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Snapshots: John McWilliams

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By CHELSEY PLETTS
In 1968, John McWilliams was on the road with his pregnant wife to California. He had just earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University and was on his way to teach at the University of California in Berkeley. The day was July 14, a holiday celebrated by the French called Bastille Day. It’s significance bled through the centuries as the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille fortress-prison, a symbol of new ideas pressing against an old regime.

Just arriving in town, McWilliams and his wife met friends at a burger joint on Telegraph Avenue, a street that begins in the midst of the historic downtown district of Oakland, Calif., and ends at the southern edge of the University of California, and known for its hippy-hangers-on. On Bastille Day in 1968, masses gathered in the street, first delivering speeches, then throwing rocks through windows and lighting trash piles at intersections.

And as the defenders of the Bastille, who fought to preserve royal authority, battled against those who wished to change it, so did the Oakland police. The “blue meanies,” as McWilliams said they were called, descended upon the street with billy clubs and tear gas.

In seconds a blue meanie was on McWilliams with a billy club as he jumped in front of his pregnant wife to protect her, and took a 20-second beating to the head, which was enough to send him to the hospital with an open skull, emerging 20 stitches later.

For a man who grew up in a privileged suburb in Cleveland, Ohio, this was an unexpected turn of events if ever there was one. Here, McWilliams experienced a shift away from his suburban upbringing toward an unfamiliar counterculture.

Cleveland was a prosperous but segregated community when McWilliams was born in 1940. People with money lived in the eastern suburbs while those with less, generally African Americans, lived in slums down the hill. As time went on, Cleveland became one of the prime rustbelt cities with factories and heavy manufacturing plants shutting down and failing. But McWilliams’ family felt little in the way of poverty and he was offered the best education from the get-go. He graduated in a class of 11 from an all-male elementary school, only two of which still exist in Cleveland.

“And that was a sad business because these were the privileged and hopefully the really competent leaders of the next generation,” McWilliams said. “And the whole culture was one that encouraged them to get out. The assumption was that if you were a successful person, lawyer, doctor, businessman in Cleveland at that time, you lived in the suburbs outside the city because the building of the suburbs and the big American cities was just wide open at that time. Cleveland is a salient example of it.”

McWilliams referenced Jane Jacob’s book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” when he spoke of his Cleveland suburb. In the book, Jacob argues that suburbia is a death sentence for inner city culture. A suburb is calm and controlled, whereas the city is writhing and chaotic and layered with human complexity.

Deerfield Academy, where McWilliams attended high school, didn’t provide much of an escape for McWilliams from a suburban cookie-cutter life. McWilliams quickly gave up on becoming a “Deerfield boy” during his years at the famous Massachusetts preparatory school. A Deerfield boy exemplified good citizenship, strove toward civic duty and took command of the athletic field. A Deerfield boy stood firmly on the pedestal of privilege.

Headmaster Frank Boyden, who was a national legend at the time, resolutely refused to modernize, said McWilliams.

“We were allowed off campus two weekends a year, there were two times when you could have any contact with young women and you were checked on 17 to 20 times per day,” he remembered. “I was sent to the school because it was so famous, but it was a very bad fit, as far as I was concerned. I was marginalized by the time I was a senior, and I was glad to be marginalized because I had given up on ever becoming a ‘Deerfield boy.’”

It wasn’t until McWilliams attended Princeton that he gained a different perspective than that of the typical Deerfield boy.

“To a person with a hammer, everything is a nail and to a person with a computer, everything is data,” said McWilliams. “When I was growing up, your awareness of the outside world when you were 15 or 20 years old was very much more limited than it is now.”

Princeton, “an oasis in New Jersey,” as McWilliams said, was an eye opening experience. The idea was not to learn about facts from textbooks, but to soak up ideas from people and primary sources. He went to school with one African American student in his class of about 500 and didn’t know, until years later, the unconscious effect his suburban upbringing had on his interaction with the young man.

“He was a terrific guy and while he was there, he did very well, was very friendly, never showed any chip on his shoulder at all,” McWilliams said. “I’m sure no one consciously treated him with any racial attitudes at all, but I think many of us did it unconsciously. And about 15 or 20 years later, he wrote a blistering letter to the Princeton Alumni Weekly about what it had been like to be the only black student.”

McWilliams’ quiet suburban childhood gave way to the turbulent 1960s when he graduated. He finished college in 1962, and to many of the students at the university, the world seemed safe. But just a year later Kennedy was assassinated. This moment, for so many people, blew the world apart, said McWilliams.

“And the world changes very quickly then, because television was just developing to the point where you still only had three channels, but you could turn on the television and you could follow along, in black and white, through the events of the next three days,” he remembered.

Footage from the Vietnam War leaked onto American screens and the safe suburban façade was shred to pieces with the images of the outside world.

“The Vietnam War eroded the faith of people my age in politicians, the truth of the news, the legitimacy of public institutions, so we became a lot more questioning,” said McWilliams.

But life at the university didn’t change much, he said. “The changes were going on in people’s minds,” he said. “But there wasn’t a lot of street action.”

Another blow was dealt when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated that same year and McWilliams moved to Berkeley. At this time Berkeley was the center of the counterculture movement, the center of student protest, drugs, free thought, experimentation and defiance of politics and the law. Ronald Regan was the governor and was hated by the whole Berkeley left.

Today, McWilliams spends most of his time in the classroom at Middlebury College, where he has been teaching for 31 years. His office is in the new Axinn Center at Starr Library on campus, where his shelves are stocked with literature of the greats, and pictures of his six children punctuate the collection.

Looking back, though, it’s Berkeley where McWilliams can pinpoint the shift in his life from a time of quiet privilege in suburbia to becoming aware of the counterculture that surrounded him.

“Here I was coming from this rather sheltered environment,” said McWilliams. “Coming to Berkeley was a remarkable experience.”

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