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Originally published Sunday, October 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Chicago knows Ayers better as an educator

Bill Ayers doesn't want to talk about the Weathermen, the Vietnam-era radical group that carried out bombings at the Pentagon and the Capitol...

The Associated Press

CHICAGO — Bill Ayers doesn't want to talk about the Weathermen, the Vietnam-era radical group that carried out bombings at the Pentagon and the Capitol.

That doesn't mean the man who has become a political headache for Sen. Barack Obama is hiding his past. In fact, all you need to do is stand outside Ayers' office at the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC) to be confronted with it.

Ayers' connection to the Weathermen is plastered on the door. A postcard shows an old mug shot of Ayers.

But also affixed to the door is the title that reflects how Ayers, now 63, has become known in the past two decades in Chicago: distinguished professor.

"He gives of himself greatly to his students. He gives of his time, his energies, his commitment," said Pamela Quiroz, an associate professor.

Quiroz is among more than 3,200 people, mostly academics, who have signed an online petition protesting the "demonization" of Ayers during the presidential campaign.

Sen. John McCain's camp has accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists," citing, among other things, a 1995 meet-the-candidate coffee at Ayers' home when Obama launched his political career by running for state Senate. The two also served together on a Chicago school-reform group and a charity board.

The subject flared again during Wednesday's presidential debate when McCain said Obama needs to explain the extent of his relationship with Ayers, whom he called "an old, washed-up terrorist."

Activities denounced

By all accounts, the two men were not close, and Obama has denounced Ayers' radical activities. Ayers has declined requests for interviews.

Ayers' row house on Chicago's South Side is just a few blocks from Obama's home. He lives there with his wife, former fellow radical Bernardine Dohrn. Now a law professor at Northwestern University, Dohrn was a fugitive for years with her husband until they surrendered in 1980 and charges against him were dropped because of government misconduct, which included FBI break-ins, wiretaps and opening of mail.

Perception of past

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Although Ayers has refashioned his life, he has not renounced his past entirely.

When his memoir, "Fugitive Days," was published in 2001, an article showed him stepping on a U.S. flag. He also told The New York Times, in an interview that appeared coincidentally on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001: "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough."

The Weathermen claimed responsibility for bombings in the early 1970s at the U.S. Capitol, a Pentagon restroom and New York police headquarters. No one was injured. In 1970, a Greenwich Village town house that the group was using to build a bomb blew up, killing three members, including Ayers' girlfriend.

"I'm not a terrorist," Ayers said at the time. "We tried to sound a piercing alarm that was unruly, difficult and, sometimes, probably wrong. ... I describe what led some people in despair and anger to take some very extreme measures."

In Chicago, Ayers is known more for his work in education, which has earned praise from Mayor Richard Daley.

"He worked with me in shaping our now nationally renowned school-reform program," Daley said.

In an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute who is writing a book on Ayers, said he has read Ayers' work and concluded: "His hatred of America is as virulent as when he planted a bomb at the Pentagon."

Scott Snyder, a UIC junior who calls himself a conservative, said he is uncomfortable with Ayers working at a public university.

"The majority of taxpayers probably would not appreciate their money being spent to somebody with a history of disrespecting numerous public institutions within the United States," Snyder said.

Robert Becker, a professor at UIC, is, at 60, a member of Ayers' generation but doesn't share his politics.

"He's unrepentant. He took a violent route along with his wife, and is lucky he didn't blow himself up," Becker said.

But he doesn't think Ayers' past disqualifies him from a position on campus: "I'm a pretty conservative person, and I'm not going to deny him the right to be a member of the faculty. I believe that departments should hire who they feel is best for their departments."

Associated Press reporter David Mercer contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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