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Ex-Sen. Hayakawa Dies; Unpredictable Iconoclast : Professor: Semanticist first caught public's attention with his opposition to student radicals at S.F. State.

February 28, 1992|From a Times Staff Writer

S. I. Hayakawa, the renowned semanticist who defied striking student radicals at San Francisco State University in the late 1960s and subsequently was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican, died Thursday. He was 85.

Spokesmen at Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, Calif., said he had been hospitalized with bronchitis, and that he died of a stroke about 1 a.m. He had lived in the nearby town of Mill Valley.

"He was invaluable during some very difficult times--a courageous man of integrity and principle," former President Ronald Reagan said in a statement. "Nancy and I are saddened by the death of our dear friend. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time."

Gov. Pete Wilson described Hayakawa as "a great California iconoclast."

"I was saddened to learn of the passing of my predecessor in the U.S. Senate. Certain images from S.I. Hayakawa's remarkable life will be burned into our memories forever," Wilson said.

Hayakawa, Canadian-born, was 70 when he was elected to the Senate in 1976. At the time he was one of the most popular public figures in the state, a hero to multitudes of Californians outraged by student militants and Vietnam War demonstrators.

Those heroics began Dec. 2, 1968, when Hayakawa, an English professor who had just become acting president of San Francisco State, confronted a howling, jeering mob of striking students.

When he could not make himself heard over a blaring sound truck, Hayakawa leaped to the top of the truck and ripped the wires from the sound system--all recorded on live television.

"It had a lot to do with the media," he said later, "with the fact that television cameras were trained on that sound truck that morning. By noon I was famous. It was fantastic."

The resulting adoration was the genesis of his decision to go into politics. The public was receptive.

With his jaunty, multicolored tam-o'-shanter, his wry and often self-deprecating humor and his penchant for speaking bluntly, Hayakawa was widely perceived as a refreshing change from the run-of-the-mill politician.

Nor did he fit the customary political mold in other ways. He liked to note that he was an avid tap dancer, fencer, jazz buff, gourmet cook and collector of African sculpture and Chinese ceramics.

His appearance also was not of the norm. He was slight of figure, 5-foot-6 in height, wore a trim little mustache and spoke in a voice so soft that he frequently could not be heard even with a loudspeaker.

But people found his breezy irreverence charming.

"I don't give a good goddamn about greyhounds one way or another," he said during his 1976 campaign when asked about a ballot initiative to permit greyhound racing. "I can't think of anything that interests me less."

It was the kind of shoot-from-the-hip remark that could doom some politicians. But Hayakawa, then only three years out of the Democratic Party, beat out three veterans of California Republican campaigns to win the GOP primary.

He then went on to defeat Sen. John V. Tunney, the Democratic incumbent who was seeking a second term, by a narrow margin.

Thus did "Samurai Sam," as he was known when he bested the student radicals, suddenly become "Senator Sam." Those were heady days for the diminutive former educator as he became a national celebrity almost overnight.

But then came stories of some eccentric behavior, notably his habit of dozing in public, including a well-publicized nap at a White House legislative conference. This was not news to Hayakawa's old colleagues in San Francisco. There were numerous newspaper accounts from his San Francisco days of his tendency to nod off at dull faculty meetings.

Hayakawa's tendency to doze was attributed to narcolepsy, a medical condition triggering a frequent and uncontrollable desire for sleep.

But his napping trait was new to the general public, and the consequences were not good. His once towering standing in California opinion polls began plummeting, and old allies began deserting him.

Early in 1982, several months after mounting a bid for reelection, Hayakawa pulled out of the race when polls indicated that he could not be renominated and his efforts to raise campaign funds brought in little money.

It was clearly a bitter denouement for the man who had come to Washington five years earlier eager to translate his conservative beliefs into law. A former Democrat who had cast his first presidential vote for Adlai Stevenson in 1956 after becoming a naturalized citizen, Hayakawa had been warmly embraced by Republican conservatives when he switched parties in 1973.

"I had a feeling of being deserted by the Democrats," he said of his party switch, "particularly when I was speaking for what I thought was a very liberal principle, namely academic freedom."

Although Hayakawa called himself a "Republican unpredictable," he adhered to many conservative tenets.

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