Wreckage and Recovery

Our article on the Sterling Hall bombing is a unique contribution to the historical record.

A firefighter looks up at Sterling Hall in the aftermath of the bombing

Alumni recall the 1970 Sterling Hall bombing as if it had occurred last night. UW Archives

Much has been written about the 1970 bombing of UW–Madison’s Sterling Hall and its effect on the Vietnam War protest movement. But “The Blast That Changed Everything,”  which marks the 50th anniversary, is a unique contribution to the historical record.

The article presents newly acquired testimony from 46 former UW students who were in town that day or who followed the shocking news from off campus. A half-century later, they recall the incident as if it had occurred last night.

Clearly, feelings are still raw about this turning point in their lives. Old arguments rage about the war and the protests. And yet, 50 years on, the alumni can reflect on their experiences in a way that wasn’t possible in the heat of the moment. The article offers a mature perspective on what happened in 1970 and what it all meant.

Developing the package was an emotional experience for our editorial team. More than 300 alumni responded to our call for reminiscences, many of them anguished about the death of postdoctoral researcher Robert Fassnacht MS’60, PhD’67 and their own role in the political unrest. We strove to provide a representative sampling, including comments that, for some, will be painful to read. But we discovered that there’s simply no way to smooth over this tragic episode in UW–Madison history.

We hope the article will shed new light on the campus climate before and after the bombing. And for those who lived through the momentous event, we hope the chance to discuss it has brought a measure of — to use an essential word from the era — peace.

As we prepared our story on a catastrophe from years past, a very different catastrophe hit UW–Madison in 2020. Starting in March, the coronavirus pandemic turned a normal spring semester into an unprecedented exercise in crisis management. For safety’s sake, students moved out of residence halls, face-to-face courses migrated online, and events shut down. Our article “The Coronavirus Semester” chronicles the university’s response to quickly changing circumstances.

Our summer issue also features a poignant message to On Wisconsin readers from Chancellor Rebecca Blank. “We are all in this together,” the chancellor said earlier this spring, “and we’ll get through it.” Hang in there, Badgers.

Published in the Summer 2020 issue

Tags: Alumni, Campus buildings, Campus history, history, politics, Student life

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