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Mario's Last Day
by Michael Rossman

Dear Friends,

By now, you must know that Mario is gone. A sudden heart attack on November 2 left his brain without oxygen for too long; his consciousness was fled irretrievably, and his body died quickly and peacefully when life-support was reduced four days later.

That day I had gone to help Mario and Lynne move into the home they had finally just barely been able to afford -- a modest but lovely place, with a fine view and a room with its own entrance below for Daniel, now 15. Their old place was a chaos, half-packed. While we schlepped boxes awkwardly around him, Mario sat at the kitchen table, his body cramped in apology for not helping, even after he turned his mind again to the maze of legal papers. For two months, he'd been pushing to help organize resistance to Prop. 209, and to the coming regimen of student fee hikes in the state college system, being tested first at his own campus, Sonoma State. Opposition was growing, he felt there was a real chance; he was working against a deadline, to file a lawsuit challenging the adminstration's manipulation of a student election. I was too bent on carting stuff into my wagon, and too respectful of his focus, to have the sense even to hug him; by the time I got back from the third load to head home, he had gone, to deliver his brief to the lawyers.

This done, Mario unwound. He drove with Lynne to Sausalito, to meet in the flesh an artist whose cherished landscape had guided their questing along the coast of Italy. It was a warm evening, with the sweet feel that couples know in times of concord. They got back to their own pastoral landscape in Sebastapol in time to help Daniel take his musical gear to a party. Mario was carrying his amp to the car, set it down gently as he crumpled to the gravel. He had long been afflicted with a heart-valve problem, and had been four times hospitalized with bacterial infection; but this danger was not taken to portend a heart attack. Even so, he knew something more, for he mentioned months before, with quiet factuality, that his heart was fragile and could go at any time. One might see him, in this last cameo, as a political hero who died in the saddle of overcommittment; but his heart might as well have stopped while hiking. He was a man who died of life, while striving to live it fully.

A small private service was held in the garden of their new home that Saturday, attended by family members and close friends. Between the Tibetan Buddhist chant, the rabbinical prayer, and "We Shall Overcome," many thoughtful and tender things were said, some sharply-edged, of the sorts that all who knew Mario will be saying, and that we hope to sound in public. The one that struck me most was the briefest, from one who said simply that Mario's passing left her more afraid, not of the world outside, but of herself and of us all to each other, for it feels somehow even harder to be a good person with him gone.

There will be a public memorial service in Berkeley; and Mario's family needs help. That's all we know for sure. We hope to hold the service on Sunday, December 8, beginning at noon. Reggie Zelnik is looking into a campus site, we're aiming for Pauley Ballroom and/or Sproul Plaza. There should also be a more private gathering for FSM people, the night before and/or that evening. Marilyn Noble has offered her new house in Oakland, and others may be available; but help will be needed to organize this, as well as for the other. We have no idea of how many people may turn up, for either the public or the private memorial. There is no organized "we" to do things, only a loose net of friends routinely overstrained in life, best able perhaps to focus the form and content of Mario's public memorial, but needing help even in publicizing this to those who may care to attend, as well as with the media -- and still more with whatever gathering is held for FSM folks.

Perspectives on Mario

Mario Savio gave his heart to justice and history in the vanguard of the civil rights movement in San Francisco, before going to Mississippi in 1964 to work with the young black activists of SNCC, registering voters in a hostile land. From Freedom Summer, he returned to the University of California at Berkeley -- the nation's leading public university, already the most active enclave of the young New Left -- to find the campus in crisis. Bowing to corporate reactions against student civil rights activism, the administration had banned the most vital uses of the campus to all student activists. In the pivotal campus conflict of the Sixties, after 800 arrests and the first strike to shut down a campus, the Free Speech Movement successfully defended students' rights to political expression -- securing Berkeley as a base for progressive student activism, and touching off a wave of campus movements that spread through thousands of schools and propelled the many mass movements for justice that developed during the next decade, and the next.

Mario quickly became the most prominent leader of the FSM. His angular frame, wild hair, and passionate speech made him a natural media target. The TV news clips then and ever since have been content to portray him simply as a demagogue inflaming a rabble. Yet Mario became the FSM's most vital leader not for rhetoric and fire, but because he spoke what was in our hearts, the moral cores of our concern, with an indelible clarity that helped us know more surely who we were, alone and together, in acting for what we believed. Mario became a moral rudder for his generation in the FSM, and remained so for many of all ages who have known him since. Though his image lingers angry in stock newsclips, his anger was only and always against injustice. In person as in his writing and thought, he was innately respectful and kind, and painstakingly considerate. In small details of life as in the large, he wrestled constantly with issues of what is right and how to save one right from abusing another, sharing his struggle in ways that enlightened his students, his friends and colleagues, and at times wider worlds.

What led us to trust Mario was not the conclusions he announced, but the process he exposed in reaching them, in reconciling the complex claims of heart and mind. Though his media treatment enshrouded him early with an artificial authority that grew even more magnified and distorted as he passed into legend, in his presence this illusion dissolved; for he continued throughout life to speak with an authority that was unmistakeably and only personal, as someone trying to fit conscience to fact. Though his references were often political, he was incapable of ideological cant, and reasoned each issue from scratch from what he understood, in the way of a poet. He spoke publicly too seldom to risk repetition; but had he spoken ever so often, enough to recycle the remarkable range of his learning, he would still each time have spoken as he did during the months of daily eight-hour meetings at the heart of the FSM -- in the live act of improvisation, simply trying to keep in touch with deep principles and to honor others' claims, in making sense of things. It was the simple authenticity of his example, his metabolic integrity, rather than energetic charisma or media hype, that led us to find his voice our own, and strive to be as true.

Mario died while he and Lynne and Daniel, now 15, were moving into the home they had finally been able to afford. They are left with a mortgage way too large for her single income, and college coming up. Contributions to the Savio Family Fund, c/o I.L.E., Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, CA 94928, will be gratefully received.

Michael Rossman

Copyright 1996 by Michael Rossman. This text may be republished in any form accessible to the public without charge and not supported by advertising. All other rights are reserved;
To contact Michael Rossman:  [replace the -at- with @ for email]


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