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Some in Harvard’s Class of ’68 still challenge the status quo

Members of Harvard’s Class of ’68 celebrate the life and music of Bob Dylan as part of a reunion event called Underground 68.
Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff
Members of Harvard’s Class of ’68 celebrate the life and music of Bob Dylan as part of a reunion event called Underground 68.

In the dimly lit basement of Leverett House, a Harvard residence hall, it’s still 1968. At least this week it is.

Members of the Class of ’68 are in town for their 50th reunion, and the more counterculturally-inclined among them are finding their way here, where a few aging but still enterprising hippies have created a special venue to screen experimental films, talk about sex, drugs, and “cosmic consciousness,” and play some music.

Underground 68, the makeshift coffeehouse, is an alternative to the more formal reunion programs elsewhere on campus. The underground space is a clubhouse of sorts where kindred spirits are reconnecting amid art and artifacts from the old days.

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We stopped by Tuesday and found a few “ ’Cliffies” — 1968 Radcliffe grads — in the hallway working on a mural depicting the tumult of the times. Artist and self-described “guerrilla girl” Christina Schlesinger, said it’s been a thrill to renew old acquaintances and make some new ones.

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Schlesinger, whose father was famed historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., told us she has mixed feelings about Harvard, noting that its research library dedicated to women’s history is named for her paternal grandparents, Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger.

“I kind of have a genetic connection to this institution, but I can also look at it askance,” she said. “So many people just came to Harvard to make money, and I think it’s actually worse now. It’s like a brand.”

One of the highlights of Underground 68 was Tuesday’s hootenanny devoted to Bob Dylan, whose songs were the soundtrack to so many people’s lives in 1968. A rotating cast of classmates — Peter Larson (piano), Stephen Michaels (electric guitar), John Miller (drums), Howard Cutler, Andy Pratt, Eric Multhaup, Chris Mortenson, Peter Coonradt, and Susannah Wood (vocals) — took to the stage to perform a slew of Dylan classics — “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Blind Willie McTell,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “Forever Young” — while their fellow alums quietly sang along, smiling, eyes closed.

The chief organizer of Underground 68 is Coonradt, a filmmaker who said he got the idea to create the space after being interviewed a year ago by Ariel Smolik-Valles, a Harvard student whose thesis was focused on antiwar activism at Harvard in the ’60s. Wanting to connect then and now, Coonradt is making a movie about this week’s activities, with Smolik-Valles as narrator.

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“Peter hadn’t been back in 50 years and our conversation sparked something in him,” says Smolik-Valles, who’s an elementary teacher in Mattapan now. “It’s been amazing to meet the people and hear their stories. They lived it.”

Among those in the Dylan jam audience was Harvard classics professor Richard Thomas, who isn’t a member of the Class of ’68, but did write “Why Bob Dylan Matters” and knows as much about the artist formerly known as Robert Zimmerman as he does about Homer, Virgil, and Ovid.

Thomas points out that Dylan, though known for protest songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” was mostly MIA during the social unrest that characterized 1968.

“Interestingly, it was a period of silence for Dylan,” Thomas said. “When [Martin Luther King Jr.] was killed in April and then Bobby Kennedy is killed a week before [Harvard students’] graduation, he was pretty much absent.

“Dylan has never let on what was going on,” Thomas said. “We just got the songs, which is fine.”

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Underground 68 continued Wednesday with a talk titled “Still Radical After All These Years.”

“I never intended it as a nostalgic museum of the past,” Coonradt said. “It’s a chance for people who carry something with them from that time to kindle and nourish the essence of what we all realized back then.”