H. Edwin Young, UMaine president, was Wisconsin chancellor during violent Vietnam protests

Posted Jan. 03, 2012, at 8:18 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 12, 2012, at 6 a.m.
H. Edwin Young
H. Edwin Young

H. Edwin Young, who led the University of Wisconsin at Madison through some of the most dramatic campus violence of the Vietnam War era, died Jan. 2 at an assisted living facility in Madison. He was 94.

He had complications from a stroke, said his son, Nathan Young.

The Newfoundland native received his graduate degrees at UW-Madison and became an economics teacher there in 1947. He left in 1965 to become president of the University of Maine, but returned to UW-Madison and was named chancellor in 1968.

He inherited a school in the throes of a cultural rebellion. At a time of daily peace rallies at colleges across the country, the University of Wisconsin drew national headlines for its turbulence.

Young established himself as a firm leader amid frequent demonstrations in front of Bascom Hall, the administration building where he kept his office, and the state Capitol, a mile across town. Twice he called on the governor to send the National Guard to Madison to quell student uprisings. Young was known among the protestors as “war maker” and “strike breaker.”

“Making a lot of concessions was like giving red meat to the lions,” Young once said. “They wanted to close the university down — the one place where they were free to speak and protect — which seemed kind of anti-intellectual to me.”

The tension reached its apogee at 3:42 a.m. Aug. 24, 1970, when a homemade fertilizer bomb exploded in the back of a van parked next to Sterling Hall.

The building housed the physics department and the Army Mathematics Research Center, which conducted studies for the military.

Inside at the time was Robert Fassnacht, a physics researcher and father of three. He was killed instantly. The blast caused $6 million in damage to 20 other buildings.

Young immediately went to the scene, helping to comb through the debris. He later described what he saw there as “an unspeakable crime.”

The mood on campus changed dramatically after the bombing. The Madison antiwar movement — collectively shocked by the act of domestic terrorism — largely dissolved.

The attack “was so extreme and unjustifiable and horrible it stopped us in our tracks,” Erica Eisinger, a former Madison-based antiwar activist, told the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2001.

Four men who called themselves “The New Year’s Gang” claimed responsibility for the bombing but expressed regret at Fassnacht’s death. They said they thought the building would be deserted.

Three members of the men — brothers Karl and Dwight Armstrong and David Fine — served prison sentences. The fourth, Leo Burt, was never apprehended and remains at large.

In the years after the bombing, Young boosted the number of police officers on campus and cooperated with the FBI by supplying the authorities with the university’s files on radical students. He served as president of the University of Wisconsin system from 1977 to 1980 before returning to Madison as an economics professor. He retired in 1987.

Hugh Edwin Young was born May 3, 1917, in Bonne Bay, Newfoundland. He was a 1940 graduate of the University of Maine and received a doctorate in labor economics from the University of Wisconsin in 1950.

He served as chairman of Wisconsin’s economics department and dean of the College of Letters and Science before being tapped as chancellor.

Young was Wisconsin’s fourth leader in 18 months. The year before he took over, a student-led demonstration against Dow Chemical recruiters at a campus jobs fair — the company manufactured napalm and the toxin Agent Orange — had devolved into a riot. Local police used billy clubs and tear gas to force protesters into submission.

Under Young, nearly 7,000 demonstrators in February 1969 paralyzed the campus by invading classrooms and administrative offices shouting, “On strike, shut it down!”

Buildings were vandalized. Smashed windows left glass shards strewn about campus. Soon after, more than 1,900 National Guard troops arrived in Madison.

In a show of force, the soldiers fixed bayonets to the tips of their rifles. In return, students paraded in front of them wearing bull’s-eye targets on their backs. (A year later, four Kent State University students were killed by members of the National Guard.)

At one point, Young was encouraged to close the university, but he refused to consider the option. A petition signed by a majority of faculty members supported his administration’s policy not to accede to the demands of “mob pressures and lawless force.”

Young’s wife of 53 years, Phyllis Smart Young, died in 1993. Survivors include five children, Jill Coelho of Belmont, Mass., John Young of Rockland, Mass., Dorothy Young of Austin, Nathan Young of Potomac, Md., and Barbara Bielec of Madison; a brother; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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