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Brad Brotje, Oral History
Recorded: October 30, 2019
Interviewed by Kathleen Siebert Medicus
Transcribed by the Kent State University Research & Evaluation Bureau
[Interviewer]: This is Kathleen Siebert Medicus, speaking on October 30, 2019, at the May 4 Visitors Center on the Kent State University Kent Campus, as part of the May 4 Kent State Shootings Oral History Project. Could you please state your name for the recording?
[Brad Brotje]: Brad Brotje.
[Interviewer]: Thank you. I’d like to begin with just some very brief information about your background so we can get to know you a little better. Could you tell us where you were born, where you grew up?
[Brad Brotje]: Born and raised in Toledo, Ohio.
[Interviewer]: Finished high school in Toledo?
[Brad Brotje]: Yes.
[Interviewer]: When did you first come to Kent State?
[Brad Brotje]: In 1966.
[Interviewer]: And what brought you here?
[Brad Brotje]: The School of Architecture. There was only two in the state at the time, and Cincinnati wanted to defer my start, so I came here.
[Interviewer]: [00:01:02] When you first arrived on campus, were you aware of any student movements, anti-war protests at that time, 1966?
[Brad Brotje]: I was and I wasn’t. Of course, I was because it was on the news and also, those were very trying times. There were a lot of riots everywhere, including Cleveland, Detroit, and my hometown, Toledo. Toledo was curfewed on, I think, more than one occasion during some riots.
[Interviewer]: [00:01:40] How would you describe kind of the prevailing attitudes among students or maybe in your dorm your freshmen year?
[Brad Brotje]: You know, I’m not aware—I honestly have no recall being aware of politics much at all.
[Interviewer]: Did that change over the course of your studies?
[Brad Brotje]: Well, I went to school at Kent for I think a year and a half, didn’t do well. Went back to Toledo, went to University of Toledo for a semester, and then came back. When I came back, it was a different world. I was older, there was more going on. So that was ’69. And I lived off campus.
[Interviewer]: Fall of ’69, you came back?
[Brad Brotje]: Fall of ’69. Lived in Brady Lake, way off campus, and met—lived with a bunch of fellas, most of whom have proved to be lifelong friends. And there was a—I was radicalized.
[Interviewer]: [00:02:44] Can you describe that?
[Brad Brotje]: As much in the social sense as political sense.
[Interviewer]: Partly from just being with your housemates? And their interests and activities?
[Brad Brotje]: Yes. Their music, their extracurricular activities, if you will.
[Interviewer]: [00:02:59] Were you a member of any political organizations on campus?
[Brad Brotje]: I was not.
[Interviewer]: It was more through your roommates, with your roommates?
[Brad Brotje]: Uh huh.
[Interviewer]: Were they also architecture students?
[Brad Brotje]: No, there was a wide variety of interests there.
[Interviewer]: [00:03:18] Do you have any memories of specific protests you remember seeing maybe that fall, that stick out in your mind?
[Brad Brotje]: No. I think, from this class [editor’s clarification: the narrator was a participant in the class, Making Meaning of May 4, at the time of this recording], I’ve learned that there was a fairly large protest in October of ’69, but I wasn’t even aware of it. And partly, I’m sure, it was because I was five or seven miles from campus, where I lived. So, just wasn’t aware.
[Interviewer]: And your architecture curriculum was quite demanding.
[Brad Brotje]: It was. And, of course, it was in this building [editor’s clarification: Taylor Hall, Kent Campus], on the third floor. But it seemed like you were either there or you were at your residence.
[Interviewer]: And working or eating or sleeping.
[Brad Brotje]: Yes.
[Interviewer]: [00:04:12] Was your family aware that things had changed on campus when you came back?
[Brad Brotje]: If they were, they didn’t share that with me. They too, were kind of stung by the violence going on in the cities across the country.
[Interviewer]: [00:04:32] Do you have any memories from, kind of the general environment in your classes that year? Was it something your professors discussed or was it ever a part of class discussion?
[Brad Brotje]: No, I was actually, at that point, I was transitioning, so I was in the same building, but I was transitioning to journalism, advertising. And I remember some of the professors were more, if I can use that word again, more radical, more socially, politically aware. But I didn’t get involved in anything at that point.
[Interviewer]: [00:05:15] Do you have any memories of your sense of how local residents in the community perceived Kent State students that year? Do you have any thoughts or memories about that?
[Brad Brotje]: Well yeah, I think anybody that was a student or a townsperson at that time was aware that there was a lot of conflict.
[Interviewer]: Especially since you lived off campus, did you have any relationships with people in your neighborhood, or you were kind of secluded?
[Brad Brotje]: No, we really didn’t. The building we were living in was a former fire department for Brady Lake. And we really didn’t know anybody outside of the community of like eight guys that lived in that building.
[Interviewer]: You stuck to each other, and your neighbors left you alone.
[Brad Brotje]: Yeah.
[Interviewer]: [00:06:11] So, maybe this would be a good point to start talking about what you remember, maybe, from the days leading up to May 4, 1970? Kind of where your story starts?
[Brad Brotje]: Well yeah, by that time, so we’re really only talking six to eight months after I came back to school, my attitudes on a lot of things had changed. I had really self-educated on the war, self-educated on a lot of the racial struggles going on in the country. So I felt, like many people in my generation, apart from a lot of our parents and people that were older than we were. And even with my own parents. We never had major struggles, but there were differences of opinion, for sure.
So, by the time May rolled around, yeah, I was—now I’m living on Lincoln Street. So, corner of Lincoln and Main. There’s, what is now Starbucks, was Captain Brady’s, and next to that, I think was Campus Supply, it was a bookstore, and then our house. So, you could see these things ramping up on campus and in town. I was not downtown—was that Thursday night when the rioting started, I think? I was not downtown, but a couple of my roommates were. One got arrested, one was running from the police and saw a couple people swatted with batons.
So that was Thursday, and then Friday night, that intersection became the focus of everything. Certain student organizations organized a protest at that corner, a sit-in, to try to shut the roads down, and get certain concessions from the university. And I just remember being overwhelmed, awestruck maybe is a better word, that I felt like I was really living in a war zone. Because there were helicopters with flood lights overhead, and we had an armored personnel carrier in our driveway, we couldn’t get our cars in or out. And so, at that time, I was just living with one other guy, and we walked to the corner to see what was going on, and it was a very inopportune time because it was right at the point when, I don’t know if there was an order issued or what, but the Guard started marching against the students, bayonets mounted.
[Interviewer]: His name again was Joel Richardson?
[Brad Brotje]: Joel Richardson. Who I had never met before.
[Interviewer]: [00:10:15] How did you get the ambulance, were you able to call?
[Brad Brotje]: I don’t recall. I remember being on the sidewalk just screaming, “We need an ambulance!” And eventually one showed up.
[Interviewer]: [00:10:26] So, I’m thinking this must have been Sunday night, May third, if the National Guard was already here.
[Brad Brotje]: You’re right. Yep. See, I get my timeline, gets terribly confused on this.
[Interviewer]: Of course. And Sunday night, there was the sit-in at that intersection.
[Brad Brotje]: Yes. Thank you for the correction.
[Interviewer]: [00:10:45] So your house was not a fraternity house?
[Brad Brotje]: No. The next ones up the street were, but ours was not. Okay, so that was Sunday night. Again, the timeline, you know, it’s been fifty years. After things calmed down, they dispersed the crowd. My roommate and I decided we were going to go up on campus and see what’s going on. Now it’s quite late, I’m thinking it’s like eleven or twelve o’clock at night or something, and we went on campus and, everywhere we went, we saw Guards marching. And we got to, what was at that time was the Student Union, and it was connected to a dorm, I think, by like a breezeway, and we couldn’t go around in either direction because we saw National Guardsmen, so we decided we’d climb over this. So, there was brush and trees.
[Interviewer]: And you’re in violation of curfew at this point.
[Brad Brotje]: Oh yeah, we’re already in violation of curfew. So, my roommate climbs up first, it’s kind of a humorous incident. He climbs up first and it’s a flat roof, and I climb up right behind him, and it was very dark that night, and I get to the roof and I don’t see him anywhere. So, I’m walking very careful and I get to the other edge of the roof and I look down and he’s kind of upside-down, laying in these bushes. And he called me Brody as a nickname, and he looked up at me and he said, “Hey Brody, watch that first step.” Because he had fallen like ten feet into these bushes. And then what he told me today—
[Interviewer]: And he was okay?
[Brad Brotje]: And he was okay. So, I climbed down on his side, and then he told me something today that I don’t remember. But we stayed in those bushes because, where The Commons were and, at that time, tennis courts, Guard were marching in unison, and so we just kind of stayed hidden. And he remembers finding a milk carton. You know the plastic kind that holds—that smelled of gasoline. And I had no memory of it, but he said he remembers telling me about it, and he thought, Was that part of the ROTC Building? And I think what he said tonight, I think he meant that, maybe he meant a carton just like a milk gallon jug or something. I’ll get more information from him next time I talk to him.
[Interviewer]: So, he found that right around there, like in those bushes where he landed?
[Brad Brotje]: Yeah. Which was really only probably, I don’t know, one hundred and fifty feet from where the ROTC Building was. So then, we decided better wisdom should prevail and we went back to our house. I went inside, he went inside, he got his camera and decided to go out and take pictures. Well, I never saw him again, because he was arrested on our front yard, being out after curfew. And he said, “You got to be kidding me, I’m on my own property.” They said, “We don’t care.” And then they frisked him, and he had this camera under his coat, they thought he might be armed, so he said they were locked and loaded and pointed their weapons at him and took him away.
And something like five o’clock in the morning he called me to come bail him out, and being a good buddy that I was, I went back to bed. So, I don’t know what time it was that I got up, but I had to drive to Ravenna, get him out of the Portage County Jail, and then they wouldn’t let us back into town. But, having lived in Brady Lake, we knew how to circumvent the roadblocks, so we got back into town.
[Interviewer]: [00:14:34] And this is Monday morning, May 4?
[Brad Brotje]: Monday morning, yeah. So, I’m guessing we got back into town around eleven, maybe eleven thirty, and went into the house. Who knows exactly what transpired, but we were ready to walk up to The Commons, because we were aware of the gathering. And I hesitated, another strong memory, I hesitated, thinking, I’m going to change my shoes, I want tennis shoes because I might have to run.
So, I put on my tennis shoes and we were walking up Lincoln, I think close to the corner of Summit, and we saw a lot of students running off of campus. And we had heard the shots as we walked up there, not even recognizing what they were. And we came in the back way by the, what was the Business Administration Building and Stow Residence Hall [editor’s clarification: Stopher Hall]. And there was large crowds of people there saying, “You don’t want to go down there.” And it was probably about that time when they were, some of the professors, the monitors, were appealing to kids to disperse, go back to your dorms. And that’s about the memories that I have. I mean, then we went back and packed up and prepared to leave. And I went to Athens and I was down there until they closed that campus.
[Interviewer]: [00:16:01] So, at what point were you told that Kent State campus was closing and you needed to pack up and go?
[Brad Brotje]: I think we were told unofficially by other students, as we stood kind of next to Stow Residence Hall [editor’s clarification: Stopher Hall]. And then, a lot of it was grapevine. I don’t know what I learned in terms of official statements about the campus being closed. I’m not even sure how I learned that because, obviously, it’s not like today. I don’t know if it was radio or just word-of-mouth that the campus was closed, everybody had to leave.
[Interviewer]: And it was that day that you left and went to Athens, Ohio?
[Brad Brotje]: I think so. I think so.
[Interviewer]: [00:16:46] You had a car—?
[Brad Brotje]: I did.
[Interviewer]: —did you drive other students, or—?
[Brad Brotje]: No, I had a little sports car. And I had a girlfriend at the time in Athens. So, I went down there and, as it turned out, there was a lot of rioting going on down there. So, I helped out, you know, the best I could! And they closed that campus. Then I think I went home to Toledo.
[Interviewer]: [00:17:11] So, about how long were you in Athens? Do you recall, a couple days, or—?
[Brad Brotje]: I would say no more than two days. You know, I would have to look at some historical records to see exactly what transpired down there, maybe correct myself again on timeline, but that’s my memory.
[Interviewer]: Yeah, I don’t know their timeline. So, we’re curious, part of what we’d like to have, stories added to the Oral History Project is what was happening on other campuses. So, absolutely.
[00:17:46] I wondered if we could backtrack to this young man, Joel Richardson, who was injured and was in your house and you were helping him. As far as you know, he recovered okay? Did you ever see him again?
[Brad Brotje]: Okay, so that’s—when I was talking to my roommate today, he said that his memory is that when he was in jail, they brought Richardson—Joel—in. I thought, They patched him up and put him in jail? And he said, “I could be wrong on that, but I think he was in there.” But then, the real irony is, so that was spring, then when we came back in the fall, we rented a house, just through a realtor, and as it turns out, my understanding is, that it’s the house that Jeffrey Miller lived in, in the spring. And who’s one of our roommates? Joel Richardson.
[Interviewer]: Good grief.
[Brad Brotje]: Yeah. And I don’t think Joel lasted very long in school. Maybe a month or two. He was kind of a wild kid. And that’s the last I ever heard of Joel.
[Interviewer]: [00:18:49] So you, in terms of finishing your coursework from the spring of 1970, was that, how did that work for you?
[Brad Brotje]: I didn’t. So, I stayed through, now again, I’m trying to remember, I think it was, I think I stayed in school for another year. Took incompletes in those courses. Stayed for almost another year until, I think it was December of ’71, and I was so disaffected that I just dropped out. I was still, I still couldn’t believe what happened. And I couldn’t believe the dissonance, the disconnect between the students and some other students of a different ilk, and other generations. I mean we’ve all heard stories about, you know, They should have killed four hundred of you, that kind of thing. And so, myself and a couple friends, three friends, moved to Colorado, which all good hippies did in the day. And I only lived out there for about six months and came back and that was the end of my education. Never went back and completed school. I started working out there as a carpenter, came back, continued doing that, became a contractor, then got back into design, and the last part of my career was doing architectural design work.
[Interviewer]: [00:20:24] So, would you say that definitely impacted your educational experience and your ability to finish?
[Brad Brotje]: Oh yeah. And it profoundly affected my whole life. It was one of those defining moments. And I think it’s probably obvious to anybody that knows me that it still impacts my life because that’s why I’m here. That’s why I’ve read, like, every book I can find.
[Interviewer]: [00:20:50] And why you’re here, just to clarify for the recording, participating in this May 4 community class with Laura Davis at the May 4 Visitors Center [editor’s clarification: the class was titled Making Meaning of May 4: The Kent State Shootings in American History].
[Brad Brotje]: Yes. I want to know as much more as I can about it, I want to understand more, I’d like to learn a little more about conflict resolution and those kinds of things. And I’m really glad that I’ve done this and the reading, a lot of the reading that I’ve done, I think four or five books, has been just in the last couple of years, because I was not aware especially of the, what, the organization of Black United Students and how strong it was on this campus. I was aware of it at the time, I was aware that it existed, and I think I was even aware that they wisely deferred from participating much on May 4. But, I really didn’t understand that that’s how Kent was garnering a reputation as a school with a movement.
[Interviewer]: Okay, yeah. Was the Black United Students—
[Brad Brotje]: Black United Students.
[Interviewer]: —and their activism, social justice activities. [00:22:11] I’m curious, when you went home to Toledo that summer in 1970, how was that? Was your family upset, had they been really worried about you, for example?
[Brad Brotje]: Yeah, I’m sure that within hours of leaving, maybe, probably before I left campus, I contacted them, so that they knew I was healthy, I was not injured. Went to Athens, went to Toledo, didn’t stay in Toledo very long, hooked up with a couple of old friends of mine, a couple from here, a couple from Toledo, and we went to Virginia Beach and did nothing for like a week, and then came back.
[Interviewer]: [00:22:52] Did you work a summer job in Toledo?
[Brad Brotje]: Yeah, I can’t honestly remember what it was that I did. My dad was CEO of Champion Spark Plug, so I did a number of interns with Champion in their drafting office and so forth in the summers, so it may have been some of that. And you know what, since you brought that up, I do remember now that I got a job, I didn’t want to work in the drafting department anymore, it was extremely boring, because all you’re doing is tracing old drawings for archiving’s sake. And so, my dad got me a job in the shipping department. And I remember being threatened that, if I went through the factory, my hair would be cut off.
[Interviewer]: So, was that something you had to do for your job? Or—
[Brad Brotje]: No, I didn’t.
[Interviewer]: —to do you shipping job?
[Brad Brotje]: I didn’t, but it was not uncommon for me, from where I parked, to go through there. And I didn’t stop, and nobody ever confronted me, but the word was out that I would no longer have long hair.
[Interviewer]: [00:24:03] Was it just your hair, or was it the fact that you’d been a student at Kent State? Were there any discussions where you felt like you were a spokesman for the students at Kent State?
[Brad Brotje]: No, I never sensed that. Although, I’m certain that all those people were aware that I was in school at Kent State.
[Interviewer]: [00:24:22] I’m curious where the draft fit in with impacting your life and your decisions during those years.
[Brad Brotje]: Yeah, well, I think I made a comment here last week that I found it kind of interesting that so much of the protests against the war was on college campuses. And yet, we were the privileged ones that were getting around the draft by staying in school. So, yeah, I was in school, and then they had the draft lottery. I had a modest number, like 117 or something. Another thing I’d have to go look up, I’m sure it’s out there somewhere.
[Interviewer]: That’s close enough detail for this.
[Brad Brotje]: And I did a lot of, if I can use the word, dodging. I wouldn’t respond to Selective Service when they would send me notifications. Sometimes, I think I’m correct in saying that they would send you something that you had to prove that you were full-time, and I’d get these things and I’d just throw them away.
[Interviewer]: That you were a full-time student?
[Brad Brotje]: Yeah. And, I did have a minor heart condition that I thought, push comes to shove, maybe I can use that. And then, when they closed campus, I had just received, I think because I was—yeah, because the year before, I told you I had basically flunked out of here, gone to Toledo, so the Selective Service was aware that I was not in school at that time. So, they sent me a notice that I got when I came back here to school, that I had to report. And I tore it up and threw it away. And, honestly, I never heard from the draft board again. Odd, huh?
[Interviewer]: Yeah. Lucky.
[Brad Brotje]: Yeah. And I’m sure that I would have engaged a conscientious objection, because, at that point my education was strong enough of what was going on over there and I felt strongly enough about that that I couldn’t go.
[Interviewer]: But at that point, you were a full-time student again.
[Brad Brotje]: Yes.
[Interviewer]: So, you would have gotten that deferment at least.
[Brad Brotje]: Right.
[Interviewer]: [00:26:43] I guess at this point I would just ask if there’s anything else you wanted to share or any other memories that we haven’t covered?
[Brad Brotje]: In terms of relationship with parents, I had wonderful parents. I came from a great family. Very conservative, Lutheran Christians, Republicans, Eisenhower-Nixon Republicans. I think my dad was devastated when his candidate—his president—had to resign. Not because that he had to resign but because of what he did that he had to resign. My father was not overlooking what took place. But, I know they were always concerned about me and I was looking just before I came here I was going through a bunch of old family files and maybe I can find it at some point and share it with the group, but my father was a Navy veteran, second World War. And so, he was, I think it was Veterans of Foreign Wars, he was a member of and—
[Recording stops and then resumes]
[Interviewer]: [00:27:52] We’re picking up after an inadvertent break in the recording. So, maybe back to talking about your father?
[Brad Brotje]: This isn’t like a Nixon-type thing is it?
[Interviewer]: No, I promise you not!
[Brad Brotje]: Yeah, my father was a second World War vet and his chapter of the, I think the VFW, his post, somebody within that group, I don’t if they have a board or a commission or whatever, but they wrote a letter that was published in The Toledo Blade condemning the students at Kent. And I was so proud of my father that, at their next meeting, he went and spoke, and he wrote a letter that he read to them, and I have a copy somewhere, but I can’t find it, in defense of the students. Which was, you know, pretty big for my dad, because like I said, he was very conservative, and these were dear, lifelong friends that he had a disagreement with, and he wasn’t afraid to stand up and say so.
[Interviewer]: And he could see it from your frame of reference and wanted to share that with his colleagues.
[Brad Brotje]: Yeah, I always wonder when you hear these people, and you’ve seen films, I’m sure, in the Fire in the Heartland I think there’s even some quick street interviews where people say they should have killed more. How would those people have felt if their children were in school at the time? Perhaps they hadn’t been shot, but they were in school at the time and subject to that kind of confrontation. Would they have felt the same? Well, Laura Davis’s father was—sounds as if he was not very supportive.
[Interviewer]: [00:29:45] Has your father since passed away?
[Brad Brotje]: He has. Yeah, it’s been six or eight years.
[Interviewer]: [00:29:55] Is there any other memories you can think of that you’d like to share?
[Brad Brotje]: I cannot.
[Interviewer]: Maybe the one other question I would have is if you can give us maybe more of a visual picture of that Sunday night you had, at your house near Lincoln and Main, a National Guard tank, or vehicle—
[Brad Brotje]: Armored personnel carrier.
[Interviewer]: —in your driveway?
[Brad Brotje]: Yeah. In the driveway, and I think it was there, like, I want to say all day, because at one point, I had to get out to go to work and I just went out and asked them to move it and they did, and I went to work and came back and then they put it back in the driveway.
[Interviewer]: Did anyone ask permission to use your driveway?
[Brad Brotje]: Oh no. No, no, no. And—
[Interviewer] And were there soldiers, were there Guardsmen stationed in your yard, on your property?
[Brad Brotje]: Oh yeah, they were in the vehicle, so they’re eight feet above the ground. And then, as night fell, you talk about the atmosphere, it was like I said, you just felt like you were in a war zone, especially with the helicopters and the bright lights and megaphones.
[Interviewer]: [00:31:04] And it was a big crowd right on the street in front of your house, yeah?
[Brad Brotje]: Not on Lincoln, but on Main. Main and the corner where the traditional entrance to the campus is, the arch. And that whole lawn in front of the library, between the library and Main Street. It’d be hard for me to estimate, but I would say probably at least several hundred people.
[Interviewer]: Okay. So, your house is actually on Lincoln.
[Brad Brotje]: On Lincoln, yeah.
[Interviewer]: [00:31:34] Did anyone—
[Brad Brotje]: And I think it’s the Poetry Center now [editor’s clarification: The Wick Poetry Center]. I think they just picked it up and turned it sideways.
[Interviewer]: Did you have any other people seek refuge in your house, besides that one wounded person that you mentioned?
[Brad Brotje]: Yeah, as a matter of fact there were probably six or eight people, from memory, that, you know, asked to come in, or were at least on our front porch, we had a substantial front porch. Just to get away from things, especially after the Guard started marching. And I don’t remember there being any warning before they started to march. There could have been because we weren’t situated in the best place, we weren’t out in the middle of Main Street.
[Interviewer]: [00:32:24] Well, thank you very much.
[Brad Brotje]: Thank you.
[Interviewer]: I really appreciate taking the time to sit down with me and share your story. Thank you.
[Brad Brotje]: I appreciate the efforts of all you folks.
[End of interview]×
Student at Kent State University in 1970
|Date of Interview||
Brad Brotje was a student at Kent State University in 1970 and was living in a house on Lincoln Street, just off the campus. He describes in detail the events he witnessed on Sunday, May 3, including having an Ohio National Guard armored personnel vehicle parked in his driveway, the demonstration that night, helping a student who had been bayoneted in the back get to the hospital, and his roommate being arrested on their front lawn for curfew violation. He goes on to describe his memories from the day of the shootings, his experiences during the aftermath, and the long-term effect these events have had on his life. He also relates a moving story about his father giving a speech at his very conservative VFW Hall in Toledo, Ohio, in defense of the Kent State students.
|Length of Interview||
|Time Period discussed||
Armored vehicles, Military
Arrest (Police methods)--Ohio--Kent
Evacuation of civilians--Ohio--Kent
Kent State Shootings, Kent, Ohio, 1970
Kent State University. Black United Students
Ohio. Army National Guard
Roadblocks (Police methods)
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Kent State University
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