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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 28 · Number 4 · Summer 2011

Tuning in, dropping out

A former California Aggie editor recalls when the Free Speech movement shook up campus life — and his college plans.

I left home in Fairfield at age 17 in fall 1962 to attend college 30 minutes up the freeway, which was handy for getting checks from the folks, doing laundry and partying with old high school buddies. But I also liked the bucolic life on the UC campus in Davis, with its lack of constraints in those dorms and an appealing demographic of really cute girls.

For two years, college was OK, jazzed up by a debate class that even traveled to Stanford once, and by some very cool literature and sociology classes. My favorite professor, Edgar Z. Friedenberg, taught courses based on his books, The Vanishing Adolescent and Coming of Age in America, subjects that really fit the great time I was having.

I moved home for the summer of '64 and worked as a reporter at the Fairfield Daily Republic. In August I used some press passes that came in the mail and drove down to the Cow Palace in San Francisco to see the Beatles open their first North American tour. I took a ton of photos and wrote my story for publication the next day. I should be selling those photos on the eBay now, but lost the negatives.

I spent every dime I made at the paper that summer and returned broke to Davis in the fall. The advisers informed me I needed a science credit toward graduation, so I signed up for geology and, after a week, learned there was some science involved and I couldn't really do it. The best news that fall was that I ended up assistant editor of the California Aggie student newspaper.

In October the Free Speech Movement started in Berkeley. A few students in Davis took notice and protested on the Quad. The problem in Berkeley was that some students and their friends were collecting money and making speeches on campus for leftist and civil rights causes and the university shut them down and expelled people. That sparked thousands of students to take up the call.

The main speaker for the students was an articulate firebrand named Mario Savio, who always wore this jacket with sheepskin on the front collar. He soon came up to Davis to speak to the students, and made many good points.

Finally on Dec. 2, a couple thousand students entered Sproul Hall on the Berkeley campus for a "sit-in." I was working every day on the Aggie, avoiding geology class, and keeping a journalistic eye on events. One night a few days before the sit-in, Bob Dylan performed in Sacramento. I didn't go, but that night a guy came over and said Dylan was at a party at an art student's apartment, above the bar on G Street. Her name was Barbara, and she was supposed to be the girl in the song, "Girl from the North Country." It was heady stuff, and all I will say is that Bob and I did not bond, but we may have toked on the same joint. Pretty sure we did.

On to the sit-in . . . I got late word that students were occupying Sproul Hall, so I got into my '59 VW and drove to Berkeley about 1 a.m. Students sat everywhere, and on the second floor I found Joan Baez, playing her guitar. Later, while they arrested 800 students, I drove back to Davis and wrote the story.

Clark Kerr was the UC president and he needed to get these protests under control because they were unraveling the university. He asked the student editors to fly to LA for meetings. Aggie editor Dan Halcomb '66 and I caught a flight the next day. It was my first plane trip, and I remember few details from all the excitement. Soon it was Christmas break and, stunned by these events, I just dropped out of school.

The publisher of the Fairfield paper, a family friend, got word to me that the Placerville paper, The Mountain Democrat, needed a reporter/photographer and that I could have the job for $75 a week. I took it.

After six months in Placerville, I returned to UC Davis in the summer of '65. I took continuous courses for a year and two summers, graduating in December '66. Forty-five years later, I savor the academic knowledge and rich student life UC Davis offered me during both the turbulent times and after my Placerville hiatus, when I happily embraced a refreshed opportunity to complete a B.A. degree.

Photo: author Skip Demuth

Skip Demuth '66 lives on Whidbey Island in Washington state's Puget Sound, where he works as a part-time real estate appraiser. He also has traveled, reported and done some music promotion. This article was adapted from entries on his blog.