|The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968
Linda Wood, Librarian, South Kingstown High School
The whole world was watching, and I was watching on television the turmoil at the Democratic National Convention. I was confused and angry. At the beginning of the year, I had been so hopeful that things were going to change for the better and now everything, including my hopes, were crumbling inside and outside the Convention Hall. Inside I watched reporters, delegates, Senators and Representatives of the United States government get shoved around. Outside I watched more reporters, some delegates, and many, many young people, middle aged people, old people, black and white get shoved around, beaten, chased and arrested. It was chaos on the streets, and chaos inside the hall.
Marsha Aaronson said, "The crowd outside was chanting, `The whole world is watching!' as the Chicago police were clubbing and beating them, most of whom were young anti-war demonstrators, college students about my age." Governor J. Joseph Garrahy, head of the Kennedy delegation from Rhode Island, said, "I was sick. I just left and came home."
Capturing these moments of history in the making through tape recorded interviews is the purpose of oral history. In this classroom oral history project 20 sophomore students interviewed 30 Rhode Island men and women about their experiences, memories and recollections of the tumultuous events of the year
1968. Together, the students and the narrators, constructed a unique document, a record of the past as remembered in the present.
Students who might find history a boring collection of facts are turned on by their direct involvement in the stories of people who were there as events occurred. Oral history is an example of the best kind of learning because it actively engages the students, using their natural curiosity about other people to provide an emotional context too often missing from textbook lessons.
These tenth graders were expecting a typical English class, Intermediate Writing, which included a unit on "communication skills" usually taught as a speech unit. On the second day of classes of the spring semester of 1998, I visited the class and outlined the project, relating some of my own personal memories and those of my husband, interviewed later in the project, about the events of 1968. They listened but I could see they were perplexed. Wasn't this an English class not a history class? Sharon Schmid, the teacher, explained how the literature they would read fit into the themes the project would focus on: Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, the protest movement, the peace movement, women's rights, politics, and popular culture. They began to look more at ease. We explained how the interview skills were communication skills but in a real life situation rather than an isolated classroom. We talked about the guest speakers we would invite and the films we would watch. We talked about the role two university professors would play in the project. The students began to perk up -- this was going to be something special. They had been singled out to do something that would result in the making of history.
Here's what the students did. Brian Fish went to Governor J. Joseph Garrahy's home in Narragansett and with remarkable self-assurance interviewed the former Governor, who in 1968 was Lieutenant Governor and headed the Robert Kennedy Delegation to the Chicago Convention. Marsha Aaronson, who just happened to find her way into the Democratic National Convention by luck and chance, was interviewed by Erin Barry.
Carly Long and Michaela Bell went to an 8 a.m. interview with Brown University President, Gordon Gee during their Spring vacation. Pat McGrath and Kyle Convey interviewed the present Governor of Rhode Island, Lincoln Almond, in front of their classmates, the Governor's staff and several guests, never missing a beat. Emily Caldarelli went to the home of John O'Malley, a teacher whose children she had baby-sat and conducted an interview while his kids played and laughed nearby. Cayce Kenny interviewed a retired South Kingstown teacher, long active in Democratic politics.
Keith Traver went to the local newspaper and interviewed Rick Wilson, the publisher, about his harrowing Vietnam experiences as a helicopter pilot. Pat McGrath and Brian Fish were driven to the farthest reaches of rural Rhode Island to interview Marj Dutilly who had been a nurse in Vietnam and then whose life had fallen apart. They witnessed the rebirth of a woman through her religion.
Dan Paster, Sheila Nippo, Kyle Conley and Becky Dangelo went to the city to interview Cleveland Kurtz, Fred Williamson, Naomi Craig and Rhett Jones about their personal experiences with racism and their involvement with the Civil Rights Movement, an assignment which took all their ingenuity and imagination to try to put themselves in the narrators' place and understand from their hearts what was being said.
Two perspectives on Civil Rights issues were heard when Will Thomas, Cayce Kenny, Keith Traver and Becky Dangelo interviewed Isadore Ramos and former Providence police officer, now a US Marshall, John Leyden about their memories of events in South Providence during 1968. When Isadore Ramos' brother, Tony, spoke to the class about his experiences as a draft resister who was arrested and spent two years in jail, Stefanie Wyss wrote his story from the transcript of his talk as an extra credit project.
Danielle Savastano, a young woman who was eager to learn, interviewed Bob Kerr, a columnist with the Providence Journal about his poignant and powerful memories of Vietnam. As his story unwound she found herself able to handle it, encourage him, and even to comfort him. Matt Olivier spoke with Dan Prentiss, a student at Brown who became more involved with radical politics during 1968. Stefanie Wyss and Danielle Savastano interviewed Katherine Spoehr, a Brown student active in the social movements of 1968 who spoke of the optimism and then the disappointments of 1968. As she wept at the memories, the young women were able to assure her of the importance of her story.
When Aaron Keegan interviewed my husband about his memories as an former Marine who became an AP reporter in 1968 in Indianapolis, I discovered things I had never known about his experiences more than 30 years before. Col. William Babcock was invited to speak to the class about his Vietnam tour of duty. As he showed slides and described the events, his voice cracked and he had to stop to collect himself. Later when Stefanie Wyss interviewed him his voice was crisp, dry and matter of fact as if he were holding back a hundred emotions.
Students Carly Long, Brian Fish and Sheila Nippo, and Will Thomas learned of the many facets of the Vietnam war policy, conservative, liberal and all parts in between, as reflected in the interviews conducted of veterans Ted Gatchel, Michael Kaprielian, and Glen Rolofson.
Chris Chapin and Michaela Bell interviewed Agnes Doody and Deborah Brayton, two women from different generations, who spoke equally passionately about women's issues. Ashley Johnson and Jamie Gorman interviewed Rev. Edmund Fetter and Prof. Frank Costigliola about the student movement of the sixties, one from the perspective of a man ministering to the youth as they tried to face and change the forces that were affecting them, the other from the perspective of a student battling against those forces. Lawyer Seth Gifford, interviewed by Chris Chapin, remembered the student protests, and his involvement defending students who resisted the draft. Two of the most poignant narrators were Porter Halyburton, a POW for seven years in North Vietnam, and his wife Marty, who thought she was a widow for over a year. Two teams of students, Aaron Keegan and Erin Barry, and Emily Caldarelli and Sheila Nippo specially prepared interview questions to reflect the unique experiences of these narrators.
When Dan Paster went to Japan for the last two months of the semester, he took it upon himself to conduct an interview there. With the help of his family, he located a Vietnamese who recalled experiences during the war from the other side of the c.
Evaluating the semester project, the students recalled they had been reluctant at the start but as they began to read more, learn more and conduct interviews, they got very involved with the narrators' stories and how they both reflected the news events and shed new light on the events as they remembered them through memories thirty years later. The students overwhelmingly loved interviewing ("except for transcribing"), and with the hindsight of youth said they wished they had learned more about the history before they went to the interviews. (We tried to tell them!)
Friendships were made between students and narrators that will be carried on for years, and the history assembled will last forever. Copies of the publication can be purchased from the Rhode Island Historical Society, 110 Benevolent St., Providence, RI. 02906.