News item: A joint U.S.-Laotian team said this week it may have found the remains of Charlie Dean, brother of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, and a companion in Bolikhamxai Province in central Laos.
In early of August this year, my wife Pam asked me what I knew about Howard Dean. I knew nothing other than that he was a former governor of Vermont. The new issues of Time and Newsweek both had Dean’s cover picture that week. I read the articles, and stopped on the paragraph that mentioned Howard having become politically active after his brother, Charlie, died in Laos in 1974 at the hands of the Pathet Lao. I screamed. Until I read that paragraph I did not know of the connection between Howard and Charlie, one of my best friends for over four years. I served in numerous student organizations with Charlie, lived in the same dorm, worked in the same campaigns, and had at least three classes with him. For several years I probably talked to Charlie every day, and most of that talk was politics.
Flashback to late summer of 1974. My phone rings in Chapel Hill. I’m pretty sure it was Peter Caron. Charlie Dean has been captured in Laos, and the family has asked Peter to call friends of Charlie’s in Chapel Hill, asking them to write the State Department to ask that pressure be put on the Laotians for his release. Charlie had been on the Mekong River traveling with a friend. A year later I hear from the State Department that Charlie was executed by the Pathet Lao near the end of 1974.
I had known that Charlie was in Asia. He had left Chapel Hill in early 1973 for an around-the-world trip, and had told his friend Karen Ellis in early 1973 in Chapel Hill that his eventual destination was Nepal. In July 1974 I saw a letter he wrote to the Orange County Board of Elections asking that an absentee ballot for the 1974 U.S. Senate election be sent to him in care of a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. I wrote a letter to the address, but there was no reply and no returned ballot. Charlie never got there.
Flash further back to fall 1968. Charlie and I were both freshmen living in Hinton James on UNC’s South Campus. Charlie belonged to the Young Republicans that fall, I was in the Young Democrats. But by the spring of 1969, when he was in the same Political Science 41 intro class that I was, he had switched parties. Charlie was totally committed to ending the Vietnam war; that was his central passion. Charlie and I were both elected to the UNC Student Legislature from James in April 1969, and served for a year.
Charlie’s student government interests were varied–he sponsored four bills his sophomore year. One was as the student government sponsor of the April 1970 Environmental Teach-In, which became known as the first Earth Day. He sponsored a resolution committing some student fees towards fighting world hunger, and another resolution calling for an end to women’s curfew. Ever the politician, he also introduced a bill to replace aging ice machines in the dorms.
Both semesters sophomore year I also was in political science classes with Charlie, including an intro to foreign government. Another political friend of ours in Hinton James that sophomore year was Elizabeth Anania, now married to U.S. Sen. John Edwards. Charlie, Elizabeth and I were all active in a number of anti-Nixon activities. I was interviewed by the Boston Globe earlier this fall about Charlie after Elizabeth told a Globe reporter she had known Charlie and gave the reporter my name and phone number.
Fall of 1970 both Charlie and I moved off campus, me to North Columbia Street and Charlie to an old house at 126 S. Merritt Mill Road, right on the railroad tracks across from the power plant. That house was demolished when the Carrboro bike path was built along the railroad tracks in the 1980s. Charlie’s house was populated by a gang from third floor James–Don Wright (now with the State Board of Elections), Peter Caron and Peter’s brother, John. I hung out at that house a lot. Spring of 1971, Charlie and I again ran for and were elected to the Student Legislature. John Caron told me recently that in 1971-1972, after his graduation from Yale, Howard spent a lot of time in Carrboro with Charlie. The popular press says Howard was a ski bum in Aspen that year.
Flash forward to the summer of 1972. Charlie and I have both graduated from Carolina. I stay for law school, Charlie stays to be the only paid staffer in Orange County for the McGovern for President Committee. Unbeknownst to anyone but finance staffer Karen Ellis, Charlie endorses all his paychecks back to the campaign. Charlie’s great idea was the “Buck Nixon Club” (motto: “Buck Nixon before he bucks you.”) Buttons are printed up by Billy Barnes’ local button shop that say “Buck Nixon (I Did!) McGovern ’72” and they go to any student pledging one dollar (a buck) per week for the nine weeks of the campaign. Student volunteers go door-to-door in the dorms collecting the dollar, a stunt that raises thousands of dollars. Recently I went on the Internet and bought five Buck Nixon buttons, all for sale on eBay or political memorabilia sites.
To kick off the campaign, Charlie organizes a big Labor Day 1972 rally in the Great Hall at the Carolina Student Union with North Carolina AFL-CIO President Wilbur Hobby. He gives a stemwinding speech, Lucy Hancock (now Lucy Hancock Bode) speaks about her time as a McGovern delegate to the just-concluded Democratic national convention, and Charlie exhorts the crowd to get organized and tells them how McGovern will carry North Carolina.
All that fall, Charlie organized every day, putting all of his energy into it. I’ve yet to meet anyone else with as much political energy as Charlie Dean. Hordes of Chapel Hill High School students were sent by Charlie around the state each weekend to canvass for McGovern. McGovern’s crushing defeat crushed Charlie, too. Disillusioned, Charlie left Chapel Hill for home in New York, although he wrote Karen Ellis later that year that he was ready to get back into things again. Before he left town, however, I had already told Charlie I would be running for Chapel Hill Town Council in 1973. Charlie gave me the file box that had index cards neatly organized for each McGovern volunteer and contributor in Orange County and told me to use it for my campaign. I used that list for a big mailing to announce my candidacy and for fundraising. I won that election–the first UNC student elected to the Town Council–but without Charlie’s help, I doubt I would have won.
Thirty years have gone by, and Charlie’s older brother, Howard, is running for president. Charlie is not forgotten, however. In a 60 Minutes II interview of Howard by Dan Rather in mid-October, Dean spent two or three minutes of the 20-minute piece talking about Charlie. I hadn’t forgotten Charlie, either. In the summer of 2001, I spent two weeks in Vietnam with my son. On two occasions I got within site of the Laotian border and told him one of my best friends was just over the hill. Charlie’s spirit has never died.
Charlie Dean Scrapbook
Gerry Cohen and Karen Ellis Gray have put together a scrapbook for Howard Dean about his brother, Charlie, with 50 pages of photos, correspondence, documents, and reminiscences from friends of Charlie Dean. Any former friends of Charlie’s are welcome to contact Gerry at firstname.lastname@example.org if they have any material for a supplement.