THE TOWN of Yellow Springs, Ohio, in the lingering silver-blue light of a midsummer's evening, is a place of wide lawns and frame houses. There are kids on bicycles and kids drinking beer, whiling away the warm night. The smells of fresh-cut hay and moist earth drift over the place. The quiet of the town is in contrast to the raucous summer evenings I spent there in the late '60s.
Yellow Springs is a college town, the home of Antioch College, of which I am a graduate and to which I recently returned for my 10th reunion.
In my undergraduate days, the summer had been a full academic quarter and on a beautiful evening in July the sound of music from the campus would have filled the streets. A visitor just off the road could have found a drink, a smoke, someone to talk to and a place to stay.
In 1968, when I first arrived, Antioch was already famous, a mid-spot on the Cambridge-Berkeley axis, a hip oasis in the middle of crew-cut, tow-headed America -- the first-night stopping-off place for people from the East Coast heading west on Interstate 70, back in the days when gas was 35 cents a gallon, speed limits 70 mph and an easy day's drive was 600 miles.
Students and faculty were drawn to the place because it was probably the foremost laboratory for American liberal education. There was the cooperative program where you studied for three months and then took a job in the "real" world for three months. Antioch was among the first colleges to establish a black studies program, and an all-black dormitory, to abolish grades as a measure of academic performance and to establish coed dormitories with no restrictions on student behavior.
It was a culture dish of a small college, isolated in the cornfields of conservative southwestern Ohio.
The usual trappings of college life were not part of the Antioch scene. There were no fraternities or secret societies, no intercollegiate sports, no yearbook. There was a school song but no one knew the words. Our songs were defined by gender: For men, "Satisfaction," for women, "Respect."
There was more to Antioch than book learning. The institution was as responsive as any to social changes sweeping the country. Liberal, unbound by institutional orthodoxy or authoritarianism, it was committed to providing programs and an atmosphere for its students that reflected the progressive attitudes of the time.
A year later Antioch was close to extinct, strangled by the energy and self-expression it encouraged in its community and crushed by a strike that still leaves its faculty bitter and has reduced its enrollment from more than 2,000, in 1972, to approximately 500.
"We paid a terrible price, a much greater price than other institutions," says academic dean Hannah Goldberg now. "We found that the problems of the world were a little too much, even for us." Dance and Paranoia
Marx, Marcuse and McLuhan. Sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll.
At Antioch in the '60s people went to class, people went to encounter groups, people took walks in Glen Helen, a 1,000-acre nature preserve adjoining campus, people took drugs, people made love while their roommates waited in the hall, people watched the 7 o'clock news and harangued Walter and Westmoreland and Nixon.
Paranoia pervaded the campus like a sexual stimulant: the fear of a drug bust; the fear of being ripped off; the fear that the feds were coming to infiltrate the revolution which was certainly just around the corner.
With so much individualism being encouraged, the students and faculty made up as fragmented a group as ever called itself a community. The unifying force on the campus was dancing.
Everybody danced: socialists danced; hippies danced; black, white and Chicano people danced; even shy people danced. We danced all the time. In the spring or the summer the community government loudspeakers would be rolled onto the the union stoop four or five nights a week.
Sometime student Gene Lohman, who had a scraggly beard that hugged his jaw, refusing to grow on his cheeks, and who always wore outsize Bermuda shorts, T-shirt, black socks and black shoes, would bring out boxes and boxes of records.
In no time people would be awash in beer and sweat and erotic energy. The Tribe Gathers
The reunion is a three-day affair from Thursday night to Sunday noon. It is difficult to believe that this class is having something as traditional as a reunion, especially if it hasn't had an emergency community meeting to vote on the idea.
The tiny campus is not in as bad a shape as it once was. The graffiti, most of it vulgarly political, not obscene, is gone. There are not so many broken windows. Someone has painted a kidney-shaped swimming pool on the floor of the basement courtyard of Corry Hall, reputed to be the site of a number of suicide leaps. Painted in the middle of the pool is "Jump!"
By dinner time Friday the tribe has begun to gather, not as many as one would like, about 50 of a class of 350. That is to be expected. The graduates are scattered all over the country and when you work for legal defense, or teach at a progressive school, or paint murals on buildings it is expensive to fly to Dayton.
Some who did make it:
Cathy Jordan, who spent a year organizing the affair with the alumni office, drives from her art gallery in Minneapolis.
Joe Bacon and Betsy Cohen Bacon come from their farm in west central Wisconsin. They spent most of the last decade in Alaska, teaching and salmon fishing to pay for their place. "Worst frostbite I had was on my cheeks," Joe says, "that was when I split my pants driving my dog sled."
Diane Breakstone and her husband have driven from Woodstock, N.Y. where she is a dance teacher. She has a sheet of instructions for a piece she has choreographed for the occasion called "Clutching at My Youth."
Richard Pree is still lanky and lean. Living in the Berkshires. He has gone from antibodies to auto bodies, having packed in the idea of being a doctor to bang fenders for a living.
Peter Corcoran arrives toting the same luggage he brought 15 years ago when he came to college. Corcoran would not be out of place at the corner of Wisconsin and M: neatly trimmed hair, cleanly pressed green, pink and khaki clothes. He lives in Northeast Harbor, Maine, and teaches human ecology at the College of the Atlantic.
People walk up to each other, squint at name tags. "Did I know you? Your face is familiar." All the faces are familiar, not too many wrinkles, not too many gray hairs.
Corcoran says, "We look the same 10 years later, which says something about the lack of sleep we had while we were here." "Yeah," someone else agrees. "I looked 30 the day I graduated this place. Now I'm 32 and I still look 30."
Gene Lohman is still in town and he hasn't changed much either. He is still unable to get a beard to grow on his cheeks and his basic wardrobe is the same, although he has added a black bowling shirt for panache.
He has been around for 17 years, having completed the transformation from student to bona fide townie. The week of the reunion is his last week in town; he is moving to Corpus Christi, and he is spinning records one last time. He invites the alumni to his last dance, which is held at the new hair-cutting place in town.
Dancing. That hasn't changed at all.
What is different are the children dozing on mattresses in the corner while we dance. Changes
"Oh Sheldon? Yeah, Sheldon is going to med school. He married a woman in his Gurdjieff class."
"Pam's a nurse now but for a while she was stuck in Tibet with another woman and their two children and they had to hike out." "You know, I studied Tibetan one quarter at Berkeley."
"Did you see the rape whistles in the women's johns? Yeah, they even have a sheet of instructions on how to fight off would-be rapists."
"Do you know there's a gay bar in Springfield?" "I can't believe it."
"You know about X, don't you, he committed suicide in his hot tub in Berkeley."
"Here's a picture of my 9-year-old in his Cub Scout uniform." "Oh man, you let your kid join a fascist organization like that?" "You'd be amazed at how good some fascist organizations look when you've got a 9-year-old."
"Who would want to live in France? Every wacko fringe group in Europe is living there."
"You don't smoke as much as you used to." "No man, when we were here, what was dope -- $10-$15 an ounce? I won't pay those prices -- it's my form of boycott." Media Mistrust
Saturday morning. Eric Larsen strides by, too lanky and purposeful to do anything as simple as walk. He spent his college career at the barricades and if you weren't there with him he would throw them at you.
In the morning sun, though, he looks calmer. "I'm in my second year of medical school in Toledo," he says. And before that? "Well, I was in Dayton working and organizing at the Frigidaire plant and I got beaten pretty bad."
Larsen had been organizing a rank and file movement against the union bureaucracy. One of his coworkers was shot in the abdomen and Larsen was beaten. "They left me for dead," he says matter-of-factly. "They couldn't kill me though. I got nine lives."
I explain to him that I'm writing a story on the reunion and I'd like to talk to him some more. We agree to meet later in the afternoon after the class photo is taken.
"Man, I don't know. I'm having some second thoughts about this," he says then. He details his reasons. He had plenty of press coverage at the time he was shot. He claims that no matter what he said, the articles all came out slanted. He's afraid that will happen again. He thinks that people will think he's sold out because he is becoming a doctor. "I'd still be at Frigidaire except that the plant has been shut down."
As he speaks I remember how little we trusted the media.
In the fall of 1968, NBC sent a crew to film a segment for a news magazine called "First Tuesday." For three days, wherever they went, the crew was harassed by students shouting "media distorters" and other things that aren't printable. Of course, NBC had the final word. The short segment emphasized the wildest, most titillating aspects of life at Antioch.
In the spring of 1969, Playboy magazine chose Antioch as one of five colleges for its fall fashion preview. Someone stole the clothes for the shooting and sent them back to the Playboy mansion C.O.D. A huge crowd staged a sit-in outside the room where prospective models were being interviewed. Some people stripped and streaked. Finally the clothes were recovered and the models selected, and the photo was surreptitiously made at 5:30 in the morning. The Strike
Striking. People struck because students were shot at Kent State and Jackson State. People struck because they wanted money from the college. People struck because the college got the money from capitalist corporations.
The day we graduated some of the class was on strike in solidarity with campus workers who were striking over pay issues. They received their diplomas from Sadie, a cafeteria worker.
Strikes were far from unanimous expressions of the community's will; they just happened and became an accepted, if inconvenient, part of life. But they built up their own momentum and in the spring of 1973 came the Big Strike: the campus shut down for seven weeks, strikers running amok and doing a million and a half dollars worth of damage to Main Building,, professors physically threatened by students for attempting to teach. The genesis of the strike was a demand from students that Antioch assure them the same level of financial aid they had been receiving right through to graduation. The administration countered that it had no control over grants from the government. But the argument was just another symptom, says Hannah Goldberg, of the students' belief that "Antioch had a special role in the world, and that was to make everything all right."
Goldberg, who was a professor of history then, has had much time in the ensuing decade to think about the events and their causes. When she speaks of them her bitterness is tempered by a historian's dispassion.
"It was liberalism gone mad," she says of those days. "We weren't just grappling with the problems of higher education. We were grappling with the great social problems: poverty, injustice and equality. We took them head on and it was hubris on our part to think we could solve them.
"It was irresponsible on the part of the administration and faculty to allow students to continue to believe that we could do it."
The seeds of Antioch's breakdown lay in three programs:
The First-Year Program. "That was part of the whole McLuhan atmosphere which believed that linear thinking and sequential education was a thing of the past, that constant choice was appropriate. It assured first-year students 26 credits for survival" whether they went to class or not, according to Goldberg. The debate over the educational values of the plan split the faculty and left it in a weak position to deal with other problems.
Then came the Rockefeller Program, a fundamental attempt to rapidly increase black student enrollment at the college, and with it came what Goldberg calls the "great liberal delusion." "We accepted people who were inadequately prepared . . .and then persisted in believing that all you had to do was to bring them here and by some wonderful process of osmosis everything would be all right. We were unwilling to admit that these students were not 'differently' prepared but that they were badly educated and 'terribly' prepared for the kind of education that Antioch was offering.
"And we did very little to prepare them better."
Her thoughts are seconded by Chuck Smart, assistant dean of students. "There were no role models," he says, "so there was little leadership. The students were designing everything." Smart sees the flaws in Antioch's attempt to right the wrongs of racial injustice as not very different from the flaws in a lot of Great Society programs: money, bureaucracy and good intentions were not enough.
Finally there was "the network" or "the system." The college set up satellite campuses around the country, including Antioch-Columbia and the Antioch Law School.
Goldberg believes it was originally planned as a way to increase revenue, although the college president then, James Dixon, provided a social rationale: Bring the college to the people. But it was a drain not just in terms of cash to start it up, but in personnel. "The leadership of the college became the leadership of a far-flung empire. So that it was terribly diluted at a time when we needed every ounce of it here."
Ironically, the college will be able to stay open this academic year, in part because of revenue generated by several of the remaining satellite campuses, according to the current president, William Birenbaum.
All of these programs created problems for the institution, but what led to its failure was the group that had the greatest stake in the continuity of Antioch: the faculty "abdicated" its responsibility in Goldberg's words. "There were some who spoke out, but it was useless because they were the minority voices."
The hard-learned lesson of the time is that "openness and desire and genuine commitment to student participation doesn't always work." Goldberg adds, "I think we saw a real breakdown in those years of representative democracy." Farewells
Sunday at noon, the campus again deserted, a small group of us, completely danced out, sits in front of the union.
A vaguely familiar-looking woman with long brown hair and wearing wire-rimmed spectacles, rides up on a bicycle with a young child in a toddler seat attached to the back and a half-finished bottle of champagne in a basket in the front.
She says the secretaries in Main Building are still using the same typewriters that were thrown out the windows during the big strike. "Tell your friends that a lot of them don't double-space, sometimes they can't keep a margin and the college can't afford to go out and buy them new ones."
"Who are you?" someone asks. "I'm the new community manager, Louise Champagne." How do you spell it? "Same as this," she says lifting the bottle. Then, laughing and nodding toward her daughter, she says, "I carry this so she can learn to spell her name."
Champagne is a dropout from the class of '73. She took a co-op job in Juneau, Alaska, in 1970 and stayed there for six years. She then lived in Washington, and enrolled in Antioch's Adult Degree Completion Program before returning to Yellow Springs, where she was elected community manager.
Eric Larsen has been sitting off to the side listening. He strides forward and breaks his silence. "The strike was total bull----. People found that they couldn't struggle against the pigs and felt the solution was to go into Main Building and trash it." He concludes, "If you look at it, it could have all been settled very quickly if the police had not been brought in. But running through the building contributed to the death of the strike and the death of Antioch.
"I felt I had to say that."
He looks at us and adds, in a measured, reasonable voice, "Antioch fell victim to the shrinking, imperialist empire. That's not dogma. Small businesses are going bankrupt every day. It's inevitable that the same thing happens to small colleges." He leaves.
With a few farewell embraces, so do we. Pathways From the Past
"I think people who were here then have remained true to their values," Hannah Goldberg said. "I think they came here because of them and were confirmed in them once they were here. Many of them have done what we hoped they would do. They have gone out and tried to change the world in terms of those values and are changing it . . . slowly but surely . . . "
When we were students, the ideals Goldberg discussed were the fashion. They aren't any more. But once instilled, and at Antioch they were instilled deeply, those values seem to live on.
Sitting in Com's, the student hangout, one night, someone remarked, "I never say I went to college. I always say I went to Antioch."