Blessed Peacemakers

They'd seem quaint if they weren't so eloquent: Meet the University of St. Thomas's loudest rabble-rousers


Back in 1969 when Nelson-Pallmeyer was a freshman at St. Olaf, students across the country were the voices most vehemently critical of the war in Vietnam and the United States' role in it. Even at conservative colleges students protested and held teach-ins, scrutinizing the U.S. government in unprecedented ways. During those years of upheaval--war in Vietnam, violence in Cambodia, shootings at Kent State University--it was the students who took the lead, trying to figure out what the events meant, Nelson-Pallmeyer recalls.

"The war was ever-present," Nelson-Pallmeyer says. "The threat of the draft was very real. Every one of us knew someone from high school who was sent to Vietnam. It was very personal and overwhelming."

Despite the fact that it was disillusioning to learn about the U.S. role in the war, the prevailing atmosphere on campuses was questioning and critical. Even at St. Thomas-- back then a much smaller, all-male school--students agitated for an end to the war and encouraged strikes and marches.

Though Vietnam was certainly an essential element that forged the peace movement, it wasn't the only one, stresses Cecelia Lynch, an associate professor of political science at the University of California at Irvine. "Those who participated in the anti-Vietnam War movement saw it as the defining movement," says Lynch, who has researched the history of peace movements throughout the world. During the Eighties, she explains, the movement turned its energy toward Central America and the role of U.S. foreign policy in the wars there, as well as on protesting nuclear arms.

But social movements tend to run in cycles, Lynch explains. While the fear of nuclear arms encouraged activism in the Eighties, by the end of the decade the United States had reached something of a détente with the Soviet Union. Peace treaties were hammered out in Central America. The Berlin Wall fell. The Cold War ended. "The salience of a lot of this died down," Lynch says. Correspondingly, the urgency of activism also waned at colleges.

But at St. Thomas, even during this period of dwindling activism, a new course of study had begun to gather momentum. In 1987, the college formally launched a justice and peace studies program. The origins of the program lie within the Catholic Church. In the mid-Eighties, explains Father David Smith, a professor of theology at St. Thomas, the church issued a number of statements formalizing its commitment to work for social justice throughout the world. One 1983 letter, Smith continues, from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was penned by Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul. Roach encouraged Terrence Murphy, then president of St. Thomas, to uphold these Catholic beliefs and do something about the letter on the campus.

The result was a committee, launched in 1985, exploring the possibility of a new curriculum on peace and justice studies. "That was a time in the Eighties when the U.S. appeared to be expanding its nuclear forces in the U.S. and Europe," recalls Smith, who sat on the committee. "It appeared that the escalation was going up. There was a lot of fear, a lot of energy." By 1987, he continues, talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had relaxed the tension, but the fledgling justice and peace studies program was ready to offer a minor. Smith became the director of the program, a position he still holds today.

As an interdisciplinary program, requirements for the justice and peace minor could be filled with courses that were already being taught at St. Thomas in other departments. In addition, Smith designed two new courses specifically on justice and peace studies. Soon interest in the program grew, and by 1990 a few students had designed majors in the area through independent study plans with Smith. In December 1991 the university approved a major in the program--with, Smith happily points out, a unanimous vote of approval from the faculty.

But at the same time that the program was starting to flourish, the demise of the Cold War was sapping interest in activism and funding for peace studies programs in general. Because it was still small, St. Thomas's program had not yet grown reliant on the outside grants that were evaporating. "We were so new that it certainly wasn't a crippling effect," Smith says. But had it been a few years later, he muses, the program might have been deemed irrelevant before it ever got started.

By 1994 there were so many students interested in the program's courses (three more had been added when the major was adopted) that Smith hired adjunct professors to teach them. One was Marv Davidov, a well-known local activist and a leader of the Honeywell Project. Another was Nelson-Pallmeyer. He joined the department part-time in 1994, and later became the only full-time staff member of the justice and peace studies program.

Nelson-Pallmeyer, Smith says, has a teaching style and boundless energy that has been an immeasurable aid in attracting new students. "Jack is a father figure to the coalition, to justice and peace studies," says Clausen. "He cares immensely about his students. He gives his life to this place. He's so interested in getting kids to open their eyes."

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