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Obituaries

Tom Bates; Professor and Journalist

December 20, 1999|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tom Bates, history professor and journalist who chronicled the 1970 fatal bombing at the University of Wisconsin in his book "Rads," which may become a motion picture, has died. He was 55.

Bates, a former senior editor of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, died Thursday in Portland, Ore., of pancreatic cancer.

In his 1992 book, "Rads: The 1970 Bombing of the Army Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin and Its Aftermath," Bates wrote about history as he had experienced it. He was on the Wisconsin campus as a graduate student at the time of the bombing, and two years later would be fired from his first teaching position for protesting the Vietnam War.

The book details events and politics of the 1960s leading up to the bombing, which killed a young postdoctoral researcher and caused $6 million in damage to 26 campus buildings. Three men, Karl and Dwight Armstrong and David Fine, were captured and served prison sentences. The fourth, Leo Burt, has not been seen in 29 years.

A Times book reviewer, Elinor Langer, concluded that Bates' book was "a braided narrative that is part biography and part true crime." Among generally favorable reviews, another newspaper said Bates "tries to make sense of what in retrospect seems an act of political idiocy and self-destruction."

In 1996, as reported in Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, Turner Pictures hired John Lee Hancock to write and direct a film based on Bates' nonfiction book, with Mark Johnson as producer. Plans were to focus much of the film on Karl Armstrong.

But in the mid-1990s, Bates himself, then a reporter for the Portland Oregonian, seemed more interested in the missing bomber, Burt. He wrote an article in December 1995, circulated by several media, suggesting that Burt was the Unabomber, because of similar handwriting and Burt's likeness to police sketches of the then unidentified Unabomber. Burt for a time was on the FBI's list of Unabomber suspects--a lead that proved incorrect with the arrest and conviction of Theodore Kaczynski.

Born in La Jolla, Bates earned a bachelor's degree in Italian history at the University of Oregon and went on to earn master's and doctoral degrees in history at the University of Wisconsin. He also held both Ford Foundation and Fulbright fellowships.

Bates began teaching history at the University of Ohio at Athens in 1971. But on May 9, 1972, he and his wife, Eloise, were among 75 people arrested for protesting the Navy's mining of Hai Phong Harbor in North Vietnam. The university fired Bates, and the Ohio Legislature banned him from teaching at any public college in the state.

Bates later taught briefly at the University of Wisconsin.

He was editor in chief of the now-defunct Oregon Magazine from 1974 to 1979, and spent the 1980s in Los Angeles, successively as senior editor of New West magazine, executive editor of California magazine, and senior editor and writer for The Times' Sunday Magazine.

Bates is survived by his wife of 30 years; three children; his parents, John and Patricia Bates; two brothers, and two sisters.

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