50 years of storytelling: The May 4 Oral History Project serves as a tool for reflection and healing

Sandy Halem helped start the May 4 Oral History Project.

Maria McGinnis

For 50 years now, people from all walks of life have been telling their stories about May 4, 1970. For some people, with the passage of time comes greater willingness to share experiences, express concern, grieve and reflect.This wasn’t always the case throughout Kent State’s history. The tragedy that is May 4 left many people feeling like they couldn’t talk about it. And if they could, who would they talk to?

Sandy Halem came to Kent in fall 1969 with her husband, Henry, who co-founded the Glass Art Society and taught on campus for 30 years. For a while, Sandy taught high school in Akron but she always wanted to be a writer. She remembers 1969 going by very quickly. 

“Then of course, the shootings happened,” she says. “It was, I think for both my husband and I, a moment of our lives that would really influence the trajectory of who we were as people and as artists.”

In the days following the shootings, Halem and her husband attended town meetings to discuss what was going on. Halem, who didn’t know much about the area, was worried and unsure whether she wanted to stay in Kent until then-editor of the Record-Courier Loris Troyer talked to her. 

“He was horrified when I said, ‘I don’t know if I want to stay here. Is this a safe place?’” Halem says. “He said, ‘Absolutely. We need people like you and your husband, young people, to stay here and continue to make our community what it can be.’ He was so passionate about that.”

When Halem stopped teaching in 1972, she started writing plays, many of which have won awards and were produced in local theaters. Most of her plays, if not all of them, touch on the lasting impression of May 4 and focus on ideas of whom to listen to, whom to follow and how to find peace.

“These were motifs and themes I think were very much formed in the anger, frustration and grief that followed May 4 that seemed unanswerable at the time,” Halem says. “And suppressed, because everyone was sent home and unlike today, no one went in to psychologically counsel anyone. There was very little comfort for the suffering of people who were students, faculty, staff, Ohio National Guard and the community. I tend to see it as a greater landscape of suffering which included both the university and the town.”

In 1989, Halem noticed that for the past 20 years, it seemed like the same people were always asked to tell the same stories about May 4. She had an idea that perhaps there were other stories to be told. Halem went directly to Nancy Birk, head of Special Collections at the Kent State Library to share her idea. 

“As books were coming out and other things were happening, I suggested maybe there are other stories that will help us understand how this event filtered through the history of not only the community, but the university and other places,” Halem says.

Halem had hoped an academic professional at Kent State would take it over, but the reality was that at the time, oral history wasn’t considered to be as valid as it is now, she says. 

“No one at Kent State thought it was important enough to start doing at the 1990 commemoration. So I spoke with Nancy Birk and she really believed in it,” Halem says. “She said if I got (the interviews), they’d house them at Kent State in the library.”

That was the beginning of the May 4 Oral History Project. At the time, Harlem says, there were no guides on how to do an oral history. Halem had two recording machines with cassette tapes and decided to just ask people where they were and what they wanted to say.

“We put advertisements in the Stater and the Record-Courier,” Halem says. “We were going to start them in the Student Center, and we showed up, and there was a gentleman with his briefcase, all ready before we had even gotten there. Literally standing by the door ready to tell a story that he had kept for 20 years.”

Tim DeFrange was the first person to give an oral history on April 30, 1990. He recalls the experience as being particularly healing for him. The 20 years he had waited gave him time to heal and truly be able to share his story. 

“I really wanted to do this,” DeFrange says. “Maybe that’s why I was first in line.”

DeFrange’s father died on May 4, 1970. As his father was in the ICU at Robinson Memorial Hospital, when DeFrange’s mother called him to come see his father to say goodbye. At the time, he was at Field High School doing his student teaching, so he prepared to drive from Field to the hospital by going through Kent. In the meantime, the shootings had happened on campus. 

Eventually, DeFrange made it to the hospital, but when he got there his father had already died. In his oral history, he recalls asking his mother how it happened and she replied, “You just won’t believe. I was upstairs, and all of a sudden there was all this noise and commotion. And then all these young people were wheeled into the ICU, from the shootings. And the doctors and the nurses were just crying. And one doctor went over, and he held an X-ray up, and he was holding it, showing it to another doctor. And he said, ‘Look where this bullet is lodged. This bullet is lodged in this boy’s spine. He’s never going to walk again. In all my years of medicine, this is the most senseless thing I’ve ever seen.’”

DeFrange continues in his oral history: “So my mom, who had been there for a whole month, she walked to the window, and said, ‘Lord, Nick has had 55 good years. All this time, all this month, I’ve been praying that you would spare him. But how can I ask for that when these kids haven’t even had 20 years? From now on, it’s whatever you want.’ She turned around and went back into the ICU, and he had died. So, that’s my story.” 

They did about 30 interviews in the days leading up to the 20th commemoration, mostly during May 1 through May 4. Halem remembers interviewing a National Guardsman who didn’t fire and a few people who would only talk to her anonymously, because they still feared the repercussions of May 4, even 20 years later.

Halem continued doing the Oral History Project intermittently until 2000. They would do the interviews every five years with a big push to get more interviewees. 

Current special collections cataloger Kate Medicus’ experience with the oral histories began behind the scenes, as her first job was to digitize the cassettes from the early ‘90s to make sure there were release forms for the interviews. 

When the university archivist left for another job in January 2019, Medicus says it was as though the department felt the pressure was on because the 50th commemoration was coming and it is a big milestone. 

“The head of our department divvied up the archivist job among all of us and decided not to fill the position until after the 50th,” Medicus says. “So that position has been empty, and (they) asked me if I’d be the lead because I had the most experience with it.”

At the moment, there are 125 oral histories available online. However, that’s not all of them. There are about 30 interviews the archivists are still processing. The oral histories can not go online without a signed legal document, such as a release form from the person that gave the oral history. So some of the early interviews from when Sandy had started the May 4 Oral History project, have not made it online, Medicus says.

Sometimes during an oral history interview, the person telling their story will get really emotional, but everyone reacts differently. Regardless, the interviews can be paused at any time to give both the interviewer and speaker a break if they need it. 

“I don’t know if it’s more difficult for me when the person is expressing their emotions by tearing up, or the opposite when somebody is just telling it very non-emotionally, almost like removed,” Medicus says. “Sometimes that happens more with men of a certain generation. It’s the way they’re brought up. They’re able to report on it like they weren’t really there and in some ways that’s harder for me because I realize when somebody does start crying, it’s like they’re letting it out and we can move on.”

The interviews can be emotionally and physically taxing. Medicus’ shortest interview in the past few weeks was 25 minutes long. But she says an interview with someone who lived in Kent for several years, or was involved in the aftermath of May 4, will most likely be 90 minutes long. Oral historians also walk a fine line between being completely unbiased and being active, empathetic listeners. Because of this, it’s hard to know how vocal to be during the interview, Medicus says. 

“I’m trying to be empathetic because this person is sharing, especially people who were young when it happened,” Medicus says. “I’m trying to convey that empathy without stepping over that line. I’m just an unbiased recorder of them telling me what they saw, heard and remembered. It’s exhausting. The thing I discovered recently is just to get outside and walk somewhere for 10 minutes. That’s a whole part of the story is what it’s like for the interviewer.”

There are many stories to be told from different people and perspectives about May 4.

“There were thousands of people trying to get around the Commons, trying to get to class, trying to eat lunch, whatever,” Medicus says. “And each one of them comes from a whole different place, a whole different outlook, it’s amazing. It was a 180 moment, a pivotal moment, for undergraduates especially.” 

Despite how taxing these interviews can be for everyone involved, they hold significant value. The people telling their stories are motivated by having a way to get this off of their chest, but they’re getting it off their chest in a way that’s meaningful, Medicus says. These interviews become part of the historical record, permanently preserved in the May 4 archives. 

“And maybe at this point in their life, too, they’re thinking about ‘how are my great-great-grandkids going to hear about this?’” Medicus says. “It will be permanently part of the record. That’s the thing that keeps them going and keeps us going.”

Not only are the oral history interviews beneficial and healing for the interviewee, but others can find great value in listening to them as well. 

Deborah Wiles is the author of “Kent State,” a book about the four days surrounding Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War and the protests at Kent State, set to publish in April.

“I was a 16-year-old high school junior in Charleston, South Carolina on May 4, 1970, and was stunned at this news, as was everyone else on my campus,” Wiles says. “It was shocking to us that American kids could be killed for exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech, protest and assembly. I never forgot the visceral feeling it left me with. It has never left me.”

The May 4 Oral History Project played a key role in Wiles’ research for her book. She listened to them online, read them in the Special Collections room at Kent State and then used them to help her frame her stories from various angles.

“Whether it was students, townies, the administration, or the National Guard soldiers, they all had memories of that time,” Wiles says. “Thanks to the oral history archive, we have those stories saved. They are valuable primary source materials.”

In preparation for the 50th commemoration of May 4, Medicus has been working on training more interviewers to do oral histories. The number of people interested in doing an oral history interview always increases during a major anniversary year. 

“A lot of people who were students here in 1970 are in their 70s now,” Medicus says. “So they’re maybe retired, they have more time on their hands, they are reflecting on their life and they’re thinking about these stories again. For some people, it’s taken a long time before they’re able to talk about it.”

Medicus and those helping with the commemoration are expecting a lot of people to return for the 50th commemoration, especially those who haven’t returned since 1970. 

“When they’re here, that’s when all the memories come flooding back,” Medicus says. “They learn about the Oral History Project and they’re like, ‘I’m gonna do it now.’ When they get back home they might shy away again.”

For the 50th commemoration, three recording studios will be set up around campus along with reception stations where people can schedule their interview or find an available walk-in booth.

With the establishment of the May 4 Visitors Center, Halem hopes that one day, considering all the technology available now to experiment with, there will be a more modernized version of giving an oral history.

“I was very excited to see the May 4 Visitor Center come to be, because I think that’s the place people go to heal,” Halem says.

Visiting the center can trigger an emotional memory from the past. It makes people want to tell their stories right then and there, Halem says. She hopes with new technology available, it will provide new ways for people to share their stories.

“If somebody is moved to tell their story, I would love to be able to have them do it right there,” she says. 

The Oral History Project serves as a way for people to grow and heal, for both the person giving the oral history and the person listening.

“There are as many stories as there are people,” Wiles says. “The more stories we collect, the better we understand one another and that time in history. The more stories we embrace, the better our chances for peace.”

Maria Mcginnis — [email protected]