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From Goldwater Republican to McGovern Democrat, transformed by Vigil

The Silent Vigil of 1968 gave rise to an eloquent protest that cemented the evolution of my peers from the Silent Generation of the 1950s to the activist generation of the 1960s. That certainly was true for this son of a North Carolina textile company executive, born and bred in Mount Airy, N.C., the real-life Mayberry for the fictional town that native son Andy Griffith made famous. I arrived at Duke in 1966 as a Goldwater Republican and, transformed by the Vigil, many of my peers, and the protests of the times, left a McGovern Democrat—which, I might note, put me on the opposite, losing side of two of the more lopsided defeats in electoral history and on the same liberal political track as Margaret Small, one of the Vigil’s leaders, and Hillary Clinton. 

Unlike many of my classmates who seemed to have had superior educations in northeastern suburbs or at east coast prep schools, I arrived at all-male Trinity College from a quintessential southern town, small and more than a little provincial. Our worldview was largely untested. 

Mount Airy, a tobacco-and-textile town of 7,000 in northwestern North Carolina, was far too much like The Andy Griffith Show’s Mayberry for comfort. A single black person attended my high school when I was a senior—one more than in any year before, in a town where about 10 percent of residents were black. You could count the Jewish families on both hands. But my parents were determined we would have a wider view of the world. Our family got one of about a half-dozen Sunday New York Times delivered to Lamm Drug on Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on which day the bus with the papers arrived. Two or three of my friends listened to Joan Baez records. Like more than a few classmates, I was a Goldwater-backing, Vietnam War-supporting conservative when I graduated with 99 other seniors from Mount Airy High School. 

Duke changed me profoundly, and the Vigil was a galvanizing moment. Living through those days of nonviolent protest compelled me to see the world through the eyes of my peers and faculty, to consider a sense of equity that was far different than anything I’d known in high school. Even before the Vigil, this evolution of my thinking—which didn’t take place overnight—began in the hothouse context of classroom challenges, dorm discussions, and late-night/early morning debates. Looking back, though, it was rapid.

I showed up in The Chronicle offices a couple of weeks into my freshman year, offering my few years of experience working for our weekly newspaper in Mount Airy after school and during summers. Early on in 301 Flowers Building, someone —I think it was then-editor David Birkhead—tossed me a huge stack of clippings and asked me to summarize them for a special issue the paper was preparing about a protest against the Vietnam War.

Over the next several months, the intellectual churn of my new environment began to reshape my thinking on the war, gender relations, civil rights, and workers’ rights—as the son of a textile-manufacturing executive, that last one was especially upending. Beyond our world on West Campus, universities across the country also were awash in unrest and protest, revulsion against the Vietnam War, and the ongoing struggle for civil rights. 

But we also had concerns closer to our new home. National dissent combined with and escalated our dissatisfaction with campus rules. As one broadside characterized it (naively, in retrospect), “Rule by fiat of the deans is illegitimate.” Many of us felt driven to challenge essentially the entire order of the university.

For me, working with the newspaper staff to cover those transformative times, The Chronicle cemented what had been a tepid notion when I arrived on campus: that it was journalism, not law or academia, certainly not science or business, where my skills and passion belonged. Covering the Vigil was a catalytic moment. And, 50 years later, I still think Chroniclers should be unabashed about taking their passion for what journalism can do into the greater world after they leave Duke. 

The Vigil also cemented my belief that campus activism can, with sufficient zeal and, admittedly, the right moment, effect important change. I’d like to think that’s a belief that, as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vigil, is as relevant today as it was a half-century ago.

Bob Ashley (Trinity ’70), a former managing editor of The Chronicle, retired in 2017 as the editor of the Durham Herald-Sun, the last of three newsrooms he led during a 50-plus career in journalism. 

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