Saturday, May 06, 2006

Dick Flacks Retires

[ Excerpt from SBN-P article by SHELLY LEACHMAN, 5/5/2006 ]

His walk is slow but sort of bouncy, his speech both thoughtful and quick. He takes his coffee black, which seems perfectly appropriate for a legend of social activism and radical politics. It wouldn't seem right for him to order a half-caf, nonfat soy cappuccino, and he doesn't.

In between sips of his dark roast, Dick Flacks slowly spins the paper cup with his left hand while reflecting on his career. Some 37 years after landing at UCSB, the iconic sociology professor is now retiring.

"There's only so much time we've got left on the planet -- how much of it do you want to spend in meetings?" he joked through a sly, conspiratorial grin. "Part of the reason to retire is so you don't have to go to meetings."

He's been to many a meeting. From his early days as a founder of the radical grass-roots group Students for a Democratic Society in 1962, to his years teaching at the University of Chicago, through his long tenure at UCSB, Mr. Flacks has always been beyond involved. And whether as an ultra-engaged teacher, a voracious researcher or a front-line democratic activist, he's forever a proud radical.

"When I came to this town, most people knew of SDS how the press depicted it, as a violent revolutionary movement, and if I was one of the founders, I must be one of those," he said. "Then they'd meet me and say, 'You're not radical at all. You're so calm and thoughtful.' I say, 'Yeah, but I am radical.' I believe that the roots of society can be changed. That's radical."

His humor is wry and distinct, but even the subtlest details about Mr. Flacks stand out -- physical manifestations of a unique personality. The sweater tucked into his jeans. The silver wedding band etched with a vinelike pattern. The watch turned under his left wrist. The thick specs that magnify his eyes. The way the top of his right ear turns down slightly. Those whispers of wiry gray hair. And then there's that deep depression near the crown of his head.

On May 5, 1969, Mr. Flacks was attacked in his office at the University of Chicago. Beaten by someone posing as a newspaper reporter, he nearly died after suffering two skull fractures, an almost-severed right hand and other injuries. His assailant was never caught.

"At some point you decide your life is more important and move on," he said this week. "It helped that I have no memory of (the attack). It was harder for my wife, who'd had to deal with not knowing whether I would survive. I was unconscious."

Barely one month after the assault, Mr. Flacks accepted a lifetime tenured position at UCSB. His appointment was met with loud objections by the California Republican Assembly and, for a time, the News-Press editorial pages, fearing his affiliation with sometimes-violent SDS would cast an unwanted radical pall over serene Santa Barbara.

In a June 1969 Los Angeles Times story, Gov. Ronald Reagan likened Mr. Flacks' hiring by UCSB to "a manager of a firecracker factory hiring a known pyromaniac because he makes good fuses."

But Mr. Flacks, then and now, said he chose UCSB because it seemed so calm -- and calm was what he wanted for himself, wife Mickey and young sons Chuck and Mark.

"It was a very sleepy campus," he said. "I came here partly because I had just been through a tumultuous time (in Chicago) and I was looking forward to a sleepy opportunity."

That opportunity was denied.

Mr. Flacks started at the seaside campus in the fall of 1969. Six months later, in February 1970, the Bank of America in Isla Vista was burned down, and ensuing riots turned deadly as the anti-Vietnam War movement heated up. Many people at the time accused him of being involved in the protests, said Mr. Flacks, who has written extensively about the era.

He wasn't involved in the local riots, but he remains sympathetic to and passionate about social protests and student activism.

"People are very worried about the state of affairs, but it makes sense in a strange way not to pay attention," said Mr. Flacks, citing his recent research that revealed only 7 percent of college students read a daily newspaper and 25 percent ignore the news altogether.

"If you think you're powerless, what good does it do to know more about it? Where are our empowerment possibilities?" he asked. "My whole research and teaching career can be summed up as trying to answer that question."

In the early 1980s and again in the early 1990s, Bill Shay tried to find that answer as a teaching and research assistant to Mr. Flacks, under whose tutelage he eventually earned a doctorate in sociology. Now an administrative director at UCLA, Mr. Shay picked UCSB for graduate school specifically to work with Mr. Flacks, whom he'd known of and admired since high school.

Describing his former teacher and now friend -- "I can't not keep in touch with Dick" -- as an intellectual troubadour, Mr. Shay likened Mr. Flacks to a folk singer who uses storytelling techniques to relate his experiences.

"He was masterful at that," said Mr. Shay. "He was singing the song of sociology in the classroom. And that was the heart of his impact -- he was a model of the way in which to take the experiences of common person and translate them into broader sociological terms."

Mr. Shay is among the many former and current students of Mr. Flacks who will lead discussions during a weekend conference honoring his career on the eve of his retirement. Being held today and Saturday at locations in Isla Vista and on campus, "45 Years of Democratic Activism: Legacies and Learning" will include lectures, workshops and an all-out bash of a banquet. The latter features a speech by Mr. Flacks' longtime friend and SDS co-founder, former state Sen. Tom Hayden.

After retirement, Mr. Flacks has one cruise planned -- an EcoCruise, naturally -- but otherwise, he will apparently be busy as ever.

Mr. Flacks said he intends to continue his research, write books, teach the occasional class and do his weekly KCSB radio show, "Culture of Protest."

He will remain active in local politics and social causes, doing all he can to encourage others to rise up and get radical.

"A frustration that a lot of people feel, that I feel, is that there is no alternative set of voices at the national level," he said. "Radicals are people who are really willing to make a fundamental, critical examination of institutions, of society, to entertain alternative visions. They're people who don't think that the way things are are the way things have to be, that another world is possible. That's a radical statement."


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