When Chuck Vasaly began college at Cornell in 1961, his mother convinced him to sign up for the Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (NROTC) given the ongoing Cold War and risk of conflict with the Soviet Union. After Vasaly graduated in 1965, he had to fulfill a two-year obligation at Pearl Harbor with training in San Francisco. He was deployed during the Tonkin Gulf incident in 1965-1966.
Vasaly remained active in the reserves but decided to pursue a career in law, which had been his intention for some time. He was accepted at UVA and started his coursework in the fall of 1967. UVA President Edgar Shannon was a captain in the Naval Reserves at the time. He and Vasaly were in the same unit at UVA. While Vasaly does not recall Shannon ever speaking with him about the May Days protests, he does feel Shannon was “the right president” for that moment.
Vasaly came to Law with an anti-war background. In the fall of 1965, he witnessed the first anti-Vietnam War march in Oakland, California. When he was released from active duty, he joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Vasaly remembers hearing about Cambodia and Kent State from Walter Cronkite, whom he and others trusted to tell the truth. “There was no such thing as 'fake news' back in those days,” Vasaly said. For him, Kent State was the “last nail.” He had to do his part.
Vasaly does not remember how he became a marshal, but he knows he did and that he wore an armband and carried a walkie-talkie. He suspects a connection between the marshals and the Legal Aid Society, of which he was an active volunteer. More so, Vasaly recalls the marshal’s main intention—to protect students from police brutality.
Vasaly attended Jerry Rubin and William Kunstler’s address on May 6th. He was there when student poured out of University Hall towards President Edgar Shannon’s home. He informed his roommate, Student Council President James Roebuck, that students were charging towards Carr’s Hill. Roebuck warned Shannon, and a group formed a protective barrier around the President’s mansion.
"He [William Kunstler] went out with them. It was like leading a brigade…. It was just like [they] were forming up regiments and battalions, charged to Carr’s Hill."
During the arrests that Friday, Vasaly describes his role as a “small part of a linkage that would help make sure people were on top of things.” He walked down to the police station after mass arrests on the Lawn. He thinks the Mayflower van filled with arrestees (some of whom were legal marshals) passed by him. The exact details of what happened next have now faded in his memory, but he remembers that a law student and professor—potentially Charles Whitebread—arrived to offer assistance.
On Sunday, May 10th, President Shannon addressed thousands from the Rotunda, an event that brought relief to grounds. Shannon invited the crowd to sign a letter he had penned to Virginia Senators William B. Spong, Jr. and Harry H. Byrd, Jr. The letter outlined Shannon’s distaste with the Nixon administration for their expansion of the war into Cambodia as well as the National Guard’s actions at Kent State. Vasaly accompanied the cohort of students who carried Shannon’s letter to Washington, D.C. the next day. He thought his status as an active officer and anti-war advocate would make a difference with Senators Spong and Byrd. Spong heard them out, but Byrd refused and sent an aide instead. The response from Byrd’s office was typical for the time: radical students were the real issue, not the war. Vasaly tried to explain that opposition stretched beyond college campuses.
"It was an effort on my part to try to tell the aide, who I later got to know as a lawyer in Arlington, that…there was more opposition, even in the community of Charlottesville, beyond the students that are honking for peace and threatening the NROTC."
When we asked Vasaly if or how his time as a legal marshal affected his career, his thoughts went back to legal aid. “Marshal type work attracts a certain type of person,” Vasaly said. Many of those individuals joined a career in public service, including Vasaly who eventually came to head a legal aid program in Arlington.
"That legal assistance program was dealing with some of these larger issues: segregation, inequalities, economic disparities, and poverty in the United States, in Virginia, in Charlottesville. And so it brought together kind of similar people that were objecting to the war [and] also were sympathetic to those kinds of causes."