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Half a century ago, Sterling Hall bombing left its mark on Madison and the world

Sterling Hall at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. (JabberWok, Wikimedia Commons/Released)

Fifty years ago, a bomb blasted through a UW-Madison building in the early morning, reverberating across the city, killing a university researcher, injuring several others and forever changing the anti-war movement.

The bombing of Sterling Hall at 3:42 a.m. on Aug. 24, 1970, represented a turning point on college campuses after years of protests against the Vietnam War.

Four young antiwar radicals known as the New Year’s Gang planned to target the Army Math Research Center, which was partially funded by the U.S. Army for war efforts and located in the upper floors of Sterling Hall. The group’s homemade bomb instead decimated most everything around it.

Graduate student David Schuster was one of a handful in the building at the time the mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil ripped through Sterling Hall. He spent the next several hours buried under rubble, fading in and out of consciousness.

As a physics researcher from South Africa, he considered himself “pretty politically naive” before the bombing, but the experience made him more politically engaged and philosophical about the happenstance of life.

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Schuster remembers seeing Robert Fassnacht, the postdoctoral researcher killed by the bomb, in the hallway just moments before it detonated. Schuster ducked into a graduate student office nearby and should have been killed instantly, firefighters later told him, but a building support pillar shielded him from the direct blast.

“If I had been two feet over or the other way, I would have been taken instantly,” said Schuster, who was hospitalized with a broken shoulder and sustained permanent hearing loss in one ear. “If the bomb had gone off five minutes later, I might not have been injured at all and Robert may not have died. It was a matter of chance.”

The explosion, the worst act of domestic terrorism in the United States until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, forced students to confront the violence, the loss of an innocent life and their own political convictions.

The event has an indelible grip on Madison even 50 years later and is the most discussed topic in interviews conducted by UW Archives researchers for the university’s Oral History Program.

Some alumni see the early morning explosion as an isolated event directly tied to the war that nevertheless was a formative and enduring experience for those on campus.

“All of us there won’t forget it,” said Michael Averbach, who spent the morning after the bombing passing out leaflets in which the bombers defended themselves, then went into hiding for two weeks after the FBI began asking him questions. “It’s a pretty important piece of what happened to us and what we lived through.”

Where is Leo Burt?

The four young men who carried out the Sterling Hall bombing fled the scene and even the country. Brothers Karleton and Dwight Armstrong, along with David Fine, were eventually caught and sentenced to prison.

But the fourth conspirator, Leo Burt, has evaded police all this time and the elusive hunt for him continues 50 years later. The FBI still receives between 10 and 20 tips each year on Burt’s whereabouts, according to special agent Doug Raubal.

“The FBI’s perspective is that just because he got away with it for 50 years doesn’t mean we stop looking,” he said.

Burt remains on the FBI’s Most Wanted Domestic Terrorism List and the agency is still offering a $150,000 reward for information leading to Burt’s arrest.

“Obviously, he’s not getting any younger,” Raubal said. “The time to locate is right now. It is our hope that the media attention of the 50th anniversary may help generate more leads for the investigation as well.”

But others with the vantage point of half a century later can’t help but reflect on the parallels between that time period and today. The comparisons are certainly imprecise, some say, but they see and feel echoes of 1970 in 2020.

Greg Schultz, the lone university telephone operator on duty the night of the bombing, remembers that time as one where everything was in question: What is the role of government? At what point does civil disobedience go too far? How does a campus reopen after tragedy?

“This was such a traumatic event — as the times are now,” he said. “Some of the elements have changed but you’d be surprised how many are the same.”

Pick a side

Alumni still disagree on whether the bombing was justified and what effect it had on the antiwar movement.

“Even though what they did was stupid and inexcusable, it woke me up,” Marysue (Vail) Mastey recently told On Wisconsin, the university’s alumni magazine. “I think it caused a lot of people — not just myself, but others I knew — to focus on the Vietnam War. It forced me to think about the two sides and to pick one.”

The death of Fassnacht, a 33-year-old father to three, put things in perspective for many students, dampening the near-daily demonstrations.

“It really quieted or killed the antiwar movement on campuses,” said Michael Molnar, a graduate student studying astronomy whose office in Sterling Hall was destroyed by the bomb. “It really sobered a lot of people about where this was going. I don’t think it helped the cause at all.”

Albert Holm, another astronomy graduate student, participated in peaceful protests in the years leading up to the bombing, but he considered himself to be a “middle-of-the-road” guy with few radical friends.

The “senseless violence” on Aug. 24 reinforced in him how protesters can take things too far.

Holm sees similarities in some of the events this summer when George Floyd’s death while in Minneapolis police custody propelled the Black Lives Matter movement into a national awakening over systemic racism, but also led to looting, destruction and a heated debate on what actions actually detract from the protesters’ message.

For example, on one particular evening in Madison, individuals tore down two statues, assaulted a state senator and threw a Molotov cocktail into a government building. The events of that June night left many people wondering what purpose the actions served to support racial equality. Protesters defended some of the actions, saying it forced the public to pay attention to problems ignored by government for centuries.

“There’s a great inequity that needs to be taken care of,” Holm said, referring to his support for racial justice. “But I think people setting fires or attacking the federal buildings gives fuel to the other side.”

Alumnus John Lynch also sees reflections from that time in this year’s protests against police brutality. Across the country this summer, nightfall brought lines of riot-clad police officers, and in some cities even members of the military, who confronted protesters and deployed tear gas, rubber bullets and other weapons to quell crowds.

“We were fighting our own people, which is the exact situation now,” he said. “It’s a confusing issue now and it was a confusing issue then.”

Uncertainty looms

It’s hard not to see similarities between the anxiety and fear filtering across campus in the wake of the bombing and the mood in recent months as UW-Madison attempts to reopen amid a pandemic that has killed 170,000 people in the country.

The UW Board of Regents vowed days after the blast to keep the university open that fall even amid threats of more violence. A Marinette couple was quoted in the Wisconsin State Journal asking the university for assurances that their three children attending UW would not be bombed. Enrollment dipped 3.3%. Schultz, who manned the university telephone the night of Aug. 24, remembers the nerves students felt on campus that fall when he served as a house fellow in one of the Lakeshore dorms.

Now in 2020, UW-Madison faces pressure from employees who say reopening is simply not safe. Some parents worry whether their children should move into residence halls or stay home and take classes online. Enrollment numbers look strong, university officials said earlier this summer, but nothing is certain until classes begin.

The silent spread of the coronavirus among asymptomatic individuals makes campus, in some ways, an even more daunting place now than back then, Schultz said.

“The fear was there (in 1970) but it was different, more situational,” he said. “Now, people can be infected and you don’t know. It’s a problem you really can’t see. You can see a demonstration. You can avoid a building. A virus, you can’t.”

Both the bombing and pandemic upended the lives of students and employees.

About two dozen graduate students who worked in Sterling Hall lost research, stalling progress on their work. Some scholars left, departures that pushed back students’ graduation timelines, including Lynch’s.

Employees whose buildings became inaccessible received guidance from administrators on where to go.

“We are trying to hang on, and then see what the future holds,” a university official said two days after the explosion.

This spring, the pandemic sidelined some UW-Madison scientists from their labs, delaying some experiments and preventing undergraduates from engaging in research opportunities. Some researchers fear the ripple effects, saying career trajectories may be delayed.

In March, most university employees began working from home and building access was restricted.

In both cases, university leaders promised stiff discipline in the semester ahead for students who participate in mass gatherings while also acknowledging the challenge in enforcing such measures.

Then-Chancellor Edwin Young said in 1970 that the university was “doing everything possible to provide for the safety” of students.

Fifty years later, facing a different crisis but similar atmosphere of apprehension, Chancellor Rebecca Blank is making that same pledge to the campus community.

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©2020 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.