Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Victim's Daughter Speaks Out On Sterling Hall Bombing 40th Anniversary

Today, August 24, 2010, is the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Sterling Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. For the first time since then, family of the anti-war physics researcher, Robert Fassnacht, who was killed in the bombing, have spoken publicly, notably his daughter, Heidi, in this past Sunday's Wisconsin State Journal.

She reports that the family is doing fine, and his son is now a professional astronomer. She also reports that at the time of his death, it was believed by many around him that Robert Fassnacht was nearing a scientific breakthrough in cryogenics that might have aided long distance electricity transmission. He was up late keeping an eye on the Dewar flask of liquid helium for supercooling in his lab's experiments. The last person who saw him alive was a security guard who saw him at 3:30 AM and reminded him to turn off the lights when he was done. The guard saw him sitting at his desk "furiously scribbling notes on a pad" that was destroyed by the bomb, along with all the lab's equipment, which went off 12 minutes later.

The anniversary has also brought forth the start of an oral history project about the bombing on the UW-Madison campus, which is to result in a play in Spring 2012, as reported in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The online commentary there is pretty bizarre.

Leo Burt, one of the four bombers, remains at large. Of the others, all of whom served prison time, Karl Armstrong runs a fruit juice stand in Madison; David Fine is a paralegal in Oregon, and Karl's younger brother, Dwight, died earlier this year. A late comment on that post on Aug. 6 by "Christopher" sympathetically describes the much-troubled Dwight in his final year of life.

In my earlier post I reported that Karl Armstrong had unequivocally apologized for his actions, something that is not what one sees in some sources. In tracking this down for confirmation of what I heard in person, I came across a fascinating 72-page senior honors thesis (.pdf) from Lawrence University in 2004 by Andrea Rochelle Blimling entitled, "Blood on the Third Coast: Consequences of Madison's 1970 Sterling Hall Bombing". This is extremely interesting and largely accurate, as near as I can tell and remember. One can find a statement of remorse by Karl Armstrong on p. 55, and an account of what I reported on p. 58, although it differs slightly from my memory (its source is Paul Soglin, then Madison's mayor, who was in attendance as I reported). I remember Karl Armstrong saying more than Soglin recalls, and I recall dead silence after his speech, with no attempted rebuke by Ken Mate.

BTW, I found this thesis while searching for an article in the Wisconsin State Journal that reported Armstrong's apology, but could not find it. However, I remember it well because my father read it and snorted in disgust and skepticism at the report of this apology. It was probably the last comment my father made on the matter, as he died less than two months later.

For the historical record, I note some minor errors in the otherwise very well done senior honors thesis.

The Dow demonstrations of October 1967 were a year and a half after the Selective Service demonstrations of Spring, 1966, not the "next semester."

The name of the local Congressman was "Kastenmeier," not "Kastenmeyer."

The anti-war Teach-In of 1965 took place in 6210 Social Science, not its supposed "Great Hall." The Great Hall is on the fourth floor of the Memorial Union and has been the site of many events, including many political ones, but many others as well, including the retirement dinner of my late father in 1978, Director at the time of the bombing of the Center that was the target.

Most of the Center's offices were on lower floors than the seventh, although above the labs that were hit by the bombing.

The protester who was unhappy with Paul Soglin in 2004 was Lee "Zeldin," not "Zelbin."

And the report pointed out an error in my posting. It was 2003, not 2005, when Paul Soglin ran again for mayor, and lost, being "the most conservative candidate" running.

My final comment on the anniversary of this tragedy, besides being glad to hear that Robert Fassnacht's family is doing well, is to hope as Peter Dorman noted in comments on my last posting, that if Leo Burt is still alive (or even if he is dead as many think), that he did or has made something useful of his life on the lam to somehow atone for what he did on August 24, 1970.


Suzan said...

Thanks for the history lesson.

This pretty clearly ties in with the supposition that Leo Burt was probably a CIA provocateur who is now "lost in the system," wrecking other freedom movements.

The majority of movements against the powers-that-be have been egged on to their ultimate demise by these plants.

Or so I've read.


Leo Burt, one of the four bombers, remains at large http://www.channel3000.com/news/24725588/detail.html

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...


There is no way to know, of course, and what you say has been speculated, but I increasingly doubt it.

I am going to add a bit more on my apparent disagreement in memory about Armstrong's apology 21 years ago. So, he reported his account 15 years after the fact, and now I am reporting my memory 21 years after it. Given our ages (he has a few years on me), we could both be wrong to some extent.

However, I am quite certain that at a minimum, Karl Armstrong did mention the dead Robert Fassnacht and his family in the apology.

Also, whereas perhaps he is right about Ken Mate talking back to Karl Armstrong after the apology, my memory is of a dead silence only broken by someone completely shifting subjects. It is possible that Mate spoke privately to some, including Soglin, along the lines Paul reported. It is also quite likely that Paul may have been scoring some delayed political points against Mate, who was a major thorn in Soglin's side when he first was mayor, as can be inferred from certain events in the senior honors thesis that reports Soglin's remarks.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

I realize that I was unclear with whom I was disagreeing in the last remarks. It was with Paul Soglin, former mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, on our slightly differing memories of a public apology that Karl Armstrong gave regarding the bombing.

Oh, and I apologize to Suzan for misspelling her (your) name.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

I have spoken with another witness of Karl Armstrong's public apology. It is not clear exactly who was mentioned specifically in the apology, but it was confirmed that it was followed by dead silence, not by Ken Mate or anyone else leaping or not leaping, but in any case nobody contradicted him or otherwise made a single comment publicly at that moment on what he had said. Frankly, this was one of those "wow!" moments where there was really nothing that anybody could or should have said, and nobody did.

Peter Dorman said...

The historical record is sacred, of course, but aside from this I can't imagine why anyone would care what Kenny Mate did or didn't say at this event. Every movement attracts unbalanced people, and KM was Madison's most spectacular entry. For those readers not fortunate (or old) enough to have been there, you might remember KM if you saw "The War at Home". He was the guy who bragged about how close he was to shooting a cop.

Incidentally, you can add to the Madison-during-the-mad-years literature a memoir by Kendall Hale, Radical Passions. It touches only briefly on Madtown, though, before it goes on to Marxist-Leninist organizing in Boston and then New Age spiritualizing in Asheville. The "dear comrade" letter she quotes in her book is a classic!

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...


I agree that whether KM or somebody else jumped up and disputed with Karleton Armstrong after he apologized at that event is probably not all that important. What is more important is that he did apologize, and without any reservations. This is what is really at issue, as he was quoted from a period prior to then as appearing to hedge a bit. I suspect that it may have been reports of those earlier remarks that moved him to so very publicly in such a particular setting make exactly clear what his position was. No hedging on the apology.

Brenda Rosser said...

I guess the story of the bombing at the Wisconsin campus is a small part of the story of man in the 1960s and 1970s. The magnitude and the extent of the violence in the Vietnam War is far greater.

Neither are justified.

It is so sad.

At home my long-haired hippie boy friend was evicted from our house the minute my reactionary father set eyes on him.

I had dreams of escape to a place like San Francisco with a flower in my hair. I'm not 14 years old anymore but I still like those hippie peacenik fantasies.

The link to the PhD thesis doesn't work by the way.

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