By Ben Welter
Where were you the day before Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was shot in California? I was lying in bed in Richfield on that hot day in early June, sweating through an ill-timed bout with the mumps. The final day of third grade, “play day,” was filled with hot dogs, candy, pop and recreational activities, and I was missing it.
Across town, Ruth Gordienko – a former Communist-turned-FBI-informant – was speaking with a Minneapolis Tribune reporter about her lawsuit against her son’s school district over the length of his hair. Wayzata High School had sent a letter home, advising Peter Gordienko that he could not participate in graduation ceremonies that week unless he cut his hair. The dispute landed on the front page of the paper.
For the time, RFK’s hair was pretty shaggy,
The issue was quickly resolved before Hennepin County District Judge Elmer Anderson the next day: Gordienko agreed to “trim his hair as may be necessary to maintain it in a neat and orderly manner, but will not cut it any more than this.” In turn, the school agreed not to prevent him “from appearing at the graduation by reason of his appearance.”
The story has a dizzying number of layers: the historical backdrop of RFK’s assassination, long hair vs. the establishment, Mom vs. The Man, Communist Party membership, FBI undercover activity. Did I mention that Ruth Gordienko was prominent at that time for heckling antiwar demonstrators? Or that Peter’s father, George Gordienko, was a prominent professional wrestler … and a noted artist?
A fresh interview with Peter Gordienko follows the 1968 report.
Mother Asks Court Lift Ban on
Long-Haired Son’s Graduation
By BOB LUNDEGAARD
Minneapolis Tribune Staff Writer
A Plymouth woman whose son has been barred from Wayzata High School graduation ceremonies unless he cuts his hair took the school district to court Tuesday.
|A “neat and orderly” Peter Gordienko|
Mrs. Ruth Gordienko, 1901 Oakview Lane, is seeking an order requiring the school to let her son, Peter, 18, graduate with his class Thursday. A hearing on her motion will be held at 2:30 p.m. today before Hennepin District Judge Elmer Anderson.
Mrs. Gordienko is a former Communist who became an FBI undercover agent within the party. In recent years she has been a frequent heckler of antiwar protesters.
Her suit says that she received a letter last week from William O. Manning, dean of students, informing her that if Peter’s hair were not cut neatly by today, he would not be permitted to participate in the graduation exercises. His haircut or lack of one would not affect his receiving a diploma, Manning said.
“I personally am very proud of this graduating class,” Manning said in his letter, “as I have been of all the others that I have seen graduate in my 18 years at Wayzata.
“I would like to feel that this class is no different than the others and on graduation night I would hope that the same pride will exist with them as it will with me.”
JUNE 2007 UPDATE: Pete Gordienko, 57, lives about an hour north of Mille Lacs Lake – “way out in the country” — on 160 acres of timbered land he bought at auction more than 30 years ago for $3 an acre. He has “led the life of an artist” since leaving St. Cloud State after his sophomore year. “My No. 1 thing is painting,” he told me last week. He and his mother share a house; he is building a new energy-efficient house on the property.
He recalled the dispute over the length of his hair with bemusement.
“By today’s standards, it wasn’t that long,” he said, comparing his haircut to that of the Beatles.
“I just thought it was kind of ridiculous,” he said. “To me it was not that big of a deal. If they wanted to push me and deny me the right to graduate, well, I thought it was kind of petty, but I decided that if that’s what they wanted to do, I wouldn’t graduate. It was their fault, not mine.”
Ruth Gordienko (now Ruth Masters) in about 1972.
His mother saw things differently. She contacted a lawyer to discuss the legal options. Gordienko did not play an active role in the dispute; he was at school the day the lawyers met in court.
Our phone conversation cleared up a few points:
What about the compromise that he “trim his hair as necessary to maintain a neat appearance”? “I don’t think I actually cut it,” he said. “It was more like I combed it. You could comb your hair back and it wouldn’t look so long.”
The story mentioned something about a teaching career. “I never did want to be a teacher,” he said. “Somebody just wrote that. It wasn’t my idea.”
What influence did his mom have on his life? “She’s pretty interesting. She was active early with the Communist Party, with my father, George, who was a member of the party. Later, they separated and were divorced and she renounced communism. She worked for the FBI back in the days when we had the Cold War. … She was a pretty easygoing, mellow mom. Didn’t put a lot of restrictions on me or try to influence me in politics. She let me go about my life and figure things out.”
George Gordienko, master of two kinds of canvas
Any memories of his father, a noted pro wrestler who turned to painting after retiring from the ring in the mid-1970s? “They separated when I was only 1 year old up in Winnipeg, Canada, but I did see him later in life, in my 30s. … I spent about a month with him in Spain on the Mediterranean coast. And then I saw him another time a couple years after that, when he was living in northern Italy. … We both were painting pictures at his house” for about two months. He described his father as a Stalinist who spent much of this time trying to convert his libertarian son to his way of thinking. “He didn’t like me,” Gordienko said. “Even after I met him in Europe he really didn’t have much to do with me.” George Gordienko died in 2002.
How does he wear his hair now? “I’d say it’s about like Thomas Jefferson’s. It varies. In the summertime I let it grow longer to keep the sun off my neck. In the winter I tend to cut it shorter.”