Glory Days

The unique legacy of Brooklyn College newspaper the Vanguard

When campus police detained Ohio State University freshman Alex Kotran in April for taking pictures of rogue cows on campus, he didn’t retreat silently. The photojournalist for the OSU Lantern defended his right as a newsman to document the roving bovines for at least forty minutes before he was cuffed and charged with criminal trespass and “misconduct in a state of emergency.”

The charges were later dropped. But even if they hadn’t been, Kotran can take heart: if history is any indicator, his journalism career need not end in the dean’s office. In fact, a little campus muckraking could be the foundation of a great career.

In the fall of 1950, the Vanguard, a student newspaper at Brooklyn College, published an article about how Dr. Harry D. Gideonse, the school’s president, had vetoed a history professor’s appointment to department chair. Gideonse retaliated by revoking the Vanguard’s charter and changing the locks on its office doors. The paper’s staff raised funds from the student body to publish a substitute paper, the Draugnav, out of a staffer’s home basement. Unsatisfied that he had been unable to silence the “lefty” students, Gideonse—later discovered to have been an FBI informant while at the school—suspended the top five editors and the business manager, and put fifty other students on probation. (A letter was sent to each student’s parents, many of whom were immigrants and feared deportation.)

Eventually, funding ran out and the Draugnav folded. But Gideonse’s ill-tempered crusade forged a remarkable bond between the young reporters who rallied against him, four of whom gathered on an unseasonably warm afternoon last April in the Upper West Side apartment of Albert Lasher, a Vanguard reporter and production staffer, to share memories, coffee, and macaroons.

“In my career, I never learned as much about journalism as I did in the Vanguard cub class,” said Myron Kandel, the paper’s sports editor, who called the confrontation “a strengthening experience.”

The crackdown “did affect our psyche,” said Lasher. But, he added, “It’s in your DNA to defy authority if you’re really a committed journalist. It didn’t affect our careers.”

If anything, it seems to have boosted them. Kandel became a financial editor for The Washington Star, The New York Herald Tribune, and the New York Post, and was a co-founder of CNN. Lasher worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and as an editor for BusinessWeek. Another colleague became a reporter and editor for The New York Times; still another became staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Ann Lane, a freshman reporter and the host of the Draugnav’s production offices, founded the Women and Gender Studies department at the University of Virginia. The list goes on.

As they built their careers, Vanguard alumni mastered the art of social networking. Today, they keep in touch through a Web site on the Brooklyn College server that lists recent articles, events, and achievements of its members. October will see a reunion marking sixty years since the paper’s demise. Their camaraderie is still clear. “I don’t have this with any other group,” said Lane.

What advice do they have for Kotran and other student journalists in trouble today? “When you’re twenty, you don’t know how to move things,” Kandel said. “Go to the student body, and ask, ‘Would you agree with what the administration is doing?’ Go to alumni, ask for funds.”

He knows better than to underestimate the power of community.

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Sara Germano is an intern at CJR.