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Bill Ayers' turbulent past contrasts with quiet academic life

Friends, Daley defend ex-radical, Obama neighbor

By Trevor Jensen, Robert Mitchum and Mary Owen | Tribune reporters
11:31 PM CDT, April 17, 2008

Bill Ayers long ago settled into a life of quiet respectability as a well-regarded professor of education and a much-published activist for better schools. With his Ivy League doctorate, 48-page curriculum vitae and liberal politics, he fits comfortably into Chicago's Kenwood neighborhood.

But Ayers' unquiet past as a leader of the violent Weathermen during the Vietnam War has been thrust into the Democratic presidential race because of his relationship with a neighbor, Barack Obama.

In Wednesday night's Democratic debate, Obama was asked to defend his connection to Ayers, which has been fodder for conservative TV and radio talkers for weeks.

On Thursday, neighbors, friends and colleagues who know Ayers and the work he has done on behalf of educational reform in Chicago and nationally joined his defense.


"He's been a valuable member of the community with regards to education. Helping young people," said Mayor Richard Daley, who was also friends with Ayers' father, Thomas, a civic activist and former chief executive officer of Commonwealth Edison.

"Bill has contributed heavily to the quality of life not only in the city but in the entire world as well," Daley said.

Ayers was not at his home or office at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he is a professor of education, for most of the day Thursday and could not be reached for comment.

He was reportedly introduced to Obama in the mid-1990s. The two men served together for three years on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago, a grantmaking organization founded in 1941 to help the city's poor. Obama left the board in 2002; Ayers remains a member.

"He's admired as an educator and a social justice advocate, and that is why he's on our board," said Laura Washington, chairwoman of the Woods Fund's board. "Everyone has a past. My feeling is he left that period far behind him and since then he has served the community well."

Ayers, 63, lives in a three-story brownstone with his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, a comrade in the Weathermen and fellow fugitive for most of the 1970s.

Since coming out of hiding in 1980, the couple have raised three boys in Chicago and become part of the fabric of their liberal South Side neighborhood. Neighbors said it's only natural that Obama would know Ayers and Dohrn, who often open their homes for gatherings filled with lively discussions about politics, arts and social issues.

Obama and his wife "are part of our neighborhood and part of our social circle," said Elizabeth Chandler, a neighbor of Ayers'.

In the late 1960s, he and Dohrn were among the founders of the Weathermen, a radical offshoot of the anti-war Students for a Democratic Society.

The Weathermen were responsible for at least four bombings, one in a Pentagon bathroom. In 1970, three members of the group were killed when a bomb exploded in a Greenwich Village apartment.

Ayers and Dohrn went into hiding, taking the names Joe Brown and Rose Bridges. They resurfaced in 1980 after federal charges against the couple were dropped.

Dohrn now teaches law at Northwestern University and works for juvenile justice.

In his memoirs, Ayers put the issue succinctly: "Why all the pretense of equity when some people get four or five outs to the inning while others get only two?"


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