Walter Capps’ Vietnam War Class Still Making an Impact
By Vic Cox ‘64
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Cover photo by Getty Images.
Capps’ Vietnam War Class Leaves Deep Impact on Lives
Bringing the Legacy Home
By Vic Cox ’64
“When I came back from Vietnam I was 21,” said the silver-haired information technology manager in the dark suit with discrete rows of military service citations. But no warm welcome awaited him and his fellow Vietnam War veterans, particularly from their college student peers. “They were cruel to us,” he recalled recently for a mostly alumni audience in UCSB’s Hatlen Theatre.”

“They verbally stoned us,” Jim Nolan said quietly, without reproach. “They wouldn’t allow us to be part of our own generation; they shunned us.”

Nolan spoke at a podium during the All Gaucho Reunion as one of four panel members examining the theme of “Coming Home” with former students from the university’s Religious Studies 155 class, “The Impact of the Vietnam War on American Religion and Culture.” For the past seven years the ex-Marine has been a presenter for this course, the first of its kind in the nation when the late Professor Walter Capps launched it in 1979.

Wilson Hubble, another panelist, has been a presenter since 1984—the course is offered once a year in the winter quarter—and he recruited Nolan for RS 155. Hubble, who is also a decorated combat veteran, was a helicopter crewman in Nam and, he told the audience, he was initially suspicious of this civilian academic who wanted veterans to tell students their personal stories.

Capps gained his trust by telling Hubble and other vets that he and his students wanted to learn from them. Despite stage fright and concerns about being judged, the veterans told the audiences that packed Campbell Hall what they had done in the war and what the war had done to them. At the end of each veteran’s presentation, no matter how graphic or laced with profanity, mild-mannered Walter Capps led the students in saying, “Welcome home.”

Hubble said that many vets bore spiritual scars even if they showed no physical wounds, and it was difficult to recount their experiences. He told the Hatlen audience that at first his own story was “a disjointed series of memories, some of which I was trying to suppress.” It became a coherent plea for understanding.

“These were not just war stories,” he said. “The class was an instrument of healing and new beginnings.” So much so that Hubble, who is an environmental planner for the County of Santa Barbara, has never been able to tell his parents or his brother about the experiences he regularly shares with RS 155 students.

Nolan, now 62, affirmed the healing qualities of the course: “When you’re asked to become someone capable of taking another’s life, it changes you. A little bit of you dies, too; it takes your humanness from you.” In a soft, constricted voice that struggled for control, he continued, “We needed that back; we needed forgiveness, and that’s what the class provides.”

Panelist Jim Quay, who was a conscientious objector (CO) during the Vietnam War, observed that not only soldiers hungered for confession and forgiveness. “Our country sent the soldiers to war,” he observed. “They fought in our name, so we, too, needed forgiveness.”

Quay and Walter Capps worked together in the 1980s when Quay headed the California Council for the Humanities. RS 155 had yet to hear from a CO, so Quay was invited to speak to the class. On the day he spoke, a crew from CBS Television’s “60 Minutes” was filming for a report on the class, one of two that the newsmagazine would broadcast over the years.

After he ended his comments, a vet in the class called out, “Welcome home.” Due to the TV lights, Quay could not see the speaker but later he learned his name. “I was hoping Denver Mills would be here today,” he told the alums. “It was an extremely generous welcome, and I appreciated it.”

If presenters were changed by the Vietnam War course, so in their individual ways were the students, Capps’ colleagues, and Capps himself. The vets have made the class what it is, noted panelist Representative Lois Capps, Walter’s widow. “They were its most natural and powerful teachers,” she said, adding that Walter felt that, too. “You (vets) touched him profoundly, and reordered his thinking, and priorities.”

After teaching the class for 16 years, Capps passed the baton in 1995 to religious studies colleague Richard Hecht and, though he failed his first attempt, Capps won the 22nd Congressional District seat in Congress. Unfortunately, a heart attack felled him a little more than 10 months into his term.

Lois was elected his successor. Ten years since his death, after being re-elected five times, she no longer stands in Walter’s shadow, if ever she did. However, but for RS 155 her life would likely have been much different.

She told the audience, “I believe this course, which you all developed together, was a major part of what led Walter to run for public office.” Personally, she added, her “legacy from this class” and what she learned from the soldiers was on display in 2002 when she was one of 133 members of the House of Representatives to vote against a joint resolution authorizing war against Iraq. “I had no other choice,” she said.

Hecht, who originally thought his role would be temporary, has continued the evolution of RS 155 for the past 13 years. He summed up many students’ reaction to the class as “life-changing,” and some of the alumni gathered in Hatlen testified to feeling that way, even years later.

With warfare continuing in Iraq and Afghanistan, over the last three years Hecht has integrated vets from those battlefields into the course, drawing parallels to Vietnam when appropriate. As he wrote in the current class syllabus: “War itself…remains a challenging component (to RS 155). In this course, past, present and future merge for all of us.” Hecht hopes to stage an alumni reunion next year on the course’s 30th anniversary.

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