Under the Big M

Looking across the Oval toward Main Hall, University of Montana

I’m working on a memoir about the four years I spent as a student at the University of Montana in the 1960s. You can see by glancing at the photo above why I titled it Under the Big M. I hope to capture the tenor of those turbulent times when I lived and grew there.

Even before I arrived in 1963, students were fighting in loco parentis, the idea that the University administration could — and should — make rules in place of parents. The onus fell mostly on women who were hemmed in by curfews and dress codes while men weren’t. The most absurd rule stipulated that women had to be in their dorms by 10 p.m. on weeknights — unless they had passed a swim test. Then they could sign out until 10:30. Apparently, the administration thought swimming had magical contraceptive properties for that half hour.

Things began to change after a thousand students marched on Main Hall to protest the Dean of Men suspending students for participating in a raucous snowball fight in front of a first-year women’s dorm. A dorm housemother, who must have heard about violent protests on other campuses, panicked and called police who were pelted by snowballs when they arrived and were bounced around by men jumping on their car bumpers. Police arrested three students.

The local newspaper described the incident as a “near riot.” Newspapers across Montana ran the story and wrote editorials about the need to control students. The university later determined that damages of the event totaled 37 cents for replacement of a cracked windowpane.

Students saw the obvious injustice of the suspension for participating in a snowball fight that ended quietly when women obeyed their curfew and retreated to their dorm rooms. Student activists organized a protest march and the campus newspaper endorsed it. The University president refused to come out when students approached the administration building. He left it to the Dean of Students to address them. The president did, however, appoint a student-faculty committee to look into the matter and eventually followed some ofits recommendations. The university set up a judicial review committee to examine administrative decisions on student conduct and to liberalize women’s hours. Meanwhile, suspensions were revoked and police charges against students all fizzled in court.

Before controversy over the snowball fight ended, another incident roiled newspapers across the state. After the student publications board ruled the student literary magazine could not publisha poem with “fuck” in it, the editor of the campus newspaper tried to publish it. The foremen of the university print shop refused to set the poem in type, so the newspaper editor distributed mimeographed copies in newspaper drop boxes across campus. I helped with that. Someone mailed a copy of the poem to the Montana governor’s wife and state newspapers were up in arms again.

About that time, university students across America were organizing against the Vietnam war and UM students joined them with teach-ins, marches and a draft card burning. I was at the first UM teach-in where a venerated philosophy professor quoted Jean Paul Sartre congratulating opponents of the war.

Activists’ early efforts sometimes were met with indifference and sometimes hostility. ROTC cadets called me a communist after I argued against the war in a classroom debate. Early anti-war marchers in Missoula were pelted with vegetables and pounded with sticks. Student opponents of the war were a small minority at UM in the mid-60s, but they became a majority soon.

In my memoir, I’m trying to braid events of the 60s with a descriptions of my personal adventures. During those years I watched my housemate cock his pistol and announce that he was going to kill a professor, got beat up by thugs who were looking for my gay housemates, and learned how to fake being crazy to avoid the draft. I also fell in love and got married. (After nearly 56 years, I think the marriage may take.)

I’ve been dredging through my recollections of those years and writing about them. I’ve also been going through the on-line files of the campus newspaper. It’s like playing whak-a-mole. Every time I begin to write about one thing, something else pops up. It’s been an endless trail of events and memories. I don’t know if I’ll ever get enough written to make a book, but I’m having fun trying. That’s the important thing.


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