A Youth with Courage

Posted on March 16, 2016 by

This morning’s news immediately triggered a memory that stretches back more than 45 years.

The date was June 7, 1970.  The place was a football field converted for the day into a graduation venue for Niles West High School.  My classmates and I sat near the front of the field and our parents and families sat behind us.  The Chicago area is subject to an occasional early summer heat wave – this sunny day was one of those occasions.

A little background – Niles West was one of those huge suburban public schools (my high school graduation was larger than my graduation from Brandeis).  It drew students from surrounding communities with significant Jewish populations, especially Lincolnwood and Skokie.  Many of its students leaned liberal to far left.  I believe we were the first high school in the US to have a chapter of the radical group SDS (Students for a Democratic Society)… but to be clear we also had a chapter of Young Republicans.

Our Niles West Commencement program – chaos broke out shortly after the choral selection.

Our Niles West Commencement program – chaos broke out shortly after the choral selection.

In order to understand this story, you also need to recall that this was a time when America was deeply divided.  Just a month before graduation, we were all shocked by the shootings of students at Kent State.  In the aftermath it wasn’t just the school radicals who were upset.  A group of the honors students went to the principal’s office to demand that the school’s flag be flown at half-mast.  I think that Dr. Mannos was so surprised to see this normally quiet group of kids in his office that he was compelled to go along.  (This was my first political protest).

By the time of graduation Sunday tensions ran high.  There were two student speakers on the program:  Lee Eiden, the cartoonist for the school paper, who was elected to speak by the student body (undoubtedly expecting him to be funny) and Merrick Garland, the class of ’70 valedictorian.  Lee spoke first.  It turned out he had no intent of being humorous.  He denounced American policy in Vietnam and the institutions that supported that war.  Within a few minutes we could hear rumblings from the parents section of the field.  Then the rumblings became full cat calls – people stood up waving their fists and yellow “No Commies” and “Send Him Back to Russia”.  This was not how any of us pictured our graduation.  Then Dr. Mannos decided to pull the plug on the microphone, cutting off Lee.  Now the students were as angry as the parents.

Into this chaos our 18 year old valedictorian stepped onto the stage.  Even at that young age, Merrick carried himself in a way that commanded respect.  He stepped up to the podium and started by visibly pushing aside his prepared remarks.  As he began to speak the crowd grew quiet.  He launched a defense of freedom of expression and of a society that could accept dissent.  People who moments before had been enraged were left speechless by the maturity of this kid.  Dr. Mannos appeared to hang his head in shame that he had failed to show the leadership that this boy had demonstrated.

My main connection to Merrick Garland was through the 1969-70 Prep Bowl Quiz Team, he was the captain when we won the regional championship, I was a bench warmer!

My main connection to Merrick Garland was through the 1969-70 Prep Bowl Quiz Team, he was the captain when we won the regional championship, I was a bench warmer!

After graduation I turned to my parents and said “someday Merrick is going to be President of the United States.”  Well, Merrick Garland made it to the Rose Garden, maybe not as President, but still displaying the unrivaled courage that I witnessed in his youth.

 

MarvinA blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

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2 Comments

  1. sima scherr says:

    Very interesting and most impressive to read about Merrick Garland at 18 years old…he would most likely be excellent on the Supreme Court.

  2. […] Marvin Pinkert is the executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland. His original piece can be found on the Jewish Museum of Maryland blog here. […]

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