#OWS & Muhammad Ali in New Hampshire’s North Country

Heartened to see that the North Country, where I went to Franconia College, has its own Occupy contingent, seen here in a moving video from Mother Jones, filmed in Littleton, near Bethlehem, Sugar Hill, Easton, and Franconia, where my college was located. Such moving statements here, especially by the man who laments the lack of educational opportunity in the region. He mentions Plymouth State as the nearest college, and it’s south of Franconia Notch, 40 miles over the mountains. Lyndonville State College in Vermont is almost as far.

When Franconia College was still hangin’ on, before it folded in January ’78, we started a program called the FRED (Franconia External Degree). It awarded associates’ degrees to people for significant life and work experience–to folks who’d never til then had a shot at any higher education. To draw attention to the FRED, we conferred one on Muhammad Ali and invited him up to receive it. The cool thing was he accepted! We wanted to honor him because of the persecution he’d endured, being prosecuted for claiming conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, losing his title, being condescended to by columnists like Dick Young in the New York Daily News. He came up to the College in October  ’77, as I remember it. Biggest thrill of my life to that point, along with meeting Neil Young in 1969, was meeting Ali that day. He’d driven up the night before from New Haven, where he resided then, came with 20-30 people on a bus he drove himself. There were women, other big men, and kids who hung off him like he was the Pied Piper. It felt very much like a large extended family. Shaking his hand was something else–like shaking hands with a pillow–his hand was so big and soft, it enveloped mine. He was very gentle and spoke in a sweet, high voice. I gave a speech that day, and can still see Muhammad up on the riser with me and others. In my address I thanked him for coming all the way up from New Haven to join us. His visit made newspapers the next day, via this AP dispatch * that ran nationally.

Muhammad Ali with Erin, daughter of FC student B Elwin Sherman. (thanks to BES for use of both these pictures)

Erin climbed on Ali’s lap during the commencement.

Franconia College was an avowedly experimental institution and one thing we had were student members on the Board of Trustees. I was one of them. At this point in the late 70s, the Board was far along in aligning the College formally with the fledgling Elderhostel program. Like FRED, this initiative was designed so students of a wide age divide and diverse background could have access to higher degrees, and to create the opportunity for students in their 20s to mix with those in their 50s, 60s, 70s, all being in classes and on campus together. This would have been a true union of the Sixties’ promise of experimental education coupled with lunch-bucket commonsense equal opportunity.

So College staff had written a grant application to the Dept. of Aging in the old federal cabinet department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) for funds to support the joint program; we’d received verbal assurance from people in the Carter Administration that they wanted to fund it. Alas, it was not to be. The Manchester Union-Leader, whose arch-conservative publisher William Loeb** had always despised the ‘hippie college in the White Mts.’ printed a false story about the grant. It was during the long winter break at the beginning of 1978. The campus was empty as classes wouldn’t resume until late January, and I was back at my family home in Cleveland. In December, our enrollment, always so low as to imperil the College’s solvency, was even lower than usual, but we believed the infusion of new students in the coming spring was going to insure the College’s future. However, the same newspaper that had torpedoed Edmund Muskie’s presidential candidacy in 1972 somehow reported that our grant was a ruse to fund a sham program, that it would go right into our general fund. (We never did learn how the newspaper even learned about our grant application, though somewhat wiser now in the ways of Washington, I suspect a Republican holdover from the Nixon or Ford administration who shared Loeb’s resentment of the College.) The story painted a dark picture of a scheme that would divert money into the College’s general fund, with no noble program being mounted.  The Carter administration backed away, the grant died, and the college never reopened for its next term.Ali at FC

Given Franconia College’s perennially parlous state, we might have folded later anyhow, though I’ve always thought the College would finally have reached stability. Seeing this video from Littleton, it saddens me to think how Franconia College could have really become an educational force in the North Country. All this is a testament to why we need a movement like #OWS more than ever.

* The picture of Ali ran with the AP story linked to above. It reports that Dr Kenneth Clarke, an  eminent sociologist of African-American life, also got an honorary degree that day. I learned at the time that Clarke had had a key role in swaying the US Supreme Court to make the Brown v. Board of Education ruling they did, integrating schools, in 1954.

** Loeb was a full-blown renegade, and also pretty careless about printing potentially libelous material. At this time in the late 70s he’d had so many lawsuits filed against him in the state of New Hampshire that he was compelled to live across the border in Massachusetts. If he crossed the state line, he’d invariably be served with liens and summonses to appear in court.