Savio, the altar boy who created the '60s Memorial: After years of quiet brilliance, leader of 1964 Free Speech Movement fought the machine in his final days.


This Sunday, at gatherings from California to New York, friends and admirers of Mario Savio, the affecting and morally probing leader of the 1964 Free Speech Movement, will ponder just where he belongs in their personal and collective histories.

But Savio's sudden death from heart troubles last month at age 53, more than 30 years after he was frozen in time as an icon of 1960s radicalism, has raised another intriguing question: What had he been doing all these years?

It was a question that the intensely private Savio generally chose not to answer publicly as he taught school, raised three children and attempted again to involve himself in political issues, even while diligently fleeing the corruption of celebrity.

A colleague at the California university where Savio had taught since 1990 recalls a moment shortly after he arrived on campus. A woman came up to him and said, "Are you Mario Savio?" He replied, "Well, somebody has to be."

The spotlight found Mario Savio during the fall of 1964. The handsome young philosophy student had just arrived at the University of California at Berkeley after registering black voters during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. He carried the moral force of the civil rights movement back to school with him.

When told he couldn't pass out political literature on campus, he joined a diverse group, ranging from Students for Goldwater to the Chess Club and DuBois Socialist Club, to defy the ban. In one confrontation with authorities, a student was arrested. A crowd of students, more used to water fights and panty raids, formed around the police car. Savio climbed on top and delivered an awesome social metaphor:

"There comes 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," he said. "And you've got to put your bodies on the gears, and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus. And you've got to make it stop."

These words from the son of a Sicilian machinist would move 800 clean-cut University of California students to sit in, get arrested and change the nature of public debate in America. It was a pregnant moment. America was closer to the passiveness and communist witch hunts of the '50s; the long hair, drugs, sex and revolutionary posturing that came to be known as the '60s was yet to come.

Dec. 8 marks the 32nd anniversary of the date that UC-Berkeley faculty members voted to support students' demand for free speech. A memorial gathering will take place in Sproul Plaza in Berkeley, where Savio jumped on top of the police car and into history.

Another will be held on Bank Street in New York, a cultural leap from Floral Park, Queens, where Savio, known back then as "Bobby," was a Catholic altar boy and valedictorian of his high school class. In the school yearbook, he was called "Mr. Univac," his brilliance analogized to a strange new machine, a computer.

Sunday, the crowds and TV cameras will gather to remember the movement leader. But yesterday, a more intimate group assembled at Sonoma State University to commemorate instead the man Mario Savio had become.

Savio had joined the faculty at the small state school 50 miles north of San Francisco in 1990. It was here that he finally seemed to be putting his life together after what he described in a speech at a 1994 Free Speech Movement as "two decades of some joy, but marked with much sadness and personal tragedy."

On the day of his death, Savio had been moving into the first house he would ever own with his wife, Lynne Hollander, a librarian and Berkeley protest veteran, and his youngest son, Daniel.

An earlier marriage to another free speech alumna, Suzanne Goldberg, ended in divorce. They had two sons, Stefan, 29, born with disabilities, and Nadav, 27, who recently completed a pamphlet with his father on racial justice.

Savio, described protectively by friends as sensitive, vulnerable, brilliant and moral, had been rumored to suffer from depression as the high-minded '60s devolved into the "Me generation" '70s.

At Sonoma State, he deliberately kept a low profile, teaching math and English to "under-prepared" students. It was only when Rolling Stone magazine came to call that Leslie Hartman, a department secretary, began to realize that the man who seemed so special to her was also famous. "I was so impressed with his warmth and energy," she says. "His pace was quick. He'd come in and things would blow off my desk."

Elaine Sundberg, Savio's boss, says she recognized the name when his resume came across her desk. "I thought, could this possibly be the real Mario Savio?"

His resume mentioned his degrees in physics from San Francisco State University in the late 1980s. It noted his near-perfect grade point average and his work during the early '80s teaching math and physics at several small California colleges.

From 1974 to 1984, the resume said, he'd also been a private tutor; before that, he'd taught disabled children in Los Angeles. But there is no mention of his studies at Berkeley, or at Oxford, where he went immediately after.

"There was no listing on his application that said, 'FSM leader, magnificent orator,' but the dates matched up," recalls Sundberg. "The first time I saw him I knew it was him. He had this incredible profile and the curly hair, now long and silver and balding in front. His voice never changed. He was constantly emoting."

Many others didn't make the connection. One who did, but didn't let on, was Steve Spurling, also a Sonoma State math instructor, who remembers Savio as "a true intellectual," a man who "cared more about abstraction than his physical well-being."

Although they shared a tiny, simple office for almost seven years, Spurling never mentioned that he was a freshman at Berkeley in 1964, and very apolitical. "I didn't want to be involved. I was annoyed by the protests.

"After the arrests, the chancellor said he was going to give a speech. My roommate and I went to hear him. I forget what he said, but after he spoke, Mario hopped up to the podium. He was grabbed by the guards and dragged away.

"Suddenly voices started chanting: 'We want Mario!' I tried to be cool, not take part in mob psychology. But I joined the 10,000 others and we chanted: 'We want Mario, we want Mario!'

"How many people have 10,000 others chanting for them?" Spurling says. "But I never told him I was there. I didn't want to be overshadowed by him."

zTC The 1994 elections seemed to move Savio to become politically active again. In particular, he was upset by the passage of Proposition 187 in California, which restricted immigrants' rights. This year, he campaigned against California Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action measure.

In a rare 1995 interview, he told a reporter for the local paper: "The last election demonstrated that this country has been taken over by barbarians."

Besides finally finding a good work environment and returning to political issues, Savio was on the verge of fulfilling his considerable intellectual ambitions. A paper he had submitted to the journal Formal Logic, solving an old puzzle of Aristotelian logic, had been tentatively accepted; corrections will be made by fellow faculty determined to see it published.

"The excitement of his life interfered with the normal career trajectory," says longtime friend Reggie Zelnick, now chair of the UC Berkeley history department.

No doubt this weekend's tributes will spark a re-examination of Mario Savio's work. Friends are determined to publish his speeches and writings and to help his widow and son. A Savio Family Fund has been set up through Sonoma State to aid them.

But it's hard to believe that any tribute could be more in his spirit than this one, found scrawled on the wall outside his office:

"This is from Eldrid in Math 30. Sorry for the bad times but you know what? You made me a better person I straightened out and I owe it all to the person who loved people for one and himself last. I appreciate all the hard work you put in your profession and I love you, Eldrid."

Pub Date: 12/06/96

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