Savio, the altar boy who created the '60s Memorial: After years of quiet brilliance, leader of 1964 Free Speech Movement fought the machine in his final days.

December 06, 1996|By Alice Kahn | Alice Kahn,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

This Sunday, at gatherings from California to New York, friends and admirers of Mario Savio, the affecting and morally probing leader of the 1964 Free Speech Movement, will ponder just where he belongs in their personal and collective histories.

But Savio's sudden death from heart troubles last month at age 53, more than 30 years after he was frozen in time as an icon of 1960s radicalism, has raised another intriguing question: What had he been doing all these years?

It was a question that the intensely private Savio generally chose not to answer publicly as he taught school, raised three children and attempted again to involve himself in political issues, even while diligently fleeing the corruption of celebrity.

A colleague at the California university where Savio had taught since 1990 recalls a moment shortly after he arrived on campus. A woman came up to him and said, "Are you Mario Savio?" He replied, "Well, somebody has to be."

The spotlight found Mario Savio during the fall of 1964. The handsome young philosophy student had just arrived at the University of California at Berkeley after registering black voters during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. He carried the moral force of the civil rights movement back to school with him.

When told he couldn't pass out political literature on campus, he joined a diverse group, ranging from Students for Goldwater to the Chess Club and DuBois Socialist Club, to defy the ban. In one confrontation with authorities, a student was arrested. A crowd of students, more used to water fights and panty raids, formed around the police car. Savio climbed on top and delivered an awesome social metaphor:

"There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even passively take part," he said. "And you've got to put your bodies on the gears, and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus. And you've got to make it stop."

These words from the son of a Sicilian machinist would move 800 clean-cut University of California students to sit in, get arrested and change the nature of public debate in America. It was a pregnant moment. America was closer to the passiveness and communist witch hunts of the '50s; the long hair, drugs, sex and revolutionary posturing that came to be known as the '60s was yet to come.

Dec. 8 marks the 32nd anniversary of the date that UC-Berkeley faculty members voted to support students' demand for free speech. A memorial gathering will take place in Sproul Plaza in Berkeley, where Savio jumped on top of the police car and into history.

Another will be held on Bank Street in New York, a cultural leap from Floral Park, Queens, where Savio, known back then as "Bobby," was a Catholic altar boy and valedictorian of his high school class. In the school yearbook, he was called "Mr. Univac," his brilliance analogized to a strange new machine, a computer.

Sunday, the crowds and TV cameras will gather to remember the movement leader. But yesterday, a more intimate group assembled at Sonoma State University to commemorate instead the man Mario Savio had become.

Savio had joined the faculty at the small state school 50 miles north of San Francisco in 1990. It was here that he finally seemed to be putting his life together after what he described in a speech at a 1994 Free Speech Movement as "two decades of some joy, but marked with much sadness and personal tragedy."

On the day of his death, Savio had been moving into the first house he would ever own with his wife, Lynne Hollander, a librarian and Berkeley protest veteran, and his youngest son, Daniel.

An earlier marriage to another free speech alumna, Suzanne Goldberg, ended in divorce. They had two sons, Stefan, 29, born with disabilities, and Nadav, 27, who recently completed a pamphlet with his father on racial justice.

Savio, described protectively by friends as sensitive, vulnerable, brilliant and moral, had been rumored to suffer from depression as the high-minded '60s devolved into the "Me generation" '70s.

At Sonoma State, he deliberately kept a low profile, teaching math and English to "under-prepared" students. It was only when Rolling Stone magazine came to call that Leslie Hartman, a department secretary, began to realize that the man who seemed so special to her was also famous. "I was so impressed with his warmth and energy," she says. "His pace was quick. He'd come in and things would blow off my desk."

Elaine Sundberg, Savio's boss, says she recognized the name when his resume came across her desk. "I thought, could this possibly be the real Mario Savio?"

His resume mentioned his degrees in physics from San Francisco State University in the late 1980s. It noted his near-perfect grade point average and his work during the early '80s teaching math and physics at several small California colleges.

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