Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61.”
– Bob Dylan,“Highway 61 Revisited,” 1965
NOTE: In our previous melodramatic episode of the annals of Princeton in 1969-70, we described how national unrest over the Vietnam war descended on Princeton, exacerbating the inevitable distraction from the huge campus changes – everything from coeducation to the new University Council (CPUC) to the demise of the single wing to Afro-American studies – seemingly taking place on a daily basis. The one thing almost everyone was looking forward to was the end of the year and a nice boring summer; even another potential Woodstock (the remote Isle of Wight Festival would draw 700,000 people in August) seemed to offer relief from the relentless change and the aura of the war.
On Thursday, April 30, 1970, the day before Houseparties, I had turned in my thesis – to the muffled sobs of my adviser – and was driving west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to fetch my fetching girlfriend when Richard Nixon invaded Cambodia. I had to pull over to the shoulder for half an hour before I could recompose myself just enough to drive. Meanwhile, the Chapel was packed and the talk was ugly. The quiet professor Stan Kelley, who had already done far more than his share to improve Princeton, felt compelled to speak from the pulpit and urge people to think and act productively.
The following day, Princeton president Bob Goheen ’40 *48, a decorated World War II hero and silent observer at the Chapel, released a public statement essentially saying that President Richard Nixon was misguided.
By the time we returned to Princeton, Houseparties had been canceled (actually, four clubs sort of held parties, which weren’t much fun), meeters were meeting, organizers were organizing, most other campuses were rumbling ominously, and just about everybody from the left (your high draft number wasn’t a sure thing anymore) to the right (ROTC members now faced a newly energized war they had hoped was winding down) was apoplectic. Five thousand exhausted and distracted people were faced with decisions too difficult for a well-rested sage to contemplate.
The six-week period between April 30 and June 9 is probably the most dissected in the history of the University with the possible exceptions of the Battle of Princeton in 1777, Washington’s visit in 1783, and the 1896 Sesquicentennial. Tom Krattenmaker wrote a fine article on that spring for PAW 25 years later (May 10, 1995), and the unrest and its antecedents take up an entire chapter of Don Oberdorfer ’52 and J.T. Miller ’70’s wonderful Princeton University: The First 250 Years . So let’s just note some crucial items for bitter flavor:
The P-rade on Saturday, June 6, was the beginning of the endgame. Chris Connell ’71 has captured Class of ’70 President Stew (then Dill) McBride’s thankless position in his article in the current issue of PAW (July 7) . The class’s unwillingness to march as usual rankled older alums for decades.
Baccalaureate on Sunday was presided over somberly by war heroes Goheen and Gordon. The recessional was “Not Alone for Mighty Empire”:
God of justice, save the people from the clash of race and creed,
From the strife of class and faction, make our nation free indeed;
Keep her faith in simple manhood strong as when her life began,
Till it find its full fruition in the brotherhood of man!
– William P. Merrill, 1911
On Monday, the teach-in substituting for Class Day featured George McGovern, the anti-war senator from South Dakota. Many seniors came with their parents; many came alone; some stayed away.
Inevitably, in the end it came down to Tuesday’s Commencement, five weeks after Kent State and every subsequent campus complication mankind could conjure up. So, of course, nature lent a cacophonous hand. It was, for you closet entomologists out there, the great Brood X. The largest U.S. periodic cicada emergence, it came out right on cue and, I swear on the Big Bug in the sky, peaked in volume on the front campus during Commencement June 9. The millions of friendly orange and black bugs were crawling over everybody’s mother, and making a pitiful ’60s sound system half-unintelligible.
Connell’s article portrays the day admirably through the eyes of valedictorian Ray Gibbons ’70. Some black graduates stood and turned their backs silently in protest of South African investments, the Latin salutatory was eliminated in deference to a blunt dialogue enumerating the class’s seething frustrations with business as usual (Hal Strelnick ’70 and Mike Calhoun ’70 “ask you to listen that we may move together beyond the rhetoric that has reduced human beings on one hand to pigs and on the other to snobs and bums”), but the ceremony – the audible parts – continued calmly, with most of us sitting in suits and ties and white armbands with the class peace logo. Surreally, Bob Dylan was there to receive an honorary degree (thereby astounding even those who invited him: it was his first, and the last for another 34 years) escorted by a stunned Rudenstine. Dylan was so unnerved and/or intrigued he recalled his adventure in the song Day of the Locusts , which appeared on his album New Morning that October. He’s been a class icon ever since – “In Locusts Parentis” our cringeworthy motto.
Then we opened the FitzRandolph Gate, as classes had done at graduation for many decades, and we and our friend (and eventual honorary classmate) Bob Goheen left it open, which no one had ever done, with the inscription “Together for Community.” With all the astonishing, disrupting, frenetic activity of 1969-70, it now seems to me our last simple statement of opening the gate may well have been the most important of all the outcomes for Princeton.
Good for us; good for us all.
I put down my robe, picked up my diploma,
Took hold of my sweetheart and away we did drive,
Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota,
Sure was glad to get out of there alive.
And the locusts sang, well, it give me a chill,
Yeah, the locusts sang such a sweet melody.
And the locusts sang with a high whinin’ trill,
Yeah, the locusts sang and they was singing for me.
– Bob Dylan, “Day of the Locusts,” 1970