“The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.” -- Harry Truman

Monday, October 22, 2018

Fragile Paradise: Sixties Bennington

Part One

The newsroom was a large, open bullpen filled with manual typewriters and competing conversations. At one end a picture window loomed over a picaresque main drag in the heart of the village. At the other, this side of the swinging door to production, Editor-in-Chief Tyler Resch worked over our copy. In a corner, the teletype cranked AP reports onto a long roll of yellow paper that spooled down to the floor.

During my first week on the job at the Bennington Banner, in early December 1968, Richard Nixon was back in Washington selecting his cabinet. Vietnam peace talks were stalling in Paris and the Defense Department called up another 33,000 young men to fight the war. That brought the total to half a million troops. My beats in southern Vermont were less momentous – district court, local schools and the village trustees.


Video Preview: A Fragile Paradise

A few days on the job, I met Resch at a school board meeting. He drew a crude diagram identifying the people around the table — and then left. It would be sink or swim. But as luck would have it, a political storm was brewing. A new high school had been built in the blush of a progressive educational era. It was also at the hub of Bennington’s pain. Its alma mater, “The Impossible Dream,” turned out to be prophecy. An idealistic plan for local education was about to be derailed by a repressive backlash.

After the school superintendent resigned a dispute had developed over who would replace him as acting chief. The elementary school board wanted Assistant Superintendent George Sleeman. The supervisory union, which included representatives of both the elementary and high school boards, wasn’t as sure.

On the surface it looked like a minor bureaucratic fracas, a question of who could sign checks and make decisions until a permanent chief was selected. But it was actually part of a long-running cultural clash over the fundamental direction of education and community life.

Apart from a two-week “wilderness” experience before college, my life in Vermont had begun six months earlier with the American Film Academy, which brought several of us to the area — and indirectly led to my marriage to a young woman from Shaftsbury. 

I was 21 at the time, just graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in Mass Communications. Things flowed from there through local education, politics and the counterculture, and took me on an intense personal journey, from living an “alternative” life, at least at night, while daily witnessing a slow-moving culture war, then a doomed revolt at the college, before taking up public service as a counselor and job developer. 

In the end, conflict with the same school board conservatives I had covered for the newspaper two years earlier led to my departure — and a promotion that opened up new opportunities. 

Part Two

A Light Show at the Paradise

A few months after arriving in June 1968 with other recruits to the American Film Academy, an independent media company, three of us were asked by three young Republicans — John Williams, Harvey Carter and Marshall Witten —  to produce a multi-media light show for a state GOP meeting at the Paradise motel in Bennington. 

It was a strange project and the reaction was less than enthusiastic. But afterward, Liz Dwyer wrote such a scathing article for the Bennington Banner that David Kelso and I felt honor bound to reply — in a long letter to the editor printed in early October. Although we viewed ourselves as creative entrepreneurs — in my case, that included producing ads for 1968 Republican candidates — others saw us as evidence of an unwelcome hippie invasion.

“As AFA employees, we are upset most about the glib manner in which our organization is maligned by people who do not understand our work and are afraid to inquire about it,” we wrote in response. “We are teacher, students, and artists. We work with over 50 high schools and colleges in running film courses and societies. We are incorporated and work in harmony with the major film companies. We do not circulate underground or low-life films, but general release work. In fact, we are now supplying the films for the YMCA film program.”

By then, David and I had also been hired temporarily by The Prospect School. But I opted to leave when the credentialed teachers expected from England finally got their visas. Less than two months later, however, I was hired by the Banner and found myself working with Liz, the editorial page editor who had panned our Paradise light show. We became great friends. Considering our letter to the editor, I’m still amazed by their openness. 

My new job included beats like local education, Village government and the courts, as well as running the darkroom. I also wrote and designed many weekend features, and in Fall 1969, had a weekly editorial page column called “Polarities in Our Time.” 

Part Three 
Talking Black Power

Early in my time at the Banner, Rev. Edward Geyer, the black rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, addressed the annual interfaith dinner at Mt Anthony Country Club. That February 1969 talk raised some eyebrows in the room. Geyer began with a reading of satirical Tom Lehrer lyrics about hypocrisy, and then dove into black power, student revolt, and the rocky path to brotherhood. 

“The development of a new mind-set among our youngsters has led them to expose the myths of American life,” he said as the establishment audience nervously nibbled desert. “All men are not treated equally. All men are not given comparable access to higher education.”

About the challenges facing Black youth, he explained, “they want peace at home and peace abroad. They shudder at the thought of inheriting a world subject to instantaneous nuclear annihilation. They are dismayed by the hypocrisy which pervades our culture... From this cultural milieu has come the anguished cry for ‘black power.’ The term ‘black power’ has rung like the peal of church bells from one end of America to the other.”

Educational Inspirations

My first Saturday feature for the Banner presented The Prospect School, where I had worked briefly the previous year with David Kelso. Another looked at a Title III program that combined eye-hand-mind activities with the regular curriculum, and led to a grant to produce a film. 

Still another innovative program I followed closely — influenced by State Education Commissioner Harvey Scribner and his Vermont Design for Education — was DUO, a service learning initiative launched by Peter Smith, who soon founded CCV and later became a Republican Lt. Governor and Congressman. At Bennington College, I saw a related higher-education approach - the non-resident term. 

These programs inspired my own efforts, while working for Bennington-Rutland Opportunity Council and statewide for Champlain Valley Work & Training, to develop experience-based education and credentialing for para-professionals. 

But other forces were also at work in public education. Prominent among them was 
Assistant School Superintendent George Sleeman, who had a brother named Richard. He was a leading local conservative, chaired the elementary school board, held an administrative job at a local college, and supervised the local property assessments. The family, which owned more rental property than anyone else in the area, had strong support among the local working class. 

On the other hand, the village was literally surrounded by another legal entity, the Town of Bennington, a growing suburbia populated by more liberal professionals. 
I was witnessing a struggle for power between two factions – working class traditionalists and middle-class modernists.

Beyond resentment of Bennington College, the traditionalists disliked the “modernists” because of the progressive agenda they had imposed in the construction and curriculum of the new high school. Still, their deepest antipathy was reserved for the state’s bureaucratic establishment, particularly the commissioner of education, Harvey Scribner.

A no-nonsense teacher from Maine, Scribner had come to Vermont after presiding over the integration of black children into white schools as Teaneck, New Jersey’s school superintendent. In the 1970s, he went on to become chancellor of New York City’s school system during its turbulent shift toward local control. But to Vermont conservatives in the late 1960s, Scribner represented the heavy hand of the state. 

During my second week on the job, he made a fateful decision that turned the traditionalists’ simmering hatred into an open feud with bitter long-term consequences. 
To break the stalemate, Scribner — usually a proponent of local control – exercised his authority to merge Bennington’s Supervisory Union with an adjacent board and appoint its superintendent as head of a new “super district.” 

George Sleeman could keep his job, but his promotion had been blocked by a state dictate. His allies were stunned and his brother was hopping mad.

Welcome to Carrigan Lane

My first investigative expose, on Memorial Day weekend in 1969, was titled “Welcome to Carrigan Lane.” Published as a Saturday “broadside” feature page — a counterpoint to that day’s front page parade photo spread — it revealed one of Bennington’s hidden pockets of extreme poverty and featured pictures of grotesque living conditions – broken pipes, lack of running water, roofs with gaping holes, un-insulated walls, and all manner of hazards that endangered children.

The article let the poor tenants speak for themselves. It also pointed to why such conditions had been allowed to fester for so long: Bennington had no housing codes.

The response was public outrage and sufficient pressure to force village officials to act. A study committee was formed, and decided that minimum standards and effective enforcement were essential solutions. Its most influential member became David Putter, a friend from Syracuse — and part of the American Film Academy group — who had become a legal aid clerk.

It would take a few years for the practical impacts to be felt.  But public exposure and persistent followup had sparked a local reform movement with the potential to improve local living conditions.

Phil Hoff’s Struggles

That fall, I met the former governor, Phil Hoff, while covering a local anti-Vietnam war demonstration headlined by Harvey Carter, then a young Republican legislator. A year before, Hoff had leapt into the national spotlight as the first Democratic governor to break with President Johnson over the Vietnam War. In June, after Robert Kennedy was assassinated, he had delivered a moving speech to the Vermont General Assembly.

When the Democrats gathered in Chicago in 1968, Hoff’s name circulated as a “protest” candidate for vice president. But after three terms as governor in a tumultuous period, he was worn down by political struggles and did not pursue it.

That summer, when someone fired into the home of Reverend David Johnson, a black minister who had come to the rural town of Irasburg from California, the police had focused on the victim and charged him with adultery. Johnson’s alleged crime, apparently, was sharing a couch with a white woman.

Hoff called for an investigation and discovered that the state police knew the identity of the shooter — but didn’t go after him. He also realized that when the Public Safety Commissioner refused to discipline his staff, there was nothing he could do about it.

In 1970, Hoff returned to the political arena, but lost a run for the U.S. Senate to incumbent Republican Winston Prouty. The main reason, he confided years later, was his civil rights activism, particularly sponsorship of the Vermont-New York Youth Project, which brought Black teenagers up from New York to work and play with White Vermonters.

“It was enormously successful for the participants,” he insisted. “But it wasn’t well understood, and all the latent racism began to emerge. There’s no question it defeated me in the Senate race.”

Capturing the Campus Mood 

Quadrille, the Bennington College magazine, had been edited for several years by Laurence Hyman, son of writer Shirley Jackson and literature professor Stanley Edgar Hyman. But Hyman wanted to make films and resigned in 1970.

Succeeding him as Publications Director, I edited just one issue, but it proved to be unique in format and and scope, and combined both student and alumni news. Assembled in early fall it includes feature articles, lecture excerpts, recent artwork, conversations on the draft and women’s liberation, and expert reports on the emerging environmental crisis and organic gardening.

In the opening for the feature section, I offered some observations, including a quote from Kurt Vonnegut, who was Bennington’s commencement speaker in 1970. His address that warm June day appeared soon afterward in his essay collection, Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons. I remember well skimming various drafts of the speech before his visit, not to mention my own encounter with the author of some of my favorite books. 

The previous Spring had seen the first Earth Day activities in Vermont and elsewhere, an event I had covered for the Banner. But Quadrille reflected a more urgent mood on campus — except for its exclusion of The Plan.

A radical proposal for change by students and faculty, The Plan was being suppressed by the administration. This was not surprising, since it argued that school’s growth should end, called for the end of the Development Office and election of the president, and envisioned an organic community in which teacher-students and student-teachers worked together as equals.

By the time Quadrille appeared, I was in the middle of the fight.

To be continued...

For more on Bennington’s educational struggle, read Waving the Flag in a Culture War