Harvard ROTC pioneer recalls his fight to serve
As musket fire rang out on Lexington Green this week to mark the first shots of the Revolutionary War, the thoughts of a retired soldier who grew up near the famed battle site turned to his own history of military service.
For Charles V. “Chuck” DePriest, the fight to don a uniform was as tough as anything he faced during his career as an Air Force officer.
“That was a long time ago,” said DePriest from his home in Tennessee. “But every year, about this time, I can’t help but think of what I had to go through to serve my country.”
The struggle began close to 40 years ago with the unlikely dream of a stubborn, blue-eyed black teen from the Boston suburbs to fly to Mars.
About the time the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, DePriest, a football star, science whiz and aspiring astronaut from Bedford High, mailed off his application to Harvard College.
The high school senior had nurtured his astral ambitions on the runway of nearby Hanscom Air Force Base, where he often eluded M.P.’s to sneak on the tarmac, lie on his back and suck in jet fumes as F-4s came screaming in overhead for a landing.
Four years before DePriest’s high school graduation, a former Navy test pilot named Neil Armstrong had stepped on the moon. Buzz Aldrin, who piloted the Eagle lunar module, and Columbia commander Michael Collins were West Point graduates who had served in the Air Force.
The flight plan to the Red Planet, DePriest figured, clearly led through the Wild Blue Yonder.
Military and public service, even in the overheated anti-war climate of Massachusetts, were no deterrents to DePriest. In the 1920s, his great-grandfather, Oscar S. DePriest, the son of a slave, bucked the Chicago ward bosses to become the first African American elected to Congress in the 20th century. DePriest’s uncle died fighting in a segregated unit in World War II.
In April 1973, DePriest got into Harvard, joining his older brother, Oscar S. “Butch” DePriest IV, on campus. But the zeitgeist in Cambridge proved an obstacle to his ambition. In 1969, the Crimson faculty had voted to boot the oldest Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program in the country out of Harvard Yard, leaving students like DePriest with no Ivy League pathway to uniformed service.
But military education was another matter. In theory, Harvard’s cross-registration agreement with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) gave DePriest access to MIT’s ROTC-sponsored military science courses and perhaps an Air Force commission.
DePriest picked up the gauntlet to challenge Harvard’s ROTC policy for financial reasons as well as career ambitions, as his father, a Harvard Medical School graduate and Army veteran, was no longer supporting the family.
“During my sophomore year, with my family situation, I couldn’t afford to go to school, so that was another reason to start looking into ROTC,” said DePriest.
The battle, however, was more than personal. DePriest was just the latest combatant in a fight going back to the earliest days of the country for men of color from Massachusetts to serve their nation in uniform.
Patriots like George Middleton, whose Beacon Hill home is a stop on Boston’s Black History Trail, successfully agitated to serve in the Continental Army under George Washington. The first black regiment in the Civil War, the famed 54th, was organized in Boston.
Early in his sophomore year, DePriest began calling on Harvard President Derek Bok to discuss his idea of getting a commission through MIT. His calls went unanswered. One spring afternoon, not long before the fall of Saigon, the determined yearling marched into ivy-covered Massachusetts Hall, barged into the president’s office, and asked Harvard’s top gun for a little backup.
“He wasn’t very happy with me, but he was an Army veteran and told me he’d try to help,” recalled DePriest.
Meanwhile, MIT’s Air Force ROTC director advised DePriest to sign up for Air Force basic training, apply for an ROTC scholarship and then petition Harvard to approve an accommodation with MIT.
So DePriest headed to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California that summer for basic training and returned to Cambridge without an Afro, but with a scholarship. President Bok quietly approved the MIT arrangement. DePriest began taking ROTC-required coursework at MIT atop his pre-med studies.
By the end of DePriest’s junior year, the faculty had gotten wind of DePriest’s outflanking tactics and raised objections. DePriest’s uniformed presence on campus had made the breach in policy too obvious to ignore.
“They told me not to wear my uniform on campus, but of course I wore it anyway,” he said with a chuckle.
In an emotionally charged debate in University Hall, Henry Rosovsky, the powerful faculty dean and Army veteran, defended DePriest’s right to continue his education with an ROTC award.
“I always strongly believed it was a good thing for the Army to have Harvard-trained officers,” said Rosovsky. “I always thought it was a mistake to make it more difficult for those who wanted to serve to do so.”
“There were some faculty members who were very liberal in their views who wrongly believed their views could be imposed on students,” said Bok. “I clearly thought that was intolerant and wrong.”
Under pressure from Harvard’s president and top dean, the faculty formally voted to approve the arrangement DePriest was already pursuing.
A year later, in a ceremony in an elegant Georgian courtyard along the banks of the Charles River, Chuck DePriest was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force.
DePriest entered Harvard Medical School, became a flight surgeon and served for 10 years on active duty, flying jet fighters and treating airmen and soldiers all over the world. Retiring from the Air Force as a major, he now works as a radiologist in Nashville, Tenn., where he lives with his wife and family.
Chuck also made a convert of his older brother to the military cause. After his own graduation from Harvard, the elder brother attended Boston University School of Dental Medicine and enrolled in the Army’s graduate ROTC program. The Bedford dentist now serves as a brigadier general in the Army Reserve, commanding a combat medical brigade out of Fort Devens.
Since the DePriests’ days in Cambridge, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy barring gays who declare their sexual preference from wearing a uniform has replaced the conflict in Vietnam as the Harvard faculty’s rationale for denying the presence of a full-fledged ROTC chapter on campus.
Speaking with the authority of historical perspective and of personal and family sacrifice, the DePriest brothers say that anyone qualified to serve ought to be given a chance to do so. They also argue that honorable service can co-exist with honorable dissent.
“It’s time for Harvard to embrace that lesson,” said Chuck DePriest. “The military didn’t come up with the policy. Congress did. The politicians have to change it. Why should someone who wants to attend ROTC at Harvard have to suffer because of what they do? Besides, Harvard takes millions of dollars for defense research. It’s hypocritical to reject ROTC funding for their students.”
DePriest shrugs over the fact that he never did get to Mars.
“I can’t complain,” he said. “I had a great career.”
But he did make history, leading the first successful assault on Harvard to bring military service closer to full acceptance on the Crimson campus.