1948: James Zarichny, MSC Senior and Political Activist, Stands Tall Against Michigan Legislature

April 21, 2024 all-day

The Michigan Legislature has always had issues with the liberal nature of Michigan colleges and universities.

In 1948, the Michigan Senate Committee on Un-American Activities was infected with righteous indignation about communism during the height of the Cold War era.  During its grilling of President John A. Hannah and the Dean of Students about the presence of reds on campus and the need for further action, they discovered that a Michigan State College student had been placed on probation for passing out Union/Communist literature (what’s the difference?)  the previous year.

As a result, the Detroit Republican Senator Matthew Callahan, chairman of the Michigan Senate Committee on Un-American Activities, issued a subpoena for MSC student James Zarichny to appear before the committee on April 21, 1948.   When Zarichny refused to testify, Callahan announced  that he understood the Senate had the right to imprison Zarichny, but needed to consult with the state Attorney General first.

According to the Detroit Free Press, Zarichny’s reason for refusing to testify: I am “holding a finger in the dyke which keeps out probes of the political and religious views of all the people.  The secrecy of the ballot is at stake”.

“If I give way”, Zarichny continued, “it will help open the door to questioning of everyone in public quasi-trials.  No one’s freedom of political belief will be safe.”

The tall MSC senior and math major said “This sounds like a soap-box speech but if this investigation continues, the MSC faculty will be intimidated, books will be burned and academic freedom will be lost”.

Zarichny was eventually sentenced to jail for the rest of the Senate term, but since the term ended on the same day, he only had to serve one day before being let go that night.

He was also later expelled from MSU, but not for being a communist, but because he could not restrain himself from participation in questionable extracurricular activities, one of the conditions of his probationary status at MSU.

According to an MLive obituary, James Zarichny was always a man of principle.

Zarichny and his family were longtime political activists.

Zarichny was born on Sept. 17, 1923, in Maple Grove. His family worked as farmers, but the Great Depression forced them to sell their land and look elsewhere for work. After a period at a sugar beet farm in Tuscola County, new jobs at Buick eventually brought them to Flint.

The Zarichny family quickly became supporters of the Flint Sit-Down Strike. According to Lance Zarichny, Jim Zarichny’s mother even served on the Women’s Emergency Brigade.  Lance Zarichny said that his uncle passed out pro-union leaflets on street corners alongside a partner: former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young and that protesting didn’t come without occasional risks.  “He’d come home with a bloody nose and everything, and my grandma’d be crying, cleaning him up”. “These autoworkers, they were afraid to join the union. It was really, really nasty back then.”

After graduating high school in the early 1940s, James (Jim) Zarichny enlisted in the Army during World War II and served overseas in India, northern Africa and Japan. Once Zarichny returned to Michigan, he enrolled at Michigan State College, perhaps taking advantage of the GI Bill.

Zarichny’s continued political activism however soon got him into trouble on campus and beyond. He was placed on disciplinary probation for being involved in the American Youth for Democracy organization. The AYD had applied to be a recognized student organization but was denied because of its Communist sympathies. When the university found out that the group was still meeting, the college placed the members, including Zarichiny, on probation and was told he would be expelled if he got into any further trouble.

In 1948, as mentioned above, Zarichny was brought before the Michigan Legislature over communist allegations. Although he was only found in contempt, fallout from the hearings led to his expulsion at MSC. The legal battle over Michigan State College’s decision resulted in a national speaking tour.

In the late 1950s, Zarichny moved to New York and finished his degree in mathematics at Columbia University. Afterwards, he worked at various jobs (losing at least one because of his politics) but finally moved to Boulder, Colo., to work at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. According to Lance Zarichny, one of the projects that his uncle was most proud of focused on ways of detecting nuclear explosions in the atmosphere.

“He liked to help people his whole life and he helped millions, if not billions of people, when (the team) that he was on accomplished that,” Lance Zarichny said.

After his retirement in the late 1980s, Zarichny remained active. Among his activities, Lance Zarichny said that his uncle started graduate school in Massachusetts, maintained a bookstore in Boulder, Colo. and even taught English in Ukraine. During this period, Zarichny would often stay with the family of niece Dana Zarichny in the summer.

“He was very proud of his efforts to improve our society,” Dana Zarichny said. “He was selfless (and) he was tireless.”

James Zarichny Later in Life

A photo of Zarichny late in his life.  Many of his momentos have been left to the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Zarichny died January 31, 2013 and his life story was reviewed in both Colorado and Michigan newspapers.


“Senate Has Right to Jail MSC Senior – Callaghan”, Detroit Free Press, April 22, 1948, p.8.

Eric Chiu, “Former Flint resident James Zarichny, 89, remembered as Flint Sit-Down Striker, lifelong political activist“, MLive, February 6, 2013.

James Zarichny Collection at MSU Archives.

From the Archives: James Zarichny, University of Colorado, Boulder, April 8, 2018.

James Zarichny wikipedia entry.

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