The black cloud over the balding head of ex-Weatherman Bill Ayers

Late on Sept. 11, 2001, when I got around to reading my New York Times, I noted the crushing bad luck for a local University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) education professor, Bill Ayers, co-founder of the Weather Underground. His Fugitive Days: A Memoir had been published the day before, and was the subject of a friendly story in the 9/11 Times. Speaking in the innocent pre-9/11 days, Ayers, “sitting in the kitchen of his big turn-of-the-19th century stone house in the Hyde Park district of Chicago,” pontificated — saying, almost breezily, ''I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough.''

Ayers’s earlier co-authored book, Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism (1974), was dedicated to “all political prisoners in the U.S,” including Sirhan Sirhan, the man who remains imprisoned for assassinating senator and presidential hopeful Bobby Kennedy in 1968.

Ayers retired recently from his job at UIC, and asked for emeritus status, almost always granted. (A university spokesman said that nobody could recall when a request for emeritus status had been denied.)

Instead, Ayers made the front page of Friday’s Chicago Sun-Times.

His request was denied.

Another instance, for Ayers, of hugely bad timing. After a series of admissions scandals — clout-connected students admitted to the state’s flagship university with inferior grades — a new president, chancellor, a reconstituted board of directors and a new board chairman were installed. The latter happens to be Bobby Kennedy’s son, Chris Kennedy, a Chicago businessman who runs Merchandise Mart, once owned by the Kennedy family.

During the U of I board meeting Thursday, Kennedy, 4 years old when his father was murdered, gave an impassioned statement about why Bill Ayers doesn’t deserve emeritus status. It was moving, and fellow board members voted unanimously against Ayers.

Ayers can’t seem to catch a break — but then perhaps he doesn’t deserve a break.

When I’m allowed to pontificate — say, speaking to English majors at my alma mater, the University of Illinois — and I’m asked why I write nonfiction, I always come back to the cliché “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Nobody could make up the events in Ayers’s life, including a professional friendship with his Hyde Park neighbor Barack Obama. All cast Ayers in the spotlight, and, in the end, almost always make Ayers look bad — careless, entitled (son of a wealthy Chicago businessman) and selfish.

One wonders why Bill Ayers would even want the emeritus designation. Sounds suspiciously elitist to me.

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