SEARCH UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES
Henry Halem, Oral History
Recorded: January 23, 2020
Interviewed by Kathleen Siebert Medicus
Transcribed by the Kent State University Research & Evaluation Bureau
[Interviewer]: This is Kathleen Siebert Medicus speaking on January 23, 2020, and we are at the Kent State University Library Building on the Kent campus. We’re here in Special Collections and Archives to do a recording as part of the May 4 Kent State Shootings Oral History Project. Good afternoon, thanks for being here. Could you please state your name for the recording?
[Henry Halem]: My name is Henry Halem, H-a-l-e-m. And, what else did you want?
[Interviewer]: Great, thanks, Henry. Thank you.
[Henry Halem]: Just my name? That’s good.
[Interviewer]: Thanks again for being here.
[Henry Halem]: Sure.
[Interviewer]: So, I mentioned before, let’s begin with some brief information about you, about your background, so we can get to know you a little better. Maybe could you tell us where you were born, where you grew up?
[Henry Halem]: Born in New York City, specifically in the Bronx, in 1938. And I was raised in the Bronx in a wonderful neighborhood, Undercliff Avenue. My parents were first generation and I was raised in a—the neighborhood was a bunch of families that were all first generation. We were all, parents were all children of immigrants, mostly from Russia, the Ukraine, and that area. And my father worked seven days a week, and from the day I was born he—my brother and I, we were going to go to college. There was never any conversation about—education was primary. My mom and dad didn’t go to college. Wasn’t until later that my mother, when I was in junior high school, reenrolled. And it was a wonderful neighborhood. All my friends, we were there for eighteen years. And all of us from there went off to college. And I can’t say enough about my childhood growing up there. Even though there were problems with my family, my mom and dad didn’t get along that well, but the neighborhood was terrific. It was a small neighborhood and we played together; we were like a band of brothers is the only way I can put it. Still connect with some of them today. Call each other and it’s like being back there.
[Interviewer]: Where did you go to college?
[Henry Halem]: From there, I went to the Rhode Island School of Design. I went to a wonderful high school, I should mention. I was going to go to the public high school, but I was kind of delinquent. I was a very poor student growing up. My brother ahead of me, he’s five years older, all through public school I followed him, and all my teachers would say to me, “I hope you’re as smart as your brother.” So that was the kiss of death. I was not as smart as my brother, however smart, I don’t know how smart he was, but obviously he was smarter than me. And so, I took the opposite direction, and I was kind of what you would call the class clown. Always had this deep voice and always telling jokes and getting into trouble. So, when it came to high school, I was going to go to DeWitt Clinton High School, which was the public high school, it was an all-boys high school. And my mom said, “You’ll never make it.” So, they got me a scholarship to this private school in Manhattan called the Walden School. And it was—saved my life, going there. I’d get up every morning at about six o’clock to be there by seven thirty. My mom would get up and she’d cook me breakfast and make me breakfast and I would get up and get on a bus and then get on the subway and go down to 88th Street and go to this wonderful school. And it’s not that I did well there academically, but they had an art program there.
And, I had gone to this camp called Shaker Village, which was actually a Shaker village, and learned how to make Shaker baskets and, not that we were Shakers, but we lived in this Shaker Village and we learned all about the Shakers and Mother Ann Lee, who was the founding woman of this religion. One of the only two religions founded by a woman. So, I discovered making pottery there, and to make a long story short, I came back from the camp and went down to the Greenwich House Pottery, my mother saw to it that I would continue with—I loved making pots. And from there, I was a young teenager, fourteen, fifteen, and then when I went to high school, the Walden School, there was a woman, Sylvia Weil who taught there, and I started making things out of silver, silversmithing. And I learned all about that. I was not doing well in my academics, but I remember clearly this wonderful woman, Sylvia, she came over to me and she said, “You know Henry, you’re very talented.” And it was the first time anyone had ever encouraged me in a way that—I just found myself through this woman that encouraged me in the arts. And so, I would go to the Greenwich House and I would make silver in high school and from there I had applied to college. I applied to Alfred University and the Rhode Island School of Design. I was rejected by Alfred, which was the New York State School of Ceramics, which is where I really wanted to go, but they turned me down because academically I didn’t meet up with their academic requirements. But RISD, or the Rhode Island School of Design, said, “We don’t care about that, we’re an art school.” And I was accepted there and, luckily, I went to RISD. And it changed my life, the four years at the Rhode Island School of Design were—I couldn’t even describe how extraordinary an experience it was. It was really my first time away from home, learning to be an independent young man at college. And I excelled at everything I did there. I really was at the top of my class. And that gave me—was my gateway to the rest of my life, was that education I got at the Rhode Island School of Design.
[Interviewer]: [00:08:04] So what road led you from there to Kent State?
[Henry Halem]: Well, it was a circuitous route. Let me get the sequence. From Rhode Island School of Design where I majored in ceramics, got an MFA in ceramics. I left there and I went to—from there I went to New London, Connecticut, and there was a guy there who was the son of the man that got the Nobel Prize for developing the beginnings of the polio vaccine. His name was Enders, I think it was the—his son, John Enders, had a ceramics studio. And a friend of a friend told me about him, I called him, and he said, “Oh yeah, you can come here and live here and, all free, just run this ceramics studio.” And then I met his father, and his father was a very interesting man. His face was on the cover of Time magazine and stuff. And from there, I worked there a year, and then I applied for a scholarship, not a scholarship, it was a—what do they call it? To go to Europe? A senator? My mind usually goes blank when I do these things.
[Interviewer]: Some kind of a fellowship, or support?
[Henry Halem]: It was a fellowship to go, you go all over the world, it was a Fulbright. I applied for a Fulbright, right. And it was not long after the Korean War. And I had applied to go to Japan. And I got rejected. There were a lot of other well-known potters at that time that got the Fulbright to go to Japan. But my work was singled-out and they said, “Well, we want you to get a Fulbright, would you go to Korea?” And the Korean War had only been over about five years. And I really didn’t know that much about Korea. And I thought about that I would do this, but I had to go to my draft board to find out whether I could go, because I was, at that time was a draft, and I had a draft card and all of that. And I was a perfect age to do this. I was like twenty-one, twenty-two. And I went to my draft board and I asked them whether I could go to take this Fulbright. And they said, “Yes, you can, but when you come back, you will be drafted immediately.” And I thought about this and I went home and I told my mom about it, and she said, “You don’t want to go in the Army for two years.” So, she got me—she knew this doctor who was a doctor for a National Guard unit. So, I got into the National Guard, which was only a six-month active duty. And so, I turned down the Fulbright and went into the Army for six months, and I did basic training at Fort Dix and then I was a medic down in Texas at Fort Sam Houston, down in Texas.
Came out of that and was very interested in music, had taken up the trumpet again, which I had played when I was a kid, so that I could be in the marching band, and when you’re in the marching band in the Army, you get off of a lot of things that other guys have to do with weapons and so on, and you practice and we were the marching band. And so, when I got out, I had a friend of mine I had met, became a good friend, Jack Block. He was a saxophone player and we both loved jazz and so, we were both from New York, he was from Queens and I was from the Bronx. And we went and we got an apartment down the Lower East Side on 10th Street, which was, on one corner of 10th Street was the Jazz Gallery, I think it was called. There were two jazz clubs, one on each corner. And we lived in the middle of the block on a sixth-floor walkup. And, almost every night after work, we both had day jobs, of course, because you couldn’t make a living as a musician, we’d go to one of the jazz clubs. There were three jazz clubs actually. One was—another one called The Five Spot, which was on Hudson, near the docks. And so, we just lived this incredible life of just, you know, footloose and fancy-free. This sixth-floor walkup, and I remember my father coming down and it was a what you call a railroad flat. And it was kind of fairly seedy, the Lower East Side hadn’t turned over yet into this very kind of hip, smoker, reefer, cool place to live. It was a mainly Polish neighborhood with a really kind of down bars and so on. But the jazz clubs were there, and it was beginning to happen there. And on Saturdays, we’d go to these clubs in the afternoon when these musicians would rehearse, and for free we’d walk in you’d get a beer and sit down and just listen to these great musicians. Or we’d go to Birdland and hear John Coltrane and so on. So, that was terrific and then we moved to 28th Street in the flower district in a big flat there, was a big open room and one smaller room, and we lived there. And my roommate was a very good musician and he was part of a jazz group and he would play and so on.
And then, from there, I realized I’m never going to make it as a musician. I got to get back to what I do best and that was to make pots. So, I applied for a job at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. And my teacher that I had at RISD wrote a letter of recommendation for me. And I got that job and I was there for a year or two, as the first resident craftsman at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Travelled all over the state of Virginia giving lectures and demonstrating how to make pottery.
From there, I got into graduate school at George Washington University, and studied with a Japanese potter there by the name of Teruo Hara. He was a very well-known potter. And I really started to get some, really started to become really good at what I had wanted to do and to be a potter. And met a woman there and we got married. And it was a—we were married for approximately four years. She was also a potter. And, from there, we moved—oh, didn’t get my degree there, or we couldn’t get our degree there because we couldn’t pass a language exam. And they—we were in arts and sciences at GW and couldn’t get—pass the language exam. And so, we had had our show, we had written our thesis, we had passed all of that, but we got a letter that told us that, sorry, we can’t get a degree. So, we applied to the University of Wisconsin. I knew the potter there, Don Wrights was the guy that taught pottery there. And he said, “Yeah, you can study here a year, and then you can get your degree.” A week before we left for the University of Wisconsin, we got a letter from Arts and Sciences that said, “We realize that a language exam is a hardship for those studying the fine arts, and we have waived the requirement. We are hereby granting you your MFA.” But here we were, all planning to go out to the University of Wisconsin, so we decided we’d still go out there. Drove out there, we had separated and I had promised her, she had a young daughter at the time, very young daughter, and I promised that I would locate her and her daughter, help her find an apartment. And she went her way and I went my way. And found a small apartment with a couple of students I had met there. And studied post-graduate work there but, funny enough, it wasn’t in ceramics. I needed a job, I had no money. I had a car, clothes on my back, and I needed a job. So, I went to see the head of the art department there, whose name was Harvey Littleton, and I knew him as a potter.
[Interviewer]: [00:19:14] Okay, we’re picking back up after a short break. Go ahead and continue, Henry.
[Henry Halem]: As I said, I met the head of the art department, who I knew. He was a potter also, but he had started the glass department at the University of Wisconsin. And I asked him for a job. I had just turned thirty years old and he said, “I need an assistant, and you seem more qualified than anyone else I know.” So, I became Harvey’s assistant in the glass studio. I was working in the ceramics studio as well and, prior to this, I should mention, I had met a young woman back in Washington named Sandy. And we had struck up a romance and she and I were kind of a couple, but she was back East, and I was now living in Wisconsin. And eventually I drove east and said, “Why don’t you come with me to Wisconsin?” She said, “Great, I have nothing to do here.” Her parents were thoroughly against it. And so, that was reason enough for her to go out to Wisconsin with me. So, we went out to Wisconsin and I studied glass there.
So, I had a ceramic and glass background, and one day, the phone rang in the glass studio at Wisconsin, and a woman on the other end said, “We’re looking to hire someone that has experience with ceramics and glass.” And she said, “Would you post a notice on the bulletin board that there’s a job available for someone with that experience?” Well, at that time, a lot of—not a lot—but a few people, had experience with—most of the people in the glass field came from the ceramic area. And so, the next day, I picked up the phone and I called back and I said, “I see on the bulletin board there is a job available.” You getting the picture? “There’s a job available for someone in ceramics and glass, I’d like to apply for the job.” Well, I got the job and when I came here to Kent State, I remember the woman, Marilyn Simone was her name, she was the art office secretary. She asked me, she said, “How come nobody else applied for the job, that you were the only one?” And with a straight face I looked at her and I just said, “Eh, go figure.” And I got hired by the guy that taught ceramics here, Miska Petersham was his name. And he was the head of the Ceramics Department. And I knew him as a potter. We were members of an organization, the N-C-E-C-A, or, it was pronounced en-cee-ka [editor’s note: The National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts]. And a guy by the name of Pete Slusarski who also taught in the technology area.
And so, that’s how I got hired to start the glass program here. I started the glass program and I taught ceramics at the same time. I also filled in teaching two-dimensional design, beginning sculpture. At that time, they had no foundation program, which I was very surprised. Being a university is—the art school at a university is very different than an art school at—very different than an art school. And so, I was not used to this kind of students coming in, staying three hours and leaving and going to something else, and then a day off, and then coming a day later. And I found it extremely difficult to teach a studio class where—on the university system. I was used to how art schools did things. I mean, it was much less academic work at an art school than at a university. But you make do with what you have. And so, there were my students that excelled and there were some that didn’t, but you treated everybody equally and things grew and I built a program of national significance. And it was even internationally—it was known. There weren’t—we were the fourth program in the United States.
Now, I should say this was, my first year here was 1969-70, academic year, ’69-’70. Now, remember, I came from the University of Wisconsin where there were very serious demonstrations going on, which I participated in, against the Vietnam War. And it was at the height of the demonstrations across the United States. Nixon was president and I was teaching—I should go back.
In February of 1970, we had a program that allowed us to bring visiting artists in. And a guy I taught with, Brinsley Tyrrell, brought in Robert Smithson, who was—became—or was a very well-known sculptor, earth sculptor, or site-specific sculptor. And he came in and he made this—he created this project called, I think it was called Pushed Earth Shed. Something on that order [editor’s clarification: the title of the work is Partially Buried Woodshed]. And he came in and it was a freezing cold day in February of 1970. And so, we watched this shed being constructed and, interestingly enough, after it was done, we went to a bar and so on, and sat there—it was Walter’s Bar, and we asked him, “What should we do with this now that it’s done?” It’s this shed, we weren’t quite sure. And he said, “Just leave it be, it will take on its own—its own story. It will—time will build upon it.” And we weren’t quite sure what he meant, but I can assure you it did take on a very serious story of—between art students, art faculty, and the university administration over the years. But I can talk about that later.
So, time went on, and we get now into the spring. And my birthday is May fifth, okay. So, my wife was teaching school in Akron, public school in Akron. And she was out teaching, and she would go to teach and these—President Nixon decided he was going to, as you all know, have an incursion into Cambodia. And after he expanded the war—this was a President that said he was going to end the war. After he expanded the war and went into Cambodia, the campus here, as many campuses around the country, exploded with demonstrations. There had been demonstrations prior to this, as you know, the history going on at Columbia in New York, and Berkeley in California. And Kent State had, and has, a rather bucolic atmosphere to it. It’s kind of a little bit hilly, green grass, students that were from farms, first generation going to a university. It was a fairly large school but, to be honest with you, when I came here, I had never actually really heard of Kent State University. I mean people are surprised when I say that. I had never heard of it and I was very happy to come here because it was very quiet. And I made some friends and I could get on with my career.
Well, the National Guard was called out, and I was very politically oriented and had gotten involved in demonstrations at the University of Wisconsin. So, after this started, I started getting active in demonstrating on the campus. Not active insofar as confronting the National Guard in any way as a lot of students were doing, but more of an observer and being there with those students that were there and also demonstrating, on the days prior. I took my camera up there and took a number of pictures of Guardsmen and so on. And I had been in the National Guard and I knew the kind of person that compromised being a National Guardsman. These weren’t soldiers as such, these were what we called weekend warriors. We’d go to a meeting on the weekend at some armory somewhere and march up and down and make believe this and that. And to my knowledge, back in New York at least, we were never ever issued in any way shape or form bullets for our rifles. At this time, it was M-1 rifles. And that’s what we had used when I was in active duty, were M-1s. A big, heavy, nine-pound rifle. Very powerful rifle. And we watched these National Guardsmen march up and down, and to be honest with you, there was a degree of humor to it. It wasn’t as serious as has been made out, or at least in my perception. The students would come forward, and then the National Guard would throw some tear gas and they would come forward, and it was this back-and-forth thing. And the faces of the National Guard was not one of really seriousness, and I never really saw much in the way of serious confrontation from students towards the National Guard. Others may have, I didn’t. Yes, there were probably some rocks thrown, but there was nothing in the way that stories have been told about the depth and breadth of how students were confronting the National Guard.
[Interviewer]: [00:31:53] And when you say that, are you referring to the weekend or actually Monday, May 4th, itself?
[Henry Halem]: No, I’m talking about May 2 and 3.
[Interviewer]: The weekend?
[Henry Halem]: The weekend. And the evening—one evening I went up there to the area where I had been teaching in one of the—they had Quonset hut sheds—buildings—that the Art Department used to teach drawing in. They’ve long since been demolished. But I went up there and I was standing behind the heating plant and, when I got up there, there was a big crowd there, and someone had set fire to the ROTC Building, which was another small shed that dated back to the days of World War II. And that was burning. And the firemen had fire hoses out. And to the degree that people were saying that there were people trying to cut the fire hoses, I also think was very overstated. If you talk to a fireman, he will tell you that there is no way you can cut a fire hose. These aren’t little rubber hoses. These are hoses that are wrapped in materials that cannot be cut through. So, the idea that they were cutting fire hoses is a fallacy. They may have tried to cut the hoses, but they didn’t. So, that never happened.
But eventually, we got chased away from that. That was a whole scene of the ROTC. And that kind of precipitated a whole change of attitude because it was the ROTC Building, it represented the United States, the American flag, mom and apple pie, and all of this, and I think that kind of changed an attitude, at least maybe the political attitude. But the Governor, the Adjutant General, were a very right-wing group of men, as was the President, that would brook no demonstrations of any kind. They had no idea what young people were about, they had no idea what was going on in our minds. I was still young at the time, what, thirty-one, something like that.
And the next day, I went up on campus, on the day of May 4th, and was on the other side of the campus from where the shooting happened. And we heard sounds coming from the hill, had no idea what it was. Thought, you know, it’s one of those things where you say, “Oh, it’s probably backfiring or something.” And I had been in active service and knew what rifles, what M-1 rifles sounded like. And I said, “That’s not backfire.” And, pretty soon, we saw all these students running. And so—
[Interviewer]: [00:35:39] Where were you exactly?
[Henry Halem]: I was down below, let’s see, where is the— [referring to a map] —there’s the pagoda, I was—where is the Student Union? I was around here, somewhere.
[Interviewer]: Okay. Near Engleman Hall.
[Henry Halem]: Yeah. When we got chased, I ran from there—where is that, to—let’s see, this is the ROTC Building. Let me orient myself here.
[Henry Halem]: Here’s the equipment garage. I ran around here and up—is that the direction I went in? I can’t quite remember the direction I went in, and I think around The Commons.
[Interviewer]: Okay, past Van Deusen [Hall]?
[Henry Halem]: And there was, yeah, yeah, past, yes! Absolutely! It was past Van Deusen [Hall], up the hill to—there was an equipment garage where the Business Building is now. It was actually—I don’t recall it being the shape you have on that map. I remember it as a big barn, big white barn. And it looked like a barn and it was left over from being a barn. It never got taken down. The university stored their grass-cutting equipment in there.
I ran into that building, alone. And when I went into it—I wanted to stay there. And when I went into the building, someone had put an accelerant down along the wall and had lit it on fire. And I was shocked. I ran out of the building and I ran down the hill to Bowman Hall. And I ran into Bowman Hall and the students were in the hall, it was chaos in there. And I remember yelling, “There’s a fire in the barn! There’s a fire! Get the fire extinguisher!” And one of the profs there was Lew Fried, he taught English. And he had come the same time I did, and I knew him. And I said, “Get a fire extinguisher, get a fire extinguisher!” And I ran back up and they came—he and students came running up with the fire extinguishers and put this fire out that would have just—it would have been a real conflagration if that building had gone up. It was very old wood, but it hadn’t caught onto the wood yet. And so, we put the fire out and, while we were there, the police or firemen, I can’t remember, it was a group of state somebody-or-others came there and said, “Get out of here!” We still did not know that four students had been shot. We had no idea. We ran out of there and that’s when I went home.
I lived in Kent at the time, in a small house in Kent, and my wife had been teaching in Akron. And they had declared Martial Law. And my wife couldn’t get home. She was stopped on the road, and she had to prove—she had to get out of the car and she had to prove that she lived in Kent. She took out her identification and proved that she lived in Kent. And so that was basically my experience with the days leading up to May 4th, and the day of May 4th.
What I never understood was the fact that they never closed the university when all of this was going on. I never understood the thinking behind that. President White fumbled the ball. He— I’m sure he’s gone to his grave with stories about what went on that he’s never told. I mean, he had to have known things that he’s never talked about. And it must have been his greatest failure in life. How can you be the president of a university and have four students shot and become, I mean, it’s beyond thinking, so. In one way I feel very sorry for him, but he was not a man of the time. I think he was very confused. And because of that, he may have been given orders by Governor Rhodes not to close the school, we never knew. Interestingly, after this was all over, they still didn’t send the students home. They gave us orders that we still had to teach our classes. And so, I taught a studio class and I remember my students, I can still see them, they were really upset. I mean, this was not an event that didn’t traumatize every man, woman, and child that was on that campus. Even if you weren’t there, to lose—and have the National Guard shoot four students. So, right after that, there was a group called Kent-State-In-Exile, okay. They went down to—what’s the college down there? Small—
[Henry Halem]: They went down to Oberlin. Oberlin said you can come here to our campus. It was a very liberal school, Oberlin’s a very liberal school. Lew Fried and I got in my car and we drove down to Oberlin with Sandy, my wife, also. And there was—I don’t remember the hall that it was in, it was in a small hall with all of these Kent State students there. It was packed. And I was asked to give a speech, to talk. Or maybe I wasn’t asked, but I was really loaded [narrator’s clarification: I don’t mean alcohol, I was really charged up]. And it was after the assassination of Kennedy, it was after the assassination—I think, MLK had been assassinated. And there was another, there had been another one, and Life magazine had a whole big article on these assassinations, and I remembered getting up there and I was a pretty good public speaker, I could really, at that time, think on my feet. And I gave this really barn-burner of a speech to the students. And I remember that speech, and after that, those students, they were ready to go out with pitchforks into the street. I mean, and I realized, My God, you know, what have, this is, I’ve done something here.
[Interviewer]: What have I done?
[Henry Halem]: I remember the beginning of the speech, I mean, I have a big voice, and a deep voice, and I’m a good public speaker, at least at the time I was, and gave this speech about civil war. I couched it in terms of, if this isn’t civil war, I don’t know what is. I remember that one line, and I really gave it, and the crowd [narrator bangs fist on table]. And so, after that, I remember these two gentlemen came over to me, little bit older and they had crew cuts, shiny shoes, and they introduced themselves to me as working for one of the regional newspapers. And, I said, “What paper?” or something like that, and I suspected these were not reporters. This was the FBI, probably, because we knew they were there. So, they wanted my name and address, or stuff like that. At that time, I feared nothing, I didn’t care, because I had done nothing. So, how naïve was I? So, I told them who I was and so on, so maybe somewhere there’s a file. So that’s kind of in a nutshell my time with May 4th.
[Interviewer]: [00:45:46] How did you help those students complete their work from that quarter? Did you continue to hold studio at Oberlin, or—?
[Henry Halem]: Good question. Good question. No, we left Oberlin that night, came back here, we couldn’t teach in the studios that we were teaching at, we weren’t allowed in there to those studios. I had a hobby of photography and I had a small darkroom in my house. And so, my students would come and we would discuss, for the most part, politics. But we had to give the students grades. We were required to give them grades, so I taught them photography. So, everyone kind of had a camera or went home and got a camera or something. And we would sit around in my house. I mean, the weather was warm and we would sit around, and maybe they took pictures or something, I don’t even remember. But it was just mainly talking politics and, every once in a while, I would get a call from one of the students’ parents and I remember this—I don’t know if I should tell this story or not, but it kind of sums up. This one mother called me about her daughter. Her daughter was in my class and I guess my telephone number was out there, I was in the phone book, of course, and she called me up, “Is my daughter okay?” I said, “Yeah, everyone’s fine. Your daughter’s fine.” And at the end of the conversation, she asked me if I could get her daughter to wear a bra. And I was like, I think my face turned purple. This is a mother talking about her daughter, and I thought, That’s not going to happen.
[Interviewer]: That’s not exactly in your job description.
[Henry Halem]: It’s not in the—part of the class. I said, fine, you know, hung up kind of. You know, it was the end of the Sixties.
[Interviewer]: There must have been students who lived too far away to come to class meetings at your home, there must have been some students that couldn’t do it? Do you remember whether it was difficult to come?
[Henry Halem]: I don’t remember. As I recall, they were all there. I believe, I mean these were small studio classes, these weren’t lecture-hall classes. I recall they must have all been there.
[Interviewer]: They all managed to come.
[Henry Halem]: I mean, everyone got a passing grade, I mean, obviously. But we, as teachers— the university gave us mimeograph sheets. There’s a word that you haven’t heard in a while.
[Henry Halem]: Gave us these mimeograph sheets about what we were to do and not to do and so on and so forth. So, that is how it went after that. Another story pertaining to May 4th was the memorial that they were going to build. This was some years later, and this pertains—do you want to hear this story?
[Interviewer]: Sure, yeah.
[Henry Halem]: This pertains to May 4th, not many people know this story.
[Interviewer]: Yep, absolutely.
[Henry Halem]: Up in Cleveland there was a foundation, I think it was the Gund, offered the university a sum of money to build a memorial. Stu Schar was the director of the School of Art, and I can’t exactly remember the year, but it wasn’t that long after. And Stu Schar called myself and Brinsley Tyrrell into his office and said, “We’ve been given a sum of money, and given the names of three artists who are to create a memorial for Kent State University. The Gund Foundation is giving us this money.” And the three, I remember two of them, one was Leonard Baskin, who was a very traditionalist sculptor. Did very realistic kinds of wood sculptures, I believe, something on that order. The other was—turn that off for a second, I got to remember, it’s important.
[recording is paused briefly]
[Henry Halem]: The other artist was George Segal, who was a very well-known artist at that time. His sculptures—it was interesting because what he did was, he would take plaster gauze bandage and wrap it around people and then split it in half and the person would get out of this gauze bandage that was wrapped around them, and he would put them together and he would make these, I don’t know what you would call—different kind of tableaus. A woman pushing a shopping cart. He was kind of, he really kind of summed up the Sixties. His work kind of really had good insight into what the Sixties was kind of about. And he was very famous. And so, Stu Schar asked us, “Which artist should we choose?” And we chose—just said, “George Segal, without a doubt.” And so, George Segal was contacted. George Segal signed a contract. George Segal handed the drawings in, and they were drawings of Abraham and Isaac. A sculpture he had done prior to that, which was in Tel Aviv at the time, in Israel.
And so, when push came to shove, the university squashed and broke the contract. And the way they broke the contract was, there were three parts to the contract. One part was to create drawings, submit those. Then from the drawings, submit a scale model of the sculpture. And the third part was to produce the sculpture after the scale model was approved. Well, George Segal doesn’t make scale models. As one of the art teachers said, “If George Segal was to make a scale model, he would have to cast midgets.” That was the joke that circulated in the art office. That was—Joe O’Sickey told that joke. And we thought it was very funny. In any event, the university got in a big dustup with Segal and said, “We’re no longer, since you didn’t create the scale models, we are rejecting it.” The university realized that this sculpture that he was going to do of Abraham and Isaac, or a supplicant figure at the—on his knees, in kind of a, kind of almost a prayer-like pose, begging his father, who held a knife over his head—this wasn’t going to be a memorial that was going to grace the campus of Kent State University. Well, Segal went bonkers. After his rejection, I was in New York City visiting my mom, and I went to the museum, not the Guggenheim, the—
[Henry Halem]: Whitney! I went to the Whitney Museum. And I was walking around the Whitney and I came into the lobby of the Whitney to leave and George Segal was there, in the lobby, with his entourage of people around him. And to be honest with you, to me, what he had created wasn’t a memorial. It was what George Segal did. In any event, I said to him, “You know, what you had made wasn’t going to heal any wounds. It would, to me, exacerbate and create more of a problem than it was going to solve.” He went—started going ballistic. And I said, I remember clearly, I said, “You know, you are in the company of some of the greatest artists that have ever lived that have been censored, and you should take pride in joining that group.” I remember that clearly. That set him off and his entourage, they lit into me like I had, I don’t know, lit the museum on fire or something. But he said, and I quote, “What represents freedom of expression in New York should be freedom of expression in Ohio.” And I said, “I’m not arguing freedom of expression. I’m just arguing the case of your understanding what our campus is about at this point in time.” I said, “Perhaps sometime in the future.” I said, “I’m not questioning the greatness of your art. I’m just questioning the process of what’s happening here and with my feelings of what is going on on our campus.” And that ended that. I went my way and he went his way.
Well, there’s another story. After that, we then got together, Brinsley and I and Linda Lyke, who taught printmaking here, and the woman that ran the gallery, Sheila Tabakoff, the four of us got together and put together an exhibition. A gallery in New York asked us to put together photographs and all the letters and everything that we received about May 4th. And we got in a car, we took it all, big pile of stuff, photographs and everything, we went to the gallery and we hung this show. And Channel 13 came and started interviewing us. And they were going to have this whole big program on this exhibition, this May 4th exhibition at this gallery. I don’t remember the name of the gallery.
[Interviewer]: The name of the gallery? Okay.
[Henry Halem]: But it was the weekend right after they filmed us—Gamal Abdel Nasser, in Egypt, was assassinated. So, you can date that show by his assassination. And that assassination—the program was never shown, it never went anywhere, and the show went on, I don’t think many people saw it. But the program they wanted to do, they just deep-sixed that and went on with the assassination of Nasser, and the Suez Canal, and all of that, Egypt and— So, that’s my connections, totally, with May 4th, outside of the work that I did after that. I had always made art. I made a memorial piece for Vietnam when I lived in Virginia, teaching at Mary Washington College. I had made a memorial there. And then, when I got here, I made a number of memorials. I made about a dozen of face memorials of—called Ravenna Grand Jury, which was one—and it was blinded faces. I think one of them may be here, or two of them may be here, in Special Collections somewhere.
[Interviewer]: It’s like a blindfold over the eyes?
[Henry Halem]: Yes, it was like a blindfold over their eyes. It was called Ravenna Grand Jury. And I made the—one I made out of glass was bought by the Corning Museum of Glass and it’s on permanent view at their museum now. I also cast four of my students, and I think Linda Lyke also, I cast four full-size bodies and made a full-size sculpture of the shooting of the students, and I got artificial turf, grass, and so on. That was exhibited at the Akron Art Museum. I got together with John Filo, who had taken the photographs on May 4th, and both of us went to the museum and I videoed—it was just at the dawn of the video age, I videoed his photographs and made a video tape of his photographs, and my sculpture was in this small room and the room was lit by this small TV on this videotape deck, which constantly rewound with the sound of gunfire. And you’d walk in the room and you could walk into, with students on two sides, you could walk into it, because you could see the TV but you couldn’t see, your eyes had to get used to the dark. And then, when your eyes got used to the dark and you saw the actual event, then your eyes would be used to it, and you would see these four bodies next to you. And it was a very powerful piece. I still have that piece and I’ve been trying to give it to the university, Kent State, and they don’t seem to want anything to do with it.
[Interviewer]: [01:02:20] What’s the material of this sculpture?
[Henry Halem]: Fiberglass. Yeah, it’s fiberglass and artificial turf. They started to get interested in it. The person that was handling it left the university and that was the end of anyone wanting it here. So, all the other pieces I made, I’ve sold or, yeah, I’ve sold or given. I just sold one to a museum, a bronze piece, down in Florida. A museum purchased it. So, I have a couple of other pieces that I’ve done. I also put an exhibition on here at the, I think the twentieth [May 4 Commemoration], where I showed that piece with the four bodies, which really the students gathered around it a lot.
[Interviewer]: This is, these are life-size figures?
[Henry Halem]: Yeah. And I also took all of the telegrams and letters, a lot of them, both sympathetic to the students and anti-student, and I had them enlarged, very large, and put it in the Student Center, down the hallway. There’s a long hallway—on the wall of this hallway, along with the figures. And the university tried to get me to take out the four figures I had. Apropos of those four figures of the killing, I was in another show in Midlands, Michigan, which—and it was right after I had made the figures, and it was in a big craft show, and I was going to show some of my glasswork and the person that was putting on the show, one of the people that was curating the show, it was a huge exhibition, came to look at my glass and ceramic work and saw the four bodies, I had them laid out, and he said, “What’s this?” and I told him. He said, “We want that.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “The show is going to be at the Dow Center for the Arts, in Midlands, Michigan, which is the home of Dow Chemical.” And if you know anything about Vietnam, Dow Chemical made a material called napalm. And you know from the movie, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Anyway—
[Interviewer]: Memorable line, yes.
[Henry Halem]: So, they put my four bodies down there in this huge craft show. And the day before the show was to open, that evening, they had a special opening for all the executives from the Dow Chemical Company to come and see this. And the sting of Vietnam was still in the air and Dow Chemical was really getting a lot of bad publicity over this. They saw the four bodies, which was right at the top of the stairs when you walked up to this crafts show, quote unquote. And they went over to the person that was the curator and they said, “We want this removed immediately.” And he said, “No, we won’t remove it.” They said, “Yes, you will. This is the Dow Center.” And he said to the president of Dow Chemical, “We will remove it, but we will remove everything else. It’s either all or nothing.” And Dow backed down. I was very proud of that. I was very surprised that they took that piece, had nothing to do with what this show was about, but you know.
[Interviewer]: [01:06:29] Do you remember the name of that curator?
[Henry Halem]: No, I don’t. I think it was a person by the name of John Glick, a potter, a very well-known potter. I think it was John Glick.
So, another—I went, just to give you a feeling, nationally, what went on, I had a Kent State bumper sticker, and I was going to leave Kent State and I started to interview for jobs in other places. I thought this was—they were going to turn this place into a mental institution like they had threatened to do, the Governor.
[Interviewer]: Oh, and close the university?
[Henry Halem]: Close the university. So, I interviewed in Boston at the Boston Museum School. A friend of mine taught ceramics there. And I interviewed for a job there and I had this small little car, a little Toyota, one of the first Toyotas ever brought into this country. It was right after, it wasn’t long after the shootings, and I had a Kent State sticker. And I was parked in Boston, and when I came out of the interview, Sandy and I came out and there was this crowd of students around my car. And they said—and an Ohio license plate, “Are you from Kent State.” And I said, “Yes.” And all of them, they could just go, “Oh, wow.” And I mean, they were just speechless, you know, that I actually—someone from there. They patted me on the back, and I said I taught there and so on.
[Interviewer]: Did they ask questions? Did they want to hear your story?
[Henry Halem]: I don’t really remember, I’m sure they did, I’m sure I did talk about it and so on. And then I remember once we were driving to Florida and I had a bumper sticker and I remember some cars with young people in them, they would go past, I had a big Suburban car, General Motors vehicle, and they would drive past and an arm would shoot out the window with the victory sign. They would go past and beep their horns and so on. And, I mean, it went on and on. I remember downtown Kent after, people with sheets hanging out, “They should have shot more.” I mean it was, it was social chaos. I mean people—
[Interviewer]: [01:09:20] What was it like in your neighborhood where you lived in Kent?
[Henry Halem]: We lived in a strange neighborhood, it wasn’t really a neighborhood—we lived kind of in the woods in Chelton Drive. And we lived in this little house in the woods. And so, there was no real neighborhood.
[Interviewer]: You didn’t have, right next door, other houses?
[Henry Halem]: No, no we were in the woods in this, it was a tiny little house. It was a—we loved it. It was just great.
[Interviewer]: But enough to have a photo—a darkroom in it?
[Henry Halem]: Yeah, a little darkroom. Yeah, they had a little basement there. Yeah, exactly. So that was, you know, as a couple, we had our little girl and we moved to Willow Street and life went on. And it was, it was a time. The university still suffers from the hangover of what happened on May 4, 1970. They still have a May 4th group that, for better or for worse, still keeps that memory alive. Although, I think they should move on to bigger and better things at this time. Not better, but bigger things at this time. I mean, we’re fighting for our lives now in this country and in this world.
[Interviewer]: You’re talking about the May 4 Task Force?
[Henry Halem]: Yeah, the May 4 Task Force. You know, I respect, you know, what they try and do and so on, but I think they need to expand their horizon. There’s more than just the accuracy of who did what to who and when. You know, and where and so on. You know, history is written by many people, so you’re going to get many different stories.
[Interviewer]: Which is what this oral history project—what oral history projects are all about.
[Henry Halem]: Yeah, exactly. You know—I’m not sure of some things, you know. But it’s how I remember it.
[Interviewer]: And you, you know, you saw what you saw, you heard what you heard.
[01:11:41] Do you have any memories from when you first came back and were back in the classroom, in the studio, in the fall after the shootings? Fall 1970, what it was like? Just if anything sticks out.
[Henry Halem]: That’s a good question. I think everyone wanted to get on with things. I mean it was certainly an issue, but I think everyone was getting on with their lives. You know, you can only be angry for so long. You know, anger will eat you alive. And it—it doesn’t pay. I mean, memorializing something is one thing, you know, and a good memorial is really wonderful if you—unfortunately, the memorial we have I really find it rather lackluster and doesn’t really memorialize much without names. It’s more of, I don’t know, mausoleums than a memorial.
[Interviewer]: That’s an interesting description, yeah.
[Henry Halem]: And so, I would really like to see the university get its act together and get a real memorial. And not only that, try and get the Segal sculpture here. I think we can handle it. We’ve grown up. And it would be—it deserves to be here. I don’t think Princeton will ever give it up, where it resides now. It’s in bronze there. But, sure would be—Kent State would be the place to have it. But I’d like to see that some real memorial that students can go and reflect on things beyond just May 4th. But reflect on their lives, reflect on others less fortunate, and so on and so forth. That’s what memorials are supposed to do. This one doesn’t. So, that’s my preaching.
[Interviewer]: [01:13:58] We do have the, in Special Collections and Archives, the presentation sketch that George Segal made and presented to the university, so people can come see that.
[Henry Halem]: Oh, good. Wonderful.
[Interviewer]: And it’s very beautiful. It’s a beautiful drawing, it’s exquisite.
[Henry Halem]: Yeah, I’m sure.
[Interviewer]: Is there anything else you’d like to share about how these experiences sort of impacted your life or your work? I mean clearly Kent State wasn’t shut down as a university and you continued teaching. The rest of your career was here.
[Henry Halem]: Yeah. Well, yeah, you know, all experiences make us who we are. I mean, we are, and especially as an artist, it’s experiences that give voice to our creativity. And so, I mean, May 4th certainly gave me a voice to create memorials based upon my history of having created. And these were memorials more—I don’t know if what I made were memorials, that, I should take that back. They were expressions of my emotional feelings for what transpired. Let me put it that way. I shouldn’t say memorial, they’re not. Because they certainly were made to stir, more than—they’re not sublime in any way, they were created from anger. So, creating a memorial from anger really is not memorializing. So, they need to be created from a different sensitivity. So, yeah, I mean this—my talking now has really helped me to really understand that. So, you know, for those that look at my work and so on, they recall a time and a place. That’s—
[Interviewer]: And how people felt in the aftermath.
[Henry Halem]: Yeah. Yeah.
[Interviewer]: In the immediate aftermath.
[Henry Halem]: Yeah.
[Interviewer]: Have you thought about if you were to create a memorial at this point in your career, have you thought about that?
[Henry Halem]: Yeah, I have. I have. And, I have an idea for that, it would be something—I would want to include water in it, in some way. I’m very influenced by Maya Lin and the memorials that she’s created. And—
[Interviewer]: The one at the Southern Poverty Law Center?
[Henry Halem]: Yes. That has, that’s an extraordinary expression and that really gives—I mean water is primordial, I mean it really gets you. And I have an idea with a thing with a— like a waterfall-type piece. But, you know, after the event, I decided that I didn’t really want to go someplace else, when the university stayed. That I would stay here and that I think the students needed me, that I could be someone that they could turn to. I had really, it did—did change my life. You know, I had been in the Army, I had been in, even though only six months, I was down at Fort Sam Houston, which was the burn center. I had seen bodies that had been in fires, and so on.
[Interviewer]: Right, and you were a medic.
[Henry Halem]: I was a medic, yeah. I mean I didn’t see war, certainly, but I was at the hospital and I would serve time at the hospital there and saw people brought in from automobile accidents and so on, and dead people. And that, you know, also, that was very difficult, but I spent four months down there and the training down there, after a while you kind of got, not used to it, but you didn’t shy away from it. And I can understand how doctors are able to do things that most people couldn’t face, and so on. It becomes depersonalized in a way, if you’re a doctor, I’m sure.
[Interviewer]: [01:18:48] Did you, you mentioned that you felt that you needed to be here for your students?
[Henry Halem]: Yeah.
[Interviewer]: Were there students that came to you, possibly weren’t able to talk to thing— through things with their families, and confided in you?
[Henry Halem]: No, it wasn’t, no.
[Interviewer]: It wasn’t so much that? Okay.
[Henry Halem]: No, it wasn’t that. It was just that it—it formed me as a teacher, to be a positive. And in the arts, you know, we teach art through criticism. You know, you do drawings and so on, and you put them up on the wall, and the teacher talks about this, that, or the other thing about the drawing or sculpture, and so on. And that’s kind of the traditional way that art is taught. And when you give criticism, you have to be sensitive to the feeling of the person you’re giving criticism to because when a student makes art, art is a little piece of that person. So, when you’re talking about their work, they’re very involved in what you’re talking about. So, you have to be sensitive to that. So, I think what happened here on May 4th showed me, in so many ways, my way as a teacher was very important that I understood to be positive towards my students. Not that I was always successful, but I think, in no small way, I was successful. I think I was a very good teacher. And I loved the idea of teaching and I really didn’t like leaving teaching and I left teaching for reasons I don’t need to go into here. That’s my own axe to grind.
[Interviewer]: You’re retired now.
[Henry Halem]: Yeah, oh, I’ve been retired since 1998. But I’m still making art.
[Henry Halem]: As a matter of fact, I’m working on a May 4th piece now, which I want to give to the university, so. And give the—you know, I want to give it to them, all they have to do is pay for the material. That’s it. And so, if they want to listen to it, they can.
[Interviewer]: Henry, thank you so much for sharing all this with us.
[Henry Halem]: Sure.
[Interviewer]: Is there anything we haven’t touched on that you wanted to mention?
[Henry Halem]: No. Just, in my eighties now, you know, I’m on the back nine, as they say. And I’m still looking towards the future and stuff—art I’m going to make. And I just love being alive.
[Interviewer]: Wonderful. Thank you again. Thank you so much.
[Henry Halem]: Oh, you’re welcome. It was a pleasure.
[End of interview]×
Professor at Kent State University in 1970
|Date of Interview||
Henry Halem was in his first year of teaching studio art at Kent State University in the spring of 1970. In this oral history, he discusses his observations of the National Guard presence on campus during the days leading up to the shootings. He describes his experiences on May 4, including helping to put out a fire in an equipment storage building near Bowman Hall. He shares his experiences during the immediate aftermath of the shootings, including giving a speech at the Kent-State-in-Exile meeting at Oberlin College and holding classes at his home after the campus had been closed. He goes on to discuss the impact that these events had on his approach to teaching and on his work as an artist.
|Length of Interview||
New York (N.Y.)
|Time Period discussed||
Art--Study and teaching
Kent State Memorial (Kent, Ohio)
Kent State Shootings, Kent, Ohio, 1970
Kent State Shootings, Kent, Ohio, 1970--In art
Kent State Shootings, Kent, Ohio, 1970--Monuments
Kent State University. May 4th Task Force
Kent State University. ROTC Building--Fires
Oberlin College. Kent-in-Exile
Ohio. Army National Guard
Segal, George, 1924-2000. Abraham and Isaac
Smithson, Robert. Partially buried woodshed
United States. Federal Bureau of Investigation
White, Robert I., 1908-
Special Collections and Archives
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Kent State University
|DPLA Rights Statement||
|Format of Original||
audio digital file
The content of oral history interviews, written narratives and commentaries is personal and interpretive in nature, relying on memories, experiences, perceptions, and opinions of individuals. They do not represent the policy, views or official history of Kent State University and the University makes no assertions about the veracity of statements made by individuals participating in the project. Users are urged to independently corroborate and further research the factual elements of these narratives especially in works of scholarship and journalism based in whole or in part upon the narratives shared in the May 4 Collection and the Kent State Shootings Oral History Project.
May 4 Collection