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Years of Pain

Daily Times Chronicle, Tuesday, August 9, 1983

Burlington Past & Present, by John ‘Ed’ Fogelberg (Article # 214)



Today most people try to forget what happened locally during the late 1960s and early 70s because it was a painful experience for all concerned. The schools and the Police Department went through the most hectic period of their entire history and what happened left scars which have healed but slowly.

People like Dr. Dunseith and Mr. Mansfield are remembered by many, both young and old, with admiration or disgust, depending upon their own emotional involvement at the time. Burlington’s peculiar problem was one of growth. The entire population of the town in 1950 was but 3,250. Ten years later that figure had grown to 12,285, a growth factor of about 378%. By 1970 the population had zoomed to 21,285, another 178 percent rise. And the town seemed to be filled with youngsters. In fact the median age in one of those later years was figured to be but 23, with more than half the population under age 20.

Burlington actually started growing during the ’30s and ’40s, but it was a slow growth which saw many newcomers occupying existing camps and the struggle which took place, while noisy, was one of politics and resulted in men like Ward and Mohan and Sheerin being elected to sit in the selectmen’s office in place of old-timers with names like Graham and Foster and MacDonald. But during the next 20 years building mushroomed here with little or no restrictions on developers, resulting in housing going up in every direction and on numerous dead end streets.

By 1970 six out of every seven houses assessed in town had been built since 1950 and seven out of its nine schools since 1955. And the people who moved into those houses and sent their youngsters to those schools often considered the old-timers they found here to be “hicks,” living in a backwater society which needed to be changed. That attitude first became apparent in 1964 when Jerome Lynch, an exceptionally fine superintendent of schools, was harassed to such an extent that he resigned.

His position was taken by Dr. Herman Dunseith, who soon indicated that he meant to make significant educational improvements in the Burlington school system, a system already staggering under an impossible overload of students. On the national scene during the 60s a whole series of events occurred which profoundly influenced Burlington’s young population. Foremost among them was the ongoing Vietnam conflict, probably the most unpopular war in the nation’s history. Anger and frustration bordered on despair as the casualty lists were published.

Exhibitions of protest sprang up every- where and the antagonism was vented against almost any authority, be it police or school and college administrations, and against the considered equally obnoxious existing codes of manners and morals. Sit-ins and drug busts became a common occurrence. Long hair for boys and unkempt clothes for both sexes became the order of the day. And even clothes were discarded by the daring few at such festivals as that at Woodstock in August 1969, which month also saw the publication of the sex spoof “Naked Came the Stranger.” This town at the time was in the midst of a battle concerning a proposed sex education course in the public schools. Several years later in the new high school (during the short-lived “streaking” craze) one male student accepted a dare to run nude through the corridor and by the lunch room, which he did and was thereupon expelled. But that was in the nature of a student prank comparable to flagpole sitting and how many freshmen can be squeezed into a phone Booth, and in no way can be compared to what happened here earlier in 1970.

The police, of course, tried to keep peace and found it an almost impossible task, which made them frustrated, as well as those young people who could find no place to expend their pent-up energies. Groups of youngsters tended to congregate at such places as Simonds Park and Almy’s parking lot where the police felt they were a nuisance, too noisy, drinking beer or smoking pot, probably contemplating some deviltry. Thus the police attempted to break up such groups and were met with the argument that the kids had nowhere to go.

Officers in the performance of their duty were sometimes threatened and sometimes hurt attempting to make arrests for unruly behavior. As the police stepped up their surveillance and drug arrests, confrontations between small groups of young people and the police became more frequent and retaliation against so-called “police brutality” culminated in May 1970 with the theft of a police cruiser which was found later a burnt-out hull in Bedford.

The whole situation was becoming frightening, but the townspeople did not seem to notice. Then came the police bust of a “party” which several hundred young people intended to enjoy in an isolated field bordering the new Northeastern University building on the Woburn-Burlington line. When the police came and asked them to disperse, most of them did, but a hard core of some 50 or more refused. Was what happened then a mistake? There were two points of view.

The local police called for help from the Woburn police and thus reinforced drove the youngsters out, arresting several in the resulting melee. Feeling that their rights had been violated there was talk of revenge as youngsters left the grounds by car and on foot.

But Burlington’s educators as well were having headaches other than those related to housing. Dr. Dunseith evidently decided that the criticism he was receiving because of isolated instances of discipline, vandalism, curriculum shortcomings and teacher performance, valid or not, could be laid at the door of the high school administration. Many townspeople, and educators too, felt that he then made one of the worst decisions of his 10-year tenure in Burlington.

He recommended that Mr. Rodney Mansfield, head of the Science department, be made supervisor of secondary education and placed in the high school with authority over and above that of the principal of that building, Mr. James Horton, a totally unacceptable education administration concept. Mr. Horton was moved to a rear office and relegated to the taking of attendance. Hurt by being so treated after so many good years In the Burlington school system, he resigned to take a position with the State Department of Education. Mr. Mansfield then became principal in title as well as being. But Mansfield was a headstrong liberal and soon became the darling of the student body.

This adored allegiance did not rub off on most of the staff. And Dr. Dunseith, a far more conservative person, soon began to rue the move. When a Dr. Tali was hired as assistant superintendent, he and Mansfield formed a team which irritated Dunseith to no end. Poor Tali only lasted a year, and Mansfield quit soon after when his and the student request to observe Moratorium Day was denied by the School Committee.

The youngsters were furious at having lost their favorite and gave him a tremendous going-away party and the gift of a clock inscribed “With Freedom Comes Responsibility.” Mansfield later is quoted in the “Boston Phoenix” as saying that he resigned not because of the clash over Moratorium Day but because of a growing conflict between himself and the superintendent over what high school education is.

The yearbook was dedicated to Mansfield and during graduation exercises in June the valedictorian deplored the restrictive role of the government in education, the salutatorian cried, “We have lost confidence in our government, in each other, and in our right to express ourselves and to be heard freely in America.” But the essayist hit a positive note when she urged her peers to work for a better America.

Literally, the roof blew off the smoldering youth situation on Aug. 25 when a fire bomb was hurled through a window of the old library, now the Museum building, which was at the time being used as temporary police headquarters pending completion of their new buildings. The blast created a fire which destroyed much of the interior and most of the communications equipment. The town was lucky on two counts: the police sergeant on duty did not happen to be seated at his desk when the thing exploded, and prompt action on the part of the Fire Department saved the building from total destruction.

For the first time a definite feeling of fear spread through the community. The kids were afraid of what action the police might take, the police were afraid of what the kids might do next, and parents were afraid of a situation involving their youngsters which they had mostly ignored until then. Thankfuly, everyone now acted with restraint and while the town’s young people still “burned rubber,” tried out drugs, and drank beer, all of that became less and less of a problem and the excitement gradually died down.

Also the Vietnam War ended, youngsters became adults, and Dr. Dunseith went back to Michigan.