Remembering George Winne

And the day it all changed.

The day that started like any other would come to be one that every student on the young UC San Diego campus would never forget. Vietnam protests had become common over the preceding years, and the week prior Urey Hall had even been occupied by students. So it was not out of the ordinary on May 10, 1970, for a lone student to enter Revelle Plaza bearing a sign reading “In God’s name, End this war.” But then George Winne Jr., a 23-year-old student who had covered himself with rags soaked in gasoline, lit himself on fire.

Winne began to run until graduate student Keith Stowe, MS ’67, PhD ’71, tackled him and attempted to smother the flames. More students helped extinguish the fire, and soon campus police arrived and took them both to the hospital, where Winne, who recited the Lord’s Prayer throughout the night, received treatment for the severe burns covering 95 percent of his body. He died the next morning.

Later that day, campus minister Lesley Atkinson and distinguished philosophy professor Herbert Marcuse led a small memorial. Students, faculty, and staff passed through Revelle Plaza paying their respects, attempting to process the pain of a student death while also thinking about what it meant, or what it was intended to mean. Was Winne’s immolation an extreme form of protest, or was it a rash and reckless gesture?

Debate over the means of the act tends to overshadow any intended message—some find his action important, others consider it foolish, while many at UC San Diego today don’t know it happened at all.

The question of what to make of Winne’s act has certainly affected how to remember it. Officials at Revelle College initially blocked any memorial. At some point the supposed bricks upon which Winne immolated himself were removed from the plaza and relocated to a small eucalyptus grove behind Geisel Library. In 2014, a separate memorial called the May 1970 Peace Memorial was built in Revelle Plaza to honor broader student activism of the time. Its inscription reads, “For George Winne, Jr., the student activists of May 1970, and all those who continue the struggle for a peaceful world.

Excerpt from Triton Times, May 15, 1970