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Alumni Recount Experiences During Historic Visit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. H’ 65

When Robert G. Lahita, M.D., Ph.D. ’67 began his junior year at Saint Peter’s, he never thought he’d find himself in a closet with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. H’ 65.

But that’s exactly what happened on September 22, 1965 when Dr. King came to Saint Peter’s to speak at the Michaelmas Convocation. Dr. Lahita recalled how there was a bomb scare during the ceremony, causing an evacuation. One thing led to another and Dr. Lahita soon found himself in a closet with Dr. King and another student. Dr. Lahita remembered making small conversation with Dr. King, however one of Dr. King’s comments stood out in particular.

“He said to me, ‘son, any Catholic school that invites a man named Martin Luther to speak deserves a lot of credit,” recalled Dr. Lahita, laughing. “The memories are unbelievable.”

Dr. Lahita was one of four alumni who were part of the discussion “Michaelmas 1965: An Alumni Panel Presentation on Dr. King’s Historic Visit to Saint Peter’s” on Monday, September 21. The panel also included Hon. Joseph V. Doria, Jr. ’68, dean of the School of Education, and Jerome J. Gillen, Ph.D. ’66, associate professor of history, and was moderated by Hon. Kevin G. Callahan ’69, associate professor of criminal justice. The event was part of the year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of when Dr. King came to Saint Peter’s and received an honorary degree.

While the panelists were all very different, they all had one thing in common: they had all been present during Dr. King’s visit to Saint Peter’s. Students, faculty and alumni filled the McIntyre Conference Center as they recounted their experiences on that historic day.

At the time, Callahan was a freshman and remembered Dr. King’s visit as being an “overwhelming kind of thing for a 17-year-old.” He emphasized that in 1965, Dr. King was in the prime of his life yet knew any day his life could be taken away from him — but that it never stopped him from pursuing what he felt was right.

“Victor R. Yanitelli, S.J., brought this man to this campus and I know that it changed my life,” added Callahan.

Dr. Gillen also remembered the Michaelmas Convocation that day. He was a senior at the time with a class predominantly made up of white males except for six African Americans. He recalled how Dr. King spoke about how racial problems were not just limited to the south, but that the north would have issues too.

“I must have seen 46 Michaelmas speeches in my time and there are only two I can remember,” added Dr. Gillen. “His I can remember.”

Dr. Doria hadn’t planned on attending the Michaelmas Convocation that day. As a sophomore, he thought the ceremony was strictly for seniors — until a professor urged him to attend. So, Dr. Doria snuck into the ceremony and like Dr. Lahita, remembered there being a bomb scare.

“It was the first time I saw someone as charismatic as that in person,” added Dr. Doria. “It helped me understand the importance of getting involved.”

During the end, the panelists took questions from the audience. However, when asked what they were thinking at the time of Dr. King’s assassination, they all had the same initial response: silence.

After a few moments, they all agreed that it had been a very sad time and how fortunate they were to have the experiences they did with Dr. King.

This panel discussion is part of a year-long event series honoring the 50th anniversary of when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. H ’65 came to Saint Peter’s. For more information on upcoming events, visit saintpeters.edu/mlk.