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John T. Hubbell, Oral History
Recorded: March 6, 2020
Interviewed by Will Underwood
Transcribed by Liz Campion, May 4 Archivist
[Interviewer]: This is Will Underwood, speaking on Wednesday, March 6, 2020, at 1029 Cottage Gate Drive in Kent, Ohio, as part of the May 4th Kent State Shootings Oral History Project. Could you please state your name for the recording?
[John Hubbell]: John Hubbell.
[Interviewer]: I’d like to begin with some brief information about your background, John, so we can get to know you a little better. Could you please tell us where you were born and where you grew up?
[John Hubbell]: Yes, I was born in a little town named Okay, Oklahoma—O-k-a-y. I usually pause here for people to make comments. Little country town. I spent my first eight years—lived on a farm there with my parent, siblings—but I grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma—eastern Oklahoma. Do you need anything more, beyond that?
[Interviewer]: I think that’s sufficient, thanks. So, when did you first come to Kent State University?
[John Hubbell]: I came in 1968. They were hiring a Civil War historian, which I was doing and also I was editing Civil War History, which is a quarterly scholarly journal and they were interested in the journal but the deal was I would get to come, too. So, that’s how I happened to come here for an interview in January 1968. I was finishing my PhD in history at the University of Illinois and the rest is history, so to speak. I stayed at Kent State.
[Interviewer]: Can you tell us please about your role as a faculty member? For example, the courses you taught in your department.
[John Hubbell]: Yes, I taught the usual survey courses in American history, taught upper division and graduate courses in the Civil War. Later on, I taught American military history, mainly on the twentieth century and I came to that later in my career. So, that’s the two major things I did.
[Interviewer]: How did you view the protests and the Vietnam War generally when you first arrived on campus?
[John Hubbell]: Well, things had been going on, I was finishing up my coursework at the University of Illinois and then I went out to the University of Iowa to edit the journal called Civil War History. So, here I was on a campus that was fairly active, not as active as later, of course. In 1965, I was there for three years, and so I paid attention, and I was, of course, keeping up with the news and that sort of thing and discussed the war and implications. I had a rather ambivalent view of the war. I didn’t think it was a good idea. I thought it was a bad investment on the part of the United States but, I was not anti-war, per se. I have a feeling that part of that came from having spent three years in the Marines Corps, in an earlier time and I frankly resented some of the anti-war people for their anti-military comments and sentiments. But, to a large extent, I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention except for reading the papers and watching television, and so forth. I can tell you when I made a real change in my attitude, it’s in 1966, in the fall, I don’t remember the exact [date]—in the fall. I read in the Des Moines Register, in their sports page, that this young man had been killed in Vietnam, he was a Marine lieutenant, and when I was a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois, he was in one of my discussion sessions, named Bruce Caple and really a fine, young man, he was a star football player. And I—of course, I wasn’t in contact with him, but they mentioned on the sports page that he’d been in Vietnam about two or three weeks and was killed by a sniper. I learned more about it, about his family and so forth. It gave me a little more personal perspective. My attitude was formed largely by my coursework that I’d had in diplomatic history and graduate work in diplomatic history at Illinois and I, basically, that’s why I basically thought that our wholesale commitment to Vietnam was a bad idea.
[Interviewer]: So that was in—when you were at Iowa and that was ‘66—
[John Hubbell]: Well, ‘65 and ‘6 and then I paid attention; there were anti-war activists, students, grad students, undergraduates, faculty members on campus, and I’d go out and listen to comments and so forth. I was gravitating towards being opposed to the war and I do remember the Tet Offensive, which caused a lot of people to wonder if this wasn’t altogether a bad idea to commit large numbers of people there.
[Interviewer]: And you were at Kent State by then.
[John Hubbell]: No, I hadn’t quite done that.
[John Hubbell]: There’s another thing, too. I was a Lyndon Johnson advocate and I certainly supported him in 1964 and, matter of fact, I resented some of the things that people would say about him, calling him Uncle Corn Pone and all, things like that. But then it turned out, and in retrospect even more forcefully, that Lyndon Johnson and his cohorts had lied about Vietnam. You know, I supported him as opposed to Barry Goldwater, who I thought was basically a lightweight, but a right-winger, and so forth. I wrote letters to the editor opposing him and so forth. But things changed, and almost immediately, Johnson and his cohorts, his administration, plunged us into that war. I wasn’t all that vocal, but I thought this was a bad idea.
[Interviewer]: So, fast forward to spring of 1970, you’re at Kent State, you’ve been there two years, how would you describe the prevailing attitudes or mood that you were experiencing on campus?
[John Hubbell]: I had pretty well come around to being opposed to the war and wanting Johnson to get our troops out of there.
[Interviewer]: What was the feeling among your colleagues and your students?
[John Hubbell]: Well, I think they—
[Interviewer]: Other faculty colleagues—
[John Hubbell]: Well, the faculty who were more or less my age, which at this time was early thirties, wanted withdrawal in some sort of way. I don’t remember anyone you would call a pro-war advocates among the faculty. Some of the older faculty, WWII veterans, some of them, they were ambivalent about it because, when they fought their war, there was a different situation. I don’t remember ever arguing with anyone too much about it. Of course, one thing that I still have—sometimes even laugh about a little bit—I didn’t like the anti-war people, particularly the undergraduates. It was, well, that’s the best way to describe it, I just didn’t like them. They talked a lot and they—I can remember them walking around reading Mao [Tse-tung]—Little Red Book and I said, Here they are, and I said, Okay, pissants. Going around there quoting and reading one of the great mass murderers of the twentieth century, but sort of missing it. I found the—and I hate to say middle ground because that always implies a certain amount of wishy-washiness, which I didn’t have, I don’t think. But I talked to a lot of students and I developed a talking relationship with a lot of Vietnam veterans and they were cautious, they weren’t too eager to talk to faculty members, we were a bunch of limousine liberals, or whatever. But sometimes, they found out that I had served a hitch in the Marine Corps, that added to my bona fides. And a couple of the grad students, including one of my own graduate students, who wound up getting a PhD in history here—he was in the 101st Airborne and he was in that first group that went in and we talked a lot about it and it’s very interesting over the years that I knew him. Sadly, he died a few years ago—in his early seventies.
[Interviewer]: Do you remember his name?
[John Hubbell]: Yeah, Jim Geary.
[Interviewer]: Oh, Jim Geary, sure.
[John Hubbell]: He got his PhD in history, wound up working in the library at Kent, spent most of his career doing that. We talked a lot about the war and this and that. He had written his dissertation on the Civil War draft and so I was very proud of that relationship with him. But we talked about it quite a bit and he wound up having a sort of attitude, he was like a lot of veterans, I think, at a certain age he became rather proud of what he had done, but he didn’t like it. He thought he’d been sort of taken for a ride, like, well, a lot of young guys seventeen or eighteen years old, they weren’t planning on what happened to them.
[John Hubbell]: But the more I thought about it and read about it, which I still do read about it, I was realizing what a terrible thing our government did. One of the books that influenced me a great deal was The Best and the Brightest—I imagine you’ve read that—David Halberstam. And it is ironic, The Best and the Brightest, and the people brought into the Cabinet by JFK and then Johnson—they were very well educated, they came from good families, they were Ivy League for the most part. And if you picked a Cabinet [member] you had been impressed by them. Authoritarianism is very much in the news nowadays. I thought how much that was true then. They went along with LBJ, with a couple of exceptions. And particularly Robert McNamara, who was considered one of the—a brilliant man, and I think he was very happy to be considered that. But he finally admitted it that it was a colossal blunder to have gone into that war, but by that time it was, of course, too late.
[Interviewer]: Yeah, it was in hindsight. So, at that time, how politically involved or active were you personally, at that time—in the spring of 1970?
[John Hubbell]: Not much. Except for just talking to friends and chatting with people.
[Interviewer]: So, you didn’t participate in protests—
[John Hubbell]: No, I wasn’t involved in any of the demonstrations. I just didn’t want to, particularly. I kind of stood around and watched. A couple of my colleagues in the History Department were pretty active and I had some regard for them, but it degenerated and it became very much, I’m trying to think, it was very ideological after a while.
[Interviewer]: So, in your classes, in the spring of 1970, do you remember what the environment was like?
[John Hubbell]: Yes, it was interesting. We had a few students that [unintelligible] in every class and this was particularly true in the survey courses. These are sophomore level, generally speaking and, of course, they didn’t—they wanted to talk about anything other than the topic.
[Interviewer]: The Compromise of 1850, or whatever.
[John Hubbell]: Something. But we chatted about the war from time to time, things would come up and people would ask me questions or say something about it, but we didn’t get much into it. Found it very interesting, there were a lot of the students in class, they didn’t want to talk about that. They didn’t think—they thought they signed up to talk about the Compromise of 1850, or whatever. And they said this to me personally, I remember this young woman came up one day before class, she said, “Are we going to talk about…,” whatever the topic was that day, “or are we just going to talk about all that stuff?” And that was an eye-opener to me. So basically, in my class at least, I think the students understood my point of view but we didn’t dwell on it. I don’t remember devoting long periods of time to it with or two exceptions. But now, there were a lot of faculty members and particularly graduate assistants who involved themselves and, I think, probably overdid it a little bit, but maybe not, who knows? I remember, for example, one of my colleagues about my age, he said, “You know, I live in an ivory tower,” he said, “I don’t think about Vietnam.” He taught economic history, American economic history, and that’s what he thought about it. But I think that Kent State, for all that people said about it later, was a blue-collar campus. I was interested, I took a few informal surveys, this would be the first couple of years I was here. I was interested in how many of the students—undergraduates—were the first in their families to go to college, which is interesting. And how many of them were, I guess you would say, “blue collar,” and how many of them—that’s what they looked at. And they looked at the university as—well, there were some who were going to avoid the draft, but I don’t remember that being an overwhelming thing—it’s just a way of bettering themselves.
[John Hubbell]: They talked to me about this and some went on and did other things.
[Interviewer]: So, prior to the shootings, what was your sense of how the local Kent community members perceived the Kent State students, before May 4th?
[John Hubbell]: Before May 4th and considerably after that, I would say the general community, and I was acquainted with a lot people—
[Interviewer]: I’m going to get you a water, excuse me.
[John Hubbell]: I was acquainted with a lot of people who—well, we lived in the community here and Kent, as you know, is a small town, and a lot of people involved with the university.
[Interviewer]: At the time you lived where?
[John Hubbell]: I lived on Edgewood Drive, which was a few blocks off campus and—
[Interviewer]: You weren’t on West Grant at that time?
[John Hubbell]: No, West Grant, that came in 1975, I moved there and things had changed vastly.
[John Hubbell]: Well—
[Interviewer]: Sorry, I didn’t mean—
[John Hubbell]: No, no, that’s good—the attitude of the townspeople, taken broadly, was very negative about the anti-war people and, to an extent, about Kent State. They always talked about—someone would approach me, they didn’t grab me by my lapels but I felt like it—they’d say, “What are you teaching those kids up there?” Every once in a while, I’d say something really snide, but—I said, “Oh, I try my best to teach them a little bit of American history but we’ll see how that goes.” But it was negative and—well, look at it this way, there were twenty some thousand students up here, not that many townspeople and the students could have an overbearing attitude very often. And mainly, not consciously, I don’t think, but they were just noisy and loud and that sort of thing.
[Interviewer]: Like college students.
[John Hubbell]: Well, you know, it’s always that way and—but there was a definite anti anti-war sentiment among the townspeople. They didn’t like the anti-war people.
[Interviewer]: Anti anti-war. Okay.
[John Hubbell]: There’s the people that were particularly activists, or like the SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, and they had learned a few things they could say by rote, “Power to the people,” and stuff like that. How they came to think the way they did—but no, the attitude of a lot of people was that the faculty had brainwashed them. And I always said—till I decided to quit saying it—was that I wish I could have brainwashed them, I’d have taught the little fellows something.
But I had, on this point, I think the attitude that I noticed and I caught it once in a while, I remember there was some kid, one day, said he had these cousins who worked in a tire factory over in Akron and he said, “I talked to them about what you say in class.” And I said, “Well, I suppose they’re quite interested in the Civil War, now and all that.” He said, “No, they think you live in a dream world—you don’t live in the real world as they do.” And I said, “Well, next time you chat with your cousins, tell them I think they live in a dream world.” And, to this day, I have no idea why I said that—just agitating, I think.
[Interviewer]: You were just being contrary.
[John Hubbell]: That was interesting that they—that was—in recent years, there’s been a phrase that goes around and, frankly, it irritates me a little bit, but I understand it and it’s “white privilege.” And I said, even though I grew up one step removed from rural poverty, it’s always as privileged because I went to a white high school and all that sort of thing. Things were tilted in my favor and whereas I don’t want to, sometimes I didn’t want to admit it, it was the way it was. Well, that’s how a lot of people thought and later on, after—I’m maybe jumping ahead of your list of questions there, but talk to students after the shootings, and that was the attitude of a lot of their families—that the students were pretty spoiled.
[Interviewer]: So, let’s back up and—
[John Hubbell]: Go ahead.
[Interviewer]: We can revisit that. But so, can you tell me about your experiences during the period of April 30 to May 4th, those days?
[John Hubbell]: Yeah, I’ve thought about that a bit since we’ve had our conversations and I asked Norma, my wife, “What am I going to say?” She said, “You’ll think of something.” Well, I did. As I’ve told you earlier, I had a bit of mixed feelings but I became part of what was called the Faculty Marshals, you may have run across that phrase. A physics professor named Stan Christensen who still—he’s emeritus, retired now—he was one of the primary organizers and I don’t know quite how that came about. Through the Faculty Senate and various things, a couple of my friends talked me into coming along with it. What we were to do: we went out and we had a little armband we’d wear and, we weren’t to police things, but we were observers and we wound up trying to stand between the police and the students.
[Interviewer]: How many of you were there?
[John Hubbell]: Oh, I think probably—strikes me, probably fifty, maybe.
[Interviewer]: Okay, good number.
[John Hubbell]: It was a fair number and a representative group they were people who were full professors and young people, like myself at the time, and were active. I got involved in that just literally days before things were bad. I can remember, to a certain extent, I went to a conference—a history conference at—and came back and then I went to friend’s house for a social evening and turned out that was—I missed it, because how we went home, we didn’t go downtown. But there had been this sort of a riot downtown and it was a bad situation and people were busting plate glass windows and talking and everything. And I remember I spoke to our department secretary the next day and she was very upset with the students, said they really shouldn’t do that and they lost a lot of friends. There were also—the suggestion there were a lot of outside agitators—we heard that expression a lot. And I think there were, I think there were—a lot of the people involved among the students were, we knew who they were, you saw them in class and all that, but there were people around—to this day, I don’t know who they were. I’m convinced that a lot of them were federal agents—I believe it.
Okay, so the—when it really hit the fan, we were told to go up to the campus—we, the Faculty Marshals, and we went up there and I—my next-door neighbor was in the business school, he went—young guy, he went up with me—we went up there.
[Interviewer]: This was what day now?
[John Hubbell]: Well now, it’s the 2nd, I guess.
[Interviewer]: May 2nd, okay.
[John Hubbell]: I’m trying to think now, it’s the night they burned the ROTC Building.
[Interviewer]: Okay. I think that was May 2nd, I believe.
[John Hubbell]: I’m a historian, and I don’t have a good head for dates.
[Interviewer]: That’s fine, I’m sorry to interrupt your flow.
[John Hubbell]: No, that’s all right. It’s good. And we were standing up, and I can’t think of the university building, it’s—I’m not even sure it exists anymore. There were people talking about burning the ROTC Building, it was a leftover WWII building. After a while, there were people went down there—students, I should say, and they broke some windows and then—
[Interviewer]: Were you a witness to that?
[John Hubbell]: Yeah, I was about 100 yards away.
[Interviewer]: You and some of your other marshal colleagues?
[John Hubbell]: There were several of us up there, and some of them were out walking around. There were, let me back up there. One thing that I do remember: we passed out leaflets telling the students to stay on campus and they just kind of laughed. I’ve become embarrassed now that I remember. Said to Grandfather, “What’d you do during the riots?” I said, “I was trying to tell the students to stay on campus.” Embarrassed—but, any rate. Well, the students, beautiful weather, students went downtown, bars were open, you know, all sorts of things.
[John Hubbell]: But some people went down and started messing with the ROTC Building and someone set fire to the building. They either threw some Molotov cocktail or whatever it was, they threw it inside and then the fire was out. We were just standing around and I remember, I had my back to the scene and someone said, “Damn, look at that, it is on fire again.” And to this day, I’m convinced that it was a provocateur who set that fire. So, about that time, the fire engine came up and that’s when it really got kind of nasty. There were some students who cut the fire hoses. Finally, after a while, people said, “Where in the hell are the cops?” And here came some highway patrolmen and, as you know, they’re a pretty elite group, and they dispersed everybody and then, next thing you knew, the building was on fire again and it burned—which didn’t take much. So, what I took away from that, was that the—it was interesting, I imagine a lot of students, people, learned the word “agent provocateur” and I don’t think I’d seen that phrase since my class on the French Revolution. But I’m convinced that someone set that fire.
[Interviewer]: What makes you say that?
[John Hubbell]: Because, for—one major thing, that two of my colleagues were down there, literally witnessing it and they—at least one of them said, “I didn’t recognize anyone.” And he was sort of a faculty left-winger who knew a lot of the students who were involved in SDS and left-wing students.
[Interviewer]: I see, yeah.
[John Hubbell]: It’s just like, you know, a couple of years later, I recognize students as students without being really well acquainted with them. Well, about that time, there was a group of – I presume SDS, but people—they were going around and they went up to Taylor Hall, which used to be the architecture building, and they broke some windows and some people said, “Leave Taylor Hall alone, it’s the only decent building on campus.” And then some people went down towards the library, which used to be down on the front of the campus, which is now the University Museum [editor’s clarification: Rockwell Hall]. You know where I’m talking about.
[Interviewer]: Sure, yeah.
[John Hubbell]: And, I got this from people who were going along with it and they said, “Don’t touch the library.” There were students, saying, “Don’t touch the library.” So, you had people along that just wanted to bust things up and others who wanted to make a point, but you were not going to tear up the library—and things just kept going on like that and, in the meantime, I just stayed in place with these other people—wasn’t anything to do. I don’t remember the exact time, but it would be nine or ten o’clock—here came the National Guard, on campus. And then someone said, “Damn, they’re National Guard. Guys driving up in jeeps and vehicles and something told me this is not good. As I told you, where we lived, I was about six blocks away from the campus, I guess. Finally, things calmed down, the Guard was on campus and they were dispersing people and—surrealistic.
[John Hubbell]: I went home and I made a point to walk in the middle of the street, I wanted people to see me. I had my little yellow armband on and I walked by a group of Guardsmen, they kind of eyeballed me, didn’t say anything. I guess they figured I was harmless and got home and I saw people in the neighborhood looking out—but I made it home, and I told Norma, my wife, about what had happened. That was the events that—when they burned the ROTC Building and broke up some things, the National Guard came on campus, took control of things. Later on, I read or heard that they’d had a plan that they were more or less inviting the students to burn the ROTC Building or attack it and they were going to send the Highway Patrol in to arrest them—as an entrapment. I can’t vouch for that. It sounded like it, but if it was, it was very poorly done. Nothing was done right. Will, I looked back at that and I said, if anything I try to overview of those days, I’d say, nothing was done right. At any rate, that night I went home and I, next day of course, I went back up to campus and the Guard was on campus, everybody was just walking around, talking.
[Interviewer]: You teach a class and everything?
[John Hubbell]: Yeah, I had a class at one o’clock—the Civil War. That was the only class I had that semester. [editor’s clarification: class was held on Monday, May 4]. [On Sunday], we basically just walked around and talked about one thing and another, and no one seemed to know. You may have read about some of this, there was some of the faculty groups got together and talked about things and we wanted the Guard off campus and some of it was fairly conventional liberal talk and all the rest of it.
[Interviewer]: Were you in the Faculty Senate or any kind of a governing—
[John Hubbell]: No, I wasn’t in the Senate. I was on the outskirts of the faculty activists in the sense of being part of the “in” group, I suppose you’d say. I wasn’t a leader or anything like that. That afternoon, of course, I’d walked out on campus, I had a conference with a student, this fellow Jim Geary I had mentioned, we were going to talk before class. I think I was going to meet him at twelve thirty, I can’t remember now, about that time, and I walked around—I witnessed the opening scenes, so to speak. SDS, or the radicals, they went down to the Victory Bell, which—they had their black flags. And the Guard, though, was lined up in this long skirmish line, went walking across and telling people to—
[Interviewer]: This is May 4th now?
[John Hubbell]: Yes, this is on May 4. I watch and I said, “Oh.” You’ve seen all these photographs, I imagine. Here’s the Guard with their gas masks and their rifles and marching across there. I went on back to my office in Bowman Hall. I felt like just a regular faculty member talking and I think we were talking about his master’s thesis, I can’t remember now. Then after a while, I remember hearing sirens, now that wasn’t unusual to hear sirens. About that time, a couple of my colleagues came in and one was Victor Papacosma, he was a year behind me at campus, and he was, you could tell, he was just astounded. Well, there’d been shootings, he said—that’s when I first heard that there had been shootings and there had been some—probably someone killed. I went to class and there were—about half my class were there and there were some students that heard, had seen what happened, or heard what happened.
[John Hubbell]: I remember it was a very emotional—I stayed there about a half hour and talked to them. And one of the first things that came to my mind was that I thought that—I regretted that the students never felt like they could talk to us in a serious way. I remember, I got a note later from a student, he said he was very moved by our conversation that we had. But we talked about this, we kept hearing—heard things, that people had been shot—didn’t know who exactly. Ambulance had taken people to the hospital, Robinson Hospital, over here. And finally, I went back down to my—this is part of a continuum, if you want me to—
[Interviewer]: No, that’s fine, carry on.
[John Hubbell]: I went back to my office there in Bowman and I called—I couldn’t call home, the Guard had taken control of the phone lines.
[John Hubbell]: I wanted to call Norma to tell her our son was—
[Interviewer]: I was going to say, did you—
[John Hubbell]: He was in the first grade, in Walls School, and our daughter was at home. She hadn’t started nursery school yet. But we stood there and talked, this, that, and the other.
[Interviewer]: So, were you able to get ahold of Norma?
[John Hubbell]: No, never did. Finally, we got the word, it came down, I’m not sure, to get off the campus—vacate the campus. I remember—
[Interviewer]: Did that come word of mouth or was there some kind of loudspeaker or—
[John Hubbell]: It was announced, I think it may have come through the departments, can’t remember exactly. Our secretary was monitoring a phone, our chairman was—we have two offices in the history department, and our chairman’s in the other office. But, very quickly, they said, Go home. I remember, someone had a car and I got a ride home and, I remember, I had a briefcase full of class stuff and some other things and went home. And this is embedded in my mind—on Edgewood Drive, it’s like a two-block long street, two and a half—and most of the houses were what you’d call kind of Cape Cod style, they were small. And, keep in mind, this is a beautiful day. I went down and someone dropped me off and Norma was standing out in the front yard with these neighbor women. I look back on how young we all were, and she wasn’t saying too much, but I overheard one of the women that the word had come that maybe a National Guardsman had been killed. And one of the women, neighbor woman, said that she hoped that, if anyone was killed, it was a student. And another woman said—well, she knew so- and-so, named some kid’s name and said, “I’d like to see them get him right between the eyes.” And I just—went inside and I was, by that time, I had a delayed reaction, I was thoroughly outraged. I mean literally, I was in a rage. I look back on that and I said you know, “It’s really good that some of us didn’t have—carry weapons or anything.” I don’t think I would have done anything rash but, I felt like it.
[Interviewer]: I understand.
[John Hubbell]: We went in and Norma said she had never—never seen me so distraught, that was the word she used. And I alternated between cussing and crying—and I hadn’t literally witnessed anything.
[John Hubbell]: But I knew what had happened.
[Interviewer]: You were close—
[John Hubbell]: And you were so out of it. I remember one of the students in my class that I had talked to, had been a Marine in Vietnam—two purple hearts.
[John Hubbell]: Feisty little guy, I really liked him. And he said this, he said, they—he was in D.C. and they fell out a bunch of Marines to keep order there and he said, “We didn’t have any ammunition.” He cussed the National Guard.
[John Hubbell]: This is just these little side—but, any rate—
[Interviewer]: And now they—did John Gill—did the kids get sent home from school?
[John Hubbell]: Yeah, they sent—they just sent them home, I think he just walked home. They said, “Go home,” and he said he knew something was going on, he didn’t know what. I think there was a bunch of jeeps down there, at Walls School.
[Interviewer]: What was Norma’s reaction like? How did—
[John Hubbell]: She was astounded, I’d say astounded—she was much more calm than I was. She was hearing things, but little things. This neighbor was going out in his backyard and showing his teenage daughter how to load and fire a rifle. We had all these really nice neighbors in that area who were going to take on the radicals, and so on.
[John Hubbell]: You may find this mildly amusing but I, literally, I didn’t talk to anyone for a couple of weeks. I had a good friend who taught at the University School, a history teacher, we were the same age, and he and I talked quite a bit and he witnessed the shooting. He was so outraged, he said he couldn’t believe what he thought. He said, one thing crossed his mind once, he said, “I wish I had my M-1.” And I said, “You know, it’s—”
[Interviewer]: Just as well.
[John Hubbell]: We talked about all this. He had kids about our kids’ age. But that was—I finally calmed down, I think.
[Interviewer]: So, what were the days and weeks like for you after May 4th?
[John Hubbell]: Well, it was interesting, the next day, literally, we met at a Unitarian Church in Fairlawn—we weren’t allowed to meet on campus.
[Interviewer]: When you say—okay, the faculty.
[John Hubbell]: Faculty were barred from campus and we went over there and I went with this friend who was at the University School and he had a buddy who went with him. Kind of funny, he’d been in the Marines and I heard vocabulary I hadn’t heard in years. We met and it was under the purview of the Faculty Senate. And I was very impressed by some of the senior faculty, which I didn’t really know that well. And I felt sorry for the provost, he was there. By the way, during all this time, Robert White, the president, that was literally out-of-pocket, he was out of town. And later on, he took a lot of criticism for not being present. But I’m not too sure what he would have done but people kept wanting to know where he was. But, the provost was there.
[Interviewer]: Who was the provost at the time?
[John Hubbell]: Allow me, I’m trying to think—
[Interviewer]: I’m sorry I put you on the spot.
[John Hubbell]: Well, I can’t think of his name right off hand. He was a political science professor. I met him later and had a regard for him. In a way, I felt sorry for him. I thought, surely you could have thought of something else to say. But he said, “Well, the obvious thing, this is going to have an adverse effect on the budget.” Well, the crowd booed, these faculty members. And he kind of put his head down like this and I said, He had been told to say this, I guess. Well, there was a lot of venting—
[John Hubbell]: A lot of talk, and so on. And the Faculty Senate passed a resolution: National Guard should be off campus, they criticized the governor who had been on campus—who had come on campus that day and said, “This is like a bunch of brownshirts,” you know. He was going to make use of this riot for political purposes.
[Interviewer]: Jim Rhodes.
[John Hubbell]: But this was—
[Interviewer]: That was the day after, this was May 5th?
[John Hubbell]: Yeah. Well, we had that meeting, that’s when we had that meeting.
[John Hubbell]: I look back at that, and I’m sure you can find this in various books and whatnot, but I was sort of impressed by some of the people, what they had to say and that how we had—faculty had—basically lost control of the campus—if it ever had it. But we waited too long to exert ourselves and say anything. You can tell the faculty members who were senior people, who were well regarded by everybody and talked. It was just—
[Interviewer]: And what about the ensuing—well, the semester ended, right? I mean, that was it.
[John Hubbell]: Well, what had happened—it did. The faculty were allowed to come back on campus. We were given the alternative in our class. A student—I don’t remember whether we were given that authority or whether it was just done. But what I told my students, I wrote them a letter about all this there and I said, “You can either have the grade you have right now—they had taken one exam—you can have it.” Some of them were graduating, so what the hell. And I said, “Or, you can take an open-book exam that I’ll devise and that’ll be your grade.” It was about half and half, I think. I also asked them, “Would you write to me, and I’ll never reveal your name, and your reaction to this whole thing.” And they—quite a few did, quite a few. I don’t remember—I couldn’t tell you but, I’d say, I had a class close to fifty, more than forty. I imagine thirty people wrote and some were very thoughtful. Also, I met with the students in my class, and I don’t remember exactly now, I think we met about half a dozen times maybe, maybe not that often. We met at someone’s house, and we met various places and we talked and I was very impressed by what they had to say, and we talked about things. Some of the things, and I’ve told you this I think, I took their, eventually took their letters, this was when I retired, I took their letters, I cut their names off it and I gave these letters over to May 4th Collection or whatever it’s called.
[Interviewer]: Okay, great.
[John Hubbell]: So, they’d never know whose name it was.
[Interviewer]: Sure. I presume they’re there still.
[John Hubbell]: Well, they should be.
[John Hubbell]: I can’t think, I’m trying to think of the woman’s name who was in charge of that and she—
[Interviewer]: Was it—it wasn’t Jeanne Sommers, no it was probably—
[John Hubbell]: It was exactly.
[Interviewer]: Was it Jeanne Sommers? Okay.
[John Hubbell]: She was retiring about that next year. I liked her a lot.
[Interviewer]: She was great, yeah, Jeanne was great.
[John Hubbell]: She read them and was impressed. I remember there were some little tidbits—a couple of weeks after the shootings, the local paper and the Beacon Journal, they printed a large number of letters—townspeople, I think some faculty, too, but mainly townspeople wrote and some of them were blistering about the students and I remember I used to have occasion to refer to this in class or whatever. I said, “You ought to look at some of these.” And I will say this, a lot of them were written in temper, anger, they may have thought of [unintelligible] better. There was plenty of people who said, “Well, they should of—instead of four, they should have shot four hundred of them.”
[John Hubbell]: And there was a lot of that. But any rate, the students were talking about this and I remember I also got calls, I remember this girl called me—all I remember now was that she was from Cincinnati and she’d come up here to stay with a friend and she said—her mother said, “If you’d been out there, they should have shot you, too.” Her mother said that to her.
[Interviewer]: My goodness.
[John Hubbell]: I had a—two or three others—one man said his father, this kid was a blue-collar boy from Canton, and his father had said, “Well, you people got what you deserved.” So, this kid just put some stuff in a suitcase and left home. Another that was very interesting, this guy said he was from Pittsburgh and he went home and he went out with his dad, they went out and had a few drinks. They were talking and, in the process—in the bar, they [editor’s clarification: other people in the bar] were talking about, “You hear about what happened at Kent State? Should have shot more of them.” And he said his dad almost got in a fight with these guys, defending the students. He said it gave him a view of his father he hadn’t seen.
[John Hubbell]: But there were a lot of people had these stories to tell.
[John Hubbell]: I remember one of Norma’s relatives asked me, we had gone to Oklahoma to visit and she asked me, “Well John—John, what happened anyway?” And I, in a fairly low-key manner, just said, “Well, things just got out of hand.” At that time, I really hadn’t formed an opinion on the Guard because that Scranton report had not come out. She said, “Well, I told Marla Jo,” that was her little girl who was about eight or ten years old, if that, she said, “If she had gone out there doing that stuff, I would have taken a brick to her,” or something, and all I said was, “Well, that’s why I don’t talk about it.” And here’s this sweet little girl, you know.
[John Hubbell]: I didn’t like her aunt anyway. That’s neither here nor there. But you know, this is, I think it’s worth adding—there was a group of us, we would have these meetings and so forth and talk about this and that.
[Interviewer]: You and your faculty colleagues?
[John Hubbell]: Yeah, colleagues, friends, and stuff. Governor William Scranton of Pennsylvania, they called it the Scranton Commission, they looked into this. And here’s the way I’d interpreted it at that time: I thought that what had happened was just a big mess and some Guardsman panicked, squeezed off a round, and they started firing. I could just see that happening.
Well, I got that report and I was reading it, looking at it, and there’s some photographs, and I realized there was no such thing—those bastards meant to kill someone. It showed them—they had marched over a hill and, where the gymnasium is, there was a football practice field down there and they boxed themselves in and they kind of huddled, the Guardsmen, and then they came back up, marched back up that hill towards The Pagoda, and they were marching along in perfect order in a V formation, with rifles at port arms. In other words, they looked like trained soldiers. And they got up there and this one flank of the V turned—that’s the ones you’ve seen. And the thing that struck me, that I could tell by looking at those guys, who knew how to handle an M-1. Then I found out, after later reading on it, these guys were sergeants, twenty-four or five years old. They weren’t scared eighteen-year-old kids being overrun by a bunch of crazy SDS’ers. Some were down there when they were on that practice field until they got up to the Pagoda and stopped and faced back out towards the parking lot where the people were shot. Someone in that group decided they were going to shoot at someone. The way they held that rifle, they were aiming it, it wasn’t firing up in the air or something like that.
You can edit this part out, I remember my very words, I said, when I was reading this, I was reading it to myself, I looked at that and I said, “Those cocksuckers.” And I don’t retract, I don’t take that back, but I wouldn’t want an elderly man talking like that but—
[Interviewer]: You’re entitled. Disperse or—
[John Hubbell]: No, or anything like that.
[John Hubbell]: I think that became sort of a consensus. But I immediately, I said that because I saw that they were marching in good order, they were not panicked—
[John Hubbell]: I will say this, I’m pretty sure they were angry, a lot of them. It was hot. Some of them had said their gas masks—they could barely breathe. It was just not a good situation. And you could look at the people who were killed: one or two, I think, were singled out. A couple of them were just—this one boy, one of the boys who was killed, he had this orange jacket— windbreaker on, I said, he stood out and he was a hundred yards away.
[John Hubbell]: And someone spotted that. This girl who was killed, she had deliberately circled around so she wouldn’t go across there—she was going to class.
[John Hubbell]: And that round hit her. The kid you’ve seen where he is lying on his face, he was not that far away—someone—he was very much in evidence, giving people the finger and yelling and so on. I’ve gotten acquainted, after that, with a couple of the guys who were shot and they just—they were in the wrong place. So that—I had an interesting, delayed reaction to this; you may find it mildly interesting. It was the 25th reunion of this and, you may remember, we had a thing on campus and I was on a committee that helped and—
[Interviewer]: That was the Gathering of Poets here [editor’s clarification: the event referred to took place during the 25th May 4 Commemoration in 1995 and was part of a series of panel discussions entitled, “Legacies of Protest.”]
[John Hubbell]: I was going to chair a panel and Tom—oh, crap, political science, Tom—
[Interviewer]: Tom Grace, no?
[John Hubbell]: No, no, but—
[Interviewer]: Tom Hensley?
[John Hubbell]: Tom Hensley was going to speak—he was being interviewed at Eastern Michigan for a job, so would I fill in for him? It’s funny. So, I got up there and I just mentioned Professor Hensley wouldn’t be here. We were at the Faculty Senate, Governor’s Chambers, and I said, “I just have a few words.” I started talking and I felt myself getting angry. I could feel it, I could feel the red going up my neck and I said to myself, how am I going to shut up and so, I did—I just stopped talking. I said, “I don’t have any prepared remarks but, you know, Professor Hensley knows a great deal about this, I encourage you to read his little book.” Yada, yada, yada.
There was another one, this woman come up, she was involved somehow with Channel 5, and she came up to me and she said, “Would you repeat that for the TV, what you said?” I said, “Well, not really,” and I mentioned Jerry Lewis was on that panel, you know he and Tom are buddies, and so forth.
[Interviewer]: Sure, yeah.
[John Hubbell]: I said, “Ask Professor Lewis, he knows more about this.” And they ate it up, you know. She said, “No, I want to hear what you said.” She said, “I was there that day as a student and I want you to—” And [we] come out, sat at a picnic table, you know, outside the Student Center there, those tables, and there was a, whoever he was, a reporter—said it, maybe five minutes at most. And I said, “Well, okay.” Later on, one of Natalie’s friends said, “I saw your dad on TV.” He said, “I’ve never seen him look like that before.”
[Interviewer]: Natalie’s your daughter.
[John Hubbell]: Yeah, my daughter. I think she—I don’t remember what—she saw it or not.
[John Hubbell]: That is my reaction to that, and I can’t look back at that without being angry.
[Interviewer]: Is that true, still today?
[John Hubbell]: Still true—I don’t talk about it a whole lot, just in passing. And, of course, everybody has, by now, have firm opinions on it. And it’s not likely to change it any. An interesting thing, as you know, I’m in a book club. We had a meeting here a couple of years ago and we were talking, and we’re all about the same age, more or less.
[Interviewer]: You know, I should have asked you at the beginning of this interview, John, but what is your age today?
[John Hubbell]: Eighty-five.
[Interviewer]: Okay, thank you.
[John Hubbell]: This one fellow said, “Do you think the faculty really sold out the university in the Sixties by trying to be the students’ friend and just going easy and all of that?” I knew what he meant, and we all agreed that there is something to that. I remember students telling me along the way, particularly graduate students, they’d always say that they thought I was pretty strict, which surprised them because I had the reputation of being this really nice guy and all and I said, “Well I am.” But you have to read your books. But it’s interesting, that viewpoint, and that’s still with us, in a way. Anything else I can do today for the good of the order, I don’t know—
[Interviewer]: No, John, that’s great. No, I greatly appreciate you taking the time to do this, I think it’s—
[John Hubbell]: Well, you know, there’s an undercurrent there, it was a great confusion and it’s pretty clear that the students, and I don’t mean just the crazies, but the students, they weren’t paying a whole lot of attention to the faculty. I mean, they liked us all right, but they weren’t paying a whole lot of attention. And if they wanted to talk to anyone, they wanted to talk to the president of the university, or someone like that.
[Interviewer]: Yeah. With a few exceptions because you had those students whom you spoke with on the next day and—
[John Hubbell]: Well, they did, and every once in a while, I remember one time, I can’t remember the exact situation, but this student came up to me after and said, “Why don’t more of you say something like that?” I said, “Like what?” He said, “You talk such good sense.” I said—I was kind of befuddled—I said, “Well, I don’t know. When I can think of something interesting to say, I’ll say it.” But I know the people who had the center of attention were people who—they had other agendas.
[Interviewer]: Yeah. Loudest voice, maybe.
[John Hubbell]: Yeah, I don’t know. But the thing is, too, that I can’t read about the Vietnam War without again being very angry about it and I remember—well, I’ve done quite a bit of reading just in general about that, and these guys got—the soldiers—they got thrown into this thing and paid the price for it. It’s too bad. I remember one of my favorite books on that war was Phillip Caputo’s book, Rumors of War, which I think is a masterpiece. [editor’s clarification: the full title is A Rumor of War: The Classic Vietnam Memoir].
[Interviewer]: It’s a great book.
[John Hubbell]: He, well, you know the story probably, he joined the Marines, became an officer just for the hell of it and, the next thing you know, he was on Okinawa and they were going to send a battalion of them—or a regiment of them—to Vietnam. Here they went. And he was kind of curious how it was going to be.
[Interviewer]: And this was early days.
[John Hubbell]: Yeah, very early. They were the very first group that went in.
[John Hubbell]: And he was there—he said he had been there about six months and he commanded a rifle platoon and he said— But, he got sent back to the rear for a break and he listened to some of those officers and others talking, he really got angry about it. But he said this one young guy was a corporal, told him, said, “Well, we got to see this through. We owe it to the people that have been killed.” And he said, “No, it’s just the opposite. We owe it to them to get the fuck out of here.” And there was some major, had heard of him saying this, and really reamed him—he was first lieutenant.
[Interviewer]: Singing from the wrong hymnal.
[John Hubbell]: He finally—they made a pretty good movie about that book and I can’t remember the actor who played him, but he did it very well and he was the right age. At the end, it showed him, he—they put him on this plane, there’s a plane full of coffins, among other things, and they were sending him back to the States. Of all things, in the background they played the Marine Corps hymn on this Vietnamese flute, it was the most haunting— But they ask him at the end, and he said, “Well, what did you learn from this? What did you—” and all this. He said, Well, he lived—that was it. In a way, that comes across as being very cynical, but in other ways it’s— But when he said no, and he talked about these guys in his platoon, they were just regular blue-collar-type guys, most of them, some of them graduated from high school, some hadn’t. But he said, they were good people.
[Interviewer]: Yeah. Well, John, I’m going to pause this, stop it. Thank you again.
[John Hubbell]: Feel free to do. I hope that works out all right.
[Interviewer]: I’m sure it will. Thanks again.×
Hubbell, John T.
Professor at Kent State University in 1970
|Date of Interview||
John Hubbell was a history professor at Kent State University in 1970. He was a member of the Faculty Marshals, volunteers who were helping try to keep the peace on campus, and describes what he witnessed when the ROTC Building was set fire on May 2. He also discusses his memories of May in detail: he saw the beginning of the rally in The Commons and then met with his 1:00 class in Bowman Hall. Word of the shootings was just reaching them in class and he describes the intensity of their discussions. He also describes the reactions of people in his Kent neighborhood and his experiences working with his students during the aftermath of the shootings.
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|Time Period discussed||
Community and college--Ohio--Kent
Kent State Shootings, Kent, Ohio, 1970
Kent State University. Bowman Hall
Kent State University. Faculty Marshals
Kent State University. ROTC Building--Fires
Ohio. Army National Guard
Students for a Democratic Society (U.S.)
United States. President's Commission on Campus Unrest
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Kent State University
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