Bill Brauning, Oral History
Recorded: April 24, 2000
Interviewed by Sandra Perlman Halem
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.
[Sandra Perlman Halem]: [We are] up in Special Collections in the Library doing an interview in person. Would you introduce yourself and tell me where you were on May 4, 1970?
[Bill Brauning]: Sure. My name is Bill Brauning. I'm from the Akron area. Actually, I've spent quite a bit of time up in the Kent area as I attended University School up until 1967 which was then a high school. And then in '67 I started attending Kent State University and graduated there in '71, and then had since come back for graduate work between '79 and '81.
Pertaining to May 4 in particular -- at that time I would have been a junior, I believe, and on that weekend certainly everyone's familiar with a lot of the events that happened downtown with the burning of buildings and the riots in the streets. I was a musician and that weekend happened to be out of town, but heard of all of the activities, so I happened to have a friend on campus that I was visiting on Sunday evening. And one of the first memories that I recall pertaining to May 4 was that I was sitting in an apartment house -- dormitory-style house-- on Lincoln Street in the evening, and it was after dark and I remember the sound of the helicopters flying at treetop level with huge bright spotlights that would shine in on a lot of the rooms and people could actually be blinded by this light. As I later found out, it was part of the military operation that weekend where they wanted to see if they could find any kind of covert operations going on and part of the reconnaissance, as it were, was to fly helicopters at low levels and see what activities they could actually find.
I was living at home at that time so I drove home that evening to come back to campus on Monday morning for class. I was taking a photography course in the School of Journalism, so I had a camera with me. I had probably either a 9- or a 10-o'clock class that morning and in the class the instructor was aware that there were going to be demonstrations on campus. And this was having to do with the Vietnam War. And for some reason she asked if anybody within the class was going to be participating at that. And I remember saying that I had a camera and I was going to be observing, not so much actively participating because I wasn't very politically active at that point. I was more of an interested observer. So in any case, after class I went up to the old hub which is near front campus and certainly right on the edge of The Commons area for lunch. And it was shortly after noon that I was standing in line ordering food that I heard what sounded to be firecrackers -- that sounded like firecrackers would sound if you were inside a room and they're setting them off outside the window. And there were maybe a dozen, two dozen "pop-pops." And honestly it didn't occur to me that there was anything else going on.
So after I finished lunch, I remember walking outside the hub and I would have been heading towards the Journalism hall, I don't recall the name of it --
[Sandra Perlman Halem]: Taylor Hall?
[Bill Brauning]: Taylor Hall, right, at the top of the hill. And I was walking in that direction -- I was either going back to my car or I was headed to another class. And right when I got on the fringes of The Commons area, there was a young girl who I knew from some classes that I had had, and she was running towards me and she was basically hysterical. She was crying and she was screaming, she was saying "They're going to kill us all" and I'm sure some other kinds of terms that I can't recall. Anyway, I found this to be extremely peculiar and it immediately set something off in my head where I realized something's happened and I don't know what it is. I continued up the hill and I did look around and some of the photographs that I've donated to the May 4th Archives showed the Guard so it is very likely that I might have taken those on my way up the hill -- it showed the Guard really on the periphery of The Commons. There is another shot showing the Guard actually walking across the campus, The Commons area with gas masks. And now that I'm thinking about it, the Guard was probably coming down the hill after it had already fired and they were coming to the Cap Student Union area to reconvene, and I was headed up the direction where they had just been. So that one picture is probably showing that because they do have gas masks on, and I know there was a volley of tear gas and things like that going on.
Well, I got up to the top of the hill and I went on the other side of Taylor Hall and there was a human chain of people standing around a body. There were maybe a half a dozen people attending to the body on the ground, but there was no life, there was no movement. It looked as though they were attending to him maybe after five minutes that that had happened, five to ten minutes. The ambulance hadn't arrived at that point, so I think they were just trying to treat as they would with any kind of gunshot victim. While I was there, the ambulance did come. They did put the person in the ambulance, and I'm not sure which individual that might have been at that point. I know it wasn't Sandy Scheuer because she was way on the other side of campus. In any event, they did take that individual out and the people that were more or less serving as the human chain seemed to reconvene as a very small group of maybe 50 to 75 people, including myself, that parked themselves on the hillside of Taylor Hall. So the hill that goes back down to The Commons seemed to be the area that we as a group reconvened. And like I said it was about 50 to 75 people. At this time, I don't recall if the Guard was around us at that point. I don't think the Guard was within sight that I can recall. But after we were there, some of the people started talking about, "My God, they've killed people. They're going to kill more." -- "Pigs," probably other anecdotal comments. But I do remember it was shortly after we were situated on that hill as a group that a professor by the name of Frank, who taught geology, and I was aware of him. I had gone to high school actually with one of his sons, so that's how I knew him. And he came out -- he was a marshal, and so did Jerry Lewis who was a marshal, too. I remember they both came and stood in front of the group, and Glenn Frank, with this -- it was a look that I'm trying to recall the best words to describe it -- it looked part hysteria, it looked part disbelief, it looked part -- kind of that look after there's a tragedy of some kind and the peoples' eyes are as wide as they could be -- it's kind of indescribable but it's something I guess you'd never forget. Anyway, he had that look and I knew that he was very emotionally distraught about what went on. I didn't know that there had been other shootings. I'd only seen the one, so apparently he knew of more shootings than I did. Well, he came in front of the group and I'll probably be paraphrasing because I couldn't possibly remember everything that he said. But it was very short -- it probably took up a few minutes, maybe two to three, four minutes at the most. And he said something along the line of, "My God, they've killed people. I plead with you, I beg of you, leave now or they're gonna -- we're all going to get shot. They're gonna kill us all." And everybody kind of looked at one another and we're all in disbelief, too, because some of the people there hadn't had any realization of what had happened.
It was a very impactful, passionate plea that probably is one of those things that if you were there you'd never forget it, and certainly it comes to my mind very easily. So he made his plea with the students and after that it probably wasn't more than a minute of two that we all started disbanding. And it was, now that I think about it, a very hollow feeling. There a human tragedy had occurred. A professor had come up and had pleaded with us to leave for fear that we'd be shot as well. And there we are kind of disbanding, going on our own without having any kind of way to process what we had just seen, to understand the impact and the intensity of the drama that had unfolded on that campus. I found myself really walking off campus at that point, because as I recall, the campus was shut down, and it might have been within Glenn Frank's statement that the campus is shut down. It's very likely that it did occur at that point. But I do remember after he had addressed us, I was basically on my way downtown to catch a bus in front of the Robin Hood, what used to -- might still be the Robin Hood restaurant. And because everybody was ordered off campus, you can imagine the mass exodus out of Kent was incredible. Highways were jammed. People really couldn't get anywhere because there were just too many people occupying the highways. And likewise, people that were residents of Kent wanted to get into Kent to see if their families -- to go back home. So I ended up getting a bus and taking it out to Stow-Kent Plaza, which is where I normally parked for my school day. And that's pretty much how May 4th unfolded.
One of the anecdotal things that I thought about over the years, and really this is the first time that I've talked about May 4th in the 30 years since its past. I've gone to some of the May 4th celebrations, but attending as an observer, curious observer and not really wanting to go back and revisit all of it. But for some reason, just in the past week or two, it's occurred to me that it's something that I needed to do. So it seemed like a good thing to go back and revisit May 4th even though it taps into different emotions and different reactions. It's certainly a time that I was actively involved with campus life and to some extent involved with some of the political issues that were prevalent at that time.
One of the individuals that was shot and killed was Sandy Scheuer and ironically she was in a class of mine. It was in the School of Speech Pathology; we were lab partners and probably she was the most unassociated with political views at that time. In other words, she was at school to go to school, was very bright, was very sociable, very enjoyable to be around. I didn't know her all that well but certainly we spent many times conversing in class and studying for tests, and of all the people that were involved with the war effort and with politics, she really wasn't one of them. In fact, as it was brought out, she was on her way to a class when she was shot, she wasn't even around any of the demonstrations. And to this day I still have an audiogram that she did which was a typical lab project you did in audiology -- you tested each other's hearing to understand how to work all of the machinery, and I still have that item, and every now and then when I look at it I think of the class and I think of her, and think, you know, it's sad that she wasn't able to see thirty years that I've seen. ×