Tuesday, March 23, 2010
A brave man died last week.
In March 12, UC Berkeley Professor emeritus Charles Muscatine, a renowned Chaucer scholar and one of the best teachers on campus, died at age 89 at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Facility in Oakland.
But his most enduring fame will be for his heroism 60 years ago, when he was a young assistant professor at Cal. It was the height of the McCarthy hysteria, and the Regents of the University ordered every faculty member to sign a loyalty oath swearing that he or she wasn't a communist.
Muscatine refused and was fired, along with 30 others.
Not that he was a communist, of course. But this was an obvious invasion of academic freedom, as well as the Constitution.
"Besides, I had an obligation to my students," he told me years later. "How could I tell them to tell it as it is if I had signed something that went so much against my conscience?"
But he paid a terrible price. When he was fired, his wife Doris was three months pregnant; and it was more than a year before he found another job. She backed him up 100 percent, by the way - "something that wasn't always true, I regret to say, for all my colleagues," he said.
It was four years before Cal finally hired him back, after the California Supreme Court declared the loyalty oath unconstitutional.
So if Muscatine and the other non-signers are the heroes of this story, those who did sign are the villains, right?
Wrong. Many had mortgage payments and kids in school. Often, they were under intense pressure from their families and department chairmen to sign. But they hated doing it.
"The most heart-rending cases were the people who held out almost to the very end, only to crack under the pressure at the last moment," Muscatine said. "They were victims just as much as we were."
As the controversy dragged on, the two groups grew closer and closer.
"The signers passed the hat among themselves and raised more than $100,000, which was real dough in those days, to help us pay our bills," said Muscatine. "Essentially, they supported us during that whole year when we were out of work."
They also got some much-appreciated moral support from St. Albert's Dominican monastery in Oakland.
"One of the most touching and supportive acts of any of our friends was being invited to St. Albert's to give lectures in our academic specialties," said Muscatine, his voice breaking with emotion as he recalled the story 50 years later. "It reaffirmed our membership in the scholarly and intellectual world."
So why didn't he back down? Simple: Nobody likes to knuckle under to a bully.
If the Regents had done their homework, they would have found out that Muscatine was a LST commander in World War II, landing troops on the beaches (and evacuating the wounded on the return trips) in some of the bloodiest Allied landings of the war, including North Africa, Sicily, Salerno and, of course, Omaha Beach.
On D-Day, he went back over and over to rescue men trapped in the burning wreckage of a sinking ship, for which he was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal.
The moral: After he'd already faced down the Nazis, the biggest bullies of them all, what made the Regents think he'd be scared of them?