In Chicago, Ex-Radical, William Ayers, Is Better Known as a Scholar

October 18, 2008 at 12:55 am Leave a comment

william-ayers-file-photo.jpgThese days, Bill Ayers doesn’t want to talk about the Weathermen, the Vietnam-era radical group he helped found that carried out bombings at the Pentagon and the Capitol.

That doesn’t mean the man who has become a political headache for Barack Obama is hiding his past. In fact, all you need to do is stand outside Ayers’ office at the University of Illinois in Chicago to be confronted with it.

Ayers’
connection to the Weather Underground is plastered on his door. A
postcard for a documentary on the group shows an old mugshot of Ayers.
Nearby is cover art from Ayers’ 2001 memoir, “Fugitive Days.”

But
also affixed to the door is the title that reflects how Ayers, now 63,
has become known in the past two decades in Chicago: distinguished
professor.

“He gives of himself greatly
to his students. He gives of his time, his energies, his commitment,”
said Pamela Quiroz, an associate professor who works in the college of
education with Ayers. “He is just a superb individual.”

Quiroz
is among more than 3,200 people, mostly academics, who have signed an
online petition protesting the “demonization” of Ayers during the
campaign for the White House.

John
McCain’s camp has accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists,”
citing, among other things, a 1995 meet-the-candidate coffee that Ayers
hosted at his home for Obama when the younger man launched his
political career by running for state Senate. The two also served
together on a Chicago school reform group and a charity board.

The subject flared up again during Wednesday’s final presidential debate
when McCain said Obama needs to explain the full extent of his
relationship with Ayers, whom he called “an old, washed-up terrorist.”

By all accounts, the two men were not close, and Obama has repeatedly denounced Ayers’ radical activities.

Ayers
has declined repeated requests for interviews. This week, he opened his
front door a crack to tell an Associated Press reporter, “I’m not
talking, thanks.”

Ayers’ beige stone
rowhouse on Chicago’s South Side is just a few blocks from Obama’s
home. He lives there with his wife, former fellow radical Bernardine Dohrn. Now a law professor at Northwestern University,
Dohrn was a fugitive for years with her husband until they surrendered
in 1980 and charges against him were dropped because of government
misconduct, which included FBI break-ins, wiretaps and opening of mail.

Although Ayers has refashioned his life from street-level revolutionary to intellectual, he has not entirely renounced his past.

When “Fugitive Days” was published, a photo accompanying a Chicago Magazine article showed him stepping on an American flag. He also told The New York Times,
in an interview that appeared coincidentally on the morning of Sept.
11, 2001: “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.”

The
Weather Underground claimed responsibility for bombings in the early
1970s at the U.S. Capitol, a Pentagon restroom and New York City police
headquarters. No one was injured. In 1970, a Greenwich Village
townhouse that the group was using to build a bomb blew up, killing
three members, including Ayers’ girlfriend. The bomb, Ayers wrote in
his memoir, was packed with screws and nails.

Had
it been detonated, he admitted, it would have done “some serious work
beyond the blast, tearing through windows and walls and, yes, people,
too.” It belied the group’s claims that its targets were buildings, not
people. “We did go off track … and that was wrong,” Ayers told the AP
when his book came out.

“I’m not a
terrorist,” he said at the time. “We tried to sound a piercing alarm
that was unruly, difficult and, sometimes, probably wrong. … I
describe what led some people in despair and anger to take some very
extreme measures.”

Still, in Chicago, he is known more for his work in education, which has earned praise from Mayor Richard Daley,
whose own father, the iron-fisted mayor of this city during the Vietnam
era, famously sent police to do battle with anti-war demonstrators
during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. This spring, when Hillary Rodham Clinton‘s campaign first raised Ayers’ relationship with Obama, the younger Daley issued a statement defending him.

“I also know Bill Ayers,”
Daley said. “He worked with me in shaping our now nationally renowned
school reform program. He is a nationally recognized distinguished
professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago and a valued member of the Chicago community.”

Ayers has a doctorate in education from Columbia University
in New York and has written or edited more than a dozen books, most
about teaching. Ayers is on sabbatical this academic year but still
spends time at his university office.

In an opinion piece this week in The Wall Street Journal, Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute
who is writing a book on Ayers and social justice teaching, challenged
the notion that Ayers is a reformed revolutionary. Stern said he has
read most of Ayers’ work and concluded: “His hatred of America is as
virulent as when he planted a bomb at the Pentagon.”

Scott Snyder, a
UIC junior in chemical engineering who describes himself as a
conservative, said he is uncomfortable with Ayers working at a public
university.

“The majority of taxpayers probably would not appreciate their
money being spent to somebody with a history of disrespecting numerous
public institutions within the United States,” Snyder said. “He spent
his life sticking it to the man, where now he is employed by the man.”

UIC education professor Bill Schubert, who has known Ayers
since he sat on the university committee that hired him in 1987, said
the Ayers he knows is a Chicago Cubs fan and a good cook who invites
colleagues, students and others over to his home for dinner.

But mostly Ayers is a good teacher, said Schubert, who recently
wrote a letter about Ayers that he initially circulated among friends
when questions about him began to mount. The piece, titled “The Bill Ayers I Know,” has since made its way to the Web and extols Ayers’ scholarly work and his commitment to teaching.

“I feel like I’m telling factual information about him,” Schubert said, “and I am saying that he’s a good colleague and friend.”

Still, Ayers’ past is a delicate matter. Schubert wanted to discuss
only Ayers the educator, not Ayers the radical. Asked how he reconciled
the two, Schubert paused for a long moment, then said: “That’s a
question that’s too complicated to answer, I think, because it’s
dependent on different conceptions of what he did.”

Robert Becker, an associate professor of anatomy and cell
biology at UIC, is, at 60, a member of Ayers’ generation but doesn’t
share his politics.

“He’s unrepentant. He took a violent route along with his wife,
and is lucky he didn’t blow himself up,” Becker said. That said, he
added that he does not believe Ayers’ past disqualifies him from a
position on campus: “I’m a pretty conservative person, and I’m not
going to deny him the right to be a member of the faculty. I believe
that departments should hire who they feel is best for their
departments.”

Janise Hurtig, a researcher at the university who has known
Ayers for about eight years, said he strongly backed a project she and
another educator worked on that offers adult writing workshops in
Chicago neighborhoods. If the renewed publicity about Ayers’ past has
weighed on him, Hurtig said, she hasn’t noticed.

“He and Bernardine are very thoughtful and reflective about their past, and it’s their past,” she said.

Ayers had been invited to speak at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln at an education conference Nov. 15, but the school canceled those plans Friday because of safety concerns.

Marjorie Kostelnik, dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences,
said the decision was based on e-mails and phone calls the university’s
threat assessment group had received. She did not describe the
communications as threats but said they left officials concerned about
safety.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman and others had urged the university to rescind its invitation.

Bill Ayers is a well-known radical who should never have been invited,” Heineman said Friday. “The people of Nebraska are outraged.”

Source: AP

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