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UCI's First Graduates Had Class

August 17, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

UC Irvine's first four-year graduating class will meet on the campus this weekend to celebrate its first reunion and 20th anniversary. When I read Herman Wong's fine, thoughtful piece on this upcoming event in the Aug. 3 Orange County Life, it evoked a lot of vivid memories. I was there. And Diana Janas--one of the three members of that class on whom Wong focused in his story--was one of my first students. And one of the best.

For two decades, now, Diana and I have crossed paths in Orange County once every three years or so. On the street. In restaurants. At social functions. We always embrace, talk rapidly for three minutes, then part with vows to get together for lunch. It hasn't happened yet, but I've never doubted that it will.

I have a very special feeling for the students of that period, a feeling that was increasingly more difficult to come by with new students over the years as both the students and I changed. Without question, that erosion hastened my retirement from teaching. The old spark was no longer there.

I stay in touch, in a cosmic sort of way, with many of those early students who surface periodically--often from far places--to report in, then disappear again. Two stalwarts who haven't disappeared are David Kidd, who runs a marketing and public relations firm in Irvine, and Stephen Silverman, a converted New Yorker who called last week from Los Angeles, where he is creating the prototype for a new Hollywood magazine. Then he'll return to New York to raise money for a Broadway show he has written about Amos 'n' Andy, having won the rights on appeal after a three-year court battle with CBS. Although he reminds me periodically that I gave him a B+, one of many examples of myopia on my part, Steve has shown his gratitude in many tangible ways over the years.

Whether or not the early students with whom I have lost touch are as successful as these three (Diana Janas has her own communications consulting firm), I'd be willing to bet that whatever they're doing, they aren't dull. They seldom were, and I suspect that hasn't changed. Wong's story included a quote from former UCI Chancellor Dan Aldrich that caught this vitality in a single pungent sentence. Aldrich said these early students were "at times confrontational and abrasive about social change, and they did not always show how the corrections could be achieved, (but they) had the courage to speak out, to focus on the inequities of our society and to challenge the traditional organizations."

That they did. It was difficult in later years--as students became steadily more earnest and, I'm afraid, less interesting--not to impart heroic qualities to students of the '60s that they probably didn't have. But they did care about the society in which they lived. They rode freedom buses in Mississippi in peril of their lives. They swarmed into the Peace Corps and into teaching. They fought for the 18-year-old vote and equality for women. And they raised hell about a war in Vietnam in which we had no business and which sundered this nation in ways that may never be healed.

But they also loved the sound of their own voices and were frequently longer on rhetoric than they were on either reason or action. Many of UCI's student journalists of that day have gone on to fine careers in the field, but the campus newspaper then was a shrill voice of advocacy that respected news only if it suited the ends of the people running it. And I remember the disillusionment I felt when the Vietnam demonstrations stopped almost instantly after the draft was suspended and students were no longer in jeopardy of being conscripted.

But, by God, those young people were exciting. Many of them--those who simply couldn't find a way of hooking onto the Establishment--became lost souls in the post-Vietnam period when both the country and the campus turned conservative. They would stop by my office in their torn jeans and long hair and talk plaintively about a world in which material values had taken such total precedence that they could find no place to put down. One young woman who had renounced a rich and ultraconservative family told me she had just spent a weekend on the campus at UC Santa Barbara trying to get signatures on petitions for the 18-year-old vote and none of the students showed the slightest interest. She was defeated and despairing.

I frequently felt that way in the classroom. A Doonesbury strip of a few years ago caught this feeling quite accurately. It showed a college professor lecturing while his students had their heads buried in note pads, writing furiously. He got increasingly irritated and began saying wilder and wilder things, and they wrote obediently. No one challenged anything he said.

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