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The Afterlife Of Mario Savio

Veterans of the 1964 Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, California, an event that electrified young men and women world over, will return to campus for the fiftieth anniversary reunion this October. (If interested e-mail FSM’s most famous leader, Mario Savio, won’t be there because he died in 1996.

I’m intensely interested in the personal lives of famous people once they “fade from the limelight.” You have this thrilling moment that defines you in popular culture…a speech, an 80-yard kickoff return…an Olympic gold medal…and then? For Savio the moment came when he gave his immortal speech on the steps of Sproul Hall:

“We’re human beings! There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

Savio’s speech became an antiwar rallying cry during Vietnam. Before Jane Fonda, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan he was the face of protest. And then? It’s said that the ancient Spartan mothers told their sons just before a battle, “Either with your shield or on it.” Or as the Australian swimming gold-medalist Shane Gould reflected on her life after the Olympics: “It was like being taken up to the highest mountain peak to see the view, and then being brought down, never to be there again.” Sandy Koufax would know all about that.

It’s quite common for world-class athletes to fall into depression and illness after they’ve given their all to achieve perfection for one brief moment. Same is true of movie actors once their time in the sun is over. Stars become waitresses or drunks or overdose or suicide – that is, those who don’t take the precaution of marrying rich which some happily do.

Adrenalin gets us up the mountain but when the rush is gone normal life can seem unbearably gray and unexciting.

You bring your baggage with you up to Everest, and it can be a killer coming down, especially if like Savio you’re a decent person unwilling to exploit your temporary fame. Raised Catholic the son of a steelworker, he might have become a priest but instead joined Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement and the Mississippi civil rights fight before convulsing the UC Berkeley campus whose chancellor Clark Kerr was trapped between protesting students and Neanderthal regents.

Savio held fast to the end: radical, reasonable, intransigent. He married and had children, had a nervous breakdown, went back to school, taught math and philosophy and had an early heart attack. Personally, I see his “afterlife” at least as heroic as his big moment on campus. Normal life ain’t that easy for any of us especially if you’ve been lightning-struck by media attention and peer popularity.


Idealistic, high-maintenance activists tend to burn out and some never do come back. It’s hard to step away once you’ve seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. I wonder if that’s why certain once-famous once-beautiful actresses retire to serene Carmel to talk to mainly animals. I can think of very few really famous people who stepped, or were forced, down and did good with their fame. President Jimmy Carter with his Habitat for Humanity is an exception. (No, not Al Gore, let’s not go there; and certainly not Bill Clinton with his $100 million income and extortionate speaking fees.)

A second stage of heroism just might mean living normally under the radar, with or without kids with or without mortgage. Problem is, aside from novels and songs there’s no way to celebrate a hero who returns with but not on his shield.

(Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives.)

One Comment

  1. William Ray March 26, 2014

    The way I remember it, Mario Savio said, “We’re human beings!” at the end, not the beginning, of his statement. It was electrifying. We all shared an indomitable vision, call it naive if you wish, which could not be verbalized, perhaps that the values of self-knowledge, generosity, justice, and healing WOULD come to pass in our society or we would have no part in it.

    True, as the (unfair) symbol of the contentious nature of the political confrontation necessary to challenge status quo power, Mario was a sacrifice. I remember a pipette manufacturer in Berkeley canvassed his employees to see if they would consent for him to hire him. They did of course. But from what the owner was made to know, it would be all right to ostracize the trouble-maker. White people never got economic condemnation from power as bad as the Black young thinkers and doers in Oakland and Chicago and Philadelphia. It was a little worse, literally life and death.

    I suppose what the author is mulling is what Plato thought about plenty, join the fray or observe. Do you hide behind a rock while the storm approaches and passes? Sometimes it isn’t so tidy a choice. Conviction decided it for Mario. He had a terrible stammer that he overcame because justice mattered so much. He was as inexperienced as anyone else when it came to tactics. He asked me if we should “fraternize with the enemy” when some faculty members approached and said hello. We greeted them.

    It was a hell of a time. Nobody really knew what was happening. I think it marked a watershed when a great number of young minds decided how they would live throughout the rest of their lives. Many kept the promise.

    It probably won’t get into the history books that a young Jerry Brown tried to negotiate with his father, the Governor, on behalf of the students in Sproul Hall. Only when Ed Meese, then Jensen’s assistant D.A., lied that the students were vandalizing the offices did Brown call the cops in. Meese went on to distinguish himself as Reagan’s thug and the worst Attorney General ever, with the possible exceptions of John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales. After Brown left office, defeated by Mickey Mouse Pancake Make-Up, he wrote two books warning of the falsity of Ronald Reagan. The propaganda moneyed by the oil interests drowned him out. We know what has happened since.

    signed, Geezer

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