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Delaware in the 1960s: Meet 'The Agitator'

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The son of a Navy officer, Phillip Bannowsky lived in California, Hawaii, France, Newfoundland and a few other places before his father retired from the military and took a job in Delaware, just in time for him to enroll at the University of Delaware in the fall of 1962.

The family lived for a while at a motel near the old Merryland roller rink on U.S. 40 near the Maryland state line before settling in Eastburn Acres, near Kirkwood Highway.

Right away, Bannowsky got involved in literature and theater groups, but he dropped out during his sophomore year. “My parents were divorcing, and I went through a few years of being pretty neurotic and depressed,” he says. By the time he returned to school in 1967, “everything had been transformed.”

In the interim, Bannowsky had stayed close to campus. “I was what you called a nonstudent agitator. I wasn’t much of a leader. I saw myself as more of a soldier.”

That meant joining Students for a Democratic Society and, quite often, participating in its protests and theatrics. One of the group’s favorite targets was the ROTC, a program the university was required to offer because of its status as a land-grant university. ROTC was a symbol of U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam.

“As students were losing their deferments [from the draft], we decided to conduct a mock funeral for the class of ’67 or ’68. We stayed up all night building this coffin, and then we marched up and down The Green,” Bannowsky recalls.

As classes changed at noon, a group of ROTC members took note as they marched to their drill at Carpenter Field, on the North Campus. “They got really angry,” Bannowsky says. “Some of the cadets tried to disrupt this little ceremony we’re having, and there’s this bizarre tug of war over the coffin.”

One of the university’s deans raced out of his office. So did the SDS faculty adviser. They got into a debate about the right to free expression on campus. The SDS members? “We decided we had made our point,” Bannowsky says. “We went off to celebrate.”

Bannowsky, now 73, struggles a bit to describe the political orientation of the SDS. “We were most likely new left, pacifists, leaving the old ways behind. We were kind of libertarian, anarchal, kind of left-oriented social democrats of a sort. My former wife liked to remind me that we had the highest grade-point average of any organization on campus.”

Bannowsky’s days as a campus activist were punctuated by spending part of the summer of 1967 canvassing low-income neighborhoods in Wilmington to talk up opposition to the Vietnam War, an activity inspired largely by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech against the war that April. The following summer Bannowsky headed to Chicago to see a friend, Jim McCarthy, play in a blues band, then wound up in the midst of the rioting during the week of the Democratic National Convention.

“I went downtown to check out the action. I go into Grant Park, and there was (Beat Generation poet and activist) Allen Ginsberg playing this harmonium, sitting with a bunch of hippie freaks. Back across the way were all these cops, and you could tell they were just looking for a fight. So Ginsberg is just chanting, ‘Om, om, om,’ while playing this harmonium. He stands up, walks about 20 feet, and you can see him decide he’s not going to leave the park. I left, and came back a few hours later, and here’s all these cops beating on all these freaks.”

As the ’60s drew to a close, Bannowsky married and had a child. He needed a job, so in August 1969 he began working at the Chrysler assembly plant in Newark, where his activist streak helped him morph into a leader of the local United Auto Workers union. In the late 1980s, when the plant shut down for retooling for a year, he went back to UD and earned his bachelor’s degree, with the union picking up the tab. He went to graduate school at night, then took a leave of absence to teach English for three years at an American international school in Ecuador.

Back at Chrylser in the ’90s, he worked with the union on a campaign for a state law to give felons the right to vote. He wrote a couple of books and, after retiring from Chrysler, returned to UD, where he now teaches English as an adjunct faculty member.

“I look back to Vietnam. It was a dangerous situation then, and in some ways it was worse (than today) … but we were very young, very hopeful, and we had good vibes that things would get better,” Bannowsky says. “Things have slowly been getting better, and now we’ve got proto-fascist folks in (Washington). For some, especially immigrants and people from the Middle East, this is a total disaster…. The avenues for peaceful resolution are being badly stymied.”

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