To the Class of 2020:
I doubt this is the way that you expected your senior year to end at SSU! All that hard work, all that anticipation of a celebratory end is now seemingly dashed by things out of your control. Some of you have a profound feeling of loss and being cheated. I get it. I was there once! My career at SSC (it was a state college then, not the university that it is today) spanned from 1966 to 1970. These were exciting and scary times to be a person coming of age in America. In 1968, spring semester, I remember a professor of Middle East History telling us that we were to do a paper documenting everything that had happened since the beginning of the year. This paper would substitute for a paper on Middle East History that we had been assigned. He told us that we would thank him later because we were living through such extraordinary times that were unlikely to ever be matched. He was right, and you are there now!
To give you some background, from 1968 through 1970, an incredible array of events happened that stunned the world. On January 30, 1968, the Vietcong launched the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War. It lasted through September of 1968 costing the lives of some 50,000 people from both sides. Fundamentally, it permanently changed the perception of the war in America. This was the turning point in public opinion on the war that would prevail going forward. Protests became larger and more violent. Poll after poll showed that the American people were tiring of the war and its casualties, and they had lost trust in our government.
On March 31, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not be a candidate for reelection in 1968 in order to spend his time and energy on the war. On April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Tennessee. Rioting broke out all over the country in response to his murder. My last final exam that spring was on June 5, 1968. It also happened to be the date of the presidential primary in California that most of us were following closely. Since Johnson wasn’t running for reelection, there were several anti-war candidates who captured the imagination of young people at the time. By June, most of my friends and I had coalesced behind Robert Kennedy. I woke up the next morning to find out that he had won the California primary, hence the likely candidate from the Democratic party for president and at the same time was informed that he had been assassinated shortly after giving his victory speech. It was about this time that I felt my innocence evaporating. That November, Richard Nixon was elected, and the war continued.
That summer we all learned that the Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia, significantly increasing world tension and heating up the cold war. The world that I was soon to enter was exploding all around us. I went to my first anti-war demonstration on Boston Common in late 1969. The conflict between college students and many older adults escalated. Some cars bore peace symbol stickers while others were emblazoned with American flag decals that read “America Love it or leave it.” The lines were drawn and it got nasty, not unlike what you see today. We limped into a new decade – 1970.
On May 4, 1970, a riot at Kent State University in Ohio resulted in the death of four students, two involved in the confrontation with the National Guard and two simply walking to class and killed by stray bullets. That spring, student protests shut down colleges and universities including Salem State and classes were never reopened.
Back then, spring semester ended in early June so we lost a month of school, no final exams, and negotiations resulted in students either accepting the grade that they had prior to the college shutting down or taking a final exam that would be averaged into their grade. We had a graduation ceremony, replete with arm bands and raised fists and off we went into the “real world.”
Fifty years later as I reflect on the past and compare my experience to yours, I hope that your life is as full and rewarding as mine has become. I am increasingly grateful for that professor who tasked us with writing about the history we were living. I invite you to do the same as you are completing college at a time that will be talked about for generations to come. Much of who I am was formed during those turbulent times, as yours will be by what is going on now. Salem State opened my eyes to what was really going on in the world - I came of age, grew up, learned to stand up for what I believed in and was well-prepared for the best profession for me that I could have hoped for. It wasn't a job, it was my life.
Your graduation year is my 50th college reunion. You had looked forward to celebrating with your classmates as I had looked forward to celebrating with mine. Like me, you are now no stranger to commencement season not going as planned. Like me, you will get through these turbulent times. And, like me, you will be stronger because of it and will have wisdom to share with the next generation. On behalf of the class of 1970: congratulations, and best of luck!
Bob Kostka ‘70
Along with being a proud member of the class of 1970, Bob enjoyed a career as a social studies teacher and department head at Bridgewater-Raynham Regional High School for 40 years and is finishing up his 10th year as an adjunct professor at Bridgewater State University. In addition, he currently is serving as the Water Commission in his hometown of Kingston, Mass.