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Jeff Hoffman, Oral History
Recorded: May 4, 2015
Interviewed by Rennie Greenfield
Transcribed by the Kent State University Research and Evaluation Bureau
[Interviewer]: This is Rennie Greenfield speaking on May 4, 2015, at Kent State Special Collections and Archives as part of the May 4 Oral History Project. I’ll be talking today with Jeff Hoffman and just as we begin, I want to get just a little bit of biographical information for you. So, where were you born?
[Jeff Hoffman]: I am from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
[Interviewer]: Did you primarily grow up there?
[Jeff Hoffman]: Yes, grew up in Pittsburgh and left when I was seventeen years old, came to Kent State as a freshman in 1968, fall of 1968.
[Interviewer]: What made you choose Kent State?
[Jeff Hoffman]: Probably my grades. I came to Kent—I got accepted to two schools. The two schools I got accepted to was Toledo and to Kent State. Toledo was a little bit far away and the head of the academic department came over to me when we got out of the car and he says, “Well if you’re looking to enjoy yourself, but get a good education, you go to Kent. If you’re looking to buckle down and really focus on what you need to do, you’re going to come here to Toledo.”
[Interviewer]: So, you chose Kent State?
[Jeff Hoffman]: I chose Kent State.
[Interviewer]: Excellent. What was your major here when you were a student?
[Jeff Hoffman]: Let’s say sociology, but mostly general studies. Just trying to graduate.
[Interviewer]: So, when you got here, you got here in ‘68, by the time spring of 1970 rolled around, what were the kind of prevailing attitudes amongst the students with regards to the war and the protest?
[Jeff Hoffman]: Okay, well, I’m going to tell you a little bit. Let’s start out by me telling you a little bit about myself. So, being that I was seventeen years old, I was a lot younger than a lot of the other students that are here because I was a January birthday and a lot of people were a little bit older than me. Plus, I probably had a little ADD and I was a little immature at the time. So, when I came here to Kent, I don’t think I was very politically motivated, even during my times here, I wasn’t politically motivated and I hadn’t really known what was going on in the outside world as much. I knew that there was a bad fighting in Vietnam and people were dying but, as far as my commitment to knowledge what was going on in the world—was limited. I was more interested probably, trying to be accepted, trying to understand college, what to do when you get to college, and also how to make friends, and what I was going to do on my evenings or my nights. I was probably a typical seventeen-year-old student just trying to figure out being away from home for the first time, going to college.
[Interviewer]: So as a non-politically active person, how did you view the protests when they started cropping up on campus?
[Jeff Hoffman]: Well, whenever there were protests going on, I always participated and I always knew what was going on. As it got—the war started getting a little bit more involved, they probably got a little bit more structured or tense about certain things because I’d go to sit-ins over at Tri-Towers. I was in McDowell Hall. So, I’d go to different sit-ins and different rallies. I don’t think I was going to be an activist. I was more of a person who was going to listen to what was going on. I was listening—there was a lot of anger and a lot of frustration—so, I was watching it more from the outside, the bigger picture, than me getting involved—actively involved in those discussions. So, I saw a lot of people that were committed to it, but, I really wasn’t part of that group.
[Interviewer]: Were your parents aware, your family aware of what was going on, did they have an opinion?
[Jeff Hoffman]: No, my parents were totally not involved and not opinionated, they were both—my father’s a blue-collar worker, he owned a dry-cleaning store, worked seven days a week—six days a week and the day he didn’t work he was working, you know, cleaning the machine or whatever one time a month, so I saw him maybe three times, he’d go to work in the morning. He was so busy with his life, trying to survive and make a living, I think that that’s what his involvement was.
[Interviewer]: Do you remember what the attitudes were among the faculty and staff, were your professors mentioning these kind of things in class?
[Jeff Hoffman]: They were discussing it in class, again, even if it was discussing, I wasn’t totally—you’re not going to get from me anything that’s going to show that I was active and understood what the teachers were trying to get across to me or what other students were feeling. I was watching it from the outside in. It wasn’t till Friday night, it wasn’t till near the end, when Nixon went into Cambodia and I was downtown on Friday night that my involvement and any participation and anything actively got to be to a point where there was no way out because, on Friday night, I was downtown at one of the bars and that’s when all hell broke loose and they were breaking all kinds of windows and the police were down there and, did I understand what was going on? No. Did I understand why it was going on? No. Did I understand who was doing it? No. Was I participating—was I there while it was all happening to me? Yeah. Was it scary? Yeah. I never saw police beat up people. I never saw students get hit over the head. I never saw blood. I was in a territory that I wasn’t familiar with. Even that night, we had to go find somebody at a police station who was there, and we had to go pick them up and bring them back to find out what happened to him because he had gotten hit and we were just standing outside at the time, around, outside the bar.
[Interviewer]: So that’s Friday, April 30 [editorial correction: Friday was May 1]. Nixon announces that he’s invading Cambodia.
[Jeff Hoffman]: Prior to that.
[Interviewer]: When you were out did you hear about that or did the riots just start?
[Jeff Hoffman]: I heard that he was going into Cambodia and then, I didn’t know when any of the riots started. So I wasn’t involved in any of the planning. I’m just there and I wasn’t even politically motivated or act—I knew that people were dying and there was a war and that I might end up having to fight in one—this was even before the draft. So, once the draft, then it even kicked into higher gear. But, during this time it was—it was totally—
[Interviewer]: Do you remember what people were saying or what they were doing?
[Jeff Hoffman]: They were scared. Just scared. People were scared. People were running. People were upset. People were upset about the war and what was going to happen to them. There was some talk, I think, on the college campus about whether we were going to be—whether we were going to have to go fight in the war, we weren’t going to be able to be students anymore and that got people worried.
[Interviewer]: Do you have any other memories of what you were doing that night or exactly—?
[Jeff Hoffman]: I was drinking a beer on a street corner of downtown and all this stuff started happening and then I got scared and ran back to my dorm, where we ran back to help somebody—that’s what happened Friday, that’s what I remember on Friday night.
[Interviewer]: And then what was it like when the National Guard showed up, do you remember them?
[Jeff Hoffman]: Well, the National Guard showed up a little bit later and I don’t—I remember that they were stationed all over, but there were some National Guard that weren’t real nice to people, they were them that were, but there were a lot of people there from small towns so National Guard were young and I was young, so some of them looked like they were friendly, some didn’t look like they were friendly.
But I remember on Saturday, I’m going to get the event here. So, Saturday I remember walking, you know, just casually walking back to my dorm. I was walking back to the dorm and I remember somebody coming up to me, you know you remember these little things—somebody came up to me and said to me, “You know, you’re going to go to the burning of a building tonight, you’re going to go to the rally tonight where they’re going to burn the building.” I was like—was looking at them like, What are you out of your mind? This is—I didn’t know. I mean, there must’ve been some—that’s what I mean, that’s how I wasn’t involved, but there must have been things going on and being planned that, obviously, I wasn’t aware of because I wasn’t on the “in.” But when they said that to me—I was sort of in shock.
Now, did I go to the burning of the building? No. I actually went with a group of my friends, we went out to Richmond, Ohio, where there was a—there was a racetrack in Richmond, so we went to the races that night. But, I remember coming back from the races, and I thought this was all sort of fake. I remember coming back and there was this smoke billowing from the campus and they blocked it off so you couldn’t get back in. Again, we were like in shock. It was more watching things go on in a movie but not being in a movie, but actually being in the movie. Sort of surreal.
[Interviewer]: So, were you stopped by the Guard? I mean were you able to get back to your dorms?
[Jeff Hoffman]: No, they blocked—no, no, we ended up staying somewhere—at somebody’s house somewhere. I don’t remember all those—I remember certain details and then I remember other details. But, I remember we couldn’t get back in. So, that was Saturday night and then Sunday, when we got—then I remember Sunday we did get back to the campus. And then Sunday night, I was in my fraternity house, inside my fraternity house. And I remember there was all this commotion going on outside. Our fraternity house was on Water Street or Main Street. Main Street, next to—there was a motel. Campus Inn? Kenmore Summit Inn, Kent Inn. It was the Kent Inn. So, we were next door, I just need a little help with the name of the place was.
So, we were there and inside and, while we were inside, we heard this commotion going outside and I remember going out on the porch. A bunch of us went out on the porch. What we were doing there I’m not sure either because I don’t remember that but I remember standing on the porch and I remember looking at the—looking what was going on in the street and it was like I felt like that was the most surreal moment for me because, at that moment, you had National Guard in front of our house, they were all lined up down the street. And the students were all on front of the campus by the Robin Hood and this intersection and they were all sitting down and they were all doing their cheers and their rallies and they had the posters and they were, you know, obviously, there was a back-and-forth going on. And then, up above, we walked out, and we heard this noise because there were helicopters out there and I remember seeing all of the lights going on and I’m sitting in the middle of this zone, but I wasn’t —we weren’t in it. We were like looking at it from outside, in a way. I was sort of shocked that this thing—I mean I was shocked and then I had this surreal feeling when this, all the sudden, happened which is sort of like a—I’m looking back on it now and I’m thinking, I was like literally in shock when the National Guard started going forward, because I saw the National Guard going forward trying to break up the rally.
Now, I didn’t know also that there was Martial Law at that time. Actually, I was told later, I did a presentation for another group and the guy in charge told me that the Martial Law was put into existence the Monday prior to it. It was all week. I thought that it just happened because of that, I don’t remember if that even—in my mind, I don’t remember it ever getting to me that there was a Martial Law. So, again, I was sort of out of it, I think—I was out of it a lot, at times.
So, on Sunday—Sunday when we came out and we saw this—again, and actually there was guy standing next to me and he was fraternity—president of the fraternity and I remember him saying, “I’m going to go out and I’m going to tape this.” I thought he was like out of his mind and that’s all I remember, and that’s the tape I think you guys have now. You have a tape that he took because I remember that—I mean who had a camera during that time? I don’t know. It wasn’t like we had cellphones or video cameras at the time. And he took pictures of it.
Again, we’re watching this thing go on where there’s smoke bombs going on and then people are stabbing people and people are hitting people and I’m like—I was more numb, the feeling was more numb. Was there anger or all this? Maybe. I don’t think I had any anger at the time, I may not have realized—because it was at the moment. It was later on that I developed my thoughts and after I processed all this out.
[Interviewer]: So, you stayed in the house that Sunday?
[Jeff Hoffman]: Well, I was staying, yeah.
[Interviewer]: Did you go out at all?
[Jeff Hoffman]: We went out again, I think we went to get some—again, I think there was somebody else who was—we were able to get people that were taken away or they were hurt, we were able to find them somehow, we were able to get them some communications was doing—so, we were helping people out. That may have been—but I didn’t put myself in any harm’s way. I didn’t get involved—that’s another reason I don’t get involved, I’m a little scared of large events because of all this stuff. I always had this in the back of my brain, you know, something like this. Even though I’ve gone to big concerts and stuff like that.
And that was Sunday night. And then, Monday I remember being on the college campus and up by Johnson Hall and I remember the National Guard were trying to disperse everybody, trying to get everybody out.
[Interviewer]: Can I ask, were you even thinking, after seeing all of that Sunday night, were you thinking, I’ve got to go to class Monday morning, I have a paper due, or was that just kind of out of your mind at that point?
[Jeff Hoffman]: Probably out of my mind. But, it wouldn’t necessarily have been because of the incidents or everything’s that’s going on, it’s just that I didn’t always—I wasn’t the best student, you know. But, that morning, because there was a rally going on, things were happening on campus, I wanted to see what was going on. That’s probably what I was thinking. Anyways, I was up by Johnson Hall and I remember that there were, was it around that area up there, they have Johnson Hall up on the left there and looking down on the National Guard which were surrounding the ROTC Building that had burnt down. I remember the National Guard were walking around and they were trying to get everybody dispersed and they were getting everybody—and then I remember the National Guard marching a certain way.
Now, here’s where I’m a little foggy because, I don’t know if this happened before the shooting—the video I saw last night, it happened before the shooting where Glenn Frank was telling all the students to get out of there. But, I remembered it as there was all this stuff going on and then there was the shooting and we all dropped down and all the shootings took place and then, the next thing I remember from there, scared to death and watching people yelling and screaming in the background and not knowing—I mean again, it was like a surreal situation. I remember sitting on the hill and I remember this Glenn Frank talking to us—did that happen before the shooting or after the shooting? I think now—when I look at it now, it was after, in my brain, it was after the shooting. And then he was trying to calm us all down, thank god that he was there because he was the only person I remember standing up right in front of people, trying to get them to relax because of what’s just happened or what was going to happen. And the National Guard lined up and everybody was like—I was just—we just didn’t know.
[Interviewer]: Let’s back up just a little bit.
[Jeff Hoffman]: Yeah.
[Interviewer]: Where were you when the actual—did you hear the shots?
[Jeff Hoffman]: I heard the shots go on, that’s what I mean, I was up by Johnson, I was somewhere around the area and I just heard shots and I heard screaming and I really like didn’t focus on people who were shot, I focused on the ground. I focused on hitting the ground so that I wasn’t—I mean, I didn’t want to be—I didn’t—I want to pretend I was dead or something. I don’t know, I would just fall and just close my eyes and hope it would all be over.
[Interviewer]: Do you remember that lasting a long time or—
[Jeff Hoffman]: No. That’s why I don’t even remember how I got over to the hill afterwards. But I remember—the next thing I remember, I’m sitting on the hill and I remember this guy talking to me—talking to me, talking to everybody, and it was a moment and I remember people were all in the different corners, looking, focusing in on this because I think everybody was in like—what, what just—? I don’t know.
[Interviewer]: Could you see the Guard still at this point?
[Jeff Hoffman]: Around—lined up around the National Guard area. In around the National Guard building.
[Interviewer]: What were the—what were the other students around you doing at the moment?
[Jeff Hoffman]: Just sitting and listening to this guy and trying to figure out where we go, what do we do, and what just happened.
[Interviewer]: And do you remember what you did—what happened right after that?
[Jeff Hoffman]: Right after that is that we heard that we had to get out of there within three minutes or we had to get out of there or they were going to shoot. I remember them saying they were going to shoot aimlessly into the crowd. We needed to get out of the—off the campus and we had to go back to our dorms, get whatever we needed, and get out of there in like three hours.
[Interviewer]: Do you remember who told you that?
[Jeff Hoffman]: No, no. It was an announcement, I think, that was made by somebody. I bet it was bullhorn but maybe it was announcement by somebody. And that’s when I ran back to my dorm, we’re still in debate on the dorm— But, I ran back to dorm, I got my clothes, I got whatever I needed and then I ended up—and how this happened, I don’t know either. I mean there’s a lot of blanks in my brain here. But, I end up back at the fraternity house, our fraternity house like I told you, was over there, next to the Kent Motor Inn. And then, we got in a car and we were on our way out of town, because we tried to get out as fast as possible and I remember being stopped at the corner of Kent—of Main and Water, I guess it is. And there were National Guard all lined up on the corners. And I remember that we had a red light and I remember it was the longest red light.
Then this guy or somebody—we heard the cock of a gun. And I don’t know if it was to scare us, if it was—they were testing—I don’t know what the reasons were, all the sudden we dropped and we just—we like didn’t give a shit about the red light anymore. I think we got home in twenty minutes—twenty-five minutes. My mother thought—no, we didn’t have any use for phones because we couldn’t call our parents, it’s not like today where we could call our parents up and stuff like that. We were shaking. I mean, I remember shaking the whole way, just afraid. My mother thought that maybe I was the one who had died because she had heard on the news—at this point, you heard on the news different things, that Jeffrey Miller was one of the ones that was shot. But it wasn’t, you know, Jeffrey, my name’s Jeffrey, so she thought maybe—she didn’t know. But then, when I went to my friend’s house, we—Jack’s house—we called, I called home, told her that I was okay.
[Interviewer]: How aware were you of what exactly happened, obviously you knew there had been shots fired, did you know exactly what had happened at that point? Were there news reports coming in on the radio or was it just conjecture from—
[Jeff Hoffman]: We did hear news reports on the way home that the shootings had taken place but there was—I heard there was—another part that was very aggravating is we heard there was a lot of anger towards the students. I remember Spiro Agnew quoting, I think the quote was something like, See, if students aren’t going to pay attention to what they need to do, they should all be put up against the wall and shot. I think Spiro Agnew—the guy who was kicked out of office and the Maryland governor for taking money and he was also taken out of office as Vice President, this is the same guy who was telling us that students—I was surprised—I thought most of the world was, after looking at it—back at it now, I thought most of the world was on our side, but I see that there was still the government.
I was a little frustrated—I’m going to backtrack a little bit. I was a little frustrated during all the times we went, marched on Washington a couple times. And I went to do that, it’s sort of like the feeling was during that time, if you asked me the sense of feelings that I had or other people had, part of the senses was, nobody is listening to us. It’s sort of like trying to yell at your mother, trying to get her to understand what you’re thinking, you know, or trying to explain something and nobody’s paying attention to or trying to get somebody to change their mind and them not—that becomes very frustrating. But this was—nobody was even there, and even after—and then looking back at it now and I see why, looking back at the comments that they were still making even after the shootings, was, how infuriating that was, so why do you think you have all this—you have all this anger because—because nobody was listening. And not only weren’t they listening, still the administration was saying, You should do what we tell you to do, no matter what we’re telling you. And, during those times, I think a lot of it had to do—that my life wasn’t threatened. It wasn’t that—the reason I wasn’t really that involved was because my life wasn’t threatened here in the United States. It wasn’t like Pearl Harbor, it wasn’t like Israel, it wasn’t other countries where—well, now it’s different. Now when you’re fighting terrorists, whether it’s right or wrong, we’re fighting people because our lives are at stake because we—any day we could—we’re fighting an unknown terror right now.
[Interviewer]: For someone who wasn’t politically active before, would you say you became more politically active afterwards?
[Jeff Hoffman]: In a different way. I teach this in my classes at community college, I’ve actually done it in my non-profit organization where I’ve been in front of 1,000 students or 600 students and I create this event of what took place during the Kent State—and then we talk about how that relates to their life and now, and what are the similarities, where are the miscommunications between police and the Blacks, the terrorist attacks that are going on in society today. I take a look at kids being raised today, and raised that how Blacks feel about not being about to let their children out at night because they’re all going to be picked up somewhere along the line where I would never have a thought that my kids went out, the only way they’d get picked up if they were really acting obnoxious, but Blacks can go out and it’s going to be a major problem for them.
So, teaching all of these things about what happened at Kent State, plus I still have a lot of questions and I have a lot of animosity during that time even though I still think this is the best, most wonderful country to live in in the world. I still don’t understand why they have live bullets to National Guard that are not trained as police, to have real live bullets and giving them young kids that right to be able to kill somebody. College students. I mean they were shooting—it’s sort of like when you’re—it was shooting aimlessly into anywhere. I mean, you don’t know who was getting hit and it was like focused on a bad person or somebody who did something wrong, so I still—and I also have a real strong feeling about how parents weren’t compensated for their children who passed away. I mean, I couldn’t imagine if it would happen to me. It was a very sad moment and I thought we—I actually thought after Kent State that it actually made a statement, and it did make a statement, but the war didn’t end for another two years. And I see that, now I’m looking at some of the videos that I’ve been watching, and still the feelings of the government and certain people, feeling that this is the way it should’ve been. And I didn’t even—now, maybe I was isolated during those times, I didn’t understand that, but I was—just don’t understand how anybody could say that. That was hard.
[Interviewer]: What was it like right after, what did you do? I mean, obviously, the semester was cut short—or the quarter was cut short. Did you go home, did you come back to Kent State that fall?
[Jeff Hoffman]: I went home and I just sort of was chilling out during the summer and trying to get over that. I was shaken up. I sort of moved on from there, everything was take home tests. I have to admit that was the best semester I ever had, I think I got—I made the Dean’s List, I think [unintelligible]. Because I could do everything at home and I had open-book and was able to take the—did whatever I was required to do. So, that was the good thing. I came back in Kent and it was weird because I think the population drove—I think we had 34,000—if I remember there were like 30-35,000 students and when we came back in the fall I think there was like 17,000. It was a lot lower number of people that came back to school, so—
[Interviewer]: Do you remember what it was like on campus in the fall, was there a muted atmosphere, were there continued protests?
[Jeff Hoffman]: No, I think people—I didn’t see anything, actually. I think it was sort of like not wanting to remember—not wanting to go, you know, trying to—maybe I was wrong, but—maybe I was trying to feel like that, maybe I was trying—I didn’t think I really put this into perspective till later on when they started talking about this, when I go to the camp experiences and I talk to a bunch of students and they’d ask me what happened and what was going on and, as I talked about it more and more and developed an understanding of what went on, I wanted to look at why people weren’t communicating. And that’s really why I teach sociology now. And I like doing that.
[Interviewer]: And when was that? When did you start kind of talking about that?
[Jeff Hoffman]: When I—so that was—so probably ‘78, ‘80. I’ve been doing this for a long time, I’ve been—and all these people that I teach or I’ve taught, they’ve written back to me and they’ve—I get emotional… [pause]. But, they relate to it. They can relate to it because they experience it and then, after they experience it, we talk about it and they can look at their own lives, and I think that that’s what I try to do.
[Interviewer]: It still resonates.
[Jeff Hoffman]: It still resonates. And I could keep them quiet—I can keep the place quiet for an hour and a half, two hours, and you don’t hear much. You know, because they want to hear that story, people like to hear this—they want to hear this. And that’s what moves people.
[Interviewer]: Is there anything that you wanted to mention that we didn’t get to, that we didn’t get a chance to cover?
[Jeff Hoffman]: Not that I can remember right now. It’s just that, I like people to remember what happened so that history doesn’t repeat itself. Or communication could get better and it doesn’t seem to ever happen. We’re in Iraq, it’s the same thing that’s—where it’s no different than what—Vietnam, you know? Countries ask us to go help them out, and we help them out, but can we really win? Were we really accomplishing anything? And in the end, people are dying because of it. I wish that was—I think that what it did do—I will say one thing. The Kent State thing, I think people—I said that in a video that I did once, is that I think it gave people the opportunity to be able to speak their mind more and it opened dialogue. And eventually, it did force their hand. Unfortunately, violence, sometimes, it’s like this thing in Baltimore. Sometimes, the violence has to happen for change to be made, unfortunately.
[Interviewer]: Jeff, thank you so much for speaking with us today. Thank you for coming in and for your time.
[Jeff Hoffman]: Thank you.×
Student at Kent State University in 1970
|Date of Interview||
Jeff Hoffman was a sophomore at Kent State University in 1970. He shares his eyewitness account of the May 4 shootings along with events he observed during the days prior. He talks about what he saw take place in downtown Kent on Friday May 1 and also discusses the protest and confrontation with the National Guard at the intersection near the front campus on Sunday, May 3. He also relates how he and some friends helped people who had been injured at both of those events.
|Length of Interview||
|Time Period discussed||
College fraternity members--Ohio--Kent--Interviews
Frank, Glenn W.
Kent State Shootings, Kent, Ohio, 1970
Kent State University. Johnson Hall
Miller, Jeffrey, d. 1970
Ohio. Army National Guard
Roadblocks (Police methods)--Ohio--Kent
Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Protest movements
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Kent State University
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