Maverick Chronicles: Bennington break down and the road north

Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series excerpted from“Maverick Chronicles,” a memoir-in-progress by Greg Guma, a longtime Vermont journalist.This is the fourth installment. All of the essays in the series can be found here.

Gifted high school students attended classes on campus. Photo by Greg Guma

Gifted high school students attended classes on campus. Photo by Greg Guma

In what seemed like a brilliant career move at the time, I changed jobs in 1970 – from newspaper reporter to director of Publications and Public Information at one of the most exclusive schools in the country. But Bennington College turned out to be a cauldron for my youthful discontent.

Barely more than a student myself, I came to believe that I had sold out. Creature comforts – a new home, active social life, and private darkroom – could not compensate for the fact that I was basically miserable.

To make matters worse, the college was not the anti-establishment enclave its public image suggested. Rather, it was an academic island with its own hidden hierarchies and pretentious poseurs. It soon felt like my job was to perpetuate an illusion. At the commencement ceremonies in June, I shared my doubts with Kurt Vonnegut, who had been invited to address the graduates. Someday I hoped to be a “serious” writer, I told him, and was worried about becoming a PR flak.

Don’t sweat it, Kurt said. He had done the same thing at General Electric. Even press releases could help a young writer to learn the craft.

Temporarily reassured, I set worries aside for the summer. But once the students returned in September, so did my discomfort. The issue that set it off was a proposal for radical educational reform drafted by some faculty members. They named it “The Plan.”

Arguing that Bennington College’s growth should end, The Plan called for closing the Development Office, electing the president, and creating an organic community in which teacher-students and student-teachers worked together as equals. Of course, the proposed Performing Arts Center on the drawing board for several years would be scrapped. And there would certainly be no need for a job like mine.

Kurt Vonnegut addressed the graduates and provided some advice. Photo by Greg Guma

Kurt Vonnegut addressed the graduates and provided some advice. Photo by Greg Guma

Even then it sounded extreme. Yet it fit in with the overall mood on campuses across the country. Everywhere you went there were groups working and talking about pollution, population, women’s liberation, natural foods, and resisting the draft. You couldn’t visit Bennington College without hearing or seeing phrases like “Man is an endangered species” and “We are all passengers on Spaceship Earth.”

At commencement Vonnegut put it this way: “The majority of people who rule us, who have our money and power, are lawyers or military men. The lawyers want to talk our problems out of existence. The military men want us to find the bad guys and put bullets through their brains. These are not always the best solutions – particularly in the fields of sewage disposal and birth control.”

Confrontation on the campus

In keeping with the urgent times I decided that the next issue of Quadrille, the school’s quarterly journal, should examine what people with power were doing to the environment and our lives. It would also consider some of the alternatives, many of which were being discussed at Bennington and other schools.

When a delegation asked to include The Plan, I eagerly agreed, pending approval by my supervisors, the development director and President Edward J. Bloustein. Both initially seemed unfazed and approved the idea. Bloustein, a legal scholar who bragged that he could not be provoked, said he would write a response. But as the publication date approached Bloustein changed his mind.

“What did he say to you?” one of the plan’s authors asked when I delivered the bad news.

“That he didn’t have time to write a response and we’ll probably have a full airing next spring,” I replied.

“Well, it’s censorship as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “Ed’s been pulling this kind of thing for too long. I think this deserves a galley.”

Decades before the Internet, galleys were the only means of rapid campus communication, basically just mimeographed sheets placed in student and faculty mailboxes. This particular galley turned out to be more like a group demand. Charging the president with censorship, it called on him to reverse his decision and explain himself. At the bottom, I added a brief note that urged further dialogue without taking a side.

"Plaid," print by artist Vincent Longo shown on campus in October 1970.

"Plaid," print by artist Vincent Longo shown on campus in October 1970.

Bloustein shot back with a galley of his own. The magazine was not “a campus journal of any and all opinion,” he announced, and The Plan would not be published because it was “too partisan and too polemical.” It turns out he could be provoked after all.

It didn’t end there. Over the next weeks, other galleys revealed that bonds were quietly being floated to finance new construction and that tuition would increase sharply next year. Apparently, the school would be financing its planned infrastructure expansion for decades. When one of The Plan’s authors received word that his teaching contract was not being renewed, students surrounded the president’s office in protest. Bloustein left through a window and issued another galley.

Once the students were gone for their winter “non-resident term,” I received a pink slip. By then I didn’t care. While shooting photos at a benefit performance in Boston by Bennington alum Carol Channing, I had reached the somewhat deluded conclusion that I was a worthless hack. Returning to Vermont, I vaguely sensed what I needed to do.

On the surface it looked as if I had everything – good job, lovely wife, nice home and promising future. Who in his right mind would throw that away? But apparently I wasn’t in my right mind and something had to give.

A few days later I went to work, strolled into a field, and stayed there for hours, paralyzed and lost. When I finally walked back toward the campus it seemed clear that I couldn’t go home or return to work as usual. The next days passed in a haze; aimless wandering, crashing at night wherever someone would take me in.

For several weeks I hovered on the verge of a serious breakdown.

One day, wandering through the Commons building, I noticed a woman laying out strange-looking cards. When I asked what they were, she said the word Tarot. Judith was an ethereal enigma, smart enough to see that I needed help and compassionate enough to offer a place to stay. Out at her cabin on a dark dirt road, she made it clear that there would be no sex. Instead, she provided tea, a copy of “Steppenwolf,” and Tarot card readings whenever I wanted.

For several years, I had lacked a spiritual compass. Catholicism had not inspired the requisite faith during my teens, and once I stopped going through the motions there seems to be no reason to replace one set of rituals with another. If I had a philosophy of life then, it was some sort of middle-class hedonism, spiced with recreational drugs and black light. As much as I was able, I let that – plus sex and rock music – be my religion.

Administration building at Bennington College in 1970. Photo by Greg Guma

Administration building at Bennington College in 1970. Photo by Greg Guma

But Judith gave me a different lens through which to view reality. Her gentle spiritualism touched my heart and provided a way to see life through the eyes of intuition and cosmic consciousness. Those days in the woods rescued my soul.

Within a few months I won a job with a Department of Labor contractor and became a “manpower” counselor, assigned to build a local office and help high school dropouts find work. Daily contact with poor families, social workers, and local businesses re-grounded me in “normal” life.

Part of the job was meeting regularly with the teens, helping them to talk through problems and plans. It was disheartening to see how little freedom they thought they had, how restricted were their hopes. The young women, some already mothers at 16, mainly wanted to be secretaries. Most of the boys imagined becoming car mechanics. I learned to empathize, to understand how they felt, and sometimes to help.

The challenge also spurred my own recovery. I wasn’t sure what I wanted in the long run, but at least I felt useful and relatively stable. Things were looking up.

Once I showed some talent for counseling and developing a base, the executive director of Champlain Valley Work and Training provided more funding to add an adult program. The task was the same — help the unemployed get jobs and education. By the fall, when I had expanded the project enough to merit an expanded office, The Bennington Banner ran an article.

The following winter I went too far, however, and ran for the local school board while setting up a youth center connected with my job. Both projects hit roadblocks.

Some members of the school board, the local body that had to accept a state grant I obtained to create a vocational training center, wanted the money but not my services. Unless I distanced myself from the program I had developed, they would refuse to accept the funds. The right thing to do, it appeared, was to step down.

Running for office against a conservative mom and a popular local pharmacist named Oakley Frost also turned out to be a mistake. When Election Day rolled around, I was beaten badly.

Fortunately, my boss upstate appreciated what I had accomplished and offered a promotion to research and development director. It meant working mainly in Burlington and St. Albans, but I could commute and there would be an expense account generous enough to lease a car. With a combination of regret and relief I hit the road.

Next: The years of living bureaucratically

Greg Guma

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