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In Memory of Mario Savio

Bettina Aptheker

Spoken at Mario's public memorial on December 8, 1996

When I picture Mario now I see him first as he was thirty-two years ago: the distinctive mop of curls, the ocean blue eyes, earnest, intense, his voice crackling, his energy electrifying. Then I see him as he was at fifty, with his hair white and tied back into a long pony tail, the same ocean blue eyes, the same intensity, same voice. He wore the same kind of shoes for 32 years. When I received the first phone call from the Sebastopol Hospital, learned Mario was in a coma, that he'd had a heart attack, he came into my mind's eye, sharp, focused. In my mind he was lying in the hospital bed with his shoes on. It was ridiculous. I knew it was ridiculous. In my grief my mind wrapped itself around his shoes, as though if he still had his shoes on he would get up. I could will him to get up again.

Mario was a wonderful friend. He was sympathetic, emotionally available, passionately intelligent, insatiably curious. He had a delicious sense of humor. He was not exploitive, sexually or otherwise. He treated me as an equal, not because I was Herbert Aptheker's daughter (which meant nothing to him) but because he valued me as a human being. For me, in those first years of college, it was the best, most wholesome, honest and authentic relationship I had ever had. I cannot begin to tell you what this meant to me, what a gift it was to me. In the thirty-two years I knew Mario, none of these qualities about him changed.

Mario's great strength as a student leader was his absolute and transparent integrity. He never wavered from the bedrock of his principles: freedom of speech, justice, and equality. He was never beholden to any political party or ideology. He spoke only from his own conscience. He believed in the intelligence and good will of his fellow students. He was not interested in personal power. He told everyone everything that went on in administrative and faculty meetings.

The Free Speech Movement shaped Mario at least as much as he shaped it. Ours was a movement of collective strength, of a fledgling wisdom nurtured in each other. The media -- in its rush toward idolatry -- has never understood this. Mario would also be the first to tell you that it was the Black students in SNCC, the Black sharecroppers in Mississippi, the Black women like Fannie Lou Hamer that moved him so, and that inspired the white students of our generation to push ourselves up and out into our own humanity. But much of the press, even as it has generously and genuinely mourned Mario's death, continues to mount him as the icon of student activism -- thereby once again erasing the suffering, the poverty and the racism against which he so courageously and selflessly struggled his entire life.

Mario had about him an unutterable sweetness, a tremendous passion, a selfless compassion. I remember in one of his speeches -- I think it was in 1984 at the FSM's twentieth anniversary noon rally -- he spoke of the Jewish Holocaust, of the pictures of the survivors emerging from the concentration camps. When he saw those pictures he said he thought the world would change. That never again would we permit such an unspeakable genocide against any people. But we were wrong, he said. Mario was appalled by injustice. I mean personally appalled. He was incredulous when he encountered meanness, selfishness or jealousy in people because these ways of being were so foreign to him.

Mario was a brilliant thinker, interested in physics and astronomy, a magician in formal logic. Above all else, Mario had a vast personal courage. Life was not easy for him. There were economic hardships and complicated moral judgments, serious internal conflicts and emotional upheavals. In the midst of these realities he walked through the world committed to changing it, and to changing himself. However great Mario's personal courage, it was Lynne who provided the bedrock that made his life possible, and it is Lynne's courage and compassion and unconditional love that moves now in this world, a gift to all of us who live. How we embrace you!

Mario's life was a search; it was a practicum in search of meaning, in search of wholeness. From politics to philosophy to logic to physics to astronomy to healing to meditation. It was personal. It was political. It was spiritual. He was, in the words of the Buddha, "a lamp unto himself." His was not a linear progression, which does not exist in any event. No. For Mario, each search, each understanding, each dimension circled back into the others, layering, honing, softening a mind already so flexible and wide.

Mario saw the suffering. Felt his suffering and the suffering of the world. He believed that beyond this suffering there was hope. And beyond hope there was struggle. Beyond struggle there was community. Beyond community there was justice. Beyond justice there was redemption. Beyond redemption there was freedom. His search led him towards that freedom as it encompassed and was born of suffering, hope, struggle and justice. His was a deeply personal quest, and a deeply spiritual one. This was a freedom beyond the conventional understanding of the world, a freedom that included the political but went beyond it. It was a freedom of mind. A freedom that saw reflected in the human mind the vastness of ocean, the vastness of sky. He had the idea, near the very end of his life, that perhaps mind, resting in this spaciousness, could extend itself into a perfect tranquility and joy.

The house which Mario and Lynne had just bought -- their first -- is high up on a hill. From its living room windows facing east there is a gorgeous view of valleys and trees, mountains and sky. Mario said he had never had a home with any real view at all. He so looked forward to this one.

Mario loved the wind. He loved water. He loved mountains. He loved the night sky. With each breath he was connected to all of life. Mario, Mario with each breath now, as we breathe for you, together we will look, watch, gather ourselves together. We will move towards the sighting that was on the horizon of your life, hold you in memory and walk with you, holding each other in our grief, until dawn.

Copyright 1996, 1998 by Bettina Aptheker. This work may not be reproduced in any medium which is sold, subject to access fee, or supported by advertising, without explicit prior consent by the author.


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