Jo Ann and I took the oath and became official Peace Corps Volunteers.

We were allowed one week at home to complete any unfinished business before flying to New York City and reporting to the Pan Am desk at JFK. Since there wasn’t much to do, Jo and I relaxed and recovered from our tumultuous year that had begun ever so long ago with the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley.

We wrapped up our brief visit with a going away party in Jo Ann’s back yard in Auburn. Surrounded by friends and family, we talked into the night. It was one of those perfect summer evenings that California is famous for, complete with a warm breeze tainted with a hint of honeysuckle flowers.

Chapter 3: Sargent Shriver Comes to Berkeley Looking for Unreasonable People… Peace Corps Tales


Welcome to “The Dead Chicken Dance and Other Peace Corps Tales.” I am presently on a two month tour of the Mediterranean and other areas so I thought I would fill my blog space with one of the greatest adventures I have ever undertaken: a two-year tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. Every two days I will post a new story in book format.

When I have finished, I will publish the book digitally and in print.

 The day before Cliff sent me scurrying after the errant urinalysis, Sargent Shriver arrived on campus.  I, along with several thousand other students, flocked to hear him speak.

Three months before I was to enter Peace Corps training for Liberia, Sargent Shriver came to the Berkeley Campus and gave an insightful speech into what it meant to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. (Google photo)

John Kennedy recruited his brother-in-law in 1961 to set up and then head the Peace Corps. “If it flops,” Kennedy had said, “it will be easier to fire a relative than a political friend.” He gave Shriver one month to create the organization.

By 1965 when I joined the Peace Corps, Kennedy had been assassinated and the Peace Corps had become one of the more successful foreign relation programs in US history.

Shriver’s appearance on campus was an important event at Berkeley. In addition to heading up the Peace Corps, he still carried the aura of the Kennedy years. The University was also important to Shriver. We had provided more Volunteers than any other college in the nation

“First of all, I am in favor of free speech,” he began. “Even the initials FSM don’t scare me. Back in Washington my enemies say they stand for “Fire Shriver Monday.” But LBJ says they stand for “Find Shriver Money.”

He captured us. Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement (FSM) had dominated our lives. Times had been serious, even dangerous. We were ready to laugh.

“But here on campus,” he went on, “I want to talk about today’s challenge to the young, to the American university student of the 60s… of what I think might be called a “free service movement.”

Shriver then used a quote from Bob Rupley, a 1962 Berkeley graduate and Peace Corps Volunteer, to describe what he felt the essence of the Peace Corps was:

“Apathy, ignorance and disorganization are the things we want to eliminate… in all areas in which we work. Clearly no Volunteer can hope for absolute success, nor can he even expect limited success to come easily. Clearly, the Peace Corps is not the responsibility of every American. And it shouldn’t be! In many ways, the life of a Volunteer who sincerely seeks to effect progress is miserable.”

Three weeks after making this statement Rupley was shot to death in Caracas, Venezuela while he was working as Peace Corps staff.

Shriver told us the Peace Corps was looking for unreasonable men and women. Reasonable people accept the status quo. Unreasonable people seek to change it.

We were noted for being unreasonable at Berkeley.

Six months earlier the UC Berkeley Administration had declared that the Bancroft-Telegraph Free Speech area was closed and that there would be no more on-campus organization of Civil Rights demonstrations in the Bay Area.

The success of these demonstrations had upset powerful right-wing forces in California.  Telephone lines burned between the UC Administration, Sacramento and Washington DC. Free speech and the right to support off campus political efforts were sacrificed.

Student organizers reacted immediately. They said no.

Some, like Mario Savio, had walked the streets of the South registering black voters and risking their lives to do so. In the summer of 1964 three of their colleagues had been killed and buried under an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Many had been introduced to political activism four years earlier in the anti-HUAC demonstrations in San Francisco where the police had used fire hoses to wash protestors down the steps of City Hall. Most had participated in numerous protests against racial discrimination in the Bay Area since. (HUAC was the House Un-American Activities Committee, a hold over from the McCarthy era.)

Free Speech Movement organizers understood the value of demonstrations and media coverage. They had become masters at community organization and were focused in their vision to the degree they were willing to face police and be arrested for their beliefs.

The result was a series of confrontations that ended with the massive sit-in at Sproul Hall and the arrest of 800 students in early December. While I hadn’t served as a leader of FSM or been arrested, I empathized strongly with its objectives and had participated in many of the demonstrations. I even spent several hours in the Sproul Hall sit-in.

Heart pounding, I had waited in line and then stood up on the Dean’s desk in my socks and talked of rights and responsibilities. It was our right to oppose racism; it was our responsibility to do so.

Out in the hall, a group of students sat on the floor… surrounding Joan Baez and singing protest songs. I sat down and joined in. “We shall overcome some day…” I was part of something, something much larger than myself.

In the end, we won. Our freedom of speech, our freedom to organize, and our freedom to participate in the critical issue of the day were returned. While we were still a part of the future so popular with commencement speakers, we were also a part of the now, helping to shape that future.

“You have demonstrated your leadership in the generation of the ‘6os,’ the generation that will not take ‘yes’ for an answer, which has shown an unwillingness to accept the pat answers of society… either in Berkeley, in Selma or in Caracas, Venezuela,” Shriver noted.

“Once in every generation fundamentals are challenged and the entire fabric of our life is taken apart seam by seam and reconstructed…. Such a time is now again at hand and it is clear that many of you are unreasonable men (and women), restless, questioning, challenging, taking nothing for granted.”

We had not forfeited our rights at Berkeley, nor had we, according to Shriver, forfeited our claim to a fellowship with the Peace Corps. And this, at least in part, was why I had been accepted as a Volunteer. Participation in the Free Speech Movement was regarded as a plus, not a minus.

But the time had come to move beyond protest. Shriver concluded his talk with a ringing call for service.

“We ask all of you who have taken what you have learned about our society and tried to make it live, to join us in the politics of service, to demonstrate by doing, to the poor and the forgotten of villages and slums in America and the world, what you have learned of Democracy and freedom and equality. The times demand no less.”

“It is time not just to speak, but to serve.”

The Case of the Errant Urinalysis… From Free Speech to the Peace Corps


In addition to whatever mischief I had been up to during the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, the Peace Corps wanted to know about my health.

I was directed to show up at the Army Induction Center in Oakland for a physical. I lined up with a bunch of semi-naked men to be poked and prodded. It was an experience not worth repeating.

“Turn your head and cough.”

I took it like a man and escaped as soon as the opportunity presented itself. A couple of days later I came back from class and there was a note from my other roommate, Cliff, who was also going into the Peace Corps.

“The Induction Center called,” he wrote, “and there is a problem with your urinalysis.” I was to call them.

“Darn it,” I thought. “Why is this so difficult?” So I called the Induction Center and resigned myself to having to pee in another jar. With really good luck I might avoid the naked-man-line.

I got a very cooperative secretary who quickly bounced me to a very cooperative nurse who quickly bounced me to a very cooperative technician who quickly bounced me to a very cooperative doctor… none of whom could find any record of my errant urinalysis.

They didn’t see any problems and they didn’t know who had called. They suggested I call back later and be bounced around again. More than a little worried, I rushed off to my next class.

That evening I reported my lack of success to Cliff. He got this strange little smile on his face and asked me what day it was.

“April 1st,” I replied as recognition of having been seriously screwed dawned in my mind. “You little twerp!” I screamed, as Cliff shot for the door with me in fast pursuit. It took me four blocks to catch him. The damage wasn’t all that bad, considering.

An Offer to Teach in Africa: From Free Speech to Peace Corps

In the spring of 1965 Uncle Sam pointed his finger at me. He wanted warm bodies to fight a colonial war in Southeast Asia the French had already lost. Being a 22-year-old male about to graduate from college, I was a prime candidate.

If drafted, I would go.

I couldn’t imagine burning my draft card, running off to Canada or joining the Texas Air National Guard. I actually believe some type of mandatory two-year national service ranging from the military to the Peace Corps would be good for young men and women and good for America.

But fighting in a war I didn’t believe in and killing people I didn’t want to kill was at the very bottom of my bucket list. And there’s more. I am allergic to taking orders and can’t stand being yelled at. I’d make a lousy soldier. I saw a court martial in my future.

Luckily, a temporary solution popped up. Peace Corps Recruiters were coming to UC Berkeley.

John Kennedy had first proposed this idealistic organization to a crowd of 5,000 students during a campaign speech at he University of Michigan on October 14, 1960. He was running four hours late and it was two in the morning but the response was overwhelming. One of his first acts as President was to create the agency.

Peace Corps service would not eliminate my military obligation but it might buy time for the Vietnam War to sort itself out. Of more importance, I felt the Peace Corps provided a unique opportunity to travel and possibly do some good. I also believed I would be serving my country.

My fiancé and I sat down and talked it out. Jo Ann was excited. We would go together as a husband and wife team. When the Peace Corps recruiters opened their booth in front of the Student Union at Berkeley, we were there to greet them, all dewy-eyed and innocent.

“Sign us up,” we urged.

Of course there were a few formalities: small things like filling out the umpteen page blue application and taking a language aptitude test, in Kurdish. We also needed letters of recommendation.

Apparently we looked good on paper. In a few weeks, the Peace Corps informed us that we had been tentatively selected to serve as teachers in Liberia, West Africa. We were thrilled. The age-old question of what you do when you graduate from school and enter the real world had been answered, or at least postponed.

Uncle Sam with his growing hunger for bodies to fight the Vietnam War would have wait.

Next Blog: My roommate tells the FBI I am running a Communist Cell Block.

On Being Labeled a Radical… The 1964 Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley


The Press, Governor of California and UC Administration labeled participants in the Free Speech Movement as a small group of radical revolutionaries bent on destroying law and order. Were we?

I was curious about the background of the students who were arrested during the Sproul Hall sit-in, considering I had almost been one. A sociologist was doing a study on who was involved so I volunteered to take part.

We were given extensive questionnaires, trained and told to hit the streets. I seemed to inherit some of the more elusive, fringe types who always hang around Berkeley. Just finding them was an adventure.

When our data was analyzed, we found that a quarter or so of the participants were relatively hard core in terms of having been actively involved in the Civil Rights movement. Most of the participants resembled me: students and grad students who were somewhat on the idealistic side, angry at the Administration, in sympathy with the Civil Rights Movement, and committed to our right to participate in the political process.

Were there truly radical students on campus who saw the protests as a way to radicalize students and achieve objectives beyond retrieving the basic rights that had been taken away?

Yes. I met some when I decided to help create a Free Student Union. A union made sense to me. The student government, by its very nature, was tied closely to the Administration. A union would go beyond the temporary, nonrepresentational nature of the FSM and give us ongoing power and representation that we lacked as individuals.

I participated in two or three meetings including one I hosted at our apartment. Chaos was good, I quickly learned. Policemen dragging students down stairs and bashing an occasional head was to our advantage. It created solidarity among the ranks and radicalized the student body.

We needed to goad the Administration into further action, the more outrageous the better.

It did not reflect who I was or my goals. After sharing my opinion on what I thought about the chosen strategies, I parted ways with the Free Student Union. Apparently, most students shared my perspective. The union, to my knowledge, did not get off the ground.

The focus shifted temporarily in the spring and maybe this shift reflected a more radical strategy. We had our so-named Filthy Speech Movement. People would get up in the free speech area and see how many obscenities they could mouth in the name of free speech.

From my perspective it was inane and counterproductive, a non-issue designed to infuriate the Administration and garner media coverage.  Rather than serve a positive purpose, it degraded our efforts of the fall and was utilized by the Oakland Tribunes of the world and their allies as justification for their condemnation of the campus.

More typical was a return to what some would define as an accepted activity of college life. I was amused to read a Junior Class party announcement in the “Daily Californian” one Friday.

“Everyone is welcome at our TGIF party, especially the FSM: it will give them a chance to quench their thirst.” Dennis O’Shea, Junior Class Activities Chairman was quoted. “It promises to be the hell raiser of the year – lots of girls, a screaming rock and roll band that frequently plays for the Hell’s Angels, and 150 gallons of liquid refreshments.”

I can imagine that the Administration was praying for a return to the good old days when a ‘hell raiser’ was defined as an ocean of beer and a screaming rock and roll band.

Next Blog: Looking back at the FSM: What did we accomplish?