John Bach ’69

I arrived at Wesleyan in 1965, in the midst of the dirtiest little war imaginable, as part of the first class under the admission policy of John Hoy—a man who really rocked the boat, bringing in a lot of minorities and taking chances on a lot of interesting people whose SAT scores might not have immediately qualified them for a Little Three education.

Back in 1965, the Wesleyan Experience was a universally and university-endorsed expression that had something to do with becoming the person you really were. There were values attached to the experience: It was about moving away from self-centeredness and moving toward cooperation, not competition.

At that time, students were given deferments from the draft. So if you had the wherewithal to go to a school—especially a good school—you were put on the shelf and taken out of harm’s way. I had always believed in the poster of the time that said something like, YOUTH IS NOT MADE FOR PLEASURE BUT FOR HEROISM. My attitude was: Why not both? The trick, the real miracle, is making no distinction between the two. I wanted to see if you could have a good time—capital G, capital T—dropping out of school in good academic standing while at the same time writing a letter to your draft board saying, ‘I am not going to have anything to do with your dirty little war.’

My feeling was that no matter what they did to me as a consequence of my conscientious action, it was nothing compared to what I would do to myself in turning my back. That’s what keeps you free, and I learned that at Wesleyan.

After my sophomore year, I went to my dean and said, ‘I think we all know what’s going on in Vietnam, and I can’t stay here.’ I spent the next nine months in France, waiting to be called up.  When people asked if I was ever tempted to go to Canada, the answer was always no: I came back from France knowing that I was going to refuse induction and knowing that I was probably going to jail—which is what happened. I spent my junior year at Wesleyan under indictment, not knowing when the feds were coming to get me. When they finally arrived, I was given a three-year, all expenses paid in-house grant.

After graduating from Wesleyan in 1973, I later returned to Hartford to build an antiwar collective, and I spent 20 years there, building quite an arrest record for nonviolent acts and civil disobedience—like locking the doors to the federal building on Hiroshima Day. During the Reagan years, I employed a great many refugees in the underground economy and I was a conductor on what was called the New Underground Railroad, bringing mostly Guatemalans and Salvadorans across the border for political asylum. And as a Quaker, I was very involved in the sanctuary movement in Hartford. After many years in Colorado, I came back to the Boston area and became the friend in residence at the Quaker Meeting House and with that came the Harvard chaplaincy.

The thing about the Wesleyan Experience is that it didn’t really matter how you ended up; it was how you comported yourself in the world—with honor and with openness, heading toward the future knowing you were part of something much, much bigger than yourself. Wesleyan took a chance on me. I was not the brightest student, but I think John Hoy saw my potential, and I like to think that I’ve done okay.

John Bach '69 is a housepainter and the Quaker chaplain at Harvard University. A member of the Class of 1969, Bach graduated in 1973.