Secret Service Investigated Pistol-packing Yearbook Editor

     Our class of 1970 started at Northeastern in September 1965. On Day 1, I was almost struck by a trolley going too fast (not wanting to stop for the throng at NU looking to go downtown) and me not paying attention (small-town boy). Class years ended in June 1970 in a fanfare-free stumble to graduation amid a nationwide campus moratorium. From my perspective, not a lot of pomp nor circumstance.

     By graduation, I had worked full time at my co-op job (crime and general assignment reporter at The Patriot Ledger newspaper in Quincy, Mass., even during my class-time trimesters), made the Dean’s List, got married in my junior year and made the rank of major in the ROTC contingent … and survived the ’60s.

     My co-op coordinator, Harvey Vetstein, placed me at the newspaper at the end of my science-laden, pre-med, pre-dental, whatever freshman year in June 1966. One week, I’m prepping for finals; two weeks later, I’m an intern reporter; two weeks after that, I got my first byline; and four weeks after that I had my first national story on the “CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite.” Not bad for fibbing my way into a job by saying I could type and that I’d had some high school newspaper experience. Years later, I confessed all that to the editor of the paper, who confessed in turn that he and others in management knew it at the time but were impressed with the audacity that they thought would hold me in good stead as a reporter (nowadays called “journalist”). Apparently, he was right.

     Over the years, I had my fingers on a lot of national stories. The Richard Speck mass murder of nine Chicago nurses. Coverage of the Roxbury, Mass., riots in 1967, and a violent ambush while riding in a news photographer’s car in Providence after a wrong turn took us smack into a gang of several hundred youths in “the projects” while covering civil disturbances in the wake of the assassination of Dr.  Martin Luther King Jr. 

     That one nearly got me killed by two bricks: one through the front windshield and the other through the passenger window. I got glass in my face plus a Page One byline and national pickup of the story by The Associated Press. 

     Then there was coverage of the Irish-Italian mob wars. Armored car holdups and homicides. For decades, I had no real appreciation for the historic adventures the paper sent me on. I was 18, 19, 20, just doing a job.

     One day right after New Year’s in 1969 and after working an overtime shift on a Saturday morning at the Ledger, I got a call from the managing editor who asked me to relieve a reporter from an outlying office who was covering a Black Panther takeover and sit-in of an administration building at Brandeis University. Married for all of six weeks, I realized the seriousness and danger when I got to the building and the door was opened ever-so-slightly by one of the senior-ranking Black Panther occupiers. As I entered, the reporter I was relieving and I passed one another through that door literally belly-to-belly, and I heard something along the lines of: “Good luck. Be careful.” All went well, ultimately, and the Panthers were happy to fill me in.

     Then there was the time I was called to spell another reporter one very, very cold February night. Because of my aggressiveness in getting a story, so many times I’d wind up at the scene of a crime before the police. At that point, several departments suggested I apply for a pistol permit, not so much as to protect myself, but so the police would not have to protect or save me. Thus, on that 16-degree midnight, with my antique police .38 revolver (a hand-me-down from family members who had been in law enforcement) and my race-equipped ’62 Chevrolet Bel Air, I crept up the driveway of a secure mental institution to cover the escape of the Boston Strangler.

     Then there was a Monday morning when two of my lifelong college friends and I secured the very back row of a lecture hall for some liberal arts class, each of us having worked the weekend as crime reporters. Each of us wore a jacket and tie and carried a briefcase, a pack of cigarettes (you could smoke in class back then) and a lot of coffee to overcome the newsroom night shift thousand-yard stare. 

     Keep in mind that what comes next is funny, perfectly legal and, back then, somewhat of a job requirement. I opened my briefcase, revealing my .38. My pal next to me — he went on to become a prominent managing editor for a Pulitzer Prize-winning daily — laughed out loud as he opened his case to reveal his own personal backup. Our third Musketeer (pun intended) — he was wounded in Vietnam, became a decorated Army officer and subsequently a Connecticut state trooper — exploded with laughter as he opened his case to reveal a snub-nose .38 detective’s revolver. 

     When a somewhat annoyed professor asked what was so funny, I think it was me who responded with some gibberish that made the incident go away. What does one say?

     Somewhere during all of this, we did have classes. In 1965, I had been failing freshman English in my first term, and no one could figure it out. High SAT scores. Advanced, college level English in high school. So, NU, to its credit, not wanting student failure, had me take some kind if competency test, the results of which I was told were the highest in the history of NU. I found out later in the term it all had to do with my success with the girls in my class, far greater than that of our teaching assistant who had been taking it out on me. I was told there was no way to overcome the existing failure and was advised that I could expect no more nor less than a C+ to compensate. When our regular prof returned in January, my grades rocketed. Go figure.  

     The newspaper gig was some co-op job. Either professor Vetstein saw something in me or he was lucky — and also lucky to fill a six-month job slot at the last minute — when he sent me out on that interview. I like to think that he knew what he was doing and that I got lucky. If I did not thank you then, I’ll do that now.

     I was fortunate to be named editor of the 1970 Cauldron yearbook. It was the 50th anniversary of the publication, and it meant a scholarship for my final term at NU at a time when it was needed most. Senior year. Little to no money. Problem solved.

     What comes next should come as a surprise to all but a very few on campus. I did not find out until months after graduation.

     In a show of naïveté, I sent a personal letter, as Cauldron editor, to the president of the United States, Richard M. Nixon. Why not? What could it hurt? I asked for a simple “congratulations and good luck” letter, something as a class keepsake, even though it probably would be written by an intern and signed by a machine. What I got were two things. First, immediately and in time for the yearbook deadline, there was a poor, platitudinous letter from an undersecretary of education that, frankly, didn’t make a lot of sense, so I did not use it in the yearbook.

     Most interesting and many months later, I was having coffee on campus with a dean with whom I had become friendly as an undergrad. He suddenly got quiet and very serious. Turns out that not only did I get that meaningless letter, I also had been investigated on campus for most of a week in late ’69 by the Secret Service for potential subversive activities at the behest of a paranoid Oval Office. Ironically, I did get commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve, and my commission documents were (machine) signed by President Nixon.  

     In that same conversation came another revelation of late ’60s campus paranoia. I was told that not only did NU’s then-president, Asa Knowles, have a bodyguard, but he also carried a handgun on campus.

All Hail!