Police Veteran Who Handled Antiwar Protests at Boston U. Dies at 73

Boston U. Photography

Allan Whitman, a campus police lieutenant, leans over Boston U.’s president, John Silber, at a breakfast meeting in 1972.
February 17, 2014

American colleges seemed under siege during the late 1960s and early 70s. Every spring, lines of police officers faced off against students protesting the nation’s involvement in Vietnam, among other issues, amid clouds of tear gas on many campuses. One veteran of those protests, Lt. Allan W. Whitman, of the Boston University police force, died on February 6 in St. Petersburg, Fla. He was 73.

Mr. Whitman’s challenge was that he worked for Boston University’s president, John R. Silber, who appeared to enjoy wading into crowds of protesting students and arguing with them. Deans and presidents at most colleges avoided student mobs in those days and drove home or hunkered down in their offices during protests. Not John Silber. When he was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, in the late 60s, he regularly confronted crowds of student protesters. He did the same after becoming president of Boston University, in early 1971.

"Do you think that American foreign policy is made at Boston University?" Mr. Silber often asked students protesting against the war in Vietnam. "You should get on a plane or bus and go to the District of Columbia. That’s where American foreign policy is made. Maybe you can have some impact there."

Daniel J. Finn, a former vice president at the university, describes Lieutenant Whitman as "an ex-Marine and a nice guy" who "hated fighting with kids."

"Al especially resented having to deal with protesters who had no connection with BU," Mr. Finn says. "About half of the people we arrested at the larger protests had nothing to do with the university."

Mr. Finn was involved in reshaping the campus police into a professional force in the early 1970s. "It was essentially a security operation back in the 60s," he says. "We expanded the force to about 40 men and required everyone to attend the state police academy." Officers received weapons and training.

"Al Whitman was the first man to make lieutenant," recalls Robert Gaffney, a former Boston University police officer. "He was in charge during the major protests against military recruitment" and the Center for Latin American Development Studies.

"Once, during one of the big protests, Al was attacked by a rather large and angry woman, and he had to put her on the ground," says Mr. Gaffney. "As he did, she bit his leg. Al had to have about three stitches. Those were the days."

When about 1,000 students, professors, and antiwar activists demonstrated against U.S. Marine recruiters at Boston University on October 27, 1972, Mr. Silber was out among them with a bullhorn and Lieutenant Whitman.

The president warned the crowd of impending arrests, lectured protesters on Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence, and told them where to line up to be arrested. Many protesters did not like that, some told a student newspaper, The Daily Free Press.

Mr. Silber told the protesters that the Boston Police Department had been called, and that the city police officers would not be as lenient and understanding as those from the university about insults to their ancestry and their intelligence. They would be much more likely to respond to taunts with a nightstick, he said. The city police arrived with German shepherds and arrested 33 demonstrators, reported The Boston Globe.

"Al was not a complainer," recalls John Burtis, a former director of security at the university’s Medical Campus, who hired Mr. Whitman to join the police force there late in his career, after he had left the university to work at the Quincy Shipyard for a while. "He charmed everyone. He did sometimes grumble about the hippies who had tried to destroy the university in the 70s."

Lieutenant Whitman told Mr. Burtis that his arrival at demonstrations with Mr. Silber was always the same. "They would get out of the car and approach the crowd," says Mr. Burtis, "and Al would tell Dr. Silber, ‘I want you to to be very careful and don’t do anything that will get you into trouble.’ And Dr. Silber would say, ‘Allan, there’ll be no trouble. That’s why you’re with me.’

" ‘And off we’d go, charging into this huge crowd. We must have done that a dozen times.’ "

One of Mr. Whitman’s daughters, Mellissa Sigourney, of Braintree, Mass., says, "My dad loved his work at BU. He would have done anything for the university or for the Silber family."

James Brann is a former chairman of the journalism department at Boston University.