AFTER VIETNAM WAR, NOTHING EVER SAME
By JIM KEVLIN•allotsego.com
Edition of Thursday-Friday, Nov. 13-14, 2014
The worst came after Kent State, where Ohio National Guardsmen shot and killed four college students and wounded nine others when a May 4, 1970, protest against the Vietnam War turned violent.
The next day, the SUNY Oneonta campus erupted, as did campuses across the nation. “Twenty-five to 30 of our kids went up for the demonstration,” recalled William “Bud” Pirone, then an Oneonta High School history teacher (later a revered principal). Then, when the campus was shut down, “a few thousand college students came down and marched around the school,” located just down Bugbee Road and across East Street.
“Our students were very anxious about that. They were pretty upset,” Pirone said. But he closed the curtains on his ground-level classroom and soldiered on. Only about 5-10 OHS students overall slipped out of class to join the demonstrators. Still, “it led to loud and sometimes very unpleasant discussions in our classroom,” he said.
That stormy era a half-century ago is again on some local minds. For one thing, this is the 50th anniversary of the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
For another, Gene Schmidt, OHS ’66, a Marine now living in Unadilla, has started a fund drive to set up a granite monument among the cluster of monuments at the end of Veterans Memorial Walkway in Neahwa Park. The marker will memorialize nine of his schoolmates who died in that conflict. Fought on the other side of the globe, it changed our society in ways still felt today.
“People, until the Vietnam War – one of the watershed events of my life – took the government’s statements at face value,” said Pirone, interviewed in the book-lined study of his Otsego Street home. “I credit the Vietnam War with bringing down all the old symbols of authority. It happened in schools.”
At first, people, young and old, accepted the assessment of the nation’s leaders that Vietnam was necessary to “contain” international Communism. “As the war went on and the death toll mounted, attitudes began to crystallize and harden,” he said.
As did in thousands of towns, big and small, across the U.S., that struggle – between the old verities and the new conflicting reality – played out in the halls of OHS, which in 1964 had moved from the old high school on Academy Street, across from the Armory, to a low-slung modern building on 150 acres at the edge of the city.
To address the new ferment, OHS’ then-principal Charles Belden – Mr. Belden, Pirone calls him, “a very private man in a very public job” – began convening Library Assemblies in 1969, the school’s 100th anniversary. The forums sought to air the pros and cons of the conflict. Anti-war exponents were easy to find; few pro-war voices were willing to speak, although Tom Conway, a career officer who had fought in World War II and Korea, and joined OHS’ teaching staff after retiring, took on the challenge.
By then, the Vietnam War had become personal to many, beginning with Robert M. Dwyer, an OHS student whose family had moved to Troy before his graduation. He had joined the Marines and, on May 23, 1967, he stepped on a land mine in Quang Nam, South Vietnam, and was killed. He was to be the first of the nine OHS students sacrificed to the war.
Bud Pirone knew them; back then, OHS was bigger, 850 students, but still small enough that teachers could know all the students. Art Elmandorf, “a very nice young man” whose family had lived on Hunt Street, around the corner from Otsego Street, in a small community of black residents, moved to New York City before he could complete OHS. Art delivered the Binghamton Press, then Oneonta’s evening paper, and the two would exchange pleasantries when the newsboy made his daily rounds.
He coached Bill Jones at tennis. Jones, a Marine, died in an accident in Quang Tri on Feb. 25, 1969, the sixth OHS students killed there. Rich Kohland’s sister was in Pirone’s history class. Also a Marine, he died on Nov. 10, 1967, in Quang Nam, the first OHS graduate to die in the war. “There are people who remember all of them,” said Pirone, “sadly and fondly.”
Pirone, born in Oneonta in 1939, was a baby during WWII. For him, Vietnam was the major transitional event of his life. His biggest concern in high school: “Would we beat Norwich at football?” In 1955, they did, for the first time in years.
Now, the 1960s generation was in an uproar. For the first time, the drug culture was born, a scourge still with us today.