The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968

Brown University President E. Gordon Gee
Interviewed by Carly Long and Michaela Bell
April 14, 1998

Carly Long/ Michaela Bell: Let's start with some personal background. Where and when were you born?

E.Gordon Gee: I was born in 1944 in Vernal, Utah, a town in the eastern part of the state of Utah.

CL/MB: Where did you grow up?

EG: I grew up in that town.

CL/MB: Can you briefly describe your family and your neighborhood?

EG: Well my, Vernal, Utah was a very small town, about thirty five hundred people, it the largest city between Salt Lake City and Denver, which is a distance of about seven hundred miles, sort of the distance between Boston and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It was a very rural part of the state, and my mother and father were very active citizens. And they were very active with me when I was growing up and, great family, great friends. It was a very religious community. I am a Mormon, and Utah is heavily populated with Mormon's, about ninety percent of the people in my home town were members of that religion, so it was a very religiously, socially intensive environment.

CL/MB: What were your parents political views and affiliations?

EG: My parents were both Republicans and quite conservative, I think that would be the best description.

CL/MB: What did you think you wanted to do when you grew up, and how did that change over time?

EG: What did I want to be when I grew up? Well, I initially wanted to be a physician, and that changed over time because of the fact that I found wider interests beyond medicine, and enjoyed public policy and ended up, ultimately, going to law school in New York City at Columbia. And then, after that ended up going into academic life as a teacher and then, obviously, I have pursued an academic administrative career for some time.

CL/MB: When you were growing up, were you aware of any discrimination against people in your family or neighborhood?

EG: When I was growing up, I was not aware of it. It was a small community, very homogeneous. There were a few Hispanics in the community. We lived very close to a Native American reservation, and nonetheless, I would not say that I was aware of discrimination.

CL/MB: Where did you go to high school and college?

EG: I went to Uenta High School in Vernal,Utah, and then I went to University of Utah for my undergraduate degree, and then I got my graduate degrees, my law degree and my doctorate, from Columbia University in New York City.

CL/MB: Did your counselors and teachers encourage you to go to graduate school or college?

EG: Yes, absolutely. No other expectations than to do that.

CL/MB: Were male and female students treated differently?

EG: In 19, when I was growing up? I think that there was an expectation that women would ultimately be, would stay home and be mothers, and that men would be the breadwinners. I think that was pretty much the culture that I grew up in.

CL/MB: Do you feel there was a generation gap in the late Sixties?

EG: In the late Sixties, well, let me think. I think that there was a generation gap, but mine was sort of the front end of the Vietnam war generation or the back-end of the 1950's-60's generation, which was very much the "Happy Days" generation, if you will. And so I think it really was a substantial generation, my wife is ten years younger than me, and there was a substantial generation gap between her years and my years in terms of young people's views of life.

CL/MB: Can you describe your wardrobe in the Sixties, like did your clothes?

EG: Wow, my wardrobe. Gosh, well, I mean, I'm not sure if I can remember, but I, I think that from the age that I was sixteen, I wore bow ties, which I still wear. And so I would have to say that whatever was nerdy, I was probably nerdy.

CL/MB: What did you know about the counter-culture was it a positive or negative thing?

EG: Well, I think the counter-culture, you see I was graduating from college in 1968, the counter-culture was something that you started to recognized from Woodstock, from the drug culture in San Francisco you read a lot about. But those were, those were things you read about in magazines, not that you directly experienced, at least in my life, until I went to New York City. When I went away to law school, then of course, one was exposed to all of the panorama of issues that one confronts in the world because New York City is Baghdad on the Hudson.

CL/MB: How do you feel about the use of drugs, how did you feel?

EG: Pardon?

CL/MB: How did you feel about the use of drugs?

EG: The same way I do now, which is that I think it is absolutely insane that anyone would ever do it.

CL/MB: What did you feel about musical groups in the late Sixties?

EG: In the late Sixties, gosh, you know you are talking to someone who didn't listen to a lot of music. In the late Sixties, Dave Brubeck, I loved Jazz, and progressive Jazz they used to call it, Grover Washington. But in terms of absolute, Simon & Garfunkle, I mean, those were the groups that I remember the best that I enjoyed the most.

CL/MB: Did you watch TV?

EG: We didn't have a television in my hometown. In fact, television was not available. I grew up without television.

CL/MB: Was the curriculum relevant to your life or to your political interests while you were in school?

EG: Where, in college or in high school?

CL/MB: College.

EG: College, well, yes, I think that the curriculum was reflective of the world as I saw it and as it was being seen at that time.

CL/MB: Did you participate in the peace movement or anti-nuclear?

EG: I did not.

CL/MB: Were you affected by the Cuban Missile Crisis?

EG: Profoundly, in the sense that it was a quite frightening moment in our lives. I can remember that moment as vividly as if I were there today.

CL/MB: How was 1960 and the election of John F. Kennedy an important turning point for you?

EG: Well, it was the first time that I could really think of myself engaging in political discussion. I was a great supporter of Richard Nixon because my parents were. My parents were very strongly Republican, my community was very strongly Republican. I can remember all the old conundrums, he was a Catholic, and, gee, it was going to be run by, you know, the country is going to out of the back and etceteras etceteras. All of this, of course, was silly, but nonetheless, I can remember the political debate clearly.

CL/MB:How did you respond to his assassination?

EG: I was in Germany at the time. I was profoundly affected by that also because I think that I saw the grief that was felt by the German people, and the kind of outpouring of love and appreciation for anyone American. And I was living with a German family at that time, so, anyway, it was a very moving experience for me.

CL/MB: Do you think that discrimination against people of color was a problem?

EG: In those days, absolutely.

CL/MB: And was discrimination against women a problem?

EG: Absolutely.

CL/MB: Did you follow political or social issues while you were in?

EG: After, in high school, I started to. I was, am a massive devourer of literature, books and certainly when I got into college, I was very, very interested in politics.

CL/MB: Were there any rallies or teach-ins on your campus or anywhere else?

EG: Oh yes, absolutely.

CL/MB: Did you participate in any?

EG: No.

CL/MB: What did you think of people who did?

EG: I thought that many of them were my friends. I would have good, vigorous arguments with them, but nonetheless, they remained my friends.

CL/MB: What happened at these events, and what kind of?

EG: Oh they were generally peaceful. And in my undergraduate college days, at Columbia, they were really quite violent.

CL/MB: Describe your work experience after high school or college?

EG: Well, I mean, I'm a University president so my experience has been based upon academic life, involving teaching, involving research, involved [... -? ed.], engaging people in thinking about how all these things happen, and this is my fourth University presidency. I was president of West Virginia University for five years, and I was president of the University of Colorado for five years, and I was president of Ohio State University for seven and a half years, and then I have been at Brown for about three months.

CL/MB: How would you describe relationships between men and women? Was women's discontent becoming an issue in your family or your relationship? Did you marry or ever enter a serious relationship with someone? Do you have any children?

EG: Well, women's issues were always very important in my life. I come from a very committed family of feminists. My mother was a feminist in the early 1900's and remains so today, at age eighty nine. My first wife was a very committed feminist. My second wife, my first wife died of cancer in 1991, and my second wife is a very committed feminist, as is my daughter. So I have lived with people, very strong women, women with very strong views, which I deeply appreciate. I am a feminist myself.

CL/MB: If you stayed at home with your children, how did you feel about that experience? Did you go to school, or work part-time?

EG: Well, I have a daughter who is adopted, and I did stay home with her once in a while, and always tried the childrearing as a partnership, even though I had these very difficult jobs. I think that is important and I think that perhaps one of the most important jobs, if you will. And I had to call to that responsibility, is your children, and I think that needs to be shared totally by both parents.

CL/MB: Was music an important part of your lift?

EG: Yes.

CL/MB: Why?

EG: Because I enjoy music, I enjoy listening to it, I enjoy seeing it performed I enjoy performing myself once in a while.

CL/MB: What did you listen to or what concerts did you attend?

EG: Well, I listen to classical music. I love opera, I have been an opera lover for years. I grew up in a small town where we had no access to ra, to television, but I could get the Texaco Opera of the Air on Saturdays because there were no movie theaters in my home town, so that is what I listened to. I knew Rigaletto before I knew Roy Rogers.

CL/MB: If you went to Woodstock or had friends that had, could you describe what it was like?

EG: It was a massive movement of people to a small community which was more reflective of the tensions and aspirations of young people of that time.

CL/MB: Were did you get most of your information about the outside world?

EG: From the newspaper.

CL/MB: Did you have any sense of the war in Vietnam and the war at home?

EG: I certainly did, I mean, I was very involved in being examined by the draft all the time, whether not I would go, being called by them. I was, I had a very serious ulcer at that time, probably worrying about the war, and so therefore was never called, but I would, if called, I would have gone.

CL/MB: Did you participate in any political or community or religious groups? Could you describe the experience? Why did or didn't you join?

EG: Well, I am committed member of my own religion, so I remain very committed to my religion, and have always done so. But in terms of partisan political politics, I have never engaged in partisan political politics, mainly because of the fact that I am an independent, and proud to be so, and plot my own political course.

CL/MB: A lot of what was going on in the Sixties concerning Civil Rights issue, was desegregation of the public schools, Martin Luther King's leadership, freedom riots, sit-in's, voter registration in Mississippi and other Southern states, Malcolm X, Black Power and the Black Panthers. How did you feel about some of these issues?

EG: Well, I mean, I would have to say that I am a Jeffersonian Republican which means that I am conservative on fiscal issues and rather liberal on social issues. And I listen carefully. I have always taken pride in the fact that I have not immediately formed opinions about anyone. I was not necessarily thrilled with the Black Power movement and some of the other movements because I felt that they were aggressively disruptive, but nonetheless, there were lessons learned from them, obviously.

CL/MB:If you engaged in any feminist or Civil Rights activities, describe them.

EG: Well, I mean, I've been a promoter of feminist activities for a long period of time, and, as I say, both through my marriage and through my belief in women's rights and through my belief that there is much talent that has been squandered in this nation. We did not have half of our talent, political, for any job or opportunity, and so, particularly in my work, I have always promoted the cause of women, and it is reflective of the people that I hire. I have vast numbers of senior women who have worked with me over the years.CL/MB: Did you attend any demonstrations, counter demonstrations, or conventions or rallies? Describe what happened.

EG: I did not.

CL/MB: When did you first become aware of the war in Vietnam? Did you approve or disapprove of?

EG: I only became fully aware of it when I was in Germany working for our church as a Mormon missionary because there, there was a staging area for admitted troops going onto Vietnam, and so all of a sudden there was a large influx of American troops, and then obviously I kept getting notice for my draft on my return and I would be eligible for the draft. It made you profoundly aware of that.

CL/MB:Did you fear being drafted?

EG: Absolutely. I was absolutely dreading the notion of having to go into the Army and going to Vietnam and fighting.

CL/MB: Would you have ever avoided it?

EG: No.

CL/MB: Did you know anyone who served in Vietnam or who was killed?

EG: I did, I knew a number of people who served, and I knew several people who were killed. Some of my friends were killed.

CL/MB: Did your opinion about the War change as time went on?

EG: Over time, yes. Mainly because of the fact that it was readily apparent to me that we had no will to win, and I was disgusted by those in the far right and the far left. I thought that we had not been either honest with ourselves, the American people, or with those who were fighting.

CL/MB: Were you attracted to the women's movement, and how?

EG: Well, I've described that again, but yes, I was, I have always been strongly engaged in for feminist issues.

CL/MB: What were your feelings about birth control, for instance, the Pill? Was this a good or a bad thing?

EG: I think that overall it probably was a good thing. I think, of course, sexual freedom, one can talk about the demise of the family, but among other things, I think that in many ways, that sexual freedom has provided opportunities for people without being so shackled in terms of their decision making.

CL/MB: When you saw Vietnam vets in wheelchairs and on crutches and in body bags coming home from Vietnam, what was your response?

EG: You know, again, a deep sadness. I think that was one of the most divisive and clearly intense and tension filled of all times in the history of this nation. I think that we all felt absolutely affected by all of that.

CL/MB: Which of the following events from 1968 made an impression on you? Describe your response and feeling: The escalation of the Vietnam war conflict, for example, the US bombing of North Vietnam, troop buildup in Viet Cong Tet defensive.

EG: Well, I think that that was the first time on our television screens that we actually saw war being played out live at six, and I think that the impact on the American psyche was absolutely clear-cut and also the fact that we were not clearly winning the war. The Americans always have a belief that winning is everything.

CL/MB: Lyndon Johnson's announcement on TV that he would not run for president?

EG: I remember that too. I thought that that was a moment of political, either suicide or courage. I couldn't quite decide, but I was not a great Lyndon Johnson fan.

CL/MB: The assassination of Martin Luther King?

EG: I remember that very well. I think that that, again, had an enormous impact on this nation. Martin Luther King was viewed as many, by many, as the personification of all that was ill and all that was bad and by many by as an absolute hero. I think that moment was one that when those two issues came together in terms of who are we as a nation and what does all of this mean in terms of race and sex, in gender, and how are we going to manage it. I think that his death had a very important impact on all of that.

CL/MB: The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy?

EG: I remember that very well, also. And that was a sad moment. I am not certain that the impact, other than the personal tragedy, was as profound as either the death of President Kennedy or Martin Luther King.

CL/MB: Columbia University sit-ins and other student agitation against the war?

EG: I was there. I was there, that is where I was in school. So I saw it all.

CL/MB: Senator Eugene McCarthy's campaign for President?

EG: Well, I mean, he was an antihero. Never should have been President, but nonetheless, represented the frustrations of this nation. That's the reason he gained momentum.

CL/MB: Governor George Wallace's campaign?

EG: He was another antihero. He was very much to the right, and very much the kind of macho candidate. He never should have been president, either.

CL/MB: The Democratic Convention in Chicago?

EG: One of the most routless, divisive moments of the history of this nation.

CL/MB: Hubert Humphrey's candidacy?

EG: The happy warrior. A great man. Should have been president probably, but he had his career tied to the wrong star.

CL/MB: The election of Richard Nixon?

EG: Well, Richard Nixon, again, was in many ways was an antihero hero. He came in with calmness, a brilliant man, obviously flawed in many ways, as are we all, and his is the story of both heroic and tragic proportions.

CL/MB: The women's liberation demonstration at the Miss America Pageant?

EG: I thought it was silly.

CL/MB: Expulsion of Olympic athletes for their Black Power salute during the playing of the National Anthem?

EG: I have, I was offended by the fact that in a time in which we were celebrating being "unum" that the divisive pluralism prevailed.

CL/MB: The Space Program and the circling of the moon?

EG: One of the most fantastic things that every happened to this nation. I am a great fan of the Space Program.

CL/MB:Overall, how would you say the Sixties affected you and the United States?

EG: Well, I am a product of the Sixties. I mean, I literally am a product of the Sixties. What you see before you is what was formed during those years. I was in that generational gap of moving from a time of absolute quiet of this nation to one of the most divisive periods in this history of this land, and I lived through all if it. I am a reflection of that. My personality, my views, my politics, my sense of being, my sense of who I am, and where I come from are all very much tied up in that era.

CL/MB: What were the most important changes of the 1960's?

EG: I think the women's movement, I think recognition and recognizing the vulnerability of ourselves as a nation, and recognizing that we no longer can control our own destiny quite the way that we thought we could.

CL/MB: Some people feel that drug use and the counter-culture was the most important if not most popular aspect of the 1960's, and others feel that the aspect was overplayed in the media. How do you?

EG: I think the latter is true. I think that it was simply reflective of the debate at the time.

CL/MB: How do you compare that the presidencies of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon ?

EG: Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Kennedy had great promise never fulfilled, Johnson was one of the most politically astute man to ever have walked the halls of Congress or the White House, and probably despite his Texas bravado, was a brilliant, brilliant political tactician, and Richard Nixon, himself a brilliant man, but enormously flawed.

CL/MB: How, has the change in women's rights and position in society been a positive?

EG: Absolutely! Absolutely!

CL/MB: What do you think African Americans have accomplished since they started the Civil Rights Movement?

EG: Well, I think that they have had an opportunity to have their voices heard. They have moved in many ways into the mainstream of American society. I think the great debate now is a racial debate based upon this notion of whether or not the policies that allowed that to happen should continue i.e. affirmative action, and I think that that is the next great debate that we will face in terms of our national character.

CL/MB: When the War finally ended, what were your feelings looking back at the Vietnam conflict from the perspective of the 1990's. Has your opinion of the War changed?

EG: I think that my opinion of the war then was ultimately that I decided, because of what I have said in terms of our inability to be able to either have the will, or the courage, or the tactics to win, that we should have gotten out. I, I'm not certain that I believe in the Domino Effect. I think that there have been so many retrospectives written about it, I think that we misread our own power and our own will, and we most certainly misread the Vietnamese.

CL/MB:Have you visited the Vietnam War Memorial or replica of?

EG: I have. I have.

CL/MB: How did that impact you?

EG: It is a powerful memorial. I know Maya Lin, who is the architect, very well, a young lady who came up with this brilliant piece of, of marble and artistry.

CL/MB: How do you feel about young people who are struggling to answer questions about American involvement in the Vietnam War, including the whole decade ?

EG: I think that we learn from our history. I think this was an important learning moment. This nation is on a powerful drive for good. I also has great divisions in it. I think that we have learned from our divided passes as to how we can reknit our future.

CL/MB: What advice would you give to us?

EG: Go forth, be strong. Now what advice would I give? I think that it is important for you to remember the ultimate issues in life are not, are not what you achieve, but how you achieve it. It is not, it is not what you say, but what you do, and the issues I think young people face are ones of character rather than charisma.

CL/MB: Thank you.

EG: Thank you. Is that helpful to you?

CL/MB: Yes, I think so.

EG: Well, ladies, I'm gonna have to go.

Glossary Words On This Page
birth control
Black Panthers
black power
black power salute
civil rights
Cuban Missile Crisis
domino theory
generation gap
Hubert Humphrey
Lyndon B. Johnson
John F. Kennedy
Robert F. Kennedy
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Eugene McCarthy
Richard M. Nixon
The Pill
Tet Offensive
Viet Cong
George C. Wallace
Malcolm X

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