WILMINGTON, Ohio >> In the thick of the Cold War, the small Pennsylvania college where Larry Gara was an outspoken history professor called him a bad teacher, labeled him a Communist and unceremoniously showed him the door.
Now, 53 years later, the school says it’s sorry.
Gara’s firing from Grove City College in 1962 briefly stirred up a national debate over institutional autonomy vs. academic freedom. He moved on with his life, eventually settling into a teaching job at Wilmington College in Ohio. He figured the Grove City chapter was behind him for good.
So no one was more surprised than the now 93-year-old Gara when someone showed up at his front door recently to apologize.
No one directly involved with his firing is alive today, but the August visit from Richard Jewell, a former president of the Presbyterian college, was a curious and satisfying development for Gara, who had successfully meshed his social-justice activism with a long, distinguished teaching career at Wilmington in southwestern Ohio.
“I never thought they would come around,” says Gara, whose memory of the events of 1962 — and many of the other highs and lows in his life — remains remarkably in focus.
In the scheme of things, actually, Gara losing his job at the 1,500-student western Pennsylvania college should barely register a blip in a life filled with seismic events. The Texas native decided to become a Quaker at age 18, and then spent three years in federal prison for refusing to register for the draft during World War II. Once behind bars, he protested because the white and black inmates weren’t allowed to eat together.
Later, after earning a master’s degree and getting a yearlong teaching job at Bluffton College in Ohio for 1948-49, he was convicted of counseling a student not to register for the draft, which he still claims he didn’t do. He was sent back to prison for another seven months, which got national attention because it led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision against him in a First Amendment case.
The mea culpa from Gara’s old employer recently was a direct result of the work of Grove City College alumnus Steven Taaffe, a history professor at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas who decided to delve into Gara’s firing with hope of turning it into a publishable research project.
Taaffe got access to the papers of J. Howard Pew, the Sun Oil Co. president who was the major benefactor and chairman of the Grove City College board when Gara came aboard in 1957. Pew thought Gara’s liberal anti-war political views were disruptive and that he was sympathetic to the hated Soviet Union. Pew wanted him gone and made it happen.
After finishing the research a few years ago, Taaffe took it to Jewell, who was president of the college at the time.
“I laid it all out, and I said here’s the evidence I have, and I think that Larry Gara was railroaded and that the college ought to do something about it,” Taaffe says.
After the article was published in a book a few months ago, Jewell got in touch with Gara and dropped in on him and his 89-year-old wife, Lenna Mae.
“Out of the blue, I got a call from him and he said he wanted to talk to me,” Gara says. “He came out to the house and was a friendly guy. He said, ‘I want to express my regret and the regret of the college about how they treated you.'”
Jewell, who had retired as president last year, followed up with a letter noting that the college’s actions against Gara in 1962 were “inappropriate and unfair.” Jewell declined to comment further for this article.
In a statement, Grove City College’s current administration said: “It is clear that professor Gara’s circumstances would have been handled quite differently by Grove City College’s due process measures today than by processes that were in place some 50 years ago. Acknowledging this, the college has addressed this matter with him personally.”
Although retired since the early 1990s, Gara — rail thin, with a head of wild white hair and a walrus mustache — still speaks to students at Wilmington from time to time.
The man once known on campus as the “90-pound anarchist” says he’s less high-strung these days and better able to have conversations with people who don’t share his views.
I’m more mellow,” he says. “History does that.”