Nathaniel Blumberg: Open to change


By Wilbur Wood

 (Wilbur Wood was a student of Nathaniel Blumberg in the early 1960s at the University of Montana in Missoula. And he was the leader  of a contingent of Blumberg students that turned up in San Francisco, many dispatched by the  Dean to work on the Guardian during the highly active and newsworthy 1960s.   Wilbur was a poet and a reporter,  with a master's degree in creative wiriting at San Francisco State, so he fit in well at the Guardian. He had edited his campus paper,  so I made him city editor. He covered the 1967 mayor's race and operated as if he were directed by Blumberg himself.  Wilbur followed Joe Alioto around, from place to place, and found that Alioto was changing his story depending on the audience.  Wilbur, as a Blumberg mentee, was not shocked. He nailed Alioto and  wrote one of the most amusing and  illuminating stories of the campaign. but it did not deter Alioto from becoming mayor. Wilbur 's big triumph as city editor was his work in positioning and editing an investigative story exposing how the members of the  local  San Francisco draft boards were anonymous, establishment types who worked in secrecy at secret meetings to draft a disproportionate number of minorities.  The expose  appeared in Deccember, 1967, in  the red hot middle of the Vietnam War. It was a bombshell, the first such story ever done in the nation, and led to extensive litigation on behalf of draftees in federal court, pioneering reforms in the draft, and inspired a national New York Times investigation.  It was written by Eugene Hunn, the husband of Nancy Engelbach Hunn from Kalispell, Montana, and a classmate of Wilbur's and a student of Blumberg at the Montana School of Journalism.

(Alas, Wilbur  went back to Montana, as all Montana people seemed to do, and is now a poet, reporter, and philosopher living in his hometown of Roundup, Montana with his wife Elizabeth. She worked as an ad representative at the Guardian. Elizabeth and Wilbur run a a writing, editing, and consulting business called Stone House Productions. The stonehouse was built by Wilbur's grandfather and is where the two live, work, and play.   Others in this Guardian era also went back to Montana:  Printer Bowler, Troy Holter, Larry Cripe, Nancy Engelbach Hunn, Karen King, Bruce DeRosier, Doug Giebel et al, a talented group of journalists, writers, and political activists bristling with Montana populism. The Blumberg/Montana contributions were enormously valuable in our early days when we had lots of ideas and ambitions but slender resources.   Why they left San Francisco to go back to Montana is still a mystery to me.)

I’m late for class, jogging, short-cutting across a mowed lawn in front of the School of Journalism. A window squeaks open and the unmistakable voice of the Dean, Nathan Blumberg, roars out a second story window: “BARBARIAN!”

Astonished, I plop down on the ground, speechless, chagrined, then leap up and disappear into class. It is the early 1960s. The Dean is, at that time, a man who believes that people should walk on the sidewalks, not upon the carefully tended lawns, at the University of Montana. He sees a reason for rules, even as he openly questions many of them

A scant six or seven years later, this same man is gliding over those same lawns, sailing Frisbees into the sky, chasing the return throws from students, the occasional faculty colleague, and former students back for a visit.

“When did Nathan start calling himself Nathaniel?” asks Bruce Brugmann, editor and publisher of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. We’re talking on the phone on the day of Nathaniel Blumberg’s death, February 14, 2012. Valentine’s Day. It is fifty-four days before his 90th birthday, on April 8. (April 8, Blumberg was delighted to learn, is Buddha’s birthday.)

“The name change happened in the 1970s or early ‘80s,” I tell Brugmann. Bruce, back in 1953, at the University of Nebraska, was a student of Nathan Blumberg. “We called him by his last name,” Brugmann said, “outside class. We never used his first name.”

Nor did we in the early ‘60s, I reply. He was The Dean, Dean Blumberg -- until Printer Bowler (one of his students) began calling him “Coach.” Things were starting to loosen up by then.

“Blumberg is who inspired me,” Brugmann says. “He was highly critical of the mainstream press--and this was back in the ‘50s. He pointed out their faults in class. He advised me to go someplace – he mentioned San Francisco -- and start an independent weekly newspaper. When I could do that, I did.”

But why change his name from Nathan? Both Brugmann and I know people who, through the years, met Blumberg and later named their sons Nathan. “It’s about affirming his full identity,” I say to Bruce. “He decided to accept his name as it appears on his birth certificate: Nathaniel Bernard Blumberg.”

NBB arrives at middle age in the 1960s -- a man of high principles, acute intelligence, possessing an inquiring mind along with great reservoirs and pride and stubbornness, his career a success. He arrives at middle age but does not come to a stop. He opens up. Opens his heart to an expanding circle of friends. His property on Flathead Lake becomes a destination. Music, talk, good food and drink flow in the clearing under the tall trees.

Not long ago Nathaniel brought up an argument he and I engaged in, more than 40 years ago, driving up the Big Sur Coast on our way back to San Francisco. We’d made a day trip to San Simeon, and toured the hilltop castle of the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Our argument was about Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement. Blumberg thought the two issues were different, and that linking one with the other would damage the prospects for each cause, anti-war and anti-segregation. “You said the two were connected,” Blumberg reminded me, adding that about a year later, Martin Luther King, Jr., made that connection in public, in a speech at the Riverside Church in New York City. Nathaniel wanted to tell me that I had been right.

A veteran of World War II, NBB wrote the story of his weaponry unit going up against highly trained Nazi soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge. He honored that moment in history, but he approved of the next generation’s aversion and resistance to the war it had been handed: Vietnam. Although he was part of what Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation,” Nathaniel rejected that label. He preferred the Sixties Generation, he told me, more than once, because “you did not accept the word of the government as truth.” Nor did we accept, he said, the word of the big corporations.

Nathaniel supported anyone trying to create a world based on love.

Les Gapay, a forrmer Blumberg student, writes a Blumberg remembrance and Blumberg writes his own obituary.