Forged by the Fires They Endured: Reflections from the Gonzaga Class of 1968

Much like the Class of 2020, the Class of 1968 graduated from Gonzaga in a time of great uncertainty and change. Although the challenges the two classes faced were different, there are similarities.
Both classes saw the Spring of their senior year disrupted in ways they will never forget. Both classes saw America struggling with and confronting racial inequality. Both classes graduated from the comfort of Eye Street to enter into a world of civil unrest and social upheaval.
We reached out to several members of the Class of 1968 and asked them to share some memories from their senior year—a time in Gonzaga’s history that in many ways reminds us of today.

Former Gonzaga Board Member William Miner ’68 says that the adversity his class endured only made them stronger. And he believes the same will be true for the Class of 2020.

“Most young men think about their Senior Spring in high school as a victory party—a semester full of fond farewells, reflections on past achievements, and optimism for a limitless future. I can hardly imagine that being the case for the Gonzaga Class of 2020. It certainly was not for the Eagles graduating in 1968.

In the Spring of 1968, the plans for graduating with fanfare and stepping forward into a new world of promise were abruptly canceled. The Vietnam War consumed the news and mortally threatened all young men that qualified for the draft. Any deferment for college or otherwise would do. The fear of the draft was even more threatening after the January 1968 Tet Offensive, when the U.S. Embassy in Saigon surrendered, and 70,000 Viet Cong washed across South Vietnam.

More uncertainty was created in March 1968, when President Lyndon Banes Johnson, now weary of the war, announced he would not be running for re-election. This opened the door for President Richard Nixon. We would have to wait until our Freshmen year in college to fully appreciate his audacity.

However, not to worry, Easter was coming with warm weather and Spring colors to boost our spirits. Who would ever imagine that the beacon of social justice, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., would be abruptly gunned down on a Memphis hotel balcony? It was the evening of Thursday April 4, 1968, just one week before Easter break.

For the next month, there was a sickly, furious smoke in the air. Washington, D.C., like nearly every other major city in the U.S., was set ablaze. Driving around with my family to witness my Northeast neighborhood seemed both dangerous and necessary. I remember in that moment how Capitol Hill mirrored the Vietnamese war zone we saw on television each night. Miraculously, Gonzaga High School, St. Al’s, and the McKenna Center remained untouched, protected by Eye Street residents thankful for decades of community service.

Fifty years on, the rest of the timeline becomes a blur. The assassination of Presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy on June 5, 1968 was too much to comprehend, and I cannot remember if I marched out of St Aloysius Church before or after that tragedy. These were indeed trying times with no end in sight. A dark cloud of hopelessness hung over the Summer of 1968, a lot like the cloud over the Summer of 2020.

If hard times make men stronger, the Classes of 1968 and 2020 were forged by the fires they endured. Although we are a half century apart, we share the belief that Black Lives Matter, Climate Change is real, and if we all do our part, COVID-19 will be tamed. Together, we raise our clenched fists in the air to signal our hope for the future. The same way members of the U.S. Olympic Track Team did in October 1968 after winning gold in Mexico City.”

Several members of the Class of ’68 have vivid memories of being at Gonzaga on Friday, April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Michael Dolan ’68 remembers a rare call from his father:

“I remember few details of the first two hours of school but the only talk was of the assassination and its impact; somebody said he had seen smoke coming from Seventh Street NW. In 4B, Jack King skipped the standard yuk-a-minute homeroom monologue. At midmorning, the headmaster’s office summoned me. My father was on the line, Mrs. Joyner said. ‘Find your brothers, take the car, and get home,’ he said.”

Joseph Spaniol ’68 also remembers leaving school early that day:

“During a morning break in classes, I went to the senior smoking lounge for a Kool and some news on the radio.  Others were there listening to WOL or WOOK, and we heard reports about dangerous activity all around us, especially Georgia Avenue and H Street NE. It may be my old imagination, but I remember Stokely Carmichael saying that all white people who didn’t live in the District should get out of town as fast as possible. I didn’t believe then or now that it was a threat. I believe it was a kind of public safety announcement to avoid conflict. That was enough for me. I barged into my brother’s class, in progress, and told whoever was teaching I was taking Bob with me, now.”

Bill Howard ’68 stayed at Gonzaga late that afternoon with his Greek class to watch the Orson Wells adaptation of All the King’s Men:

“After the movie, Mr. Martin, a Jesuit scholastic, told us that there were riots throughout the city, and cautioned us to get home safely and quickly. I offered a ride to several classmates, including Mike deBettencourt and Pete Corrado, both of whom lived in Bethesda. There were others -- maybe John Madigan, maybe Joe Morris -- whom I forget, but my '63 Chevy II station wagon was packed.

When we turned onto North Capitol Street, the scene was eerie; at rush hour, the street and sidewalks should have been congested. They were surprisingly clear. As we traveled north, there really was no evidence of any unrest, until we reached Florida Ave. Looking east and west, there were fires and clouds of black smoke in many places. The traffic lights on North Capitol cooperated, however, and we made it to Missouri Avenue without much stopping. I turned left onto Missouri, and our luck continued, until the light at Missouri and 4th, where those streets converge with New Hampshire and Kennedy. The light turned red. I was second in line. We saw a group of youths walking south on 4th, with the light, when two of them left the line, walked over to the car in front of us and started to hit the driver through his open window.

I asked everyone to roll up their windows and keep quiet. When the light turned green, the crowd got out of the street, the car in front was able to move, and we followed. It was an interesting journey, to say the least.”
Daniel Madzelan ’68 on the drive into school on Monday morning, April 8, 1968;

“Michigan Avenue to 4th Street NE to Lincoln Road seemed pretty normal. We spilled onto North Capitol and everything changed. We stopped at the traffic light at Florida. A half-track parked in the middle of the intersection facing north as if to say, yes, this is a checkpoint. Numerous M38 Jeeps with whip antennas and mounted .50-cals. A soldier posted at the front door of every business. Walter Johnson Liquors on the SW corner had two sentries on duty, as did every liquor store on North Capitol. The military presence was highly evident and in-your-face. I would not have thought of it at that time, but later on I imagined this is what occupied Paris looked like in the 1940s.”

Joseph McCarthy ’68 on the lessons he learned from Fr. Horace McKenna—and carried with him into adulthood:

“I can recall, on the day following Dr. King’s assassination, riding very nervously in Don Beyer’s mammoth Chrysler through downtown DC with Rich Park, Steve Brown, and Pat Stanton and watching angry crowds smash shop widows and carry away merchandise.

In retrospect, the rage and despair evident on that long-ago afternoon seems now a natural reaction to both the assassination of Dr. King and to the apparently intractable poverty that we had witnessed every day for four years as we traveled to and from 19 Eye Street. Looking back, I believe continual exposure to that stark urban reality provided a unique and valuable dimension to our educations, as did the shining example of Fr. McKenna’s efforts to reduce human suffering in the neighborhoods around Gonzaga. Black lives always mattered to Horace McKenna S.J., and he taught this through his ministry.”

In the Spring of 2018, more than 70 members of the Class of 1968 gathered on Eye Street for their 50th Reunion. In the months leading up to the reunion, the class had decided that they wanted to endow a scholarship that would provide tuition assistance to graduates of the Washington Jesuit Academy who matriculated to Gonzaga.

“People were reflecting back on what Gonzaga did for them while they were there, but more importantly thereafter,” says John Madigan ’68, about how the idea for the scholarship came about. “People in our class went on to do a wide variety of really interesting and wonderful things—work in medicine, politics, education, entertainment. And as people were reflecting back, there was also a desire to give back.”

The Class of 1968 ended up contributing $500,000 to the scholarship fund on their reunion weekend—twice the amount they set out to raise originally.

Many of them say that the events that shaped the spring of their senior year stayed with them forever, creating a spirit of generosity, a desire to help others, and a bond with their classmates and Alma Mater that few classes experience. Let us hope that—despite the disappointment and disruption of the second semester of their senior year—the Class of 2020 will eventually come to experience similar outcomes.