Right around the time all hell broke loose at the University of Virginia in May 1970, Al Sinesky (Col ’70) set up a card table in front of the Rotunda. He was collecting signatures for a petition.

A fourth-year student who had served on Student Council as an antiwar progressive, Sinesky had plenty to protest. Seven days earlier, Ohio National Guard troops had fired on demonstrators at Kent State University and killed four students. The tragedy set off pandemonium on college campuses and the University Grounds. But Sinesky just then wasn’t decrying the Guard, the Vietnam War or even Richard Nixon, whose foray into Cambodia triggered the Ohio protests.

Three days earlier, to quell local protests, helmeted Virginia State Patrol troopers had stormed onto the Lawn and into the fraternity neighborhoods, throwing practically anyone they could collar into a Mayflower moving van headed downtown for booking. But that wasn’t Sinesky’s fight either. The cops, and the University authorities who had called them in, weren’t his target. He had been out of town during those events, competing in a varsity track meet.

In taking up a petition Sinesky was training his eye and his ire on a different establishment villain: the University of Virginia Alumni Association. Sinesky’s beef was with the telegram.

Determined to cool rising student rebellion against authority, the Alumni Association did a very uncool thing. It sent a Western Union wire to every undergraduate’s parents, urging them to tell their children to behave responsibly. The message began to hit the roughly 5,800 homes on the Saturday after Kent State, as first light dappled the downtown courthouse where, courtesy of the State Patrol and Mayflower van lines hours before, scores of randomly arrested students had spent the night.

“The telegram just was someone dousing fuel on the fire,” says Louis Levitt (Col ’70), active in the antiwar effort on Grounds though not one of those arrested. “The University was really at this boiling point, and then comes this letter.”

Within days, a Cavalier Daily editorial denounced the Alumni Association for alarming parents, insulting students and running up such expense, which the dues of student members would have helped fund. Student Council censured the Association the same day, in “a meeting marked by unusually rapid agreement,” the CD reported.

Sinesky drew rapid agreement from students putting their mark on his petition. “I … got people to sign, saying that we will not join the Alumni Association unless there is an apology sent forth from the Alumni Association for this telegram,” he says, though he doesn’t recall the number of signatures.

Calm returned to UVA relatively quickly, certainly by fall of 1970, but resentment over the Alumni Association telegram persisted for years. In at least one case, it still persists. Steven C. Lowe (Col ’72), a second-year at the time of the events and fairly removed from them, still won’t have anything to do with the Association. It was an insult “for them to tattle, so to speak, or to call our parents, as if we were naughty children,” he tells Virginia Magazine, which is published by the UVA Alumni Association. “It was just completely dismissive of us as young adults.”

He continues to boycott Mayflower Transit too.

Fueling resentment, the telegram hit homes hours after the infamous Mayflower roundup. Andrew Stickney

One of the more curious aspects of the controversy: The telegram didn’t really say much, not of substance anyway. The white-hot reaction came from fairly tepid language. It took six sentences to articulate what was, in essence, the call to inaction: “WE URGE YOU TO CALL YOUR SON OR DAUGHTER EXPRESSING CONFIDENCE IN THEM TO ACT THOUGHTFULLY AND RESPONSIBLY IN THIS CRITICAL TIME.

But the verbosity compounded the agony. In the world of telegrams, six sentences amounted to a novella, and making it to the end would have seemed like an eternity.

Especially if your heart was already pounding. Most parents of the era would have come from the World War II generation, conditioned to associate the arrival of a telegram with dread, like somebody dear just died a horrible death. Western Union didn’t come calling to tell you your son made dean’s list.

(Daughters were few, only 7 percent of undergraduates. Full undergraduate coeducation would begin a few years later.) 

UVA’s Special Collections library includes one of the original telegrams, discovered for this story inside a manila folder of 1970s Student Council miscellany. The tissue-thin, buff-colored Western Union form is a relic of an earlier time, but not 1970. Telegrams were well on the wane by then. More like 1940. So it was that the medium, the message and the motivation behind both captured all too well the animating conflict of the era: generational divide. Amid times awash in psychedelic color, alumni leaders borrowed a trope from a black-and-white B-movie. Operator, get me Western Union!

‘Hardcore UVA guys’

The 15 members of the Alumni Association’s Board of Managers in the spring of 1970 all held the University of Virginia pedigree one would expect. Based on not necessarily complete records, almost all belonged to old-line fraternities, including four from St. Anthony Hall and two from Delta Kappa Epsilon. Most were members of UVA’s storied ring societies—six IMPs, two of whom died Sevens, and a pair from the Z Society. Nine had been inducted into Eli Banana or T.I.L.K.A., the socially elite student ribbon societies. Eight had played college sports.

With an average age of 47, they were in the prime of their careers. They were lawyers, investment wizards, insurance executives, industrialists and politicians, including a sitting U.S. senator, William B. Spong Jr. (Law ’47), a one-term centrist Democrat from Virginia.

“These guys were hardcore UVA guys,” says Peter W. Schmidt (Col ’70, Darden ’74), who came to work for the Alumni Association fresh from serving as the president of the Class of 1970.

Board Chair D. French Slaughter Jr., a decorated veteran and conservative politician, signed the telegram and likely composed it. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, UVA

Taking lead on the telegram was their elected president (the equivalent of Board chair today) D. French Slaughter Jr. (Col ’49, Law ’53), a Democrat in the Virginia House of Delegates, associated with the rural-conservative Harry F. Byrd political machine. He would go on to become rector of UVA’s Board of Visitors, a Republican and a four-term U.S. Congressman.

Eli W. Tullis (Col ’51), a renowned New Orleans cotton trader and, at 92, the last surviving member from the spring 1970 Board, remembers Slaughter as a close friend—“Frenchman,” he called him—and a remarkably unglamorous, uncharismatic figure for a successful politician. “Frenchman was a very quiet, dry kind of person. But if he told you something, you could bank on it,” Tullis says.

You could also bank on his steadfast defense of the U.S. military. Slaughter began college at Virginia Military Institute, entered World War II as an infantryman, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and returned to civilian life with a Purple Heart, according to his obituaries. In between state and national political office, he served as an aide to the secretary of the Army.

Says Schmidt, “Mr. Slaughter, whom I respected enormously, and then got to know later on as he became the rector, was a delightful man, and he was not someone who would be compromised in any way.”

Starting small

In more candid moments, maybe over bourbons at the Alumni Hall wet bar, the Board members might have considered telegraphing everyone’s parents an overstep of UVA’s hallowed tradition of student self-governance. But they saw the situation as grave, and it had taken more than a year for them to get to that point. In the lead-up, from Board minutes, you can see the group becoming increasingly anxious and, in turn, more activist. They spotted trouble early, as students abandoned coats and ties and, almost as heretical, shaves and haircuts.

One of the more entertaining oral histories from the period came from Jeffrey Kirsch (Col ’71). In 1978, a fourth-year student working on an honors thesis sent out copious questionnaires to the members of the Class of 1970 and others about what came to be known as the Strike, those days of protest in May 1970 when sizable numbers of students boycotted classes and the administration eventually allowed the faculty to slacken the final exam requirements.

Kirsch, a central player in the events, wasn’t the type to stay within the lines of a form. Instead of returning a survey, he mailed the student, Rory K. Little (Col ’78), an audiocassette, filled with color, insight and probity. “I had a joint to get myself ready for this,” Kirsch began, and then proceeded to describe the quaintness of what he encountered his first year, newly arrived to the South in the fall of 1967 from Teaneck, New Jersey.

“Dress, music, everything was way behind other campuses around the country,” he said. “Drugs were way behind. Behavior in general was way behind.” He marveled at the continued popularity of dance-band soul music: “Other campuses were into Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, The Doors, but not Virginia. It was like it had been for 10 years before.”

That had begun to change and quickly. In his 2018 memoir, From Rebel Yell to Revolution, Joel B. Gardner (Col ’70, Law ’74) observed that everyone wore coats and ties his first year. By his fourth year, 1969-1970, most didn’t. Students grew out their hair and their beards.

The Board smelled trouble, and it wasn’t just all the pot smoke in the air. The managers formally registered their disapproval. In April 1969 they unanimously resolved to inform President Edgar F. Shannon Jr. of their concern “about any future deterioration in gentlemanly behavior and appearance among the members of the student body.” They also wanted him to know “the Alumni Association stands ready to assist.”

Shannon’s prompt reply offered a preview of the deft balancing act he would perform at the height of the student unrest. He shared their concern but “the matter of dress,” he wrote, “has been entirely a matter of student opinion and attitude.” It was a polite reminder about student self-governance.

Board frustration only grew. “I can remember talking to students … who I thought I knew very well,” Tullis says. “It just was not getting anywhere at all.”

 Slaughter got aggravated when UVA students heckled a prominent guest speaker, Richard G. Kleindienst, Nixon’s deputy attorney general. As Alumni president, he felt compelled to write to him. Board minutes record Kleindienst’s prickly reply. “I must be candid in saying that I was rather surprised that no one present that evening from the University faculty or administration manifested disapproval of rather unbecoming conduct,” he wrote.

When a rising liberal tide swamped what had been the fraternity system’s decadeslong dominance of student elections, the Alumni Association helped the opposition. To counter the rise of what came to be known as the Virginia Progressive Party, Gardner and fellow traditionalists formed the Jefferson Party. The effort drew the interest of the Alumni Association’s executive director, Gilbert J. “Gilly” Sullivan (Com ’48), the gregarious former UVA quarterback, known for helping student organizations in need.

T. Quinn Spitzer Jr. (Col ’71), the Jefferson Party president during spring 1970, remembers Sullivan taking a group of them to dinner at the Boar’s Head Inn. “We didn’t reach out to him. I think he reached out to us,” he says. “We sort of represented more traditional views about the University, which obviously lined up to what the Alumni Association was thinking. … I think they wanted to vet us more than anything else.”

They passed the test. Local alumni began funding the cause, and the Board had enough skin in the game to enter into the minutes Spitzer’s report on recent election successes. It came in the form of a thank-you note to prominent alumnus Robert P. Englander (Engr ’42), who would join the Board a few years later.  “I hope you and the other gentlemen in the Charlottesville area realize how significant the part you played was,” Spitzer wrote. “The funds … bolstered the confidence of all of us as we weren’t forced to worry about where the next dollar was going.”

Here, at least and at last, the Alumni Association could see itself making a modicum of difference. With a growing bias toward action came a new element: urgency. The Association would let fly 5,800 telegrams at the end of a week where each day, a situation that seemed like it couldn’t get worse, did.

The week that was

After word spread that troops had gunned down unarmed students in Ohio on Monday, May 4, 1970, UVA students massed at the Rotunda that evening. In a dress rehearsal of things to come, they marched on the president’s house at Carr’s Hill and then occupied Maury Hall, the Navy ROTC building behind the Amphitheater. By dawn Tuesday, University authorities had obtained an injunction to clear the Maury Hall demonstrators.

To members of the Board, the events of Wednesday, May 6, would have looked like world’s end. Dissidents had declared it Freedom Day and students began cutting classes in large numbers. The president of Student Council handed President Shannon a list of demands in front of Alderman Library, which he graciously declined. Three thousand rallied at the Rotunda, twice the number from Monday and a figure that represented more than half the undergraduate enrollment.

Then came nightfall and Chicago Seven Trial celebrities William Kunstler and Jerry Rubin to stir things up. The timing, though coincidental, couldn’t have been more incendiary. Kunstler, the fiery civil rights lawyer, and Rubin, one of his seven clients at the trial and leader of the Yippie movement, drew an estimated 9,000 students to University Hall, the old basketball arena and a last-minute venue upgrade. Kunstler exhorted the crowd to march on Carr’s Hill. On cue, hundreds did, a growing chorus of them shouting to burn down the president’s house.

Jerry Rubin (left) and William Kunstler (right) at University Hall, where they fired up the crowd to march on Carr’s Hill. David Skinner

Kirsch, an organizer of the U-Hall event, recalled grabbing a microphone at Carr’s Hill and convincing the mob to divert to Maury Hall. “I was really happy because I got them off the president’s lawn. On the other hand, here I was on the president’s lawn telling people to liberate the Navy ROTC building, and I was just a little bit worried about that,” Kirsch said, according to a transcript of his tape.

Before the authorities emptied Maury Hall of demonstrators for a second time that week, smoke billowed up from a burning mattress in the basement. The week was only half over, and alumni leaders had to have been appalled.

Says Tullis, “Being on the board, I got a damn detail of it every day.”

Earlier in the week student organizers had begun calling for a University-wide strike, never fully defined but encompassing a boycott of classes if not a fuller shutdown of the University. By Thursday, a referendum on nine demands, including a strike to protest the war and Kent State, was scheduled for the following Monday.

And just in case anyone on the Alumni Association Board was still on the fence, on Thursday evening students staged a honk-in on University Avenue in front of the Rotunda. They held up signs asking motorists to sound their horns if they opposed the war. It tied up traffic into the night before local police broke up the demonstration. They moved the students down Emmet Street where, with allegorical irony, the ragtag youth rebellion filed past stately Alumni Hall. 

Friday, May 8, students would attempt an encore of the previous night’s honk-in, except a battalion of state troopers and a Mayflower moving van would be waiting for them.

The telegram

The text of the telegram was formal and deliberate, true to Slaughter’s reputation. He practiced law in Culpeper, and you can see the lawyerly caution in the argumentation.  It began by laying out the factual predicate, starting with the most general.

STUDENTS EVERYWHERE ARE DEEPLY CONCERNED OVER THE WAR IN SOUTHEAST ASIA.

It progressed to the more specific, introducing the element of conflict and establishing the basis for a remedy:

THERE ARE STUDENTS AND OUTSIDERS HERE USING THESE SENTIMENTS TO DEMAND THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA BE CLOSED DOWN. WE FEEL THIS IS NO SOLUTION TO THE PROBLEM.

The next sentence brought University leadership into the picture, tracking language that Slaughter had used in correspondence to Shannon articulating Association priorities, but there’s no evidence suggesting the president’s office had a part in the escapade:

THE ADMINISTRATION IS DETERMINED TO DO ALL IT CAN TO AVOID VIOLENCE, TO KEEP THE UNIVERSITY OPERATING WHILE MAINTAINING ORDERLY AND FREE DISCUSSION.

The telegram’s next building block sought to put the onus on the students:

WHETHER THESE OBJECTIVES CAN BE ACCOMPLISHED RESTS PRIMARILY WITH THE STUDENT BODY.

After the long windup, the telegram made its pitch for parents to “call your son or daughter.” As punchlines go, the line seemed punchless. “I reread twice or three times the telegram you sent me,” says Gardner, who discounts the episode’s significance and didn’t mention it in his memoir. “I think it was extraordinarily measured.”

Tullis, nearly blind now, listened to the text read to him. “Obviously if I was on the board, I agreed with the telegram,” he says. “I still think it was up to the parents and the student body to calm down and to steer a better path than they were steering.”

Another telltale of a lawyer’s involvement: the word count. So much for telegraphese or even common shorthand—University of Virginia was spelled out in full, twice. The full message weighed in at 105 words, including the full name and title of the signatory at the end:

D. FRENCH SLAUGHTER JR. PRESIDENT ALUMNI ASSOCIATION UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA

Page one of the telegram third-year Kevin Mannix remembers discussing with his parents after his overnight detainment at the courthouse. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, UVA

It couldn’t have been cheap. The Cavalier Daily put the price tag at $10,000, real money then and now, and likely a lowball figure. According to U.S. Department of Commerce statistics, a standard 15-word telegram, traveling the 95 miles between New York and Philadelphia, cost $2.25 in 1970. This one had seven times the word count and, with 43 percent out-of-state undergraduate enrollment, traveled all over the country.

Maybe the Alumni Association benefited from off-hours, Saturday delivery. Maybe it managed to lock in an all-you-can-speak flat rate at the standard $2.25. Using those generous assumptions, wiring the families of UVA’s 5,769 undergraduates would have come to $12,980.

As an extravagance, the cost was the equivalent of Association leaders’ running out and buying two new 1970 model Cadillac Coupe DeVilles, equipped with the air conditioning option. More responsibly, the sum would have covered tuition and fees for 12 out-of-state scholarship recipients or 26 in-state for fall 1970. In today’s dollars, using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculator, the cost equates to $89,070.

The Alumni Association Board took one final step before sending the telegram. It tipped off the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The Saturday morning edition carried a story on it, reporting in the present tense that the Association “is sending” telegrams to the parents of all undergraduates. Board minutes reflect that the Association also paid for newspaper notices, but a check of the Times-Dispatch, Charlottesville Daily Progress and Cavalier Daily around the time of the telegram didn’t find them.

Not about the parents

The mass communication got more of a rise out of students than their parents. The news would have started to arrive Saturday morning, not from bow-tied couriers on front porches—those days were past—but via calls from Western Union telephone operators. “A written copy would then be mailed out to the recipient as a record,” Amy Fischer, Western Union’s former corporate archivist, now with the Denver library system, offered via email.

Students’ outrage seemed to correlate to where they stood on the strike, which garnered 68 percent support when it came to a vote. Schmidt, the class president who now works with UVA’s Jefferson Scholars program, was an upstanding varsity football player and part of a squad that helped the dean of students keep the peace. He says, “My parents knew what I was about, so we were all good.”

Kevin L. Mannix (Col ’71, Law ’74), then Student Council vice president, remembers the subject coming up with his parents, but it didn’t lead the conversation. They had more preoccupying matters to discuss. Mannix had gotten tossed into the Mayflower van the night before, no matter that he was a student marshal helping to disperse the crowd. He had spent the night on the floor of the local courtroom. “I was kind of tired, and maybe my reaction was a little low,” he says, “but I had enough other things to be upset about.”

Sinesky’s petition was never about what his parents might have thought. Both worked hard, his father in the Pennsylvania coal mines. “I doubt if they even knew a telegram came,” he says.

He was truly independent—married by his fourth year, on a full football scholarship, and otherwise supporting himself. He had attended the Kunstler-Rubin rally, but when the crowd started toward Carr’s Hill, he headed the other way, to Copeley Hill and married-student housing.

Wednesday, May 6, was declared Freedom Day; more than 1,000 attended a protest at the Rotunda. Arthur J. Morris Law Library, UVA

“You know, nobody was overlooking my situation but me and my wife,” he says. “So the idea that somebody would send a telegram home to my parents questioning my actions, I was incensed by that.”

Kirsch has mellowed from the choice words and anatomical reference he used to decry the Alumni Association and its telegram in his oral history. “I remember how mad that I was, and we were,” he says, interviewed for this story. “It just seemed to be another sign that the school was against us.”

Student reaction came swiftly. The following day, Sunday, May 10, student strike organizers distributed leaflets alerting students to what the Alumni Association had done and telling them to call home preemptively: “This will prevent vague speculations from becoming substantiated ‘truths.’”

Sinesky recalls collecting signatures that Monday. On Tuesday the Cavalier Daily and Student Council issued their condemnations.

Post-telegraphic distress

At Alumni Hall a few weeks later, the Board unanimously passed a pat on the back for its officers—Slaughter, the president, Sullivan, whose official title was then secretary-treasurer, and the vice president, William P. Dickson Jr. (Law ’38), who would succeed Slaughter in a few weeks. It lauded their “tremendous efforts … during the recent disturbances at the University of Virginia” and “the wise judgment demonstrated.” The resolution “commended and thanked” them, and then retroactively approved all the actions they took and an unspecified “disbursement of funds … to pay for the … telegrams.”

By July, the Association struck a less celebratory tone. Slaughter sent a four-page explanation of the venture to members, U.S. mail this time, and acknowledged the blowback. He wrote, “This telegram has received considerable criticism from many students and the Alumni Association was censured by the Student Council for sending this telegram.”

For the summer issue of Alumni News, this magazine’s predecessor, the Association’s officers commissioned an outside writer to report on the spring upheaval, then scrapped the idea in favor of reprinting a story from The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk. Like the rest of that issue of the magazine, it made no mention of the telegram incident. 

After UVA, Sinesky served in Vietnam as an Air Force cargo pilot, going on to a career as a commercial airline pilot. He says it took 10 years before he was ready to join the Alumni Association.

For Lowe, the Mayflower boycotter, it has been 51 years and counting.

Kirsch, the nonconformist who filled an audiocassette instead of Little’s questionnaire, immediately became a Life Member of the Alumni Association. When a crisis of conscience compelled him to resign his college ROTC scholarship, UVA helped him find financial aid and jobs at the hospital and the dining hall. He credits his time as a student organizer with preparing him for a rewarding career in nonprofits and advocacy for underprivileged families. “I joined because I felt an obligation to the University,” he says.

The telegram didn’t figure into Little’s fourth-year thesis on the student strike, but he did hear about it, eight years after the fact, from the 1970 alumni he had surveyed. “I just remember that people were pissed off about it,” says Little, now a constitutional law professor in California. “Everybody was angry at that time, right? I mean, students were angry. Faculty were angry. Administrators were angry. The alumni were angry. It was an angry time.”

Richard Gard is the editor of Virginia Magazine.