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Courage under Fire

Professor Gwynne Daggett's greatest lesson was the example of his life

By Kimberly Swick Slover

Professor Gwynne Harris Daggett would have returned to the University of New Hampshire in the fall of 1969 in high spirits, whizzing across campus on his Raleigh Sport bicycle, his gray suit coat flapping in the breeze. He would have relished his role that semester as president of the first University Senate to include students. To the popular but controversial English professor, his appointment must have seemed a stirring vote of confidence, even a vindication of his dogged push against limits on academic freedom, which for nearly two decades had pitted the university against the most powerful political forces in the state.

Instead, Professor Daggett's sudden death at age 62 from a heart attack while waterskiing, just days before his scheduled return, led to a different scene in Durham. Throngs of people--students, professors, even farmers--assembled at the town's Community Church to mourn the loss of this extraordinary man. They packed the plain white-clapboard building because Daggett had been their friend and had stood up for their individual rights at great personal and professional cost.

Gwynne Harris Daggett arrived at UNH as an idealistic young assistant professor in 1942. A diary he kept as a young man reveals a romantic, rather melancholy spirit, at odds with what he viewed as the materialistic values of his peers. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Cornell University, then went on to complete his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina. He embraced the works of 19th-century writers Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, all of whom celebrated nature and the dignity of the common man.

Daggett taught for a year at the University of Florida, but left there after a year to take a position in UNH's English department in 1942. Two years later he co-founded the university's humanities program, which introduced students to ambitious courses that covered almost any subject related to Western civilization. He taught with an infectious intensity. He demanded students arrive in class well prepared and insisted they take part in lively discussions. He quickly became one of the most popular teachers on campus, with students of all majors lining up for his courses.

The Red Scare

At the beginning of the Cold War, anti-communism was a national obsession. In the late 1940s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) began detaining or deporting labor leaders and other suspected communists. The House of Un-American Activities Committee launched investigations into Hollywood's left-wing affiliations, eventually blacklisting hundreds. By 1950, Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy was claiming to have lists of alleged communists in every walk of life, including in the State Department and U.S. military.

The waves of fear and suspicion gripped New Hampshire with particular ferocity, and influential conservatives embraced the crusade with zeal. Beginning in the mid-1940s, Manchester Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News publisher William Loeb used vitriolic front-page editorials to attack anyone or anything he viewed as dangerous or subversive. Because of Daggett's leadership in the liberal Progressive Citizens of America--as well as his penchant for inviting thought-provoking speakers of all kinds, even political radicals, to address his humanities classes--he soon became a favorite target.

In 1951, the New Hampshire General Court passed the Subversive Activities Act, which made it a felony to teach or advocate "doctrines tending toward the overthrow of government by force." In 1953, the legislature gave teeth to the act, authorizing state Attorney General Louis C. Wyman '38 to conduct an investigation into whether UNH or any tax-supported institution engaged in such "subversive activities."

Wyman took special interest in Daggett's association with Paul M. Sweezy, a Marxist economist and co-editor of the left-wing journal Monthly Review, who had addressed students in Daggett's humanities classes on three occasions. Wyman summoned Daggett and Sweezy to Concord for court hearings in 1953 and 1954, but both refused to answer some of his questions, maintaining that he had exceeded his authority and was violating their constitutional rights. Wyman filed a contempt-of-court petition, and a superior court judge ordered Sweezy and Daggett to answer Wyman's questions. Daggett complied, but Sweezy appealed the decision. Sweezy was vindicated in 1957 by a 6-2 decision in his favor by the U.S. Supreme Court. The ruling stated: "Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die."

After the hearings, Professor Daggett distributed a statement to the media denying communist ties or advocacy of violence. "I have nothing to hide and have always believed that in a democracy political beliefs and activities should be openly expressed," he wrote. "An investigation into subversive activities has no business questioning a law-abiding citizen about his lawful political activities, his open professional life and his everyday opinions and beliefs."

Daggett also defended his teaching principles. "My own philosophy is a deeply democratic one. When in my American literature course I present Franklin, Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, I probably reveal my enthusiasm. These men were among the first to express the deeply rooted belief in American freedom and human dignity, and I am thoroughly dedicated to them. But as a teacher I must remember to permit my students to think for themselves. My task is to teach them how to think, and to give them significant facts and ideas to think about..."

Phil Nicoloff, professor emeritus of English, who came to UNH in 1954, found the popular notion that the university harbored "dangerous radicals" a joke--that is, until he began to grasp the power of the state's ultra-right-wing conservatives. "It was a political necessity in the state to have William Loeb on your side and to be seen as someone who could rout out dangerous subversives," Nicoloff says. In his view, Loeb's constant drumbeat against Daggett made the professor a marked man and turned "baiting the university" into a popular sport. In this climate, Nicoloff says, the UNH administration was "incredibly sensitive about behavior or events that might be construed as politically radical or an attempt to radicalize students."

While Daggett was often called subversive, radical and even a communist by William Loeb and some of the state's politicians, those who knew him well described him as liberal, perhaps left wing, but not "narrowly political." Daggett joined the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA), a short-lived third party that supported former Harry Truman vice-president Henry Wallace in the 1964 presidential campaign. Wallace, who split with Truman over differences in foreign policies, was despised by the Union Leader's Loeb, who attacked him in 1947 as worse than "a cheap Nazi demagogue." Daggett admired Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the professor's politics, according to Nicoloff, "seemed to come from the New Deal. He was an old-time champion of the labor movement."

Wyman, now 84 and a retired congressman, reflects, "There was real fear during the Cold War, to some extent overblown by the antics of McCarthy, about the growing schism between the United States and the Soviet Union and the ensuing nuclear arms build-up." The investigations' focus on educational institutions stemmed from concerns about professors' impact on adolescents and youth, according to Wyman.

The contentious issue of Sweezy surfaced again in 1956, when student groups requested permission to bring him back to campus. The UNH Board of Trustees and President Eldon Johnson, as well as Daggett, were attacked by the Union Leader, Attorney General Wyman and then N.H. Governor Lane Dwinell '55H. The board initially rejected the request, but eventually agreed to allow Sweezy to speak, if he were paired with a speaker who represented an opposing perspective.

Faculty members brought the university's position in defense of academic freedom to the attention of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). In 1958, the organization presented the board and President Johnson with its first Alexander Meikeljohn Academic Freedom Award for "resolutely maintaining the freedom of the university community to hear all points of a controversial issue, even in the face of public opposition." Recalling the hailstorm of criticism that accompanied the award, Johnson later quipped, "UNH should have received the Meikeljohn Award in 1959 for having the courage to accept it in 1958."

Respect for All

In private, Daggett agonized about the public controversies and the numerous threats made against him and his family. According to daughter Priscilla Daggett '57, he often feared losing his job. Despite these fears, she says her father felt compelled to act on his belief in free expression for all--particularly when he saw those rights under threat.

Daggett taught Priscilla and her sister, Barbara Daggett Merriam '57, to explore all sides of issues before forming opinions and to express themselves clearly and openly. "He had respect for everybody's ideas, even weird ideas, and for people of all walks of life," Barbara Merriam recalls. "It made him boil to see people put down because of their religious or political beliefs or their color. The more he observed, the more he saw injustice."

Fighting for social justice was a family tradition. Gwynne Harris Daggett was born in Berkeley, Calif., one of three children born to Royal and Josephine Sharah Daggett. The family moved often as Royal tried and failed to find satisfaction in various occupations. Josephine, a painter and intellectual, believed in social justice, and once came to the defense of a neighbor who'd been ostracized for befriending an African-American family. Her influence was strongest on Gwynne and his sister Dorothy (Eldridge), who became an international peace activist. Humanitarian beliefs and integrity also came from the Daggett side: Gwynne's paternal grandfather, Brig. Gen. Aaron Simon Daggett, believed in the abolition of slavery and fought in the Civil War in the 5th Maine Regiment, alongside African-American soldiers. Aaron Daggett, who went on to join the U.S. Army and fight in Spain, China, and the Philippines and receive the Purple Heart and the Gold Star. Like his grandson, he was known for his keen intellect and ability to find good in all people, even those who opposed him.

During the summers, Daggett left academe behind to take on demanding physical jobs. He'd hammer away on railroad tracks or dangle 60 feet above the ocean to paint bridges. Other years he unloaded cargo ships at Boston Harbor and hauled cable at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. "This gave him a greater understanding of people who do manual labor ... and it seemed to relieve him from the stress (of the university)," says Priscilla Daggett.

Priscilla recalls her father's "zany" sense of humor, his constant use of puns and love of language. "He wouldn't allow us to make grammatical errors, and when we did he'd 'burlesque' them to make it obvious. And he'd say the most hilarious things and just look at you intently without laughing, awaiting your response." She describes him as extremely cerebral, with broad interests that included classical and rock 'n roll music, cartography, and the natural sciences. Priscilla says her father was shy and reserved, but overcame his natural inclination to become a celebrated teacher with many friends.

When the sisters reflect on their father more than 30 years after his death, they think of his unflinching courage and compassion for people, his commitment to civil rights, his love of teaching, and perhaps above all, his humility. Once when Priscilla returned home as an adult to visit her parents, she recalls seeing her father, then in his late 50s, poring over books in his study late at night. "I asked, 'Dad, why are you still doing this? You're already a great teacher and you don't need to.' He looked at me with complete seriousness and said, 'Well, it's because I really don't know anything.' He was just very humble. He believed strongly in the Greek principle of hubris--that pride was man's greatest fault

A Gifted Teacher and Respected Colleague

Daggett's enthusiasm for teaching never wavered. He came to class with his sleeves rolled up high and demanded that students take part in lively discussions. Students of all majors lined up to take his courses.

Robert Edgerly '55 compares Daggett's approach to Humanities 101 to that of "a talented chef spreading out a buffet of favorite recipes for invited guests. We'd listen to classical music, discuss pieces of literature and view paintings and sculpture together. But the centerpiece of the course was our trips to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the opera. ... which proved to us that the humanities were an essential element of a life well lived. It was a great gift for freshmen from small New Hampshire towns."

Graduate student JoEllen Lindh Orcutt G'73, who spoke at the dedication of the Daggett Room in Dimond Library in 1972, recalled his teaching style. "In the middle of a discussion of one of Joseph Conrad's sea stories, Mr. Daggett was suddenly at the board, diagramming and explaining how to tack in a sailboat. The more rigid students stopped their feverish note-taking and looked up perplexed...but Mr. Daggett was bringing the story alive...bringing himself and what he knew to the work...and bringing many students with him." She also recalled her relief and shock at reading Daggett's thoughtful, detailed comments on her first paper, which he ended with, "I have learned something from this paper." "As a teacher myself, I have never forgotten his wonderful discovery," said Orcutt, "that I, a student, had something valuable to say."

Joan Burkholder '48, an English major who took five or six courses with Daggett, remembers him as a confidante to whom students turned for wise counsel. Years after her graduation, as she struggled to cope with young children and a military husband stationed far from home, she would often visit him in his office, where she'd find students lined up with the same intention.

Daggett also challenged students to examine current notions of conformity, according to Deb Watson '63, '67G. "He'd say things that weren't politically correct for the time, like when he pointed out that blacks were rarely depicted in literature in relaxed, positive ways. He showed us different ways of thinking and taught us that conformity is looking at life exactly as society wants us to do."

Civil Disobedience

The attacks on Daggett continued into the 1960s. In 1961, he was accused of conspiring with other "subversives" to incite students to commit illegal acts of civil disobedience. Gov. Wesley Powell had ordered a statewide civil defense alert on April 28 in practice for a nuclear attack, and citizens were required to take cover indoors. Graduate student Robert F. Kingsley '60 urged the student body to march down Main Street during the drill to protest against nuclear weapons. When the alarm sounded, more than 700 students, local and state police and members of the media packed downtown Durham.

Watson recalls viewing the events from the steps of Young's restaurant on Main Street. "When the air-raid drill went off, there were people standing in the middle of the street protesting, but it was really a peaceful protest. They just wanted to let people know that there wasn't any safety in hiding under your desk during a nuclear attack." Eighteen people were arrested.

The Union Leader learned that Kingsley and another controversial figure, Willard Uphaus, had visited Professor Daggett the night before the protest. (Uphaus, minister of the World Fellowship Center, had recently spent a year in jail for refusing to give Wyman the names of those attending the fellowship's summer camp in Conway, N.H.) As Nicoloff recalls, Daggett warned the students that if they chose to march, they'd have to face the consequences. Though Daggett denied encouraging students to participate in the protest, he was castigated by Loeb and others, who pressured UNH to fire him and dismiss the student protestors. When Gov. Powell came to campus to discuss the issue, more than 1,000 students lined the walkway to Thompson Hall to cheer President Johnson as he walked from his house to the meeting. The trustees declined to discipline the students or fire Daggett, but instead reprimanded him for displaying a "lack of judgment ... which has been unfortunate and deleterious to yourself as a member of the faculty." The administration also withheld a pending salary increase and promotion from Daggett.

The Faculty Welfare Committee investigated the issue and discovered no evidence that Daggett had organized or incited the protest, but instead charged that the media singled out the professor for criticism. Pressure from the committee, as well as from the AAUP, eventually convinced the trustees to grant Daggett's raise and promotion to associate professor and to rescind their reprimand.

Again Under Fire

The last major incident involving Professor Daggett, and the one with the most serious repercussions, occurred on April 21, 1963, when he met with a dozen students in the Youth Peace Fellowship on campus. Daggett presented his view that the United States and the Soviet Union shared similar goals, and promoted China's admission into the United Nations (UN). He also suggested that the UN flag, as a universal symbol of peace, should fly above those of individual nations. A Union Leader reporter attended the meeting and immediately contacted Louis Wyman, by then a U.S. congressman. Wyman called on the board to fire Daggett, stating that "freedom of speech need not be paid for by taxes."

President John McConnell, in office just two months, called in economics professor Sam Rosen, then president of the campus AAUP. McConnell asked Rosen what the AAUP would do if UNH were to sanction Daggett. "I told him I would get the AAUP to come in and investigate, and they'd probably tell the world in their publications that UNH was in violation of academic freedom," Rosen says. President McConnell and the trustees took no action against Daggett, but under extreme pressure to fire him, they once again withheld a raise. The Faculty Welfare Committee eventually persuaded the trustees to grant the salary increase.

The administration's cautious support of Daggett's right to express unpopular political views set the stage for the next battle. In advance of the 1964 national elections, the campus welcomed a succession of political speeches by major party candidates, but braced for more negative attention when a student group called "No Time for Politics," invited American Nazi party leader George L. Rockwell, and James Jackson, editor of the communist Worker, to speak. Amid the ensuring controversy, the trustees called for a review of the university's speakers policy, first passed in 1950 to protect free speech rights. After panel discussions and open hearings with faculty and students on the subject of free speech, the board voted unanimously to keep their policy supporting academic freedom in place. President McConnell announced to cheering students the university's decision to support their right to invite even "objectionable and insubstantial" speakers to campus.

These developments outraged many conservatives and led the N.H. Legislature to propose a bill in 1965 to strengthen the state's anti-subversive act. Under the Feldman provision, tax-supported organizations would be barred from hosting "subversive organizations" on their premises. The proposed law, clearly an attempt to limit certain types of speech on college campuses, galvanized the university community to an astonishing and unprecedented extent. The administration reached out to faculty, students and their parents, and to the larger academic community, seeking their help in defeating the bill that seemed to threaten the university's core values and mission. During public hearings, hundreds of people crowded into Representatives Hall at the Statehouse in Concord, with UNH trustees and faculty, as well as former governor Sherman Adams and leaders from other New England colleges, speaking out in defense of academic freedom. After seven hours of debate on the House floor, the bill failed on a 205 to 176 vote.

In the last few years of his life, Daggett quietly took himself out of the limelight, promising then President Robert Chandler that he would refrain from talks on controversial political issues. Daggett poured his energies into the classroom. At a time when government sought an obedient citizenry to cope with both real and imagined threats, Daggett urged students to think for themselves.

When students dedicated the 1970 Granite in his memory, they concluded that his greatest contribution was that time spent in the classroom. The dedication reads in part: "'I suspect we'll never find another man so dedicated to teaching, so humanly trained and competent.' Thousands of students would agree." ~

Kimberly Swick Slover is director of communications at Colby Sawyer College and former editor of the University of New Hampshire Magazine.

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