Megan Angelo

No one, it seemed, had ever thought to fight the system before.

Villanovans submitted mandatory chapel hours without a second thought. They were accustomed to the dress code that forced the men to wear ties and jackets to the dining halls. Archaic as they may have been, rules were followed. They were conventional rules for a conventional student body. And then, overnight, everything changed.

The commencement of U.S. involvement in the conflict in Vietnam caused an explosion of youth rebellion all over the country. Though Villanova was quieter than most universities, the campus certainly felt the reverberations, according to Gary Olsen ’74, who now works as the Assistant Vice President for Alumni Affairs at Villanova.

“Villanova was a fairly conservative place where students were told what to do, and, by and large, they did that,” says Olsen, who arrived at Villanova in the fall of 1970, with the war in Vietnam in full progress. Though the bold actions of the government had inspired the student body politically, it also moved them to flaunt traditional Villanova etiquette. “Now, students were smoking cigarettes in class … I think the war provided a jump-off point for rebellion,” Olsen says.

The protesting students’ defiant behavior shocked their parents even more than it jolted the university. Much as it remains today, the student body was comprised mainly of sons and daughters of prim Republican families. More importantly, as Olsen points out, “We came from homes that survived World War II-the prevailing sentiment was that if your country was in a war, you would support that.” Now, for the first time, young Americans were abandoning that approach and discarding their patriotism, fueled by television, which brought images of carnage home daily for the first time in history.

Normal protest activities such as organized rallies and trips to Washington, D.C. marches were popular among Villanovans. Faculty members and students stood side by side frequently during protests. Campus demonstrations were neither as common nor as violent as those at other colleges, Olsen acknowledges.

In fact, he says, the tactic many Villanovans resorted to was to ignore the heated political storm. “We were so removed from it,” he recalls. “Life went on.”

A substantial lack of diversity cocooned the students from reality, Olsen believes. The isolationism was “reflective of the background of people that were here at the time. People tended to see things the same way because they were all coming from very similar backgrounds,” he explains. At the time, the student body was comprised mainly of middle-class, white young men and women from the Northeast as well as a significantly higher number of commuters than found in more recent classes.

Despite his memories of some apathy, one rather incendiary occurrence does stand out in Olsen’s mind. In the spring of 1971, arsonists burned a building on campus to the ground during the night. The Annex, formerly located on the site that the Connelly Center now occupies, once housed several campus activities and served as storage for the university band. No one was hurt in the fire, but the brazen demonstrators – who were never caught – left a lasting impression on the students, administration, and surrounding community.

With the draft constantly looming over Villanova’s young men, fear became the unspoken counterpart to flagrant opposition. “Young men were absolutely terrified of being drafted and going into Vietnam and being killed,” Olsen says. “I don’t know that we would have expressed it that directly at that time, but that was certainly a concern.”

Olsen himself remembers being relieved that his lottery number was securely high, while one of his close friends felt more than a little uneasy upon receiving a dangerously low number. “It all seemed so random,” he remembers, “and in some ways, almost surreal.”

In retrospect, Olsen thinks that one regrettable action of the protestors may have been the slights to the ROTC and NROTC students. With emotions running high, the contingent of military trainees – which was larger than today’s program enrollment – became the campus scapegoat. Unjustly, Olsen recalls, “they became a symbol. They were no different than the other young people here, and I think people lost sight of that.”

The reaction of young Villanovans to the war in Iraq is far different, he claims, because even those who do not agree with the government’s actions are showing support for American troops.

Judgment errors aside, Villanovans of the Vietnam era certainly were not futile in their efforts. Though they may not have been able to thwart a national tragedy, they seized the attention of a university sealed by antiquated etiquette and pushed it closer to reality – as Olsen says, “literally overnight.”

Because of Vietnam, Villanovans found their voices.