Eulogy for Mario Savio

In Pauley Ballroom, U.C. Berkeley Campus, December 8, 1996

        Every other speaker here is so coherent.  I’m completely untogether. I haven’t been able to do anything but step over the cracks of grief in a month. I’m Michael Rossman.  

        Mario stepped into my heart when he stood on top of the car. I went home after we ended that phantasmagorical forty hours around the car, and I blurted into a tape recorder everything that had happened, and I said, “I don’t know how he could take it, this young kid, all that was on him; but I would trust myself with him anytime, for anything.”

        I was with him six hours, eight hours a day for months in the meetings of Steering Committee. We were together ten weeks in jail. For the last thirty years, I’ve been in effect his press secretary. I was with him on the day he died. He was working his butt off against a fee hike [in the state colleges], trying to file a lawsuit. It’s true, if you tell it that way, he’s like a political hero who died in the saddle of over-commitment, you know. And it’s a sin, it’s an injustice, it compounds the myth and the injustice of this myth that was visited upon us. It’s true, but it’s not the truth.  He could have died when he was off hiking, looking at a lizard. You understand? It would have meant the same thing, it was the same person.

        For thirty years, they called up: “Mario, we want Mario.” For thirty years, I said to them: “You want somebody to talk about the FSM?  Listen, I’ll give you the names of twenty people you can call that you never heard of. If you call them, they will tell you the things you want to hear, they will tell you wise, humane, sensible, deep things from deep in their hearts and their spirits.” “No, no, we want Mario.”

        You understand? It’s not from jealousy, I was not jealous of Mario as The Leader. Mario was not The Leader of the Free Speech Movement. I didn’t go into Sproul Hall because of Mario. Most of the people I know didn’t go in because of Mario. We would have gone in without Mario. But Mario was vital to us. But it wasn’t cuz he was The Leader. He was the touchstone.  He was a moral touchstone, he was a moral rudder. Not cuz he chose to be, but because he was who he was. He glowed. But we all glowed, because something went through us that was larger than ourselves. We came out of ourselves, it was a literal ecstasy. Our spirits came out of ourselves – and yet, we were no more than ourselves. And Mario was no more than himself.

        The one moment I remember most clearly from the FSM is not when Mario was standing in front of Sproul Hall, saying, “When the operation of the machine becomes so odious … ya da da da.” It’s weeks earlier, we’re punchy, we’re meeting six hours, eight hours a day, we’re in this dire … we’re in this critical meeting, another crisis, you know. And suddenly there’s a knock on the door, and someone comes in, he wants to talk to Mario.  And it’s Dunbar, big shambling Dunbar, who slept on the ground beside the furnace, where the mimeograph machine was that cranked out the little, earnest publication by these eight undergraduate students who wanted to make an undergraduate science publication. No power, you understand, no representation, nothing – it was just a person, among us.

        And the whole thing ground to a stop, just like that, while Mario says, “Wait a minute, I’ve got to talk to this guy.” And he goes over and he talks to Dunbar. Not to tell Dunbar … Dunbar had an agitation, about maybe something was coming about that wasn’t right. It wasn’t to tell Dunbar why it was right, but to sit there in the middle of the chaos, and reason with Dunbar. And if Dunbar pointed out something that was really wrong with it, he would have to take it back to us, and we would have to deal with it. And when that was over, suddenly whisht! and it all goes into action again. You understand? Not because he was The Leader, but because he was who he was. Only that.

        He glowed; we all glowed. The fire struck through us.  It burnt us all. Jack Weinberg says, “It took years for us to normalize. Insofar as we could.” And it’s true. We didn’t know what we were walking into. He didn’t know what he was walking into when he stepped on that car and stood as a lightning-rod. It wasn’t a movement of the moment.  A current of history flowed through us. You understand?  And Mario … There’s not a person to my knowledge in white America who has stood as a symbol as he has.

        Martin [Luther King] is dead, Cesar [Chavez] is dead. They stood as symbols for enduring, perpetuated movements of specifics. Mario stood as a symbol of the Free Speech Movement, which wasn’t even a thing of Berkeley, you understand?  That was the instant, the pivotal moment of the Sixties, when the doors opened,   when the young people all over the country made the spark, “we get to talk about what matters.” And from that came this yeasty movement. First we went against the War. Then we said, “Open up the campuses to the under-represented, the people of color, the … “ And the people of color helped themselves, the women helped themselves, the homosexuals helped themselves, the handicapped people helped themselves. And it’s still flooding out, right?

        That was the instant. And Mario got chosen as its symbol. So what he carried was so heavy … nobody’s carried that particular burden. What King, etc. shouldered may have been heavier. But this was one instant in time, one pivotal thing. And he didn’t want to be =>MARIO SAVIO!!!!<=  He was just Mario Savio. He put on his pants one leg at a time.

        This memorial is a political memorial. But it’s complicated. We want to tell the truth about our friend. The political truth was – in my opinion, and he might argue with me, but – he wasn’t The Leader, in a certain sense he wasn’t even a leader, even though he was the most precious of the leaders among us in a climate that made leaders out of everybody who stepped forward one step out of themselves to do something. That was the climate we shared, that was the magic we shared. We loved him because he made it visible. And it cost him greatly.  If the truth be told, you know, this man is a hero not for any reason that hit the public media, okay? He struggled  for years with great difficulties that disabled him in fair part. He with his wife Lynne are heroes, because together they made a life. He came together as a functional person, he was out in the world, not as =>MARIO SAVIO!!!!<=, which burdened him to the end of his days, but just as Mario Savio.  Being who he was, doing what he did. You understand? No more than that.

        What is the politics we seek to make clear here? It was Mario’s politics – but it was not a copyrighted politics, it was all of our politics. It’s a politics that says the political is rooted in the personal, that just politics comes from compassion, that free speech is the vital tool against injustice, that it’s possible to live a life of integrity as a full human being while remaining true to these ideals, and that we can find the support we need in each other. Nothing more than that. Yes, he was personally brilliant, yes, he was this and that, all these special qualities. But the quality was here [within], in just remaining true to himself.  

        Greil Marcus says it beautifully, in this month’s issue of Rolling Stone. I don’t know how he got it in. But he said, “Mario had a job, all the rest of his life.” He said it a little differently, but: “Mario’s job was never to betray what had been attached to him despite his wishing it.” He was the representative … he didn’t choose to be, but he was the representative of all that was best in us. When we saw him, when we thought of him, we saw a person acting in perfect authenticity, coming from here [the heart], not [the head], not certain – no, he struggled with his doubts. He was like us, he had the doubts, [but] he put them out there. He strove simply to speak to other people one at a time, I-to-Thou. I-to-Thou, in the middle of political conflict! I can’t believe it!

        I loved him not because he was a political figure, not because he was a political star, not even because he was a moral touchstone for our generation.  He was my friend, his mind roved in these wonderful energetic sweeps,  that went through everything. We could play together, we were kids together, even in the middle of being graying, crumbling men. The same selves, the same spirit. I will miss him terribly. We all will miss him terribly. Thank you.

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