Write Columbia's History
More Than "Just the Facts"
Charles Ciccone
Alum
School of General Studies 1966

I came to Columbia in a very unusual way in those turbulent years of the 1960s, and left it under equally unusual circumstances. I'll try to summarize my experience, knowing that few of my professors/instructors and fellow students knew much about me at the time.

In 1962, at age 37 and in my 15th year as a detective with the New York City Police Department, I successfully enrolled as an undergraduate student at Columbia University's School of General Studies. I was probably among the first mid-career changers of that period. Though I did not hide my vocation from the registrar's office, no other person on campus knew what I did for a living. I had enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943, just before I was 18 years of age, so World War II had interfered with any plans I had for college. After the war, domestic responsibilities prevented me from taking advantage of the GI educational benefits. Therefore, as a freshman at GS in 1962, I had two objectives: to get my bachelor's degree and to root out subversives on campus.

One of my objectives started to unravel as I become more and more involved with the curricula and with campus activity. Perhaps paying more attention in class than I was supposed to, on the one hand, I slowly became fascinated with the arcane subject of economics. On the other, I started to hear voices never before resonating in my life, either as a World War II B-29 bombardier or in the police precincts of New York City. It soon became obvious that Columbia had captured me even while the turmoil of the 1960s was festering all around me. I remember, out of sheer curiosity, walking in on a so-called "teach-in" being held in one of the campus buildings. It was a total shock to me to hear the strong and visceral language of the relatively young speakers. Unaccustomed as I was to any brutally verbal criticisms of governmental policies, mostly involving the gradual U.S. military buildup in Southeast Asia, it was close to a traumatic personal experience for me until I started to listen—and to think! It occurred to me that I was learning as much, if not more, about our system through the underground protest movement than in the many economics courses I took. The split allegiences I held started to torment me.

In 1966, my senior year, the period of serious campus violence had not yet started, but the tempers on campus were rising swiftly. Meetings were held everywhere on campus every day. The charged atmosphere was exciting, even to me. Meanwhile, in my strange dual role, I wasn't given any special arrangements. I spent days and nights handling criminal cases, while attending lectures, submitting papers, taking exams, and trying not to reveal who I really was. It was not easy, but it was working fine. I remember spending a night at the morgue, putting body parts together in order to identify a victim of a gruesome subway accident, followed (without sleep) by a rush to make an early morning psychology class in which I played with chicks to test a "pecking order" theory. The quick change in the focus of my attention did not go unnoticed by me, but I laughed it off.

In another instance, I spent most of the day serving as a police escort to President Johnson as he traveled around New York City. Exhausted, I then arrived somewhat late at Columbia for my international economics class. When the professor sarcastically invited me in, I somehow impulsively blurted out, "Heck, I was with the President all day!" as the class roared with laughter at the seemingly original nature of the excuse. These incidents made my time at Columbia all the more interesting. And that's what might have caused the ultimate official screw-up.

My fascination with economics paid off for me in one way and caused me some grief in another. I had completed 13 different economics courses and received twelve "A's" (from 12 different professors/instructors, by the way) and one "B+." "Not enough footnotes," she said!

My other course work was good, but not as exceptional. While I knew I had an outstanding record in economics, I was still surprised to receive a letter from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, one of the most coveted fellowships of that period, advising me that I was nominated and that I should submit a paper and present myself for an interview. I did, with some trepidation. For example, as a 40-year-old sitting in an outer room where the Foundation examiners were convening, I was ignored for hours simply because everybody thought I was a parent waiting for my nominated child to complete his interview. When darkness fell, someone finally asked me what I was doing there. I explained, and I was led in to meet the Board. In summary, the interviews must have gone well. I was awarded a fellowship on the first vote which, in a way, led to my undoing.

In March 1966, a few days after the official award was made, "The Owl," the GS student newspaper, came out with the roaring headline "DETECTIVE AMONG SEVEN WILSON FELLOWS." Adding to the expose, the paper also included a front page photo of me. To this day, I haven't figured out where it came from. To my dismay (and secret delight), I had been exposed by my own dedication to Columbia's School of General Studies, its courses, and its professors. Other newspapers hooked onto the story apparently to counter the bad publicity New York police were receiving in the press. From then on, it was a trip, as you might expect, but I kept a low profile, registered at Harvard's School of Government, and was awarded a master's degree in economics and government in the first graduating class of the newly named John F. Kennedy School of Government. The rest is history, as they say, thanks to Columbia and more directly, to its School of General Studies.



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