There would be no graduation day.
Terrible things were happening in the world.
There would be no speeches, no parties, no caps and gowns.
Not for the Class of 1970.
This, 2020, was supposed to be the year they came together again; 50 years after antiwar protests, student strikes and the killings at Kent State and Jackson State emptied classrooms and closed colleges across the country.
But terrible things are happening in the world again, and the 50th reunion might not happen until the 51st.
That’s not what worries the Class of 1970. They’re more worried about the Class of 2020.
“It’s gut wrenching,” said Mary Ackerman, co-chair of her class’ 50th reunion committee at Macalester College in St. Paul. “They don’t get to hug their friends. They don’t get to have their families come and send them off. And they’re heading into a future that is so unknown.”
Fifty years ago, students faced the unknown together. They gathered by the thousands to march and mourn.
Students today won’t have that comfort. They were just getting started when the whole world shut down.
As COVID-19 closed Macalester’s campus and students scattered for safety, someone painted a farewell on the big rock on the Old Main lawn: It will get better.
“That is the message to the Class of 2020,” said Peter Fenn, the other half of the 50th reunion committee. “It was the message for us too, 50 years ago. It’s going to get better and we’ll help make it better.”
Maybe because he didn’t get much of a college send-off himself, Fenn loves graduation day at Macalester. In the 18 years he served on the college’s board of trustees, he didn’t miss a single one.
“Those students came across [the stage] with such enthusiasm,” he said. “Every year they’d get smarter and more interesting and more involved in their community. It was a real joy. ... For the kids to miss that is tough.”
The 50th reunion they’d been planning for the past 18 months will have to wait another year at least. The Class of ’70 will use the time to come together again — even if it’s just as faces on a Zoom call.
“We wanted to say to the graduates of 2020, ‘We’re here for you,’ ” said Fenn, a national political strategist based in Washington, D.C. “If you’re looking for someone who’s been through a similar situation, we’re here for you. We understand.”
Half a century ago, campuses across the country erupted in protests as U.S. forces invaded Cambodia. A student strike emptied high school and university classrooms across the country. Campus ROTC buildings were burned and bombed, governors in several states deployed National Guard troops to keep order on campuses.
On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on students at Kent State University, killing Jeffrey Miller, age 20; Allison Krause, 19; William Schroeder, 19; and Sandra Scheuer, 20.
Eleven days later, Mississippi police fired so many bullets on the campus of Jackson State, a historically black college, they shattered every window on every floor of a nearby dorm. Two students — Phillip Gibbs, 21, and high schooler James Earl Green, 17 — died.
Hundreds of thousands of students marched that spring. At New York State University, students painted a sign on a bedsheet and hung it out the window: You can’t kill us all.
At Macalester that year, graduation day was a brief affair. No ceremony, little pomp — although students had the option to walk across a stage to collect an empty folder with no diploma inside. Some families stayed away. Some, Ackerman said, were deeply hurt by the disrupted plans.
Those were strange days. These days are even stranger.
“To say we totally identify with [what students are going through today] is a little bit of a stretch,” Fenn said. “But we get disruption. We get resiliency. And we get that it will all get better.”