Francis “Frank” McDermott, Class of 1970

After Frank McDermott graduated from Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, he taught high school to avoid the draft. Two years passed and McDermott decided to apply for law school because he wanted to make an impact on the world, and he believed that law allowed him to do that “on a fairly broad scale,” both economically and socio-politically. He chose the University of Virginia School of Law because of its reputation and the fact that his older brother was attending medical school at UVA. The two brothers lived together, and “Finch would show up every now and then.”

Frank McDermott and Edwin "Ed" Finch ('70) banter during their interview. McDermott speaks first.

Like Finch, McDermott recalls the law school as being relatively conservative—coat and tie—and isolated up until the second semester of his third year, when the culture was “absolutely full of all the influences from things going around the world and around the country.” He remembers an initial meeting about the legal marshals early on during May Days, when law students came together to “help protect the property of the university” and “frankly, protect the students from the state police.”

"It was certainly collaborative. It was organizational. It was again, figuring out plans and plans of action and that we were certainly living and breathing in a very anxious time. And it’s that anxiety, frankly, that probably brought us together."

McDermott recalls that, during that meeting, the legal marshals designated individuals to patrol certain hotspots around Grounds. Finch suggested reserving a room in the Downtowner Motor Inn, at the intersection of Emmet Street and Ivy Road.* From their room and occasionally the roof, the two could see University Hall and Route 29 to the left, and Carr’s Hill and the Rotunda to the right. With the help of walkie-talkies, which were given to them by members of the administration, Finch and McDermott communicated the positions of students and police to the other legal marshals. They recall being posted there for several evenings.

Photograph of law enforcement officers gathering at an intersection in front the Downtowner Motor Inn, 1970

Rip Payne, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia

Photograph of law enforcement officers gathering at an intersection in front the Downtowner Motor Inn, 1970

Police officers gather at the intersection of Emmet Street (Route 29) and Ivy Road (Route 250) in front of the Downtowner Motor Inn.

The police presence was especially noteworthy for McDermott. The parking lot by University Hall was “absolutely full of state police vehicles, including some armored vehicles” and the state troopers were “very well disciplined.”

McDermott also remembers the Law faculty being intricately involved with the legal marshals. Of all his law school professors, McDermott particularly remembers Charles Whitebread, whom he had for Criminal Law during 2L and for Trusts and Estates during 3L. Whitebread was, as McDermott describes, “poetry in motion.” He was actively involved in balancing the tensions between the administration and student strikers and encouraging a collective protest against the war. Whitebread was also one of the first law faculty members at the police station the night of the arrests, representing the arrestees and attempting to expunge any resulting criminal record.

"He was forever moving from place to place, advising, trying to calm, trying to intercede. He was a tremendous source of support for us in our activities."

Professor Charles Whitebread (right, undone tie) with Law students on the Lawn, May 9, 1970.

When we asked McDermott to reflect on May Days fifty years later, he described those days as “a sad, somber, dangerous profound period of time” that politically resonated with the nation for years to follow. His age group was particularly impacted because of the draft, as friends went off to war only to return physically or mentally injured, or never returned at all.

"In terms of the right or wrong of our being involved in Vietnam, it was just something that was shaking the core of our country, And, and I thought […] clearly brought out the danger of extremism on both ends of the spectrum."

*The Downtowner Motor Inn eventually became the Cavalier Inn and was demolished in 2018.