Suppose they gave a war and nobody came...

I decided to write this page in response to the notion held by some out there that the Vietnam War played a central role in the history of the college and somehow contributed to its closing. Simply put the only the only role the war had in the college's history was that it was largely concurrent with it.

When I arrived there in January 1973 it was more to the strains of Carly Simon's hit of the day "You're so vain" rather than some pent-up political undercurrents regarding the war which was pretty much wound down at the time and was basically a non-issue everywhere including the college. Large scale conscription had ended several years previously and the college generally had it's tack drawn into the naiscent 70's era. Liesure suits and mechanical bulls were still a few years off but the college generally reflected the time it found itself in. Interest in current affairs was not a hallmark of the times apart from some taking amusement in reading the late William Loeb's pronouncements in the Manchester Union-Leader, a copy of which was always laying about somewhere. It's not to say that political causes were completely absent from the college, but the Vietnam War was not one of them nor was it ever. In these times, prisons and attemps to bring about their reform was the cause undertook by a small number of students and faculty. This had its start in the notorious Attica prison riots of a few years previous which had launched a movement to seek reform of these concrete and steel dungeons where prisoners suffered the brutality and deprevation of correctional systems whose main purpose was to warehouse people at the lowest cost possible.

Franconia College's role in the prison reform movement had its roots in the arrival on campus of Gene Mason who arrived at Franconia after a stint in Kentucky's medium security prison at LaGrange. Gene Mason was a friendly West Texan with an accent to match who studied political science, and garnered a Ph.D in the subject from the University of Kansas. He eventually found himself on the faculty at the University of Kentucky at Lexington where he decided to take a run for congress against the crusty incumbant of the day. To make a long story short, he found himself in big trouble for daring to challenge the incumbant and found himself in jail on trumped-up charges for "knowingly receiving stolen property" involving a typewriter supposedly stolen from the IBM typewriter factory in Lexington. Mason found himself basically "persona non grata" in Kentucky and Leon Botstein invited him to join the Franconia faculty in the safe haven of New Hampshire. Given his rather absurd experiences with the criminal justice system, it only seemed natural to adopt the cause of its reform. He was tireless in this effort and this inspired many of his students including this writer to join him in his efforts. This resulted in the publication on campus of a monthly tabloid newspaper of which 5,000 copies were distributed each month primarily to prison inmates in the Northeast. There were less than a dozen students involved in this, but it became a passion for many and countless hours were spent in a small windowless room in the basement of the main building typing copy and making artwork for each issue which this writer photographed on a process camera in the college's print shop and hand-echted the negatives over a light table before delivering them to a printer in Bradford, VT. It became a labour of love and all of us were tireless in making sure the copy got out in time. In my opinion, it was in providing these experiences where Franconia was truely unique amoungst institutions of higher learning.

All this came to an end when Leon Botstein left to assume the presidency of Bard College in 1975. Gene Mason followed Botstein to Bard and the prison reform movement left Franconia as quickly as it had arrived. The college's involvement with prison reform had raised a few eyebrows in Concord, the state's capitol, especially the eyebrows of the arch-conservative governor of the day, Meldrim Thomson. The transplanted Georgian had always cast a suspecting eye towards the college, but never tried to interfere with the day-to-day operation of the place. Franconia's new president, Ira Goldenberg mindful of Thomson's suspicions promptly dispatched a letter to the wily governor stating that Franconia College had thrown the prison reform movement out on its ear. That wasn't the exactly the case, but Goldenberg had a vision to remold the college as a crucible where legions of activist social workers would be trained to uplift the downtrodden masses in the slums of Boston and New Haven. This aim would obviously have to involve public funding so a having a friendly governor would be most helpful.

No, the Vietnam war never had a role in the college's creation or its demise. The war might have helped enrollment during those times when conscription was at an all-time high and student deferments were sought after, but the college had its enrollment peak long after the draft had ceased. Actually, the college had a very diverse student body and opinions over US policy in southeast Asia ran the gamut between taking a very aggressive stance there to having nothing to do with it. But this was never a big issue at Franconia and when Saigon fell in 1975 and the war finally ended, hardly anyone on campus noticed.

The salient issue on campus when the NVA tanks were crashing down the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon was the direction the college was to take in the coming years. Franconia's strengths were in the fine and performing arts and most of the college's students in residence were in the arts. When it became apparent that the fine and performing arts would no longer have much "shelf space" at a Franconia College the way Goldenberg envisioned, residential enrollment declined markedly and they were the ones who paid most of the bills. The college needed a viable residential program to sustain itself and when that was forsaken for off-campus degree programs, the college went insolvant and closed.

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© 1996 All Rights Reserved
Fred Findling
P.O. Box 1099
Crowley, Louisiana 70527