Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Fear the Beard

September 13th, 2011 · 3 Comments

One of the many historical realms I’m trying to bring to life in the next book is that of Oregon’s Vietnam-era college scene. And one of that scene’s biggest controversies was that involving Fred Milton, an Oregon State University football star who refused his coach’s demand that he shave his beard—in the off-season, it’s important to note. When Milton’s stance led to his dismissal from the team, the school’s Black Students Union called for a university-wide boycott until he was reinstated. Yet only a small fraction of Oregon State’s 14,000 students heeded this request. And so every single black student on campus—all 47 of them—left school to protest Milton’s treatment, causing a tremendous stir.

The controversy caught my eye not only because it seems so archaic by today’s permissive fashion standards—imagine if Milton had shown up with this—but also because it highlights a divide that reveals the deep-seated fears of Coach Dee Andros’ generation. To him, Milton’s refusal to toe the grooming line represented a breakdown in social order on par with the distribution of Trotskyite propaganda to kindergartners—the beard was not just a fashion choice, but a tangible symbol of the next generation’s resistance to authority:

The strongest formal opposition to Andros came from the 88-member faculty senate. A newly formed Committee on Minority Affairs said the university could not justify disparaging an “individual student’s right to determine what constitutes proper social and cultural values,” especially as they pertain to mode of dress and style of hair. Later the faculty “lost its nerve on this one,” says Andros. “The way the resolution stood, they were giving the hippies license to walk naked at graduation.”

Andros also said the faculty had missed the point. “I’m not just fighting hair on the face,” he said. “I’m fighting for a principle of education—the right to run my department. If I thought it would end with a beard or a mustache, I wouldn’t be so bullheaded. But if they beat you on one issue, they’ll keep right on.” He said he also had a duty to the coaching profession, that he couldn’t “abandon the concepts of training, discipline, team unity and morale.” He spoke of the lessons to be learned in the “willingness” of an individual to subordinate himself to a cause greater than himself. He said this might not sound very democratic but he wasn’t trying to run a democracy, he was trying to run an athletic program.

I can’t help but think that the Milton-versus-Andros beard spat neatly summarized a lot of the political tumult that was to come over the ensuing decades—I’ve always thought that the simplest, most honest way to characterize the ongoing ideological divide is as hippies versus squares.

This particular story’s resolution was long and painful, with Milton ending up at Utah State and the Coach Andros cowed into rescinding his ban by Oregon State’s administration. The silver lining, though, is that Andros and Milton reconciled a few years later, with the coach helping his former star get a gig in the Canadian Football League, a place with a rich history of tolerating fantastic beards.


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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Captured Shadow

    47 out of 14,000 just seems amazing to me now. It also makes me curious about how many other minorities were around OSU then. Were there say, more Chinese students, or even foreign exchange students than Black students? I guess I should ask my friend Terry U of O class of ’70. Can’t wait to see the new book

  • Jordan

    @Captured Shadow

    As per the 2010 census, Portland, OR is the whitest major city in the U.S. Can’t say I’m too shocked that OSU would have such a low ratio.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Oregon’s racial homogeneity and the complex feelings it inspires plays a HUGE role in the book.

    The thing you have to keep in mind about OSU is that it was (and may still be) considered the conservative state school. It’s where families from small towns felt safe sending their children; they considered U of O a latter-day Gomorrah, on account of the prevalence of long-haired types.