Joann [Peterangelo] Gavacs, Oral History
Recorded May 4, 2000
Interviewed by Henry Halem
Transcribed by Amanda Remster
Note: This transcript includes geo-references to locations that are discussed in the oral history. Geographical names linked in the transcript will open in a new window or tab that takes you to that location information and map in the Mapping May 4 project. To request a transcript without geo-reference links included, please contact Kent State University Special Collections & Archives.
[Interviewer]: My name is Henry Halem. I am at the Student Center. It is May 4th, 2000. We're doing an oral history. Could you tell us your name and what you were doing on May 4th, 1970?
[Joann Gavacs]: My name is Joann, Peterangelo is my maiden name, Gavacs is my married name. On May 4th, 1970, I was a senior. It was my final quarter here at Kent State and I was looking forward to graduating. So I was a student. Shall I go on from there?
[Interviewer]: Feel free.
[Joann Gavacs]: Okay. I was—
[Interviewer]: What memories do you have?
[Joann Gavacs]: Well, I feel that my position is unique in some ways. This is the first time I've come back to any of the commemorative events. I also teach here. I teach Spanish in the Modern and Classical Languages and Studies area, and I teach on a full-time basis, although I'm a non-tenure-track person. I've been teaching here for ten years. I have decided to come to the commemorative events of the day and to state this oral history because I guess I want to bring some closure for myself to the end of my undergraduate studies and at a year in which my own daughter, my only daughter, is graduating from college herself. And I guess I've been giving a lot more thought to those days. I have been giving a lot—some thought to those days over the course of this thirty years, and particularly over the course of the last ten years, of which I've been teaching at Kent State.
I was a senior, as I mentioned, having just returned from a student-teaching experience in my hometown of Ashtabula, and very much looking forward to enjoying my final quarter on campus. I was living at Glenmorris at the time—student housing just off the campus, very near Satterfield Hall, which is where two of my classes were, because I was a Spanish major undergraduate at that time. And I was going to be going to my midterms that day, and I was preparing. I was getting dressed to do that when I heard these shots. I was living in one of the units, the second unit off campus, so it was very close by campus, and I heard the shots within my apartment. I put the radio on and, because I could tell—I guess I wasn't totally surprised that I would hear some noise of some sort, but I was totally shocked and anxious, and I figured that something had something to do with the rally that I knew was going to be taking place on The Commons that day. And I put the radio on to hear that it was--that there was news about some National Guards being shot, and then there was news of students being shot. And I was particularly anxious because my sister was living—who is a year younger than I—living in Tri-Towers, and I was fearful that maybe she had been one of the students shot. So I became very anxious for many reasons. I was anxious for her safety. I knew when I heard that, that my life would never be the same again. And of course I was concerned right away about where, what happened, what had really happened, who was killed, and then more personally, what was going to be the impact for me and my sister and my family.
So I continued to listen and found out the real events. My roommates came back from their midterms in a hurry. And we were standing out in front of Glenmorris to the sound of helicopters flying over us telling us that we needed to all evacuate the city. It was like Korea must have been. My thoughts that whole weekend were that. I know now that I could have never dealt with any situation where—any combat situation. I was very thankful to God that I wasn't a guy, that I would have had to go off to Vietnam or Korea or some place, or any kind of a wartime scene. Because I was extremely anxious the whole weekend. In fact, I just dug in. I was a chicken. I just dug in to my apartment and stayed there most of the weekend, especially after the experience on one of the days, and I can't remember which day it was. But here I was living off campus and just wanted to do my laundry and went to the laundry room in Glenmorris and came back, and went back in the evening to get my clothes out of the dryer and I was tear-gassed doing that, and I wasn't even on campus. There was a lot of confusion about curfews. Curfews were being always—they were set, and then they were upped, but the communication about when this curfew was going to be was very poor. You have to remember back then technology wasn't what it is today. We just had the radio going constantly to the Kent State station, and that, we felt, was our best source of communication.
My mindset at the time was I just wanted to cooperate with what everybody wanted us to do. I didn't want to get involved in anything. I just wanted to graduate. I just wanted to get my degree and I wanted to graduate. I think I represented a lot of the students on the campus at the time. Kent State was really very much a suitcase college, we used to call it, where people would go home on the weekends. I didn't often do that because I lived an hour-and-a-half away and didn't have a car. But on the other hand, it was just a very peaceful college, rather large, about 21,000 students I believe at the time. We had been stuffed into dorms the whole while I was undergraduate because—I don't know why they were surprised by our numbers but that's the story of my life, being an older baby boomer. They were always surprised by our numbers and unable to accommodate us wherever we went. So we were stuffed into these dorms and we just, we were, particularly here in Ohio in the Midwest, were just very used to, by this time in our lives, accommodating ourselves to our circumstances.
And it was a very unsettling time. I remember myself loving my college years but at the same time I remember the anxiety that I suffered. The constant feelings of anxiety, the heartbeat rate being elevated, the physical symptoms that I suffered even in the last couple of years, starting with 1967, '68 particularly, when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, Robert Kennedy was shot right in front of our eyes on television. I remember witnessing that on television. And my friends of course going off to Vietnam, and then the Pueblo incident. There was a boy that I was dating that was in the Air Force and he was sent to, after the Pueblo situation—-that ship in Korea, off the coast of Korea—he was sent to Korea with the Air Force to be on top of that situation and I was concerned about his safety. There were friends of mine that came back to my hometown that were never the same. It was just such an unsettling several years, my whole undergraduate education was that way, that by the time this incident occurred, the weekend of May 4th, starting with May 2nd, it was almost surreal to me. It was almost, I can't believe the focus of things are here. I couldn't believe the National Guard was at Kent State of all places. I couldn't believe what happened at downtown Kent. It just seemed unbelievable to me because most of the students at Kent State were very, as I say, very placid people. We came from families that were—
[Joann Gavacs]: That’s okay. We came from families that were the salt of the earth, really. They just wanted to live their lives. And most of the students really reflected that. But I remember many of us, including myself, feeling, I cannot believe what our president is doing to us. When he went in, when he decided to go into Cambodia after we had reelected this man, President Nixon, to get us out of this war, even those of us that didn't have strong political convictions that we acted upon, just felt really betrayed and really felt as though the older generation just didn't get a grip on the fact that this was not World War II any longer, that this was a very different situation, and we were all beginning to feel like lambs to the slaughter.
I remember that Friday afternoon at Glenmorris there was just a spontaneous party that went on where people just came out of their apartments. It was a beautiful warm evening—day. That whole weekend was extremely warm and I think passions were running particularly high because they were fueled by the good weather. But we all came out and just passed around jugs of wine and I remember the boys saying, "What the hell, we're all going to be cannon fodder here. We're just—what's going to happen to all of us?" And I remember feeling, I'm very grateful I'm not a guy. I'm very grateful my, in my particular family, that my sister and I were girls. My brother was ten years younger—that hopefully this situation would be resolved by that time. But I had very good friends that were being affected. It was a very unsettling time. But we felt particularly betrayed then when the National Guard came in, when Governor Rhodes came on. He delegated authority to the National Guard for our university. And I have read since then that people—I have read that he has denied that martial law was into effect. And I thought to myself, How can he deny this? It was in effect. President Robert I. White was not given the authority to make decisions any longer. I admired President White. I thought he was a very, very good man. I anguished for him. And I, we all felt, I think, a greater sense of anger because of the way it was handled—the events of the weekend were handled by the governor. I have a lot of animosity to him. I think he should be held much more responsible for everything that took place.
Friday night I got a phone call. I didn't go to downtown Kent. I'm a chicken. I just stayed in my apartment and, like I say, I just wanted these events to be over and the weekend to be over, and I felt that I just wanted to wait it out. So I didn't go downtown Kent, which was—-I mean a lot of kids went out, it wasn't that anything was planned or—it was just everybody went downtown to drink and have a good time and see each other, but I did not. But I was awoken by a call at—When was it? One or two o'clock in the morning, I can't remember—from one of the students, one of my very best friends, who was one of the seven that was arrested that night. And he called me from the Ravenna jail and I said, "What are you doing in the Ravenna jail?" This person was the most meek person, apolitical individual, just Catholic education all the way and just a very mild-mannered person. He was in Education. And I said, "Mike, what are you doing down there, Michael?". And he said, "Well, I was arrested. Didn't you hear what went on?" And I said, "No, I went to bed. I went to sleep." And so he filled me in briefly, but of course he was more—very briefly, because he was concerned that I get some bond money. And I had no idea what one does to post a bond. And so he said, "Call my roommate," so I called his roommate, and his roommate was more savvy on this sort of thing. So we got the money together and the bond was posted, his roommate handled it, and that's when I begin to realize that this is really serious business here, that anybody can be in a bad—in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that certainly was the case with my friend.
Then staying with me that weekend was a good friend of mine from my hometown in Ashtabula, who was dating one of my fellow graduates. He was a journalism major—Jim Dudas is his name—and he had been interviewing to get a job with the Cleveland Press. He called the Press and said, “I’ll be happy to cover this from the student perspective, if you’d like me to do this.” So they said, “Fine, that’s great,” so he did. He covered quite a bit of the events of the weekend, and as it turns out, our graduation ceremonies too. So through Jim Dudas, I was kept up to the minute. Jim also lived in Glenmorris, and was picking Marcy up to run here and run there. I admired their courage, as I sat entrenched in my apartment, but I was kept up to date on things. By the way, Jim and Marcy are godparents of my daughter.
But anyway, I began to really realize that things were unfolding and it looked to me like a train wreck, which is how it resulted. Then after the shootings occurred, I still didn’t know what had become of my sister, and never did find out until we both met at my parents’ home in Ashtabula. A friend of mine was able to give me a ride home. I don’t even really remember how I got out of town. A roommate and I left. I don’t even really remember—it’s like I blocked it out. I was so anxious about how was I going to graduate? I had just signed a teaching contract with Mayfield High School two weeks before. Thank God I had signed that contract because then I found out later that they were really trying to see if they could get out of the contract. And they told me that had I not signed that contract, if it had not been signed, they would have not honored the offer, just because I was a Kent State graduate. And of course I know many of my classmates did not get jobs. And my friend Michael, of course, has a stinging FBI record. The reason he got a teaching job I think was because his cousin was a superintendent of schools and knew otherwise about his character. He could probably speak for himself.
But anyway, I was glad that I had the teaching position, as I said, and I had already been accepted for graduate studies—to start doing graduate work summer session. My whole future was entirely in question. And being in Spanish, I was in two Spanish courses where the graduates and undergraduate students were in the same classes. And all of our resources were in the Kent State University library. How was I going to be able to complete coursework? Even when they decided that coursework could be completed afterwards, how could I do it from Ashtabula?—-back at home, where our library was totally inadequate for such studies. Then I hit on the idea of going to Cleveland and using the Cleveland Public Library. I was informed that they had good resources, which they did. I was able to complete my coursework by telephone and by the papers—additional papers that I wrote and that sort of thing. So we did graduate. We didn’t know we were going to have graduation ceremonies until just before they occurred. I went to them. Jim Dudas covered them, my friend, as I mentioned. It was an interesting graduation. I’m certainly glad I went to it. But I guess the reason I feel that I wanted to tell this oral history is because what I was seeking in my college years was normalcy. I really didn’t welcome any of this. I resented it. I resented the national offence. I resented the fact that it was drawn so close to home to me. I just wanted to lead a normal life. That’s all I wanted. I wanted to have an uneventful college experience, and that’s not what God gave me. But I was lucky. I was lucky in many ways. I feel that way, and I guess that’s what I reflect upon much more lately is just how lucky I was to have come through it—unharmed physically, had gotten a job. I think though that it was true that the impact of Kent State altered me forever-—the Kent State events of May 4th, 1970 and that weekend. I’ll always be a Kent State University graduate, and then I did go on to complete my graduate work and get my graduate degree in ’74. And that was the day that my fiancé and I announced our engagement to my parents. It was out at the fountain here, in front of the new student center.
I guess how pivotal Kent State has been in my life was brought home to me by my son—who is now a freshman at MIT University—when he said, “Gee mom, you know, you’ve lived a lot of your life at Kent State, still teaching here.” I mentioned that I was going to be coming to these commemorative events and symposiums, and he said that to me and I realized that yes, I guess the university has been a significant part of my life. I felt that most acutely when I did come back to start teaching—when I came back in 1990. I guess I felt drawn to do this. And it certainly wasn’t the salary, because teaching as a non-tenure-track person, your pay is not very good, which is an understatement. But I have very much enjoyed being on campus and teaching the students. I guess it lends to me the normalcy that I didn’t experience when I was here. And I see the students are basically the same—very good kids, good well-intending kids, very eager to get a vocation in life, to lead a good, solid life. And I guess it’s been therapeutic for me to be working with them. I’ve enjoyed it a lot. And I guess just coming back today and taking a pause from the end of the semester activities to reflect on everything that’s happened, then and since then, has given me closure, as I say, to my own undergraduate education, which I felt sort of robbed of some normalcy with. But without it, I don’t think I would have the insights that I have had in my adult years, and I don’t think I would have been the instructor—been able to teach in the way that I’ve been able to teach. And I don’t think I would have been the parent that I was able to be. And now that I face my daughter’s graduation ceremonies next month—she’s graduating from Northwestern University—I think that I can enjoy her graduation with a lot more peace and a lot more pride. I guess that’s all I need to say.
[Interviewer]: Terrific. ×