Posted: April 13, 2006
FOR JAN TING, THE VIETNAM WAR WAS ONLY HECK
By Celia Cohen
In the hotbed of student protests against the Vietnam War, tiny Oberlin College in Ohio near Lake Erie was one of the most smoldering campuses of them all.
With its enrollment of less than 3,000 students, it was the school where Jan C. Ting chose to go as a 17-year-old, looking for a small, quality co-educational college not too far from his home in Michigan at a time when there were limited choices for that sort of place.
As Ting arrived on campus in 1966, the ferment of the civil rights movement was giving way to the "Days of Rage" of the anti-war protests, and the politics at Oberlin tilted left, left, left.
It had teach-ins and sit-ins and silent vigils against the war every Wednesday at noon. It had an organized radical presence with the Students for a Democratic Society. It had mobilized protesters who traveled to New York, Washington and elsewhere, including Canada to get medical supplies to send to the Vietnamese.
Its most overheated moment, according to an account of the Oberlin Student Movement, written by Alicia A. D'Addario as her senior honors thesis in 2002, was a swarming confrontation with a Navy recruiter in October 1967. Students spilled into the town to keep the recruiter off the campus, confining him for hours in his car, with the local police resorting to tear gas and fire hoses on that cold autumn day.
The only serious brake on the youthful rebellion was the life-or-death threat of expulsion. No student deferment, no shield from the draft.
"It was incredibly volatile and exciting. This was something that was being played out right in front of you. Everyone had a political opinion here," said Chris Baymiller, Oberlin '71, still at the college as the associate director of the Student Union.
Those receding campus days would seem to be an unlikely campaign issue for Ting, Oberlin '70, not only because of the passage of time but because of their anomalous nature to what he is today -- a U.S. Senate candidate running as a conservative Republican, a law professor who organized for Ronald Reagan and a noted hard-liner on immigration.
All is fair in love, war and politics, however. Ting's past was dredged up last month while he is running against U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, the Democratic ex-governor seeking his second Senate term, and dealing with a pesky challenge from Michael D. Protack, a discontented Republican craving a nomination for a high office for the third election in a row.
Carper, who was in college at about the same time and place as Ting at Ohio State University, Class of 1968, was in the Navy during the Vietnam War after going to school on an ROTC scholarship, although he did volunteer on the presidential campaign of peace candidate Eugene McCarthy. Protack joined the Marines after graduation from the University of Delaware in 1979.
Ting has been working to appease some military veterans, assuring them that rumors that had him being arrested, burning a U.S. flag or burning a draft card were false. Protack has been accused of stirring up the veterans' suspicions, but he has denied it.
Ting apologized for taking what he called "the wrong side of the Vietnam War debate," explaining he changed his mind after hearing from Vietnamese refugees and his own relatives subjected to Mao's Cultural Revolution, but he has been disinclined to go into detail about his anti-war activities.
"It was a long time ago, four decades ago," Ting said.
Delaware Grapevine located by telephone or e-mail eight Oberlin faculty, administrators or students who were at the college when Ting was and remember him to varying degrees.
Their recollections meshed. Within the context of a radicalized campus, Ting fell on the more conservative end of the spectrum. He was not a member of the SDS. He did not set a flag on fire -- "None of us burned flags," said Charles "Chip" Hauss, Oberlin '69, now a consultant on conflict resolution. He did not burn a draft card, something Hauss said only one person did, and not Ting.
Perhaps the clearest memory of Ting belongs to Roger L. Conner, a 1969 graduate now a Vanderbilt law school research associate, who describes himself wryly as part of "the tiny conservative faction at Oberlin -- which means I was conflicted about the war."
While the dominant mood was anti-establishment almost to the point of being anti-American, Conner recalls Ting questioning the war but not the country.
"It was hard to be anti-war and pro-American, and that's what Jan was. It's ironic he should face this now, because he was part of the group that was being challenged because he wasn't going that far. He took his share of heat at the time," Conner said.
Ting majored in history at Oberlin. The most vivid lesson he learned, he said, was "history is not all about great men and marching armies, it's all down at the local level."
As a political candidate, Ting is discovering that history is not only local, it never goes away. For someone running for office, what happened four decades ago might just as well be yesterday.