In the stacks of Olin Library last October, Steve Kussin ’69 — whose father was a hostage in the Willard Straight takeover of 1969 — put the finishing touches on a novel that weaved together a narrative about what it was like to be at Cornell during the turbulent 1960s as well as confront issues ranging from the Vietnam War to civil rights to women’s liberation.
“We went from calm to absolute turmoil by the end of my four years,” Kussin told The Sun. “I was there for the four years of this evolution, this revolution, that changed things completely. We went from one Cornell to a completely different Cornell.”
The book, titled Five Freshman: A Story of the Sixties, highlights the different perspectives of five students at Cornell, following their journeys from orientation to graduation on the eve of the Vietnam War. Four of the characters are fictional, while the fifth is Kussin himself.
Kussin is currently a professor in the School of Communication at Hofstra University, where he teaches an introductory course about radio, TV and film. At the end of this course, he talks about the 60s, and the Vietnam War in particular. Kussin said that one day he had a “eureka” moment about how it would all make a great story, which inspired him to undertake the task of writing the book.
“But I didn’t want to write a textbook, I didn’t want to write nonfiction,” he said. “I wanted to write a novel, I wanted to personalize it.”
Kussin described that his experience as an undergraduate was profoundly shaped by political movements, starting with the Vietnam War.
“We started off totally carefree, not a care in the world in 1965,” he said. “It was wonderful back then, we didn’t worry. And the war in Vietnam gradually began to creep in closer and closer … It was a delayed reaction, because we weren’t near one of the big cities.”
He said that being a Cornell student was a very different experience than being a student at another university.
With Cornell like an isolated “Garden of Eden” in upstate New York, Kussin said that world events had different impacts on the students, unlike the experience of other Ivy students with their schools located closer to larger cities.
However, world events eventually did creep their way up to the hills of Ithaca.
“Just imagine this, you’re sitting in Goldwin Smith Hall in a large lecture class talking to your friends before the class starts, and you say, ‘Hey, by the way…where’s Joe?’ and you suddenly get a look from the three others, ‘You didn’t hear? He got a call from his draft board. He’s going home, he’s on his way to Vietnam,’” Kussin recounted.
“And that’s how we lived, we didn’t know when the next letter or call would be,” he added. “It was a scary time as the war got closer and closer and closer.”
Not only was the ongoing war ever-present for students, but the effect of the Civil Rights Movement added tensions on campus.
Even though Kussin was a senior in 1969, his dad still wanted to come up for parents’ weekend. Because Kussin procrastinated and forgot to make a reservation for his father, he ended up getting him a room on the top floor of Willard Straight Hall — a location that put him directly in the thick of the ensuing events.
On the morning of the fateful Willard Straight Takeover in April 1969, Kussin got a call from his father at 5 a.m., but hung up the phone and fell back asleep. It wasn’t until Kussin woke up a few hours later and turned on radio that he realized what was going on.
“I put two and two together, I raced from Cayuga Heights, where I lived, across campus in minutes and fortunately he had been released by then,” he said. “I still see him standing outside in his tweed coat and beret, shivering.”
What made the Cornell takeover different from all the other ones occurring around the country, according to Kussin, was that it was the first instance in which weapons were present.
“Thank god they weren’t used,” he said. “But the campus was in a state of siege for about a week.”
One of Kussin’s most vivid memories from this time, which he details in his book, is witnessing two professors, with students gathered around them, screaming at each other on the Arts Quad about whether or not to give in to the demands of the students.
“I respected both points of view,” he said. “I don’t know what I would have done if I had been president [of Cornell]. In retrospect, I think Perkins, who was then the president, did the right thing. Human life comes first, and we’ll deal with stuff later on.”
Kussin said that witnessing such events and being a student during this time emphasized the importance of speaking up — a significant lesson he has carried from college. This lesson bears significance for college students in today’s turbulent political climate, Kussin said.
“If you think something is environmentally wrong, if you think something is socially wrong, if you think something is politically wrong, you should speak your mind, but not violently,” he said.