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1960s Student Unrest in Geneva

September 25th, 2015

By Alice Askins, Education Coordinator at Rose Hill Mansion

TravellerAccording to the Geneva Times, very early on May 5, 1970, Ontario County Sheriffs arrested five Hobart students in a drug raid. The raid turned up hash pipes, pills and marijuana.  One of the sheriffs was recognized by the students as “Tommy the Traveler” – a man who had been active on campus encouraging anti-war and anti-ROTC protests, and claiming to be a member of Students for a Democratic Society. Students were angry to discover that Tommy had been on campus undercover, and about 200 of them surrounded the police cars in a 3-hour confrontation. They jumped on the cars, and broke off radio antennae and mirrors.  The sheriffs were unwilling to escalate the potentially “explosive situation”, and set the arrested students free.

Some Geneva citizens were outraged that the students had been allowed to defy the law without consequences.  This was a time of social strife and student unrest over many issues, including the war in Vietnam and growing movements for the civil rights of minorities and women. Students often espoused these causes, and some of their elders were frightened that the kids were out of control.

The Times quoted some concerns.  Representative Frank Horton, for example, said

There can be absolutely no excuse for resorting to mob rule . . . I was appalled that the result was amnesty for wrong doers. This was a total breakdown of our system . . . It should never be allowed to happen again. The decision may have been made to protect the lives of the policemen. More importantly, the laws should have been enforced to protect our system of law and order. (June 9, 1970)   

There were a few voices of disagreement. Paul Van Hemel, a Geneva native and Hobart graduate, wrote from Baltimore to the Times (Jun 18, 1970):

. . . it is with regret and deepening concern that I have witnessed the recent increase in tensions between Hobart and the community of which it is a part. We must all work hard to avoid the mistrust which fosters and feeds on incidents such as that which recently threatened the peace of our community.  . . .  I have heard, from residents of the Geneva area, suspicions that the trouble at Hobart was stirred up by “Communist-inspired outside influence.” The fact that the outsider, who was indeed stirring up trouble, turned out to be employed by the Police is evidence of shocking irresponsibility in community leadership. Instead of working with administrators at Hobart, the Police sought to embarrass them, and ended up by embarrassing themselves and aggravating a potentially very dangerous situation.   . . .  It is to be hoped that the majority of responsible citizens and students can work together . . . to overcome the crisis of trust left in Tommy’s wake.  . . .

So who was Tommy the Traveler at the center of these debates?

On July 13, 1970 the Times printed ‘Tommy the Traveler’: Key to Hobart Troubles? By William Morrissey:

About two years ago, a . . . young man began circulating among students at colleges across New York State. Somewhere along the way he was tagged “Tommy the Traveler” . . . When he arrived on a campus, he sought out the radical students, talked with them of “the revolution,” repeated their antiestablishment slogans and spoke of escalating protests.  . . . Tommy the Traveler kept drifting and talking, until in the predawn hours of June 5 students at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva saw him leading police on a campus drug raid and they knew he was a police undercover agent.  . . .  [Sheriff] Morrow told reporters . . . that Thomas ‘Tommy the Traveler” Tongyai, worked for him as a narcotics undercover agent for about 2 ½ months beginning in mid-March, and had been highly recommended for the job. From other sources, it was learned that Tommy was born Momluang Singkata Thomas Tongyai N’Ayudhya on Jan. 14, 1944, in Ahniston, Ala. His father, a native of Bangkok, Thailand, was serving in the Army at the time.  . . .  After an incomplete stint at Delaware Valley College . . ., marriage, a draft deferment and various jobs, Tongyai moved to upstate New York. He became a salesman for a veterinarian drug firm and traveled across New York State from August 1967 until May 1969. His earliest appearances at colleges were reported during this period. Members of the [SDS] at Cornell University said he attended [their] summer meetings . . . before the 1968-69 school year. During the 68-69 school year, he showed up at Keuka College . . . Students said he was a regular at SDS meetings in Rochester. He also is known to have traveled with a group of young persons operating an underground newsreel based in Buffalo, and once showed a film on the movement to students at Auburn Community College . . .  Students at [Hobart] say . . . Tommy appeared mainly interested in politics—the left-wing student movement and “the revolution.” Neal Himelein, a sophomore at Hobart, said he knew Tommy from “secret meetings”—meetings at which Himelein said a small group of students planned to increase pressure on Hobart to end Air Force Reserve officer training on the campus.  . . . “I remember him (Tommy the Traveler) bringing up breaking windows and bringing ROTC files outside and burning them or throwing them into the lake, or something,” Himelein said.  . . . He quoted Tommy as asking: “Which do you want to use—black powder or firebombs?” and adding: “never mind, we’ll test them both.”  . . .

In February 1971, the paper printed testimony from students who said that Tommy had showed them how to make a fuse for a bomb. He had also allegedly gone into Yates County with a student to try out Molotov cocktails. Tommy countered that he needed to play a role, but that he had actually been trying to limit damage.  (February 23 and 24, 1971)

The abortive drug raid and other incidents resulted in charges and countercharges. Despite suggestions that Tommy went too far in inciting students to violence, he was eventually cleared. After a time as a police officer in Pennsylvania, he is supposedly now lives in the south, breeding cattle and horses.  His time on the campuses of New York State can still evoke strong emotions, pro and con.

One response to “1960s Student Unrest in Geneva”

  1. Dr. Jeffrey S. Victor says:

    The following information comes from my diary of my anti-Vietnam War experiences.
    Dr. Jeffrey S. Victor, Department of Sociology, Jamestown Community College, retired.
    7. Tommy the Traveler, FBI Agent Provocateur — During the fall semester of 1969, I was introduced to a strange visitor to the JCC campus, by the two student SDS ‘wannabes’. This visitor was a young man, probably in his late 20’s, who talked about wanting to start “the revolution now” by “killing the pigs” (police). I thought that this guy was either a crazy fanatic, or a police undercover agent. I departed as fast as I could. Later that day, I learned that he had offered to obtain guns and bombs for the two students and went around the campus, writing stupid slogans on the classroom blackboards, such as “revolution now”. He tried to meet with the two students on campus in my wife’s language lab, but when she heard the nonsense he was preaching, she told him to leave.
    Months later, during June 1970, I saw a picture of this guy on a national television news report about a student riot at nearby Hobart College. He had provoked the anger of students, after they found out that he was an undercover agent, who had urged them to make bombs and destroy buildings. Someone fire-bombed the ROTC building. Afterwards, he was seen by students leading a narcotics raid on campus, where several students were arrested. The undercover agent was identified as Thomas Tongyai, alias “Tommy the Traveler”, an agent provocateur paid by the FBI and local police. It was later reported that Tongyai had been traveling for two years across college campuses in Western New York State, acting as an undercover agent provocateur. Governor Rockefeller ordered a grand jury investigation of Tongyai, but Tongyai was never convicted of committing any crime.
    (Reference: See the book, The COINTELPRO Papers, by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall; and my file of newspaper articles.)

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