This weekend was UCSB’s All Gaucho Reunion, and some alumni were there to remember a professor who touched the lives of students and community members alike. Walter Capps, known by many as the Representative for the 22nd California Congressional District, began his career as an academic who – according to those who knew him well – really wanted to reach out and help people. Arriving at UCSB in 1963 to serve as a faculty member in the religious studies department, Capps became involved in the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions – also known as the Hutchins Center – a think tank based in the hills above Montecito.
“Walter was moved by a discussion with two Vietnam Vets,” said Lois Capps, Walter’s widow and 23rd District Representative, of one of her husband’s meetings at the Hutchins Center. “Their stories were not being heard. He heard, and tried to think of a way to bring their stories to other people.” The result was Religious Studies 155 (RS-155), Religion and the Impact of Vietnam. Begun in 1978, Capps asked Vietnam veterans to share their experiences with students. One man, who had spoken before the class in the 1980s, described to the reunion crowd how he had never spoken about his experiences with anyone, let alone a lecture hall full of students. One of the things that came out of RS-155 was bringing to people’s attention the falsehood of blaming the war on the warriors,” said Lois Capps. “[Walter] felt enormously humbled by the healing.”
Wilson Hubbel, a former Vietnam helicopter crew member who still shares with the class every winter quarter, first became involved in 1985. “I remember first stepping into Campbell Hall,” he said. “Yeah, I was nervous, and no wonder. Nearly 60,000 of us had died, many more were wounded, and many bore the spiritual scars. In the end, the outcome of the war was the same as if we’d never been there. The only thing that had changed was the calendar. America wanted to forget that war, and they wanted to forget us.” Based on the testimony of former students and lecturers who came up on stage at the reunion, the class cast the Vietnam war and the plight of the many people whose lives were affected by it in a different light. “It has all been so much more than just war stories,” said Hubbel. “It became a method of healing old wounds.
For many of the Veterans who came to speak over the years, the class was an opportunity to gain acceptance by the peer group who had shunned them when they returned from the war. “These students said, ‘Welcome home,’ and that’s when the healing started,” said Jim Nolan, another regular lecturer in RS-155 since 1999. “I never met Walter and never got to shake his hand, but I want to thank my friend Walter Capps.”
Over the years, the class has included guest lectures by Vietnam veterans, Vietnamese refugees, conscientious objectors, and veterans of other wars. Since 1994, when Walter Capps decided to run for Congress, the class was taken over by his friend Richard Hecht, also a religious studies professor, who continued teaching it after Capps’ death in 1997. “Each year there is a new emphasis in the class,” said Hecht. “Part of the challenge is to find the emphasis-to see what light the war experience is cast based upon the current analysis.” Recently, Hecht has invited veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, and for the first time, students have heard from some veterans who have to return to the Middle East for another tour.
Many people have taken RS-155, and the consensus seems to be that it isn’t like other classes. By getting people to listen to one another and create a dialogue, Capps bridged a gap that had existed in American society. “Walter wasn’t just a scholar of the humanities, he was a practitioner of the humanities,” said Jim Quay, a Vietnam-era conscientious objector who has spoken in the class. UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang remembered Capps fondly. “His view was as big as the universe,” he said. “It was such a joy to have known him.”