Joe Powers: Student

Applying to College: in Search of Higher Education

When I was a senior in high school, I had no idea what the future held for me. I had been a slightly, better-than-average student in high school. That statement, in itself, does not describe adequately my mediocre performance and my lack of enthusiasm. Throughout high school I liked to read, but my reading was limited to literature that was not part of my course work. In summation, I was by no means a “student” in the classic sense of the word.

My lack of initiative and confidence in my academic proficiency presented problems in terms of applying to colleges. I had no idea of where to apply, and, if you were to ask me, I had no one to ask. That includes the high school guidance counselors who looked at my college prospects dubiously.

Part of my problem lay at home. My parents were totally ignorant of the college application process although they were mildly encouraging. Their own educations were limited. My mother graduated from the old Jamaica Plain High School, and my father dropped out of Rindge High School and ended up with a diploma from Camp Lejeune High School, during his Marine Corps years.

If I had been an extra-terrestrial, the college application process could not have been more foreign to me. I picked colleges based on the college football teams that I saw compete on Saturday afternoons. I applied to USC, Michigan and other schools with good football teams. I hadn’t a prayer of being able to pay for these schools and little chance of being admitted.

I have no idea of how I ended up applying to UMass-Amherst (UMA), but I think it had to do with following the lead of some of my friends at Weymouth High School where I went to school. In any case, miracle of miracles, I was admitted.

During the summer after high school, I worked at a boat yard where I had worked part-time during high school. The work consisted of building floats, hauling and transporting the floats around, customizing the cradles to fit the boats, emptying the trash, working in the snack bar…Anyway, you get the picture.

My co-worker there was a big lug of a guy who broke my balls constantly. I hated the job. I was a bush leaguer then in terms of getting even. If I knew then what I know now…

I hated the job. Nevertheless, with the money I made during that summer, I paid for my first semester at UMA: room, board and tuition. It seems unbelievable, given what college costs are today, but the entire first semester bill was six hundred and sixty dollars.


Amid all my life’s chaos, I bought tickets through the mail and attended the Woodstock Folk Festival during the middle of August of that year. I’m not sure how this happened. All I can say is that I was taken with the whole rock scene. I had attended several rock concerts during the Spring (Led Zeppelin, The Who, Jeff Beck [with Rod Stewart]). I had no one to go to Woodstock with. My best friend at the time was denied permission to go by his father (wise man!). I wanted to find a companion to go with so I contacted a kid that I went to grammar school with in Cambridge. He had a connection who was driving west so that we were able to get a ride. The kid wanted to charge me for the ride, which I thought was unfair, but I beat him for the money. My plan was to embark on a trip across country after Woodstock, and I had less that a hundred dollars in American Express travelers checks that I was unwilling to give up.

In any case, the traffic was so bad (as Arlo Guthrie said, “the New York Thruway was closed”), we had to walk for hours to get there along with a mob of other people who were in the same predicament. This might be a slight exaggeration, but I think that we walked fourteen hours. I had a new pair of Frye boots, and my feet were killing me. My friend had a 1960s equivalent of a London Fog raincoat. I looked like I was going on the road; he looked like he was going to work in a bank.

When we finally got there on Saturday morning, it started to rain. It wasn’t a hard rain, but it was a portent of things to come. My friend looked at me and said that he was going home. I was in a state of disbelief. After walking as far as we walked, I was happy to be anywhere. He turned on his heel and walked away. It was the last time I saw or talked to him.

After I got my bearings, I realized how poorly prepared I was for the event. I had a few clothes in an Army surplus knapsack that I had held onto from my time as a Boy Scout. I had no tent or raincoat. I was victimized by the rain and the mud. I can remember walking hundreds of yards to use the bathroom. During one of those trips, I bought a Table Talk apple pie. Aside from the handouts that other people offered, that was what I had to eat during the two and a half days I spent there. I have one memory of a guy passing around a jar of peanut butter that everybody, including me, stuck their fingers in. I can’t believe that I did that. I come from a family with reasonably good hygiene, and my mother would have killed me for sure if she saw me do that.

On the upside, I smoked other people’s dope and witnessed other people on acid. I was a novice in the drugs’ department, and even my drinking in high school was moderate.

When I saw the film “Woodstock” years later, it brought back memories that I could hardly believe. During that weekend, I slept and ate outside in the mud and the rain. I was so uncomfortable that I could hardly enjoy the music.

I was slightly relieved when Monday morning rolled around. While I listened to Jimi Hendrix play “The Star-Spangled Banner”, I was searching for a ride home. I felt like I needed a shower more than I needed to go cross country.

Rides weren’t hard to come by. I got a ride in a station wagon for the first leg of the journey; another ride that wasn’t memorable; and, finally, I got picked up by a psychiatrist on Route 128. (Although I didn’t know that I could use one, I think he suspected that I could.)

At near the end of my journey, I was walking down Neck Street in Weymouth when my best friend saw me and picked me up. He was driving to my house to ask my mother if she had heard from me when he saw me. We had a laugh when he asked me how my cross country adventure was. These experiences were a significant part of my preparation for college.


At college I felt like a fish out of water. I had a girl friend that I pestered and cajoled until she slept with me. This happened about a month after I got to college. We had dated in the Spring of our senior year. During the summer she dated and slept with a friend of mine. I was an asshole to her, and we broke up at the beginning of second semester.

One thing about her was that she was an English major. She read many big books, and I was intrigued by that. Since I had no idea of what I wanted to do, or what I would major in, I became an English major.

My first semester in college was a disaster. I studied poorly, if at all. My second semester wasn’t much better, but the student strike that began after Kent State saved my educational bacon. Sympathetic professors, who were numerous, opted to pass us. If it hadn’t been for that strike, I might have flunked out.


One omission from this narrative is my financial state. I was constantly and embarrassingly broke. I had one pair of jeans. When I went home for intercession, I half-heartedly sought work. One day my mother embarrassed me by asking me why I didn’t get a job so that I could take my girl friend out. As luck would have it, my sister was dating a Latvian guy. Both he and his brother worked for this Latvian, wood frame house builder. My sister’s boyfriend’s twin brother Imants mentioned me to the boss who was also the owner of this small wood frame company.

When I called the boss up, I stammered my lack of qualifications. His response was “Come in tomorrow and bring a hammer.” Then he gave me the directions to the job. He said nothing about me bringing a tape measure. Needless to say I wasn’t going to get to measure anything.

After he gave me the directions in heavily-accented Latvian-English, I felt relief when I was finally off the phone. My relief turned to terror when I realized that I had no idea of what I was going to do as a carpenter. The thought that held me in its grasp was that when other carpenters figured out that I was an ignoramus, I would be fired. My only hope was that I would receive some pay before that inevitable hour or day.

My mother gave me a ride to work the next day. I had no car. She dropped me off at a building site on Prospect Street in Hingham. It was just after Christmas. It was cold, and snow lay everywhere. Needless to say, the work was outside. When I walked up to the other carpenters, their icy stares told me what I had already suspected. I was not welcome. The boss introduced me around and gave me an assignment nailing the studs on a wall together beside the other carpenters. I was hopelessly inept. When I did get the nail to go in, I split the wood. Sometimes the nail pinged harmlessly aside because the wood was frozen, and, at others, it bent awkwardly. I pulled more nails than I drove, butchering my hands in the process. It was almost a relief when I was relegated to the attic above the garage where the splitting, bending and butchering continued. At least I was out of sight of the other carpenters.

At the end of the day several us unloaded roof shingles from a truck, making a neat pile. Even though the bundles were heavy, it was at least something I could do reasonably well. After this job was finished I had the temerity to approach the boss to ask him how much he would pay me. To my relief and astonishment, he said that he would pay me two-fifty an hour, but that I would have to improve. After the initial shock of the response wore off, the self-loathing kicked in. Was this all I was worth? I didn’t know where the improvement he asked for would come from, but I had a slight hope that it would come from somewhere.

This is the work I did throughout my college career. It proved to be remunerative. I’ll expand upon the job more fully later on.


Meanwhile, my second year at UMA was better. I took overloads of literature courses both semesters and my grades improved. I discovered that I actually liked to read some things that were assigned by a teacher. I made a lot of new friends because my roommate from my first year and I moved up two floors to the thirteenth floor of the George Washington dorm. On the thirteenth floor, I found a number of people to talk to and, more importantly, to party with. I don’t really understand why this new interest in partying didn’t affect my studying, but, as I said, my grades improved. The comfort level achieved by the change of floors proved short-lived. At the end of the year, most of the residents of the floor agreed to rent a big house off-campus in Hadley. I moved into an apartment in Sunderland with a friend from Weymouth and his girlfriend.

I spent a lot of time with my friends in Hadley, but my time in Sunderland was not fun. The odds, two against one, were not in my favor, and although they took me around with them socially, I felt like the ugly duckling among the beautiful people.

Complicating matters was my work schedule. During the previous summer, I worked a lot of hours at my construction job. Not only did I work six or seven days a week, but I also shingled roofs after work with my new partner Robbie. I had improved so much that my labor was in demand. The price I paid for this new-found privilege was that I now worked all of the time.

During the same period of time, my father bought a ramshackle house with an adjoining boat yard for short money. The house was such a mess that it needed immediate renovating. You should understand that my father was not my favorite person in the world, yet he had the nerve to ask me and my sister’s boyfriend to remodel the place. I took two weeks off of my construction job to work seven ten or twelve hour days on what was to be the family homestead. Even this commitment proved to be insufficient. Before we were anywhere near finished, my parents and siblings had to move from the home that they had sold into their new, unfinished home. Because my father had neglected to communicate the moving date to the rest of the family, we all had to frantically throw haphazardly-packed boxes and clothes into borrowed pickup trucks, and move into a home without a roof and with no upstairs walls. Adding insult to injury, was the sole bathroom that lacked privacy from the adjacent neighbors.

The move created family chaos. I had to return to my construction job because I made more money there. When I returned home at the end of the workday, I continued remodeling the house for my father.

By the end of the summer I was worn-out and tense. I didn’t look forward to going back to school, and while I was a better student than I had been the first year, I lacked the initiative that I possessed during my second year.

By the end of the first semester, I was done. I withdrew two weeks before the end of the semester. I got a nice note from one of my English professors Charlie Moran, urging me to continue my studies at some point in the future.


I headed home at Christmas with my tail between my legs. It took all the energy that I could muster to call my construction boss and get my old framing job back. I was too embarrassed to let him know what had happened at school. It took me weeks to tell him that I wasn’t going back.

For the next year, I worked framing houses, drank heavily and slept with girls that I knew from Weymouth. By the time I had been working a month, I had a serious accident. I fell from the second floor to the basement, landing on my chin, splitting it open. The guy who took me to the hospital had just bought a new car. He covered the inside with newspaper so that I wouldn’t bleed all over it before he let me inside. At the hospital they cut my pants off around my swollen knee and checked the inside of my mouth to make sure that that the gash on my chin didn’t penetrate.

I spent the next week in bed in some serious pain. My back hurt; my right knee was blown-up the size of a softball; and my chin and head ached. I was conscious of the fact that things were not going well. I was twenty years old.

After that week, I went back to work still in pain. My boss paid me for the week I was out. He didn’t have to; I had no workers’ comp. During the months that followed I became very close to a couple of carpenters on the crew. They were laid-off union millwrights (carpenters) who were friends of this other millwright who had worked off and on for my boss over the years. I didn’t like him, but I liked the new guys. They were funny and sarcastic. They weren’t great wood carpenters because millwrights work primarily with metal, but they were good workers. Not only did they liven up the drudgery of work, but they were the first carpenters that I could recall working with who spoke highly of the union. They encouraged me to join the union, and I vowed to myself that, if I had the opportunity, I would join the union.

The other upside of the year was that I became a much better carpenter. By mid-spring I was making more money per week than my father though working more hours. I began to think of myself more as a carpenter and less of a student. The winter had been mild and the work seemed not half-bad. I seriously questioned whether or not I wanted to return to school. It was a mindset that I found hard to overcome.


I can remember filling out the application for UMass-Boston (UMB) in the spring of that year. It was a Sunday. The application was blue and so was my mood. The act of filling it out seemed like way too much work.

Nevertheless, I completed the application and mailed it in. When I thought seriously about UMB, I liked the fact that it was in the city. I also had some friends that went there though, ironically, one of my closest girl friends was transferring to UMA. I could live at home, which I wasn’t wild about, but, at least, I wouldn’t have to commute from Amherst to work at my construction job on weekends. Now, I could drive from Weymouth.

At this time I took a roofing job with a friend of my father’s who was a real nut. He was an advanced alcoholic,- an ex-Marine with a plate in his head that repaired some war wound. He screamed a lot and the work sucked. Even though the money was good, I soon went back to my old crew framing houses.

At UMB, it was more of the same. I worked a lot, drank heavily, and studied as much as I could. In spite of this, it seemed like I had regained my old studious habits. One thing that helped was that I took a lot of history courses. I took courses on the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. I loved the professors who taught those courses: David Hunt and Esther Kingston-Mann. They befriended me and I returned the favor. I also took more literature courses and an anomalous history course on the British Empire taught by this professor with a phony English accent (by his own admission, he was from Colorado) who was a real asshole.

Doug Clifford was in one of my poetry courses. I didn’t know who he was, but I knew that he worked at My Brother’s Place on Columbus and Stuart streets, located in the middle of the campus. I often had lunch there-a sub and a beer.

I would say that I blossomed as a student at UMB. I took more history courses and began to think of myself as a radical,-a socialist. I had no anchor or few people to exchange ideas with, but I wasn’t shy about expressing my new-found world view with friends and family.

I began reading Hemingway, listening to bob Dylan and slowly, but surely, came to have a minimal understanding of who I was as a person and where I fit in the world.

By my senior year, I began to hit my stride. I took courses with Feroz Ahmed and Paul Faler, and I did an independent study with Esther Kingston-Mann on social ideology and philosophy. David Hunt conducted a course on the Vietnam War, and I did several interviews with vets whom I knew that were good and very illuminating. When you interview people that you know formally, information comes out that would never come out during informal conversation.

One of the vets I interviewed was a little older than me, the brother of a classmate of mine. He was an Army Ranger in Vietnam, and he told me that part of his duties was to go on “hunter-killer” missions in the jungle. He came back from Vietnam addicted to heroin. He said that the dope in Vietnam was so pure that you could get real high snorting it. Back in the US, the only way to get the same high was to shoot.

During my second semester senior year, the university moved its campus to Columbia Point. I rode into school with my best friend’s sister whom I tried to sleep with. It was during that semester that I met John Clifford.

I would credit John Clifford with changing my life more than anybody had up to this point. I had no idea of who he was, but as I mentioned before, his brother Dougie was in a class of mine and I used to see Dougie at My Brother’s Place. I did not know Dougie, however, and never exchanged a word with him.

My first meeting with John took place at my parents’ house in Weymouth. David Hunt, who was teaching the research seminar on the Vietnam War was looking for a place to show a slide show. The creator of the slide show was John Clifford.

When David Hunt mentioned John’s name, I told David that I thought he was the guy with the blonde ponytail from the French Revolution course. He told me that I had John Clifford mixed up with John Hopkins. Now I was confused but intrigued, and I wanted to meet this guy Clifford. He seemed interesting especially after Hunt described him as irascible and difficult. This is a clear-cut case of being careful what you wish for.

On the night of the slide show, I bought a case of beer and began handing out bottles to the rest of the class. John, of course, took more than his share. He went through his slides of his experience in Vietnam in an interesting way. The presentation was a complement to the veterans’ interviews that I had already done. I remember my sister Jennifer watched the slides. She was fourteen. Later, John apologized if he had used bad language in front of my sister. I thought that was a nice sentiment. From that night on, I was enamored with John. I looked forward to being with John and meeting his friends whom I liked. He showed me around the city and sparked an interest in things political that had lay slumbering in my consciousness. I liked the drinking and talking with John’s brothers and his friends Paul Atwood, Joe Szocik, Vinny N., Peter Cerioni, David Vitale and others. It now seemed that my alcoholism served a purpose, but I might have been wrong about that.

I participated in discussions, demonstrations and rallies. I read books on politics and philosophy. I was particularly taken with the works of Marx, Lenin, Engels, Kropotkin and William Morris among others. I was also a rabid reader of the historians E. J. Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, and Christopher Hill among others. I wanted to participate in meaningful social change and felt sure that I would during my lifetime. This was certainly the “springtime of my life”. I loved my professors; I was becoming a good student; and I was yearning to go on to graduate school to study more. Clearly, work had defined who I was, but it was through education and study that I was able to refine my world view into something meaningful and clear. Ideas and actions were coming together, forming a useful tool for the present, extending into the future.

I came out of UMB a changed person. My entire future opened up before me with possibilities I never thought existed. I decided that I was going to get a teaching certificate and teach school.

In the meantime, I got a graduate degree from Boston University and while I was taking courses for my certification, I organized a union with some other carpenters, including John Hopkins from UMB.

To my mind, I was putting my UMass education to use. I was involved in demonstrations, picket lines and unions. This is what I always wanted to do.

I got my first teaching job in upstate New York. It lasted a year. I was a wise guy,-a know-it-all, and I was fired by the principal. Then, I got hired as a teacher in the Baltimore City School system. If you wanted an education about how inner city schools worked,-or didn’t, you couldn’t do better than Baltimore. I learned a lot during my four years there. It was eye-opening I left there feeling lucky to be alive.

When I came back to Boston from Baltimore, I worked construction. Danny Clifford, John’s brother, helped me get into the Carpenters’ Union. After I had been in the union for nine years, I ran for positions on the union E-Board, and, to my surprise, won. I worked as a steward for five years, and then I was hired as a Business Agent, a job that I had desperately wanted for years, and a job that I loved for years. After a sixteen and a half year stint as Business Agent, during which I held a number of union positions, including President of Local 40, delegate, NERCC E-Board member and Chairman of the Boston Carpenters apprenticeship, I retired last December.

I would never have had the satisfying career I had if I had not attended UMB where I met many interesting and learned professors and students who helped me on my way. For better or worse, I am a creation of my environment. I would like to think that it’s mostly for the better.

Submitted by: Joe Powers

One Comment

on “Joe Powers: Student
One Comment on “Joe Powers: Student
  1. I found joe”s story to be enlightening. I’m glad I stumbled upon this post. It helped me understand how joe got his influences of trying to do the next right thing.I happened to have worked for him for a number of years, and I’m grateful for that opportunity. I’m glad he made it to his retirement.It was well deserved. My best wishes to him and his family. live long and prosper ,from Mike.

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