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Thursday, April 2, 2020

Western professor talks about Bellingham’s own Red Scare

// Photo by Madeline Mohn
// Photo by Madeline Mohn

Author, columnist and Western professor Ron C. Judd spoke about the little-known history of one of Western Washington University’s most progressive minds on Wednesday, April 8, at the Bellingham Public Library. Judd’s lecture, based on his Master’s thesis, “Free Speech, Free Love, and Costly Politics: Bellingham’s Own Private Red Scare” focused on how Western’s fifth president, Charles H. Fisher, was ousted by the Bellingham community in the 1930s after a media frenzy likened his politics to those of the communist party.

Judd’s lecture was the second in a three-part series presented by the Bellingham Public Library called “Intolerance & Injustice: Where We’ve Been, What We’ve Learned”.

Fisher’s vision was to improve the education of future educators, Judd said. It was under his leadership that Western changed its name from Washington State Normal School at Bellingham to Western Washington College of Education, according to Western Washington University.

Judd said Fisher’s ideas of educational progressivism were questionable to the right-wing community, the main player in which was Frank Sefrit, the editor of the then very conservative Bellingham Herald. Sefrit used the paper and the public’s fear to turn the community against Fisher. He was forced out in 1939, a historical injustice that, Judd said, remains misunderstood to this day.

“I think that there needs to be some official action by the University to at least correct the legal record,” Judd said. The minutes of the Western Board of Trustees, who were involved in forcing Fisher out, make up the legal history of the school, he said, so the University could simply reopen the minutes from that period in the school’s history in 1939 and correct the record.

“It would be a symbolic thing, but I think it would be important,” Judd said.

Judd also thinks that Western should name a building in Fisher’s honor. Currently, his only legacy is Fisher Fountain, which, ironically, stands in Red Square.

Sarah Climaco, one of 25 attendees at Judd’s lecture described his presentation as “eye-opening”.

Climaco linked the recent media outrage after current Western President Bruce Shepard’s controversial statement about the diversity of the student population in 2014 to the ousting of Fisher in 1939.

“If I were in school at that time, I would be pissed,” Climaco said.

Last April, President Bruce Shepard made national news after a speech in which he compared the changing demographics of Washington State to the static demographics of the University. Conservative groups called for his resignation.

Judd said that the similarities between the Shepard controversy and the Fisher case were “distressing”.

Fisher was forced out 80 years ago, Judd said, “And you’d like to think that we learn, but … I don’t know if we do.”

Ron C. Judd is a journalism instructor at Western Washington University and 2015 James W. Scott Research Fellow at the University’s Center for Pacific Northwest Studies. Author of several works of nonfiction, Judd’s work includes outdoor guides and a history of the Winter Olympics. Judd has 25 years of experience as a journalist and currently writes a news column, called The Wrap, for The Seattle Times. He lives with his wife in Bellingham.

Editor’s note: Sarah Climaco was previously a reporter for The Western Front.

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