Worcester area colleges and universities are closed now, the result of a world-wide coronavirus pandemic that began half a world away. Faculty, staff and students are following directions to care for our communities by staying at home and standing apart from one another for the sake of one another.

Fifty years ago, again for the common good of our common home, barriers between college students and the Worcester community came down as classes ended on campuses and students, many of them, knocked on doors, spoke out in public places, and marched down Main Street. They invited the people of Worcester to join with them so that, standing together, they could stand apart from what many had come to see as an unjustifiable war in Vietnam.

On Monday, May 4, 1970, local colleges and universities closed down, along with schools across the country, in protest against President Richard Nixon’s decision to escalate rather than end the Vietnam War. On the evening of Thursday, April 30, the president announced that American and allied forces had crossed the border into Cambodia in an effort to end North Vietnamese support for the ongoing war in the south.

This came after two years when the president promised first to end the war, then to turn the war over to South Vietnamese forces. But now he was expanding the war. Earlier that academic year there had been a number of outbursts of student opposition to the war, including a mass rally at City Hall on Moratorium day in October, followed by a march on the State Mutual Insurance headquarters in support of local African-American activists protesting that company’s role in urban renewal.

On arrival the demonstrators found hundreds of armed riot police, together with fierce looking dogs. Tensions rose, a few students were arrested, and people slowly dispersed, but not before one young man climbed onto a car and called out, “We’ll be back and we’re going to take that place apart, brick by brick!”

That confrontation, on the edge of violence, lingered in memory so that when the Cambodia eruption came, peace leaders made sure to stay in close touch with local police, informing them of all plans, appointing student monitors to keep protesters within boundaries, and ensuring that nervous law enforcement officers were never taken by surprise.

The day after President Nixon’s announcement was a Friday, people on and off Worcester campuses were uneasy, but things remained relatively quiet in part because many student organizers had left for New Haven, where East Coast activists were rallying in support of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, on trial for violating federal laws.

They would be back on the weekend, student bodies were ready for action, and at the College of the Holy Cross, faculty and staff anticipated a student “strike” like one that had ended classes at the end of the fall semester the previous December. To prepare, sympathetic faculty from most area schools met at Clark University to plan a strategy for Monday morning. 

Across the country and here in Worcester on Monday outraged opponents of the war poured into the streets, college students rallied and on Worcester campuses boycotted classes and demanded, and in most cases received, backing from faculty and administrators. At a meeting at Holy Cross, the faculty considered a resolution to suspend classes briefly for discussion of the war but after an eloquent student activist demanded more, they voted to end classes for the semester and take appropriate actions to help stop the war.

That night, at a rally at Clark University, Holy Cross Dean John Brooks pledged to place the resources of the college behind end-the-war projects. By that time emotions were running high as news came in that on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio, National Guard troops had opened fire on unarmed students, killing four and wounding nine.

Ten days later law enforcement officers opened fire on students at Jackson State University in Mississippi, killing two and wounding 12. Violence was an ever present possibility and Worcester faculty and administration leaders knew it, they shared their concerns with local police, remembering the hair-trigger tension of the fall at State Mutual. And they worked with students to find actions they could take to arouse the public, connect with other students and community allies, and help end the war. 

The explosion 50 years ago is vivid on our memories. Dave O’Brien was a young historian who had arrived at Holy Cross the previous fall. Frank Kartheiser was a sophomore from Chicago. He had come to Holy Cross, as he said years later, to play football and have some fun. But that fall, football was canceled as the team became ill from hepatitis communicated through water at the practice field, and the death of a high school friend in Vietnam got Frank thinking.

By April 30 he was a leader of the Christian wing of the strong anti-war movement at Holy Cross. Coincidentally on that Monday, May 4, an ecumenical group of local Worcester pastors were holding their monthly meeting in the Hogan Campus Center. Frank and his anti-war allies entered the meeting uninvited, and demanded the clergy take steps to end the war. Waving a copy of the New Testament, Kartheiser said, “The radicals have their little red book of revolutionary sayings; we have a better book that makes equally serious demands. Are we going to take those demands seriously?”

The assembled clergy responded positively. Over the next few weeks students were invited to speak to congregations at First Baptist, Trinity Lutheran and All Saints Episcopal churches. They asked Professor O’Brien to join them and, for the first time in his life, he visited Protestant churches. At the same time, anti-war work was supported by Bishop Bernard J. Flanagan and by the then very strong Worcester Council of Churches, to which many Catholic as well as Protestant congregations belonged.

Indeed, Bishop Flanagan, the Council of Churches and Rabbi Joseph Klein of Temple Emmanuel had already launched in Worcester an Interfaith Draft Counselling Center, perhaps the first in the nation. Throughout the marches and demonstration and meetings that filled days of spring into early summer, religious and academic communities worked together, coming together with one another to stand apart against the war. 

Three areas of memory remain vivid for some of us who were there:

First there was the intensity of life at Holy Cross. Once the students had won faculty support for the strike, ending classes for the year, some simply went home, but many stayed to work with students across the country to persuade the Worcester community to oppose the war. Professor John Anderson, later a candidate for Congress then a longtime member of the City Council, helped students prepare petitions in support of a congressional resolution to end funding for the war. He and others trained them how to knock on doors across the city. The defensive posture of adult activists who worked to keep in close contact with the police was a sign of their confidence that the more local citizens met students, the safer all would be and the better chances of turning public opinion in the direction of peace.

Holy Cross students, now fully engaged in public work, showed remarkably creative energy and skills. They also talked endlessly how the war had been waged and funded, why earlier anti-war work had failed, and what new strategies might be more effective. There were demonstrations to be organized, fliers and posters to be created and printed, door-to-door canvassers to be transported, supplied and fed, and we recall several student activists whose gift was to take care for their fellow students, talking down the most enraged, encouraging the more shy, providing music and snacks and gentle reminders to risk, and limit the booze and drugs.

Remarkably at Holy Cross, the students had great faith in President Raymond Swords, who could walk into a ballroom filled with hundreds of angry students: They would quiet down, listen to him, and in the end stand to clap and shout for minutes. For all the stress, we felt that faculty, staff and students were learning a lot together, and students, often for the first time, were encountering Worcester and finding its people, most of them, as patriotic and morally concerned as they were. 

A dramatic memory for us was a meeting with Robert Stoddard, president of Wyman Gordon Company, owner of the local newspapers and WTAG, the city’s major radio station. Stoddard was a very active and conservative citizen, a founding member of the far right John Birch Society. He was also a member of First Baptist Church, whose distinguished pastor, Gordon Torgersen, had turned against the war, persuaded in part by meeting student activists such as Frank. He thought that if Stoddard could meet some of these impressive students he would better understand why it was important to end the war.

Accordingly he arranged for young Professor Allan Gummerson at Clark and O’Brien to bring a few students to the Wyman Gordon offices in Kelley Square to meet Stoddard. Frank was among the Holy Cross group, which also included leaders of the college’s Revolutionary Student Union. The Clark group included students who had already become well-known in the community for organizing local rallies and bus trips for mobilizations in Washington. Some of the students claimed to be Marxists, even Trotskyites; the majority were still exploring political options.

The evening was unforgettable. Stoddard greeted us warmly, then took us on a long tour of the factory, all the while talking of his father, his hard background, the business he had built, its service to the war effort, and to Cold War national defense. When we arrived back at the office, he summed up his position: He was determined to protect the system that had made his father’s accomplishments possible. The students were not at all shy; they tried hard to explain to him why the Vietnam War was unjust and why the war and the draft should be ended. Some raised questions about “the system” and the “military-industrial complex.”

All told him why he should join them in demanding an immediate end to the war. The exchanges were heated but respectful, even friendly. At one point Stoddard took a call from his wife who was understandably worried when he was still in his office with a group of students at 10 at night. Failing to find common ground, we all left tired and a bit discouraged.

As we departed, one Clark student left a comment we have never forgotten: “I went in thinking Marx. I came out thinking Freud.”

Stoddard later turned against Torgersen. The pastor invited Professor Mike True of Assumption College, a leader of the local peace movement and a strong opponent of the draft, to address the First Baptist congregation, which he did. This was the final straw for Stoddard, who then attempted to have Torgersen removed from his post. This triggered a “freedom of the pulpit” discussion in the Baptist church, which ended with Torgersen still in charge, though some years later he left Worcester to assume other responsibilities for his Baptist denomination.

Frank left college that year to spend more time working for peace. A year or two later, with a friend from Holy Cross and a handful of young Worcester activists, he co-founded the Mustard Seed Catholic Worker community. Later he became founding leader of Worcester Interfaith, an organization of local faith communities working to encourage citizen action and social justice. Eighteen years after leaving Holy Cross he returned to finish his degree. In 2019 the college awarded him an honorary degree in recognition of his service to the community.

After the Cambodia episode, O’Brien, with local teachers and political activists Ken Moynihan and Charles Estus set up a local chapter of Citizens for Participation in Politics (CPP) to continue local work for peace. In the fall of 1971 CPP organized a state-wide convention held at Assumption College where Massachusetts peace activists decided to endorse George McGovern for the Democratic nomination for president. Many Massachusetts activists donated time and money to his New Hampshire primary campaign, and to his later run against President Nixon. Needless to say, McGovern lost the election, but he did carry Massachusetts and he won big in Worcester.

The experience of political excitement and moral urgency in May 1970 left both of us with the conviction that if and when this community, and our country, could come together, we could together turn history in the direction of what Martin Luther King called “the beloved community.”

King’s faith was sustained by times when many people came together in order to stand apart from racism and war in the hope of building a better world. In the last few weeks we have tried to stand apart from one another to help our community. Enriched by the selfless dedication of so many of our local public servants, we once again get a taste of how we might make a little history.

In a recent television interview, the leader of UMass Memorial Health Care told the nearly incredible story of how Worcester people had built a new hospital at the DCU Center in a matter of days. At the end of the interview, he smiled and said, “It’s amazing what we can do when we work together.”

Some of us felt like that in the spring of 1970, and that experience enriched our lives.  


David J. O’Brien, Ph.D., of Holden, is professor emeritus of history and Catholic studies at the College of the Holy Cross.

Frank T. Kartheiser is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross and founder of Worcester Interfaith and the Mustard Seed.