|The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968
Cayce Kenney: Are you all set?
Joseph Laffey: I'm all set, Cayce.
CK: Okay, here we go. When and where were you born, and where did you grow up?
JL: I was born, right here in Wakefield and I grew up in South Kingstown. Born December 31, 1922. And much of the South Kingstown Schools, both grammar and high school, then went on to college in Boston.
CK: Could you briefly describe your family and your neighborhood, as in your religion?
CK: Your parents occupation?
JL: I grew up in a family of five children, the second of five children. Both my mother and father came from Ireland, and my father originally came down here to work on the Narragansett Pier Railroad. But shortly after that he began working for the Hazard Estate. The place that is now the Oaks. The oldest child in our family was my sister, Mary. I have a brother Ambrose, a sister Teresa, and a sister, well she's Margeret Mary now, but she's sister Rheata, who entered the convent.
But we grew up here and lived in Peacedale on Old Mountain, just between Old Mountain Road and Broadrock Lane, and a, had the advantage of Old Mountain Fields for playgrounds, and we walked to school. One of the more interesting things that doesn't occur today is the fact that we would walk to school, to the Peacedale school, back and forth both in the morning, at lunch, and the evening, and it would be a social intercourse, as it were, between ourselves and the mill workers who went home to lunch. This is when the Peacedale Mills were the Wool Mills run by the Hazards and after by the Stevens people. So there was this, Peacedale was a very, very live place because all the people working in the mills, in a sense of self-contained community.
CK: What was the religion in your home?
JL: Catholic. Both my mother and father, Catholic. I grew up as Catholic. And I ended up, uh, we didn't have a Catholic school here, but, when I went to Boston College, Boston College of course is run by the Jesuits, who are Catholic.
CK: If your mother worked outside the home, how did your family respond to that?
JL: She only worked outside the home after we were very much grown. When we were growing up as youngsters, and elementary school particularly, she stayed home and, we had, uh, she did most of the domestic things. She made bread. She made pie. She did a lot of cooking. She did a lot canning. She did a lot of sewing. And it wasn't until we got into high school that she began to go out and do some cleaning work at the Hazard Estate and other places in the community.
CK: What were your chores like in the family? How were your household chores?
JL: Oh, we had modest income, so one of the things you remember, particularly this time of year is going out with my father and splitting wood, chopping wood, and coming and filling the wood box when you came home from school, and doing other kinds of chores such as that.
CK: What were your parents' political views and affiliations?
JL: Basically, my father and my mother were Democrats. And I can still remember going next door when there was a radio address by Al Smith, I believe it was, who was running for the presidency in 1928. He ended up loosing to Hoover because of the anti-Catholic prejudice. But none the less, they were, I guess you could call them strong Democrats, and I retained an identification with the Democratic Party.
CK: Where did you and your family get information about politics and other events?
JL: Primarily the newspaper, primarily the radio, and magazines that were available. Of course, that was that was a time when there were local rallies, political rallies. I can still remember growing up, even as a high school youngster, where the state officers, governor, lieutenant governor, general treasurer, attorney general, they would come down, there would be these political parades through town and they would meet at a particular local hall and they would have a local rally. That was a very common thing because there was no such thing as television for politicians to get their message out to people.
CK: What were your experiences with dating or friendships through high school?
JL: Oh, I went to the movies. I went to dances. And we didn't have a car `til very late, but I did go out with other people who did have cars. There were social events at St. Frances Church. There were clubs specifically designed for high school youngsters and we were very much apart of that. It was a whole range of social events associated with that.
CK: What were the clubs like?
JL: High school youngsters with all the fears and hopes and ambitions and jealousies really that exist among high school youngsters. But there a great enthusiasm on the part of the parish at St. Frances Church to provide for youngsters. And you have to remember this was the Depression days, people didn't have as much money as they do today and they didn't have the options that are available today. So it was a very localized social life that I had.
CK: What did you think you wanted to do when you grew up and how did that change over time?
JL: I didn't really know until I went off to college. There was no such thing as guidance counselors in high school, and you didn't have the various informational sessions that might be available today for youngsters. So it wasn't really until I got into high school and `til I got through my Navy experience that I decided that I wanted to do.
CK: And what was that?
JL: I ended up teaching for thirty five years. And twenty three of the last thirty five years were right here at South Kingstown High School. Before that, I taught in the Kingston Hill Grammar School which is on Old Oak Road, you may be familiar with it. It's just an empty building now. Then I taught in Illinois and I taught in Michigan and in Connecticut and I taught in Providence and in the town of Hopkington.
While I was in the town of Hopkington, it was a very much contested election in this state and I ended up, as a result, getting involved in that election and writing a letter and so forth. And going to the Governor's office where I was Administrated Assistant to the Governor of Rhode Island for a couple of years.
CK: Were you aware of any discrimination against people in your family or your neighborhood?
JL: Oh, not directly. People talked about various kinds of discrimination. There's anti-Catholic, anti-Negro. I just know I was in the class of South Kingstown, the only class that ever took a week off and went to Washington. And some of the people in the class who were black could not go, because the hotels in Washington in 1940 would not allow blacks to mix with whites. So we had a direct understanding of that. And there was sometimes talk of the Ku Klux Klan, and people who were supposedly associated with it in their sort of discrimination.
CK: How did you feel about that? Did you have any specific feelings?
JL: Well, I don't know. We looked upon them in a negative way, certainly, any kind of discrimination. But there was not the overt activity that later developed with the Civil Rights Movement to deal with discrimination against blacks or anyone else. All of that was a post-war thing. You have to remember even when we went into the war against the Axis, we divided the troops up into black and white. It wasn't until after the war that you had the integration of the Armed Forces by the executive order of President Truman. So the separation of people in the basis of race was sort of an accepted thing. There was certain locals in town were assigned to blacks and weren't called blacks, they were called Negroes. And that persisted even after the war.
CK: Where did you attend primary school and how did your education shape you as a person?
JL: I went to Peacedale School. And before that I went to the Stepping Stone Kindergarten. But the interesting thing to me about it as I look back, the Stepping Stone Kindergarten was owned and operated by Miss Caroline Hazard. The Hazards of course built most of the schools in town as you may or may not know. They built the old high school, which is now the Kindergarten Center. They built the Peacedale school built by Mrs. Forbes, she's one of the Hazard's, she built the Peacedale School. The Harzards built the Wakefield School, the Harzards built the Town Hall. The Harzards created Old Mountain Field. When I was growing up, Miss Caroline Hazard operated the Stepping Stone School.
I spent two years there and then went to the Peacedale School where I spent eight years and then came to South Kingstown High School and got an excellent education. Proof of that is not simply by saying so, it's the fact that when I went to Boston College I had to compete with people from Boston and Latin and all the other fine schools in and around Boston. So I always felt that I had an excellent education, it was a traditional education, but basically it was a good one.
CK: In college, could you describe if you ever were included in a membership in a fraternity? Did you ever belong to a fraternity in college?
JL: Could I describe?
CK: Did you ever belong to a fraternity in college?
JL: They had no fraternity's in Boston College. Catholic schools, Catholic colleges do not have fraternity's. They feel it's a sort of discrimination per say and they outlawed them a long time ago.
CK: Who were your best friends?
JL: Oh, my best friend? Was Sandy Jenkes, I guess, a guy from Connecticut I got to know. Bob Jown, this other one who's a local fellow. Mr. Hudson, who's on the faculty here is a good friend. It varies form time to time.
CK: Did you date or go steady with someone through high school?
CK: Did you ever end up in a serious relationship?
JL: End up in where?
CK: In a serious relationship?
JL: No. Well, I don't know what you.
CK: This is just through high school and college.
JL: No. No, I met the person I married after the War [World War II]. None of those earlier people who I went to school with were apart of that.
CK: Could you describe dating and/or sexual activity among your group of friends? Was there any difference in your sexual activity when you went to college?
JL: Oh, I don't know I'd have to hear all their confessions. I'll tell ya one thing, a child out of wedlock was a shameful thing. And some people say we've lost something by not having that existing shame. We have the one parent families now and so forth and so on and all the problems associated with it. But, it was the healthy thing or the one, you want to call it, normal or the excepted way of dealing with it. If you were going to have children you were gonna get married. So there was sexual activity, I'm sure. I found that out both in high school and when I was in the Navy. But it was considered a private affair. And there was not the sexual, what I call license, that exists today. We treat sex as a sport today. You go out, your gonna have sex, as if you were gonna play basketball or play tennis might be, they never talked in those terms. They talked as if sex was something reserved for people who were either married or likely to be married.
CK: Did your counselors or teachers in high school, ever encourage you to go to college, or graduate high school?
JL: Well, they always encouraged us to do that. It depended a lot on peoples finances. Today you have any number of programs that deal with youngsters who don't have the financial where with all to go to school. None of those existed. Of course, my first two years at Boston College was on my own. I got some help from a clergy person.
After the War [World War II], of course, I had the benefit of GI Bill of Rights, where returning service men, Everything was paid for, books, tuition, and even monthly income. I think generally speaking, the teachers in high school would recognize why kids should go on to college if possible. The financial drawbacks were more real then than they are today. There are so many programs for anybody and everybody so that, of course the cost is much higher today, but there are programs that exist that are ridiculous. President Clinton is proposing everybody go to two years of junior or community college free. I don't share that same view.
CK: Do you feel there was a generation gap? If so, why? As in between you and your parents or you and your children?
JL: Not in the sense that it developed in later years. The generation gap, which became a popular term, really didn't prevail until the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. Prior to that, youngsters didn't have money, largely. They were dependent on their parents and do they didn't have the freedom to go out and buy "this, that, and the other thing."
The other thing that caused what you call the generation gap, was the business of the division among the people on the matter of the Vietnam War. It wasn't until that showed, up in my view, that this generation gap so called, really developed. You had for example, college students during the Vietnam War in hard hats who were working on construction projects on opposite sides of the fence during the Vietnam War. But, go back to when I was growing up in elementary school and high school, there was a unity among the generation the older people were role-modeling, you generally did follow their roles. It was not this division that exists today.
CK: During the Sixties and Seventies how did you feel about the use of drugs? Did anyone you know do drugs?
JL: I don't know of anybody who did. We heard about it. I can still remember as a teacher here where the uh, some students were educating for the legalization of marijuana. We even had the Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, I invited him down to speak to an assembly of students here. It was amazing the students peppered him with questions about the legalization of marijuana. And he still believed it or not is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of Rhode Island, Judge Wiesberger. But it was an interesting exchange. The police came in of course from time to time and talked to the faculty about drugs. But uh, I never got to know people who were supposedly on drugs or suffering from drugs.
CK: What were the consequences if you were caught doing drugs?
JL: I really didn't get that close to it, so I really can't tell you.
CK: Okay. What were your favorite musical groups, or your favorite movies, books?
JL: Oh, that's a hard question, I have to think back. I have two favorite movies, one is Casablanca, you may of heard of that, Humphrey Bogart. And the other one, the modern version in a sense is the, oh, Paul Scofield in the uh, where's that when he plays the role of Thomas Moore with Henry the VIII, A Man Of All Season's. Those were my two favorite movies in a sense. But a modern movie in a sense would be Robin Williams when he played in Dead Poet's Society. Have you seen that at all?
JL: Extraordinary movie. I saw him recently in Good Man Walking [Good Will Hunting], where he plays the role of a counselor and I found it extraordinary. It's been nominated as you may know, for six or seven or eight Academy Awards. And he himself has been nominated for the best supporting actor. So those are the kind of movies I appeal to, movies with a good story line. I don't need, what's his name, Schwarzenagger blowing up buildings and ya know, animals that are fake through computers, I don't need that.
CK: Did you watch TV during um, in the past a lot?
JL: When you say the past, what so you mean?
CK: Like when the TV first came out in the 50's, 60's.
JL: Oh yeah, it was an event. But we didn't have a TV. I got married in `49 I don't know it was several years before we got TV, but the novelty wore off, but we had a small TV and graduated to a larger one. So as a youngster there was no TV obviously `til the post-war, but my youngsters grew up with TV in the house. And I still remember this long living room we had on Woodruff Avenue. The youngsters would be playing and they would ignore the television until the ads came on. The ads would attract them and then after the ad was over they would go back to play. It's an interesting phenomenon, says something about the ads being better than the program.
CK: Did you think about the threat of nuclear war a lot?
JL: I didn't think about it a lot. As a teacher at Narragansett, I still remember having these air raids, where the kids hid under the desks and so forth, but that was not an overriding thing, it was mentioned but it wasn't a pressing or oppressing or depressing fact of life.
CK: Were you affected by the Cuban Missile Crisis?
JL: Well we're all affected by the Cuban Missile Crisis because life might of been different if we didn't have the kind of resolution we did have. We are, of course, terribly concerned. And happy that President Kennedy was President and he didn't follow the advice of some of the military leaders who wanted to bomb who wanted to invade and chose rather the um, what was the strategy? Not contra-band, the blockade! Of course gave the Russians times to change their mind and they did the Soviets time to change their mind.
CK: Was the 1960's, was 1960 and the election of John F. Kennedy and important turning point for you?
JL: Well, it was a significant change in the sense that you had the first Catholic in America to become president. You have to go back to 1928 when Al Smith ran we have to find the scholorles prejudice that did occurred and the same thing believe it or not occurred in 1960. I don't know if you know the name Chad Huxley. You've heard of David Brinkley well initially, Huxley and Brinkley were together as NBC reporters but Huxley has his special Sunday afternoon program and one of these during the election 1960 was devoted to the anti-Catholic campaign that was going on all over the country. And he did a half hour program on that. I picked up the phone I called NBC in New York and complimented them on it and talked directly to him, so that's one of my memories of the 1960 election.
Oh well, I was teaching at Narragansett. Narragansett at that time went to the nine grades and then the people who graduated from the ninth grade would come over here to South Kingstown High School and graduate from South Kingstown High School. So we were stunned and shocked and I was chosen to give an address at the, for all the students in the school, that particular day, the day of the funereal. And because of that enormous impact upon everybody. It was a true case of mourning not only in this country but around the world. Cartoons prevailed, political cartoons showed that. And the messages and writings manifests that.
CK: Did you think discrimination against people of color was a problem? Could you explain that?
CK: During 1968.
JL: Discrimination of people of color was a problem long before that and it continued and was still a problem. I went to a lecture, the only time I saw Martin Luther King, at the University of Rhode Island. He spoke at what was Keaney Gym today. And it was, no, he was an eloquent speaker, and at the time he was going around the country generating enthusiasm for Civil Rights legislation and that continued on all through the Sixties.
We had any number of examples of the problems of discrimination, 1968 you had the Watts riots in California. In 1967 you had the burning of urban centers, In 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, you had even a greater burnings of urban centers. It's because these people were pocketed in ghetto's basically and without the opportunities they so have in a much greater degree today. You have to remember we're talking about a time wasn't until `64, `65 that you got the Civil Rights legislation that designed the books today.
CK: Do you think discrimination against women was a problem?
JL: I'm sure it was, but I also remember most that most of my teachers were female. And it was one of the opportunities that women had. The principal of my elementary school was a women. The principal of the high school before I came to it, that is before 1936, was a woman. When I came here, it was a man named Mr. Colin. My Latin teacher was a woman. My geography teacher was a woman. My English teacher was a woman. Fantastic opportunities for women in education.
Now, it was not expected that a woman would be a bus driver, it was not expected that a woman be a pilot, it was not expected that a woman be some of the other more physical trades. But, so there were limited venues as it were. As you know nurses were entirely women, practically speaking. You go to the telephone company, this is when they had individual offices in various local, all of them were women. A man couldn't get in if he wanted to. So you had this strange combination of things.
Then, of course, you had the situation where if the woman got pregnant she had to quit her job. And sometimes early in the pregnancy sometimes later, but she was expected to go home have her children and not continue working. So there was a different kind, it wasn't an, what I call an invidious discrimination, it wasn't a harsh, it was one that was accepted in a sense by the body politic. People didn't think they were put upon because they couldn't become policemen. A woman couldn't become a firefighter, but she didn't complain about it. She couldn't become a policeman, but she didn't complain about it. So as I say, it wasn't an invidious thing.
CK: Did you follow political and social issues while you were in high school or college?
JL: Oh, I think youngsters when I was in high school were far more political then they are today. I can remember distinctly the election of 1936, when I was a freshman in high school. Everybody was wearing the banner of their political party, whether you were for Landon or for Roosevelt. The reason being, that many times, the jobs of the parents depended upon their political identification. It wasn't education that got them up the social ladder, it was political connection that would give them the opportunity to become a policeman, to become a fireman, to become a town worker. Depended many cases upon what you call political patronage. You got your jobs through the political machine. And because of that people were more actively involved in politics. And as I said earlier there were these local rallies people would go to and they would be enthusiastic for one party or another.
CK: What did you think of Civil Rights, antiwar or women's rights?
JL: Well your talking about three different things.
CK: Civil Rights.
JL: Well, Civil Rights, of course, was the emergence of the Afro-Americans, or blacks as they were called when I was teaching in the Sixties. It was very difficult to know whether to say black or Afro-American, or Negro, because the terms were changing it seemed almost daily. Now nobody uses Negro. Negro was the acceptable term.
No, it, as I mentioned earlier, the decision by President Truman to integrate the armed forces following World War II, you had to be getting what ultimately became the Civil Rights Movement. In 1948, the Convention of 1948, Hubert Humphrey, whose name you might of heard, he was vice-president under Johnson. He proposed at the Democratic Convention, there be a Civil Rights plank built into the platform of the Democratic Party. And as a result to that certain Democrats led by Strom Thurman walked out of the convention.
I don't know if you've heard of Strom Thurman, he is now the oldest man in the United States Senate, and he is a Republican. But he left that convention because of the fight between the Northerners and Southerners about Civil Rights, and formed his own, I don't remember the name of the party, but he ran as a presidential candidate. He didn't win any electoral votes but none the less, later on he became a Republican.
But it goes back to, the real political fight goes back to 1948 to try to get the political parties to address these matters. And largely it was the Democrats who fought for Civil Rights and that kind of fight continued even into the 1960's when Democrats and Republicans finally came to an agreement on what kind of bill to pass. And you have to give President Johnson an awful lot of credit because he used his influence to get the Civil Rights legislation passed. That was the harbinger of better bills later on.
CK: What about antiwar?
JL: What about it?
CK: How did you feel about it?
JL: It was interesting to be a teacher at that time. You saw students dividing up. You saw faculty dividing up. There were the Hawks and the Doves. And part of the problem was it was unlike, when you say antiwar I think your talking about Vietnam. Because there was no antiwar in, it was practically non-existent in World War II, It practically non-existent in the Korean War. There was a general unity to support whatever the country was doing.
However with the emergence of the Vietnam War, there was a totally different situation. Circumstances of that made people feel that it wasn't a war it was simply a civil, it wasn't a war that involved us, it was supposed to be a civil war between North and South Vietnam. Which was an artificial creation by the United Nations. I believe it was in 1954 where Vietnam was divided into North and South. The other thing that made it for instance, people really didn't see the Congress declare war. As you probably know we went to war because of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. There were two famous senators Morse and Greeding. Morse of Oregon and Greeding of Alaska who opposed it. And later on we found out that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was a falsehood. But none the less, as I said earlier it was interesting to be a teacher then, because you saw this fight between the Hawks an the Doves. Lyndon Johnson came to the University of Rhode Island during the height of the war. And he spoke to the Quadrangle at URI, but in the back of the Quadrangle were these groups of protesters and "No more escalations," and all the slogans of the day. So it's because there was no clear statement of the purposes of the war. And it was also the fact that too many people were excluded from the war. College students as you may know were excluded form the serving in the war.
Robert Kennedy became famous for many things, but one of the things was telling the students at the University of Indiana that you're a privileged group you're getting deferred when other say working class youngsters are going off to fight what is an unfair war. I don't know if that answers your question because there were so many faces to the antiwar activity. It existed for so prolonged a period. With the invasion of Cambodia, you found a lot more people. The home business of the antiwar activity was a gradual exhilaration of antiwar sentiment until finally with the bombing of Cambodia it crystallized. You had Mike Mansfield leading the United States Senate and others to in this opposition to the war. Tip O'Neil was, became famous for becoming I don't know if you're familiar with Tip O'Neil he's the, he later became Speaker of the House but he was one of the first people in the House of Representatives to assume an antiwar stance. Much to the chagrin of Lyndon Johnson. They were both Democrats but they took opposite views on this. So antiwar you have to talk about the particular year, the particular individuals involved to get some clear picture of what it really was.
CK: Were you involved in any political groups?
JL: Oh, I associated with the Democratic Party throughout my adult life. I used to work for local candidates and work at the polls. I'm currently a member of the Board of Canvases in the town of South Kingstown as a Democrat.
CK: Did you ever fear for your children having to be drafted?
JL: My first three youngsters were girls so my youngsters were young enough not to be affected by it. Unless it went on forever (he chuckles). But I have a son who's a major in the Air Force so.
CK: How do you feel about young people like us still striving to answer questions about American involvement in the Vietnam War, and the whole decade of the 1960's?
JL: Well, you say how do I feel about students. I'm sure if I lined up ten students, I'd get ten different opinions. And maybe nine out of the ten opinions I don't care, I'm living in the 1990's. Let's get on with it. I'm living for the future. I would be surprised if I found a lot of students terribly exercised about the 1960's, I mean that seriously. Because I wouldn't expect them the student of 1998, to be terribly worried about what happened thirty years ago. Not that it's unimportant, no I don't mean it in that sense. Just that they've got their own concerns. It's an interesting period of our history but it's not something that's going to consume most of their energy or attention.
CK: What advice would you give to us?
JL: Oh I don't give advice out. I think I depend upon your own insights. You come to the world having been born in 19 what?
JL: `81, okay. For me to sit down and try to give advice to you would be terrible mistake `cause you have a perception of the world that's far different from me. You have the advantage of youth and the advantage of a new perspective. I don't mean you should be an ingrate of History, I don't mean that at all. I just mean that for me to even think that I have any special wisdom is a mistake. I don't and I don't pretend to have it. But I hope by our conversation today have given a little bit of understanding to that particular part of history. But it shouldn't be a shackle around your leg to hold you back. To say well I have to make amends for the 1960's. No you don't have to make amends for the 1960's. That was that time, as the saying goes and this is now.
CK: That's it. Thank you very much.