SANTA BARBARA -- Outside, it was a typical, if low-key, college reunion: a softball game, a barbecue, the standard jokes about receding hairlines and expanding waistlines.
But inside a theater at UC Santa Barbara, about 100 alumni Saturday paid a more painful homage to their college days. They were among the 16,000 students who over the years have enrolled in Religious Studies 155 -- a wrenching, intense and now-legendary course on the war in Vietnam.
The class -- formally called "The Impact of the Vietnam War on Religion and Culture in America" -- drew as many as 900 students a semester. They stood along the walls and sat in the aisles with their knees drawn to their chins. They wept, they hugged the veterans who came to speak, and some even decided on their life's calling in a class once described by a teaching assistant as "a spiritual roller coaster."
On Saturday, they revisited the class, which is 29 years old and going strong.
The special session was part of a yearlong tribute to teacher Walter Capps, who in 1997 suffered a fatal heart attack 10 months after being elected to Congress. His wife, Lois, a Santa Barbara Democrat, won a special election to succeed him and has been reelected five times.
Veterans who have been class regulars took the microphone one by one. Even those who never knew Capps thanked him.
White-haired Jim Nolan forced back tears when he talked about his experiences as a 20-year-old Marine sniper -- a time he thought he had buried for good before first volunteering to address the class seven years ago.
"You become the kind of person who can kill," he said. "And when you do that, you lose a piece of yourself."
He said it helps to bare his soul yearly to students the same age as those who despised him when he returned from Vietnam.
"I tell my story and they tell me, 'Welcome home,' " he said, his voice cracking. "That's how the healing starts. That's the genius of what Walter started."
Soft-spoken and wry, Capps served as a guide to the tumult of Vietnam without bogging down in politics.
He described himself as a slow-talking Nebraskan whose idea of public speaking was to stare at his shoes. He urged students to visit him at home, where they could pick lemons from his trees and snag one of the scholarly books he had written from a stockpile in the garage. He played his tuba in Santa Barbara's zany parades.
But Capps, while fascinated with religious topics like monasticism, was fiercely engaged in the public arena.
Two years after the fall of Saigon, he organized a scholarly conference on Vietnam. He invited a couple of veterans, including a military psychologist and former infantry lieutenant Fred Downs, a Vietnam land mine survivor who now is chief of prosthetics for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The academics "were condescending and looked upon the vets as victims," he recalled in a 1985 Times interview. "The vets were angry and tired and not sure that they wanted to tell us anything. When they did, they used battle talk and four-letter words with no vis-a-vis and heretofores."
In an interview last week, Lois Capps recalled the incident vividly.
"Downs crashed his hook on the table, uttered an expletive, and said, 'You've got to understand what we went through.' "
Thought to be the first class of its kind in the U.S., Religious Studies 155 was born in 1979 and spawned hundreds of similar efforts on other campuses.
Capps drew luminaries of the Vietnam debate such as George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy. Decorated veterans such as Bob Kerrey and Max Cleland came to speak -- as did conscientious objectors, veterans from both South and North Vietnam, the mother of a soldier missing in action, a potential draftee who fled to Canada, a full spectrum of the era's torment.
When Capps left for Washington, the class was taken over by religion professor Richard Hecht. The veterans kept showing up to speak -- and now are joined by their counterparts who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
On Saturday, Lois Capps decried inadequate health services for troops returning from today's battlefields. Even so, she said, the public no longer perpetuates "the falsehood and tragedy of blaming the warriors for the war."
Clad in a dark suit with combat medals, Wilson Hubbell, a 62-year-old retired transportation planner for Santa Barbara County, said he hasn't forgotten Vietnam's stigma: "There was this stereotype: Did you take drugs? Do you have VD? Were you involved in atrocities?"
Once a year, Hubbell tells Religious Studies 155 about his nightmares, about his close calls, about the time his helicopter, under heavy fire, could not land to rescue men who were dying in its shadow.
Nearly 20 years ago, a student named Paula Oakes was so moved by his story that she sent him an appreciative note.
From her home in San Jose, Oakes said last week that the class had a profound effect on her, convincing her to become a teacher. And she said she'd remember Hubbell's response to her note forever.
He dropped off a framed patch from his Vietnam unit and a note of his of his own: "Thank you for caring."