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When All Hell Breaks Loose
Betty Gabrielli / photos by John Seyfried

"Bill Schulz ‘71 was a student at Oberlin during very turbulent times," said Wendell P. Russell Jr. ‘71 in September when he presented Schulz with the Alumni Council’s Distinguished Achievement Award.

"When we entered Oberlin in the fall of 1967, little did we know that within a few weeks all hell was going to break loose on our campus and turn our college years into a crucible of intense and often violent social change," said Russell, who is president-elect of the Alumni Association.

Schulz, who has been director of Amnesty International USA since 1994, received the award in recognition of his career, which "represents the best of Oberlin’s values of internationalism, social justice, and the advancement of human rights," said Russell.

While on campus, Schulz met with students and described some of the "extraordinarily formative" events at Oberlin that led him to become a lifelong human-rights advocate.

"What I found here was a school where the competition of ideas, the fundamental questioning of basic assumptions, develops the capacity to let no idea be so profoundly held that one kills in its name."

Fascinated by the connection between intellectual thought and the way in which history is shaped, Schulz said he took classes from "four compelling professors [of history, English, sociology, and religion, respectively]: Geoffrey Blodgett, Dewey Ganzel, Milton Yinger, and Clyde Holbrook."

From them he learned that ideas "are not just fun, they're not just pretty, but they have consequences in the world. And if ideas are warped into rigid ideologies, they can have profoundly negative, disastrous consequences."

During 1970, his junior year, Schulz experienced his first major disaster: the shootings at Kent State University. "I was a student minister, the only minister, at a small Unitarian church in Kent. I wasn’t there when the shootings occurred, but many of my parishioners were Kent faculty members, and they were profoundly affected by the day’s events, so I drove over there that night.

"I found a city under siege. The National Guard was posted on all of the street corners, and the city council had banned all gatherings. Churches were not even allowed to hold services to commemorate the death of the students. We found that outrageous so we defied the city and had our own memorial service."

The experience, he said, helped him understand a number of things, including that "sometimes governments, even democratic governments, can turn on their own citizens."

From Oberlin Schulz went on to pursue two master’s degrees and a doctorate and service as a parish minister, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, and executive director of Amnesty International USA.

Throughout his 27-year career, Schulz has spoken out in opposition to the death penalty; given his support to women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, and racial justice; organized and participated in demonstrations; and written extensively on behalf of all four causes, including the 2003 book: Tainted Legacy: 9/11 and the Ruin of Human Rights.  

He has also traveled extensively, both in the U.S. and abroad, on investigative missions for Amnesty International (AI). In 1997, he led a mission to Liberia to investigate atrocities committed during that country’s civil war, and in 1999 he traveled to Northern Ireland with AI to insist that human-rights protections be incorporated into the peace process.

A few days after the Alumni Council presentation, Schulz and an Amnesty delegation flew to another crucible of violent social change, Darfur, in Southern Sudan, where they spent considerable time in the refugee camps listening to horror stories from victims of the genocide.

How does Schulz deal with the pain? He says one thing that keeps him going is meeting victims who somehow have emerged whole from their suffering; or, if not whole, then they have decided not to allow that experience to define who they are for the rest of their lives.

"I also try hard" he says, "to keep in perspective that as painful and poignant and sad and tragic many of the experiences are that I hear about, it is nothing compared to undergoing them. My role, ultimately, is to be a voice for those who have no voice."

While on campus, Schulz also presented a free public talk drawn from Tainted Legacy: 9/11 and the Ruin of Human Rights. Excerpts will appear in the winter issue of the Oberlin Alumni Magazine.

Rosa Goldberg

Rosa Goldberg

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