A WHILE AGO I saw a Facebook post in which people were asked about their memories of 50 years ago, of the year 1968. I was tempted to write something but I quickly realized that much, way too much, happened on that year, and that much of it was memorable.
In 1968, I was at Southwest Texas State College (now Texas State University). I had moved there the previous September to finish my college education after commuting for two years to Southwest Texas Junior College in Uvalde, 40 miles north of my hometown.
I had started at San Marcos majoring in political science but after struggling through one semester of history and government classes that demanded a lot of writing, I switched to art education, having decided that I was not a writer.
Even though Southwest Texas State was known as a party school, I was not part of that scene. The wildest parties I attended were those hosted by the school’s Newman Club, a club for Catholic students. Mild affairs, all of them, with very little drinking and no drug use (at least none that I was aware of).
By the end of the spring semester, 1968, I had been elected president of the Newman Club and I was excited about leading the group the following September under the guidance of a wonderful liberal and literate chaplain, Father John Salvadore. A number of us in the club would meet for dinner at Jones Hall, one of the campus cafeterias, then go across the street to the Catholic church for Father Salvadore’s mass and his always stimulating sermon.
That summer I travelled to New Jersey with two follow Newmanites to attend that annual national Newman Club convention. We drove, stopping in Washington on the way up. We toured the monuments other tourist attractions, of course, but one night we also drove to a seedy part of the city, at the insistence of one of my traveling companions, to go into a topless bar. It was horrible and it took a long time for me to forgive myself for not having the courage to tell my friends I would not go in.
I don’t remember anything about the convention itself but I do remember that one of my friends fell in love with a girl from Maine and how he became obsessed with her. And I remember watching the Chicago Democratic National Convention on TV. I remember the anger and rage against Mayor Richard Daley and against President Johnson, and even poor hapless Hubert Humphrey.
When we returned to San Marcos, it was to learn that Salvadore had been replaced as our chaplain by an obnoxious dictatorial rightwing priest. I don’t even remember his name but I remember spending long hours in his office arguing with him about the direction of the club, but also about religion. Within a few weeks I had not only resigned as president of the club, but I had also resigned from religion. I decided that the God of the Bible is a myth. I still believe that.
IN 1968 I TOOK my first (and only) speech class and I discovered the joys of exposing my life and my heart to others and thrilled in realizing that that my words, if uttered right, could move people. That year I lobbied for and got an appointment to fill a vacant seat in the Student Senate and quickly forced through a resolution commending the school’s student newspaper, the same newspaper that spent months condemning!
It was a year of activism – against the war in Vietnam and against the president of our college, who had been accused of plagiarizing his PhD dissertation (he was to resign the following year). I remember the first anti-war demonstration by a handful of students. It was quickly broken up by a group of kickers as the campus police stood by. (One of them lived on my floor in my dorm and for weeks I had to put up with his bragging about his bravery and patriotism. Within a year he too was demonstrating against the war.)
And I’ll never forget sitting in the crowded living room of Arnold Hall, my dorm, to watch LBJ announce he would not be running for a second term. I was pleased and relieved, but I was also extremely sad for this man who had already accomplished so much and was capable of accomplishing much more.
THE YEAR 1968 was a year of pain. I remember watching Bobby Kennedy on TV as he announced to an Indiana gathering that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. I remember the sad faces of the King family at his funeral. And then, a couple of months later, I remember waking up on the morning I was to drive to California for my summer cannery job to the news that Kennedy had been shot in Los Angeles, and driving through the California desert on I-10 as the announcement came over the radio that Bobby had died, and then driving through LA as the plane carrying Kennedy’s body took off on its way east.
The fall of 1968 was a year of hope as Hubert Humphrey began to show signs that he just might overcome all his baggage and win the presidency. The highlight of that campaign for me was a huge Austin rally for Humphrey where he delivered the best campaign speech I have ever heard and made us believe a victory for this decent man was possible.
Alas, it was quickly to become a year of despair as election night revealed that it was the dark and dreaded Dick Nixon who had gotten the nod to lead us for the next four years. We were convinced that Nixon was the worst the Republican Party could give us. Nobody was around to warn us of what was to come.