|Carl Oglesby spoke to students at Columbia University in 1968. (Neal Boenzi/New York Times)|
Carl Oglesby, 76; activist who led antiwar organization
Late in the day, sun dipping toward a horizon of monuments, Carl Oglesby took his turn speaking at an antiwar rally in Washington, D.C.
Months earlier, he had been a technical writer for a defense contractor, with top-secret clearance and a red Alfa Romeo convertible. On Nov. 27, 1965, he was 30, a father of three, and, somewhat improbably, president of the national campus organization Students for a Democratic Society.
Stepping to the rostrum, he brought with him the verbal agility of a playwright who had seen his plays produced, tossing off lines like: “Revolutions do not take place in velvet boxes. They never have. It is only the poets who make them lovely.’’
Mr. Oglesby, whose eloquence and intellect made him a favorite among 1960s activists, died Tuesday in his Montclair, N.J., home of lung cancer that had metastasized. He was 76 and formerly lived in Cambridge and Amherst.
“He had a flair for making you feel, in his rhetoric, that the great tectonic plates of history were visible,’’ said Todd Gitlin, a former president of SDS who is a professor at Columbia University. “He could evoke the grandeur and the awfulness of what was going on in the world and make it feel somehow available.’’
The only child of working-class Southerners who moved to Akron, Ohio, to find work, Mr. Oglesby was older than most SDS members.
He had worked in a rubber factory and a pizza shop before using his mind to find a niche in the white-collar world while taking courses part time at the University of Michigan.
A congressional candidate asked him to write a position paper on the Vietnam War. Research prompted Mr. Oglesby to oppose the war, a view the candidate could not countenance. Instead, Mr. Oglesby published his views in a university publication, where they caught the eye of Students for a Democratic Society.
Before long, Mr. Oglesby was the organization’s president. He and his wife traded their house for a cramped apartment, and he headed off on political trips around the country and to South Vietnam.
“He went from a white-collar position to being, as he described it, ‘a political gypsy,’ ’’ said his son, Caleb of New York City.
Mr. Oglesby’s prominence in SDS did not last long, though. Deeming him too bourgeois, more radical members pushed him out of the organization a few years after he was elected president.
A freelance writer the rest of his life, he taught at MIT and Dartmouth College and wrote books about the assassination of President Kennedy.
In 2008, he published “Ravens in the Storm,’’ which chronicles his antiwar years. Unlike most memoirists, Mr. Oglesby could draw from 4,000 pages of files on him - collected by the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, and Army intelligence - that provided a day-by-day accounting of his activities.
“Thanks to the great concern these federal agencies took in me,’’ he wrote, “I can pick almost any date in the period from the summer of 1965 through 1970 and tell you exactly where I was and what I was up to. Not even my mother cared so much.’’
Carl Oglesby Jr. studied drama and began writing plays at Kent State University, which he left before graduating. He had been accepted at Harvard, his son said, but the Oglesby family could not afford his tuition.
While at Kent State, he married Beth Rimanoczy, who now lives in Whiteland, Ind. They had three children.
Mr. Oglesby began working in technical writing and editing, first for Goodyear and then for Bendix, a defense contractor for whom he worked while living in Ann Arbor, Mich.
His marriage ended in divorce after he and his wife became politically active in the 1960s. Mr. Oglesby’s other two marriages, to Ann Muller of Sarasota, Fla., and Sally Waters of Cambridge, also ended in divorce.
The membership of SDS grew dramatically under Mr. Oglesby’s leadership, but he was less of a leftist than many in the organization, which led to his ouster. He considered himself a libertarian.
“I think patriotism is what drove him, and I think that’s one of the great ironies,’’ his son said. “People saw him as this sort of radicalized revolutionary.’’
Mr. Oglesby’s life as a political activist was often not easy. He took time away from writing to record a pair of folk records and at one point lived in a chicken coop in Vermont, his son said.
“He was complex,’’ his son said. “He was a difficult father, but he was an amazing man. At the time in his life when he became politicized, people were making a lot of extreme choices. He was trying to help the world, but wasn’t always there for us.’’
In Mr. Oglesby’s later years, the children “found peace and found ways to get close to him,’’ his son said.
“He was a man who cared about the world,’’ his son said, “and he left it stronger than he found it, which is, I guess, all any of us can hope for.’’
In 2008, while getting ready to attend a book release party in New York for his memoir, Mr. Oglesby suffered a stroke. While recuperating, he met Barbara Webster of Montclair. The two became a couple, and as Mr. Oglesby’s health declined over the past three years, Webster was by his side.
“She was there for him at the end in an incredible way,’’ his son said. “She’s the real hero of the last chapter of his life.’’
A service will be announced for Mr. Oglesby, who in addition to Webster, his former wives, and his son, leaves two daughters, Aron DiBacco of Whiteland, Ind., and Shay Oglesby-Smith of Richmond, Calif.; and five grandchildren.
Even though Mr. Oglesby devoted much of the four decades after his work with SDS to investigating the Kennedy assassination and writing books that examined conspiracy theories, his most lasting legacy for many will be the words he wrote and the speeches he gave opposing the Vietnam War.
To those who suggest “I sound mighty anti-American. . . . I say: Don’t blame me for that! Blame those who mouthed my liberal values and broke my American heart,’’ he said in 1965 in Washington.
“At the end of the speech I was something like a rock star,’’ he wrote in his memoir.
“He was a master of rhetoric, and I don’t mean that in the current sense of political noise,’’ Gitlin said. “He spoke in full sentences of great rolling Faulknerian cadences. And even though he was intellectually extraordinary, you also had the sense that he was thinking it out in front of you. He wasn’t just giving you a canned speech. He thought things through, he was meditative, and he was enacting his thoughts before your eyes.’’
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.