This item includes content which may be harmful, offensive, and/or disturbing to users. Click or tap to see the image.
This item includes content which may be harmful, offensive, and/or disturbing to users. Click or tap to see the image.
John Wilsterman, Oral History
Recorded: January 24, 2020
Interviewed by Kathleen Siebert Medicus
Transcribed by the Kent State University Research & Evaluation Bureau
[Interviewer]: This is Kathleen Siebert Medicus speaking on January 24, 2020, and I’m in the Kent State University Library Building on the Kent Campus here in Special Collections and Archives to conduct an interview over the telephone as part of the May 4 Kent State Shootings Oral History Project. Could you please state your name for the recording?
[John Wilsterman]: Yes, my name is John Wilsterman.
[Interviewer]: Thank you. Do you mind if I call you John in the interview?
[John Wilsterman]: That’s great.
[Interviewer]: Okay. Thank you. I really appreciate, John, your taking the time to speak with us today, and share your story. It’s very generous and I’m really grateful. Thank you.
[John Wilsterman]: You’re welcome.
[Interviewer]: I’d like to start just with some brief information about you, about your background, so we can get to know you a little better. Could you tell us where you were born and where you grew up?
[John Wilsterman]: Yes, I was born in Barberton, Ohio. And I grew up in Tallmadge, which is between Kent and Akron.
[Interviewer]: Oh yeah, very close.
[John Wilsterman]: I am less than, my house is less than five miles from the campus. And I lived in Tallmadge up until maybe the year after I graduated and then I moved to Georgia.
[Interviewer]: The year after you graduated from high school or from college?
[John Wilsterman]: No, from Kent.
[Interviewer]: From Kent State, okay.
[John Wilsterman]: I graduated from Kent the summer of 1970.
[Interviewer]: So, what brought you to Kent State to study?
[John Wilsterman]: Oh, that’s a funny story. I actually had applied to several colleges, I went to Hoban [Archbishop Hoban High School], do you know Hoban, in Akron?
[Interviewer]: Oh, I do, yeah.
[John Wilsterman]: Yeah. I went to Hoban, and it was a fairly good prep school. I had pretty good grades at Hoban and I applied to several colleges. And so, I had acceptance letters from all over the country.
And Kent was one of the places I applied, but I also applied to Akron U. [University of Akron]. But my mother had gone to Kent, she graduated in 1956 or ’57, and I’m not sure, with a degree in education and began student-teaching at the Tallmadge school system.
So, my initial idea was that I was going to go to San Diego State, because my brother lived out there. He had just graduated from the University of San Diego. But San Diego State had told me that they had—they gave me an acceptance letter but then they told me that they were going to rescind it because they had quotas from all over the country and they were not going to take any more students from out of state. Anyway, it was some kind of registration problem.
So, I looked at my options, and it seemed like the family treasury had been exhausted with my brother’s tuition. But I had a good friend that worked for BF Goodrich, and he helped me get a job at BF Goodrich in the computer room. Which was a real job. But, right along with that, I got my draft notice in July. So, I graduated from high school in June and got my draft notice about five weeks later. And it seemed like Kent was a good opportunity, because I called the Registrar’s Office and they said they would go ahead and give me an acceptance letter and help me get a student deferment, so, because of that student deferment and because I had this great job working at BF Goodrich, I decided to go to Kent.
[Interviewer]: So what year was that, that you—
[John Wilsterman]: That was—I didn’t get to start Kent until spring quarter of ’66. That’s when I started.
[Interviewer]: Okay. And at that time, it wasn’t the draft lottery yet, it was the straight draft?
[John Wilsterman]: Right, that’s correct. And student deferments were still honored. The draft lottery came in, I believe in 1969. Everybody who had to go through that remembers the night that they were drawing the numbers and listening to it. I actually had a class that night. And my job at Goodrich required me to work the midnight shift in the computer room. So, I worked from midnight to 8:00 in the morning, and then I drove to Kent and usually took classes till the middle of the afternoon, and then I tried to grab sleep wherever I could and then go back to work at midnight. So, it was quite an ordeal. It didn’t leave a whole lot of time for all the fun things you can do in college.
[Interviewer]: Right, yeah, you were working, going to class, and trying to get some sleep.
[John Wilsterman]: Exactly. And the priorities were pretty much in that order.
[Interviewer]: [00:05:11] So, you were getting all this computer experience in your job, what were you majoring in? What were you studying?
[John Wilsterman]: I was in the school of technology and my major was aerospace technology.
[Interviewer]: And that’s what you ended up—graduating with that degree?
[John Wilsterman]: Yes, I graduated with that degree, although I never worked in any of the aerospace industries or any aviation-related job. Because of the computer skills that I gained while I was at BF Goodrich, I pretty much—my whole career has been in IT.
[Interviewer]: That was the very early days for, you know, getting your hands on a computer.
[John Wilsterman]: Yep, you’re right. You’re really correct.
[Interviewer]: Interesting. So, when you first started as a student that spring of ’66, I don’t know if there’s anything you remember that you’d like to share about other students’ perceptions of the Vietnam War? Were you seeing protests on campus? Or was that just not, you know—you were just so busy you weren’t even kind of following that kind of event on campus?
[John Wilsterman]: Oh actually, there was the anti-war movement in our country was very visible at Kent campus. There were quite a few, I would call them, rallies and protests that I didn’t really start seeing that until maybe 1967. But there was a—because of the Vietnam War, and because we started sending our friends and brothers and family members into the armed forces, there was a great demand for soldiers. Some of them enlisted and some of them went in through the draft. I, personally, was not what you would call a protestor or tremendously anti-war but, as the war went on, it was abundantly clear to me and to a lot of people that I knew, that our purpose in being there wasn’t necessarily what we had thought it was, say in 1965 or ’66, when our country really started escalating. So, there was a very strong undercurrent of rallies and protests and, generally, everybody that I knew on campus was pretty much anti-war, with certain exceptions. There were people I knew, my friend, Dave Ellis, who was also working on an aerospace technology degree, had a commission. As soon as he graduated, he was going to go straight into the Air Force. So his views and my views weren’t exactly opposing, but he was a lot more focused on going into a career in the armed forces than I was.
[Interviewer]: Right, okay. Did you indeed get drafted at some point, at some later point?
[John Wilsterman]: No. After that first draft, I did not get drafted again. When the lottery came in, we all had numbers. Anybody that had a number below 200 or so was pretty much guaranteed to go. And everybody else who had a higher number, depending, of course, where you lived and all that. But, because I was part of the Summit County Selective Service Board, I had a number, and I still remember, it was 262, which is considered gold.
[Interviewer]: Yeah, everyone I’ve spoken to remembers that number. It is etched in your mind.
[John Wilsterman]: Yes. Yeah. And listening to that radio program. We had the radio on, and we were—I was taking a class that night, and it was in metallurgy—and we had the radio on. We were doing some lab experiments and we had the radio on listening to them drawing the numbers. And my birthday was April twenty-third, and the second number that they drew, so like one was some other number [i.e. birthday date] and two was April twenty-second. I go, “Oh my gosh.” They were just drawing them at random, but I was one day away from having a number two as opposed to 262.
[Interviewer]: Yeah, that’s a big difference in numbers. For a one day difference of when you were born.
[John Wilsterman]: Yeah, right. And believe me, I have a lot of empathy for my friends. I had a friend, another high school friend who had a minor skirmish with the law, and the judge told him that if he wanted to enlist in the Army, he would—he didn’t have to go through any of the standard penalties. So, he enlisted in the Army, and he didn’t go to Vietnam, but he was stationed a lot of different places, so he had, you know, he had to go through enlistment in the Army. And that was a common practice for people who got in trouble with the law and minor offenses and things like that.
[Interviewer]: That was presented as an alternative, yeah.
[John Wilsterman]: It was, yeah.
[Interviewer]: [00:10:35] So you wouldn’t describe yourself necessarily as politically active, or you weren’t, were you participating in any of the marches or organizations?
[John Wilsterman]: No, not at all. Not at all. Matter of fact, the only one that I attended was my friend, Dave Ellis, that I had mentioned before, he and I were at the Robin Hood Inn, because we thought it would be a great place to study. We both had a final—or a midterm maybe—and we both thought it’d be a great place to study. They were serving thirty-five cent pints of Robin Hood ale.
[Interviewer]: And that’s conducive to study?
[John Wilsterman]: Yeah, well, neither one of us had any money. We had too much actually, too much money! So, we actually were on our way to the exam, and fortunately it was a long walk to get there. But, on the way, we stopped and there was a protest going on. It was SDS organizers, an SDS chapter on Kent. Students for a Democratic—something—Society. They had organized a rally and there was a local band playing Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” So, Dave and I stopped and listened to that band and then realized it was a lead-in to this SDS rally. So then we realized we better get to class. We got there too late, and they usually close the doors and wouldn’t let you come into the room if you were there late because they didn’t want people staggering in after the test started. Especially people that’d spent the afternoon at the Robin Hood Inn. So, one of my professors—we had to sort of humble ourselves to get, to do a make-up test. But he did let us make that test up. But that was the only rally I ever attended at Kent.
[Interviewer]: [00:12:34] I’m curious about your family at this point. How aware were they of the protests on campus maybe escalating, and was that something you discussed with your parents, your family?
[John Wilsterman]: I, no, not really. I talked a lot about it with my coworkers, because any time there was such a news, especially after—there was an awful lot of violent protest that occurred during 1968. Specifically, my memories remember the Democratic National Convention where they had a lot of police and National Guard intervention, tons of arrests, people getting injured, things like that.
It was a very, very strong protest, and the people that I worked with mostly were grown men, some of them Korean War veterans, some of them World War II veterans, and they all took their time to come over to where I worked and give me lectures on how awful the youth was of today, and these anti-protest rallies need to be dealt with, and so on and so forth. And I didn’t really engage them in discussion about it, at that point, because I realized where they were coming from.
But, when I got drafted in 1965 and my dad knew that I was going to take my preinduction physical—he had been a World War II veteran, and a fighter pilot, and he was the most patriotic man I knew. And he came to me and he said, “I don’t like this war. If you can get out of it, I suggest you do.”
And I did. Because I didn’t want to get drafted. I knew that—I didn’t know where my life was going to go in great detail at that point but getting drafted seemed like the worst thing I could do at that age, because draftees were generally the lowest rung of the ladder. And even people who would go out and enlist had better options than draftees.
That’s kind of the way the information got to me. I don’t know, I can’t say that I have any experience of that. Because I do know friends of mine who went into ROTC and then went into the Army and then went to Vietnam. So, it seemed to be pretty random where you were going to end up. I didn’t have any perspective of that, but I really was very focused on trying to get my degree, get my education, more than wanting to go into the Army.
[Interviewer]: [00:15:39] Do you, is there anything you remember from the environment in your classes that spring of 1970? I mean at this point, you’re a senior, you’re graduating soon, but was there kind of a shift in sort of, I don’t know, the mood on campus?
[John Wilsterman]: There was a—I wouldn’t call it a shift, pretty much, I would call it gradually more anti-war activity. And most of what I perceived going on on campus, I didn’t get involved with a lot of the stuff that was outside of the classroom, because of my schedule.
But I did have friends and classmates who did, and who were involved in it. And the amazing thing to me, as a difference between the professors that I had and the teachers that I had in high school, is that the professors were much more politically aligned, and even if their class wasn’t political science, they were prone to issue their opinions from the lectern, so to speak.
And, of course, I did have political science and electives in that regards, it wasn’t just all physics and chemistry and mathematics, but they were pretty politically charged. Now keep in mind, along with the growing anti-war, back in those days we also had civil rights. Civil rights had become a huge issue among people. And there was a lot of civil rights activity, going on at the same time.
When you think about all the stuff that took place in the South, I have a lot of sympathy for the South and for Southerners because, well, for one thing, I knew nothing about it. But for the other, I saw in many ways, some of these people who were protesting integration as being—fighting for their own rights, kind of like the states that were part of the Confederacy were fighting for what they perceived their life and their way of life.
However, I’ve had a great deal of evolution in my thinking about that. First of all because I’ve lived down here, and I moved down here, and held all the preconceived notions that people who grew up in northeastern Ohio had about the South, but you didn’t know anything about it. I had taken one trip into the South and I saw the things that Black people and African American people were fighting for on display during that one trip we took to Florida and we stopped at places and we saw the rampant segregation, and even when I moved to the South, there was still a lot of rampant segregation going on down here. But, because of the turmoil that was going on with that and the turmoil that was increasing for the Vietnam War, I saw these two big ideologies clash. The cultural movements in our population, they sort of clashed and they sort of merged. And it was in a very interesting way because a lot of the people that were getting drafted and were being sent to Vietnam were people, in my segment of the population, who didn’t have the means to oppose it. They didn’t have a way of getting out of going to the draft. A lot of people would leave and go to Canada as a way to get out of it, sort of becoming expatriates. But a lot of the people who were being drafted and taken into this and sent to Vietnam were also African American young men in a disproportionate number. You know, the funny outshoot of that, and this is just an observation on my part, was that real integration and assimilation of white people and African American people took place within these men who were kind of thrust together. And a lot of them came from the South, a lot of them came from the North, and they sort of had to work these differences out under the discipline of the Army. And they did. And they came back with their arms around each other. They were brothers because they had gone through this terrible ordeal together.
And none of that really touched us as much as looking at all the protests, and the ones in Kent were fairly calm, they were peaceful. They would hold these rallies and they would organize these rallies and then after they were done, everybody had something else to do and they went on to it. But they made the news and they got a certain amount of publicity. But there were more of them. And, matter of fact, it was exponentially throughout the late ’67, ’68, and through ’69. And again, I didn’t get involved with it. I was very focused on finishing my degree and getting into the workforce. Having a career.
[Interviewer]: Starting your life, starting your adult life.
[John Wilsterman]: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
[Interviewer]: [00:21:34] One thing I’m curious about, in terms of what you said about your professors, even if it was, you know, in any class, not necessarily a history or political science class, talking about politics, maybe expressing their views, is that something that ramped up during your time at Kent State? So that was more prevalent in 1970? And were the professors predominantly anti-war, or was it a mixture of opinions?
[John Wilsterman]: I would say it was a mixture. The professors that I had in the School of Technology, a lot of them had experience with aerospace industries and they knew about the war footing. Some of them were World War II veterans and had become professors. I even had a lab partner who was a man who was a man who had finished up a twenty-year career as a Marine pilot and had come back from Vietnam. So in 1969, he—his name was Eugene Ripple he came back and finished his master’s degree at Kent in the School of Technology and became an associate professor. One minute, he was my lab partner in physics and, the next minute, I was taking a course from him in propellor engineering.
[Interviewer]: That’s funny.
[John Wilsterman]: He was. So his views on the war were pretty strident. He was definitely pro-war. But we had other professors, and I’m going to talk about the ones in the School of Technology. One of them was Robert Blankenship, who is the guy who let us retake the midterm after we got there late, after we got there late and inebriated, he let us take the midterm—make it up later. But he was sort of neutral on the war.
And even though he said he had worked on engineering projects during World War II, so he wasn’t a soldier, but he said that—I think that his views were neutral. He tried very hard to be neutral about it. He didn’t like the war, you could tell that.
And nobody in their right mind likes war. But there used to be this idea that there were certain wars or conflicts that were justified. And it was justified for us to expend resources towards and using armed forces to do that extension. And Vietnam was an example of that, and, at least in the beginning, we thought we were doing a good thing by fighting Communism but, at the end, we realized that we weren’t doing a good thing. That the only thing it was doing for us, and this came to be my attitude about it, the only thing it was doing for us was giving us a tremendous war-related industry, but we were forcing people out of our own population to go and suffer these terrible, traumatic experiences doing things that they didn’t want to do and being ordered to do what they didn’t want to do, and we were accomplishing nothing.
We were not getting any closer to a resolution to it then we had when we started. And yet we were continuing to throw more resources at it, and the return on those resources was diminishing, getting smaller and smaller. Where does that make sense in anybody’s criteria?
[Interviewer]: Thank you for all that background. [00:25:44] I don’t know if maybe this is a good point to then move to your experiences, what you saw, what you heard, the days leading up to May 4 and the day of the shootings itself, so maybe like Thursday, April 30th, when Nixon announced the expansion into Cambodia. I don’t know if you want to move to that day or if you have other earlier things you’d still like to share?
[John Wilsterman]: I think it’s a great time to enter into that because I do have very strong and specific memories from those four days, or those five days.
Actually, it goes all the way into the summer. But what happened, I was actually up, I wasn’t sleeping at the time when he came on TV, and they preempted something like Gunsmoke or Lawrence Welk, I can’t remember which. And I sat there and watched Nixon making this TV address to the nation about going into Cambodia. And it just made me very upset, because what we expected, Nixon himself had campaigned on, not so much on anti-war footing, it was anti-war, but then so was Lyndon Johnson, but his footing was more he wanted to Vietnamize the effort in Vietnam and minimize our involvement in it. So, the idea that he was going to send our troops into Cambodia, and he was going to start conducting the war in Cambodia, was a step away from that. And that’s why he had to explain it. He had to explain it to the American people because. if he didn’t, he would get really pounded in the news media. So, he did, and—
[Interviewer]: Were you home then, or were you with friends?
[John Wilsterman]: I was at home, I was watching it on our TV. But keep in mind, I had to get ready and go to work. I had to get in the car in just a few minutes. So he was on TV and an hour later I was at work. And it was a big topic of discussion at work.
[Interviewer]: Yeah. In fact, one question I wanted to ask you about work and your coworkers, your colleagues, lecturing you, was that because you were younger than most of the other people you were working with?
[John Wilsterman]: By far, yes. By far, that was it. And they had actually known me since I was a nineteen-year-old kid. So, in a sense, we got along great, everything was fine until we started talking about the war. And if we started talking about the war, my opinion on the war, at least, was a little bit different and neutral. When we first started the war, we were trying to help the South Vietnamese stay a free country. And as we got further and further into it, we realized we weren’t able to defeat North Vietnam. That was a very frustrating situation. And a lot of what the guys I worked with thought was that we were undermining our efforts by not being a hundred percent patriotic like people were in World War II. So, it was very one way or the other. You didn’t have a middle ground. You couldn’t straddle that line for long. You were either with us or you were against us. You know, all the cliches that you could think of.
So from their perspective—so, we kind of avoided it because I had certain feelings about it, and I knew what their feelings were. My dad and I never talked about it. He was pretty oblivious to it. He stayed out of it and he was sort of a head’s-down, hardworking kind of guy. So we’d rarely, if ever, talked about it.
[Interviewer]: Okay. Yeah. But you knew a little bit about his opinion of the war, saying that he didn’t think it was worth, you know, he didn’t want you to go.
[John Wilsterman]: He didn’t want me to go, he didn’t want any of our, anybody in our family to go.
[Interviewer]: So, what happened when you got to work that night? Did it come up?
[John Wilsterman]: Oh yeah, it came up a lot. We had a lot of discussions about it. But it wasn’t—there was a lot more drama the next night because that’s when, Friday night was when, and I didn’t participate in any of this because I—it was a rare Friday night I could go to downtown Kent.
So, but this night, I heard about it the next day, my friends called and told me that they had gone to a couple of bars and just all hell broke loose in downtown Kent and the demonstrations, and the Highway Patrol was there en masse, I don’t know how many it was. And many people got arrested. I knew one of my friends that had gotten arrested. They were breaking windows, they were setting fires in trash cans, and a general high-level hooliganism that went on.
And I kind of thought about that, but we, you know, we didn’t really get a chance to talk about it, because I didn’t have to go to work Saturday nights. All that took place while I was at work or getting ready to go to work Friday night. And the information on the news wasn’t—the news cycle wasn’t quick enough to get it to the guys at work Friday night because we were working the wee hours of the morning, and it was rare that anybody a radio on or something like that at work. It required a high deal of concentration and attention to what you were doing as a computer operator. So, Saturday night, I didn’t have to go to work. I didn’t have to go back to work until Sunday night. Sunday at midnight is when I went back to work. But I did hear about it. And I said, Oh my gosh. I almost felt left out because there was so much excitement Friday night, I thought, Oh my gosh, that’s never going to happen again.
I had another good friend, his name is Tony, Tony Scarpitti, who was also with me at the—he was taking the same degree I was. And we were contemporaries. And he and I were great, great friends. We’re still friends. I lost touch with Dave Ellis, but I’m still good friends with Tony. And Tony and I were going to actually go out that night; we had plans. We didn’t have dates, but we had plans.
[Interviewer]: Okay. For Saturday night?
[John Wilsterman]: Yeah, for Saturday night. We had tickets to the National College Student Film Festival, which was making a tour of the country. These were the best award-winning films done by student-directors, student-producers, college students, and they were going to show these films, the award-winning films, at this show at the auditorium at Kent.
[Interviewer]: That was on campus, right, right.
[John Wilsterman]: Yeah, on campus, exactly. So, at that point, there was no National Guard on campus. And they were going to show this, there were two—we had tickets to two showings of it, and we—it was the early showing and then we were going to go to downtown Kent and bar-hop like we usually did. So, we went into the auditorium and we watched these films. And I’ll give you a very brief critique of these films: they were bizarre and strange.
[Interviewer]: Okay. I’ve never heard anyone describe the films, so great.
[John Wilsterman]: They were just weird. But they were short films, and I don’t remember how many there were but, when it was over, we were going to leave, but somebody went up on stage and said, “We’ve got problems.” And they explained to us that there was a big fire going on. The auditorium, it couldn’t have been more than a hundred yards from where this ROTC Building was burning. I’m just trying to remember how close it was. Because they kept us inside, and the students who were arriving to go to the second showing of these films, were all turned away, but they kept us inside because they were in the middle of fighting this fire. And that’s all they told us. They said, “It’s chaos out there. There’s a lot of activity going on. The firemen, they don’t want anybody wandering around and going back to their cars, and all that stuff.” So, I had no inkling of what was going on. But we weren’t allowed to leave. So, what they did was they started showing the films again, and we sat through this barrage of student-produced videos again. And they weren’t any better the second time.
[Interviewer]: So, you had a second showing, for free.
[John Wilsterman]: We had a second showing. Everybody was there, nobody could leave. We finally came back out, and somebody else came up and gave another announcement. It might have been the first person, I don’t remember, but the announcement was, there’s some extreme—I forgot how he put it, but it’s something like, “There’s extreme chaos going on out there. There’s a demonstration and the firemen are trying to put this out.” And, by that time, the National Guard was on campus. And we were told that the city was in lockdown. And hopefully you had your ticket stub; if you didn’t, you had to stop at the door. They were going to let us go, but they wanted to give us some instructions first. And they’ll let us go, and you either had to show your ticket stub, because you were going to be apprehended and talked to by either the police or the National Guard, no matter where you were going, but you were supposed to leave. If you lived inside the city of Kent, or if you were in a dormitory, you better make a straight line for your house or your dormitory, because you were going to be interdicted and talked to. And if you didn’t have your ticket stub with you, or the equivalent, you were going to be arrested.
[Interviewer]: Right. That was your way of proving why you were there, what you were doing, yeah.
[John Wilsterman]: Exactly. So, Tony and I—
[Interviewer]: So about what time—this was pretty late in the evening at this point?
[John Wilsterman]: Oh yeah, this had to have been after ten o’clock. Because the early showing seemed to start, it was still daylight out. Or maybe just dark, but pretty early, something like seven o’clock. So, we were there and, you know, come to think of it, it must have been closer to midnight.
[Interviewer]: So, you had been there for several hours, unable to leave.
[John Wilsterman]: Yes, unable to leave. Well, you know, for a while we were all happy-go-lucky, we were watching student films. But the second time, we were sitting there and there was a big buzz, and people were talking to each other during the second showing of these films more than they were watching the films. And it had to do all about speculation. Was this another demonstration, was something like Friday night happening again Saturday night?
So, by the time Tony and I did get outside, it was unmistakable, you could smell the smoke. And it was dark, and there were lights—the lights were out. But there were a lot of flashlights, and most of them were being wielded by firemen and policemen.
So, Tony was one of the luckiest guys in the world because he had a 1968 blue Corvette, and he had driven to this and we—you know, he had picked me up and we drove to this show. So, we had to walk to a parking lot where he parked his Corvette, and we had to cross by where the ROTC Building was burned down. And because they had the lights off, you couldn’t tell what was going on, but the thing looked like it had been—=it was just smoke and ruin. And this is something we saw, and we said, “Look at that.” And the police said, “Keep moving, keep moving.” And we eventually got to his car and got out into, what is that road—?
[Interviewer]: Yeah, where was he parked, do you remember?
[John Wilsterman]: He was parked at a parking lot—I’m trying to think.
[Interviewer]: On campus?
[John Wilsterman]: Yeah, but the parking lot was near where Terrace Drive goes into Main Street, East Main Street. So, we walked to his car and we got out on East Main Street and took a left. He lived—you had to go across, down through downtown Kent, and go across the bridge, and he lived at a house about a half a mile from where the Cuyahoga River, where the bridge crossed the river, on Main Street.
[Interviewer]: Was it a fraternity house?
[John Wilsterman]: No, he lived at home. That’s where his parents lived. And, you know, I think it was just his mom. I think his dad had passed away. So, we got on Main Street and we immediately got stopped. This was the National Guard. And they stuck the lights in the car and here we were a couple of twenty-two-year-olds. I think I was twenty-three at the time. And we were driving home from, “Okay, where are you going? Where have you been?” The same, you know, we showed them our ticket stubs. And then he passed us on, and we got stopped about a block later, and it kept on. We got stopped about six times. As soon as we crossed the river, we didn’t get stopped anymore. My—come to think of it, my car was parked over at his house.
So, we crossed the river, and there were no more National Guard. When we got stopped and interrogated, the longest we had to wait was about thirty minutes. We sat in that car and waited for thirty minutes. And then, finally, they let us go. And they were making phone calls, we didn’t know what was going on. We didn’t know if we were going to get arrested or what. Because it seemed like the credentials we were presenting at first worked and then, as we got stopped repeatedly, just about every block, till we got to the river, there was nothing going on in downtown Kent except it was under National Guard patrol, it was empty. And I still remember, I said, “This place is on lockdown.” And we finally got to Tony’s house and I said, “I don’t know about you, but I’m taking the back way to go home.” He said, “Yep, I suggest,” but, you know, Tallmadge is kind of in the other direction, so, I didn’t have any trouble getting home.
[Interviewer]: You didn’t have to go back through Kent, right.
[John Wilsterman]: No. No.
[Interviewer]: No, you’d probably never seen downtown Kent on a Saturday be quiet, yeah.
[John Wilsterman]: No, not like that.
[Interviewer]: That must have been—I mean, if I were in that situation, I would be pretty scared. That must have been unsettling, at the very least, what you went through that night.
[John Wilsterman]: It was. It was. It was unsettling, I said, “Man, I hope this thing blows over.” I’ve got a class at eight thirty in the morning. I think my first class was sometime after nine. Classes started at funny times on Monday, like 9:10 9:15. But I had to go to work Sunday night.
We were told on the radio and TV, we were watching the news, and they covered this event pretty thoroughly, but we were told that there was a curfew. That—I think that was 6:00 p.m. You had no business walking the street of Kent, Ohio, after 6:00 p.m. on Sunday. And all I remember about it, because I didn’t go to Kent on Sunday, was that there was a lot of helicopter traffic going on. Because even from where I was, I could see helicopters flying back and forth.
[Interviewer]: From your home in Tallmadge?
[John Wilsterman]: Yeah, I lived in Tallmadge. I wasn’t too far from the Tallmadge [Circle]—I lived on a road just off of [Ohio State Route] 261, which goes from Tallmadge Circle to Kent. So, that was my main way of getting back and forth. And I lived just about a mile before the Kent-Tallmadge border, maybe two miles. I know it was about—it was less than four miles to Kent, to the middle of the Kent campus. So Sunday, I went to work at midnight and, yeah, the guys were really worked up about the news. Because what it looked like, the news, it had looked like the protestors had rallied and attacked the firemen and tried to prevent them from getting the fire put out at this ROTC Building. And they cut hoses and attacked the firemen, and I said, “Oh, that’s awful.” I just really had a lot of sympathy and empathy for the police and the firemen. When these people were jumping out of the dark and hassling them and they were just trying to put out a fire. So, that’s pretty much why the National Guard was on campus that night. And they were patrolling Kent on Sunday. But it’s like, what are they going to do to get this situation resolved before Monday? And then, Governor Rhodes came on and said, on TV, “These people had plans to shut down the campus and they had threatened to shut down the campus. You’re not going to shut down the campus.” They were not going to shut down the campus. And I said, “Are you kidding?” So, business as usual Monday morning.
But yeah, the people I worked with, they were very worked up about it. They were very worked up about it. They wanted to arrest anybody that defied—that did any sort of civil disobedience. And it would be better to arrest a few innocent people than it would be to have this kind of hooliganism. That’s the way they viewed it. It was kids that didn’t have enough to do. They were improperly motivated. They were unpatriotic. And other—they had some other pejorative terms. They were not sympathetic to that at all.
[Interviewer]: Yeah, I can imagine. [00:46:13] Did they, had you told them your story, that you, you know, were stuck in this movie auditorium, and just, did they want to hear kind of what you saw since you were there? Did that come up? Or even your report?
[John Wilsterman]: No, they didn’t want to hear my opinion. I just said—well, actually, I didn’t take part in any of that.
[Interviewer]: Right, right, yeah. But you were there, you saw—
[John Wilsterman]: I am not an anti-war protestor and I believe that anybody that interferes with firemen or a law enforcement officer or any emergency service provider is wrong. They, you know, they’re criminals.
[Interviewer]: But I’m even thinking, you know, your coworkers knowing you were on campus just trying to see a movie, would have been concerned for your welfare, and your safety in that situation or, I don’t know if that was something that you talked about with them Sunday night.
[John Wilsterman]: I think they had the same view of me going to school as they would about somebody going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. If you put yourself in that situation, what happens to you happens.
[John Wilsterman]: So, not a whole lot of sympathy there.
[Interviewer]: [00:47:38] Do you want to just talk, share your memories of Monday, May 4th?
[John Wilsterman]: Monday, May 4th, I got up, and went to class. And I’m thinking, based on the map that I have here, my class was at Bowman Hall, which is just off of Summit Road, sort of on the southeast side of campus.
[Interviewer]: Okay. I’m getting my map out.
[John Wilsterman]: Yeah. It’s looking like there is a back road, I think it’s called Rhodes Drive [editor’s clarification: Rhodes Road]. It’s Allerton Street, it sort of is an extension to the road that 261 dead-ends into [Ohio State Route] 43. So, when I come, I usually took this back road, it goes through the married students’ apartments. And then it comes out on Summit Road.
[Interviewer]: Yeah, Campus Center [Drive], and then Summit [Street], okay.
[John Wilsterman]: Right. But all that was there back in 1970 was the married students’ dormitories. There might have been some other construction going on, but it was pretty bare compared to the way it is now. So, I went to Bowman Hall, and this was a non-essential class, it was an elective that I had to get to fulfil just a couple of—I’d had a couple of spare places in my march to graduation. And I had my application in to graduate and, based on the successful completion of these two or three courses, I was going to be getting my degree at the end of the spring quarter. So, in the middle of this class, I don’t even remember what it was, but I was sitting there. For me, it was just, get ready to take the test.
[Interviewer]: Right. And this was a morning class.
[John Wilsterman]: Yes. It was, started at some odd time like 9:15 or 9:20. But, in the middle of this class, a messenger came in and handed a note to the professor. And I, pretty specifically, remember what the note was about. He said, “Well, okay.”
Now, before I got to class, I have to tell you about this, because this is the one thing that was a heartbreaker for me. Because I parked my car, I don’t remember where I parked, but I had a decent walk to get to Bowman Hall. And every place I looked at was guarded by National Guard. There were troop carriers, armored troop carriers, and National Guardsmen with guns. And I said, “This is not right. This is my campus. What are they doing there?” Although I may have had some sympathy, I might have been sympathetic to the fact that they were ordered to be there and I certainly understand the hooliganism that went on Saturday night when they were trying to—the firemen were trying to put out this fire, but this is a bit much. And I felt a great deal of resentment towards Nixon at that time and a great deal of resentment towards Governor Rhodes. I said, “They’re totally mishandling this.” And I didn’t know, I had nothing to offer what they should have done, but, you know, that was just the impression. This is not right. This is my campus. They should not have armed guards on this place.
So then, I went into class, and I was thinking, well, When I get out, I have to go to Van Deusen Hall to get some stuff I had stored there. So then, in the middle of the class, the messenger arrives, and they hand it to the professor and he reads it and he says, “Oh, well, okay. Here’s what this note says: Classes are closed for the rest of the day on this campus.”
As a matter of fact, he went on to say that the school was closing down, something to that effect. And that we were to go immediately and prepare to leave campus. If we lived in a dorm on campus, we would go to that dorm and await instructions. If we lived off campus, we were to go and leave campus immediately. So, I said, “Okay.” And then he looked at us and we’re all sitting around buzzing around, he says, “I guess this would be a good time to leave.”
So, I said, “Okay.” And having been given that directive, I got up and walked up, because it was sort of a theater-type of classroom, and I remember walking up the stairs to the door. And I got out, and yeah, the National Guard was still there. And they didn’t stop anybody. They didn’t stop and talk to me, they didn’t say you weren’t supposed to be here or anything like that, but I tried to avoid them, and in avoiding them, I had to walk from Bowman Hall—I think it was Bowman Hall—straight through to the left of—there’s a building between, to the left of Taylor Hall. Across The Commons to Van Deusen Hall, which is sort of at that curve where Portage Drive and where the ROTC Building was. So, I did.
[Interviewer]: So, you were walking still toward Van Deusen to get your things, or—?
[John Wilsterman]: Yeah, I had, I don’t remember, I had to go to Van Deusen Hall for a reason. I had some books there or some notebooks. Anyway, as soon as I got to The Commons, I crested the hill at Taylor Hall and I saw this huge crowd. And I don’t know if anybody has ever properly estimated the number of students that were standing around, but I heard the bell, and I looked down, and I saw this huge crowd, thousands of students.
If they wanted to—they cancelled, there was supposed to be a rally at the Victory Bell that day, and we knew about, but the president had forbidden it and there wasn’t going to be any demonstration. We were going to have nothing but classes originally, but they were going to shut down the school. But, if they wanted to have a big crowd there to watch this spontaneous protest, then cancelling classes at ten o’clock in the morning was a good way to do it. Because when I got to The Commons, I saw this—I saw thousands of people standing around.
[Interviewer]: So, that was about ten in the morning, you think? Kind of mid—
[John Wilsterman]: It was probably closer to ten thirty. And if they wanted me to leave campus, this event was going to keep me from doing that. There were a cadre of protestors who were in the middle of the campus and then there was like a buffer-zone between them and the National Guard, and they were standing in front of the other ROTC Building which, they were not going to let anybody burn that one. I mean, these were wooden buildings. They were left over from the World War II era.
[Interviewer]: Right, the Quonset huts.
[John Wilsterman]: Yeah. Well, they were pretty much two-by-fours and siding. They looked like big double-wides. The National Guard were spread out in front of that remaining ROTC Building. And there was a bunch of protestors in front of them, probably a hundred yards in front of them, and yelling and carrying on and doing a very active and vocal protest. And then there was a ring of at least five thousand students standing around watching, and I was one of them.
And I stood there, kind of between the corner of Taylor Hall on the edge of that hill and where the Victory Bell, which is off to my right, was and just stood there and watched for a while. And it was kind of like a big event where you couldn’t get close enough to the action, but I didn’t want to get close enough to the action, I didn’t want to be there.
And it was then that one of the National Guard leaders got on a bullhorn and told everybody to disperse. And that if they didn’t disperse, that they were going to take action. Nobody left, nobody moved. The crowd kept getting bigger. And people like me, walking from class to wherever they were going to go, wherever they were told to go, wherever they wanted to go, were going to get absorbed by this big crowd just because you want to see what’s going on. So, I had it in my mind that I didn’t know what was going to happen, but then, I started edging to my left, going towards Van Deusen Hall, staying on the perimeter of the Common area. And that’s when they sort of formed this skirmish line with bayonets, you know, the position where they hold the bayonet out at a forty-five degree angle and they started marching, and that’s when I saw them shoot the tear gas. Tear gas wasn’t coming at me, but it was going towards this crowd that were doing the vocal protest.
But it was a little breezy that day. Nice May weather. It was not hot, not cold, it’s perfect weather. It was a little breezy. So, the tear gas was ineffective, it was blowing back towards the National Guardsmen, for the most part, kind of quartering-away from them. Then I saw the kids picking it up and throwing it back at them, and we all thought that was pretty funny. Keep in mind, there wasn’t one person in that crowd that thought they were going to die.
And when somebody asks me, “Well, how did you feel at that time?” I said, “Well, it felt like I was at an outdoor concert.” Where, you know, there was no seating, you couldn’t get close to the action, you know, you’re certainly—I had a good vantage point, I was halfway up the hill, and I could see what was going on.
And when the first effort failed, they sort of went back to—they dispersed the crowd but the vocal crowd kind of blended into the big crowd that was standing around them, and they went back to—everybody kind of went back to their places. National Guard went back to the ROTC Building and the students gathered in front of them and continued with their protest. By that time, I had made it to Van Deusen Hall and there was a fence around the back of the hall, there was a fenced-in area. And I stood there and I ran into my friend Tony there, and he was standing there, and he said, he looked at me and he said, “Well, this is—see what’s going on here?” I said, “Yeah, I just came from Bowman Hall.” And he said he was somewhere else, and he had come here and we kind of got to where we could watch what was going on but that parking lot was much lower than it was up on the hill, and I really couldn’t see as well as I could when I was on the hill.
[Interviewer]: When you were closer to Taylor [Hall].
[John Wilsterman]: Yeah. So I started edging a little bit to my right and getting to a higher elevation. That’s when another group of National Guardsmen had come in. They came in right behind where I was standing. And they weren’t more than thirty or forty feet away and they pulled out their guns and loaded them and I could hear them clicking. Click, click, click, click. And there was like twenty or thirty National Guardsmen standing behind me with their guns ready and holding them at that angle. And I said, “Oh, this is not good.” And at that time, they have given another order. This is when they did the march, and they were pushing the protestors across The Commons and the crowd was sort of keeping out of the way, and the protestors were trying to disperse into the crowd, but they had sort of a circling motion around them. And so, the protestors had fled up the hill to the southwest corner of Taylor Hall. And I was standing not very far away, I wasn’t more than—I was less than 200 yards from The Pagoda. And I could see where they were going and I knew what was back there, because I had just crossed that area. And so, they had pushed them in and I could see the helmets of the National Guard going after them and disappearing behind the crest of the hill at Taylor Hall.
So, and that’s when the other group of National Guard pulled in behind us. And then I saw the National Guard coming back, just like they had before, they didn’t get very far the first time they made this movement. Now I saw them coming back, and from where I could see, they were about waist-high, and they stopped and they turned around, and I wasn’t sure what was going on, but then I heard the—
Excuse me for a second.
[Interviewer]: Do you want to take a short break?
[John Wilsterman]: No, I’m good.
I heard what sounded like firecrackers. And I guess everybody that told the story from where I was, that’s what it sounded like, because we weren’t close enough and, you know, gunshots when you’re closer sound a lot different. But it went on longer than—what history tells me, it went on for thirteen seconds, but it went on a long time. And then you could see the National Guard not in a group but like onesies and twosies, just coming back and walking down the hill. They came back in sort of a disordered fashion. And we were all—people were standing around me were all talking about, “What was that?” It was firecrackers, it sounded like, firecrackers.
[the phone connection is breaking up]
[Interviewer]: Hold on, let’s take a pause.
[Interviewer]: [01:03:28] This is Kathleen Siebert Medicus, back with John Wilsterman, after a short break. So, John, go ahead and pick up where we left off, basically.
[John Wilsterman]: Sure.
[Interviewer]: Thank you.
[John Wilsterman]: We had seen the National Guard starting to come down the hill, but they came down in a very disorderly fashion. A few of them together and a few of them apart. And then they went back to their original position, all the way across The Commons. And at the time that they were withdrawing from that hill, somebody came who—I saw them coming and they were sobbing. It was a male student. He had long hair, he looked like a typical war protestor. And he was coming back through the crowd and he was just bumping into everybody like he was delirious. He was sobbing and he was saying that, “They’re shooting at us, they’re killing us all.” And that’s when it kind of got into us that they were shooting, that’s what they were doing up there, they were shooting. And not having been close enough to be—to hear it like gunfire, we didn’t know it. And that sobered everybody up. There was such a change in our perspective at that time, where we were just a bunch of kids standing around watching something exciting going on. It was no longer exciting; it was dangerous and scary.
And they’re shooting people. And obviously they shot somebody, and this guy was sobbing. And that’s the extent of what I knew at the time. I turned to look at Tony, and he gave me that look like, we need to go someplace else, we need to go somewhere else. And, at that time, that’s when the General—what was his name, Canterbury—got on the bullhorn and gave us a more demanding order to leave the campus, to go back to our dorms.
And then they started giving explicit instructions that they were not only going to close down the campus, they were going to evacuate the campus. And they were going to arrange for transportation, for parents to come pick up their students and go home, go to your home, go to your dorm. But this campus was going to be totally evacuated. And either before or after that announcement, a professor got on, and he made a very impassioned plea for us to leave, and he said, “I beg you, if you—this situation is only going to get more dangerous.” He didn’t say anything like, “They’re shooting, they killed people.” But at that time, there was an ambulance that went roaring across The Commons and went up the hill. It was sort of like a big, long, low—what we would think of as a limousine. It was an ambulance.
And it went up the hill on the grass and went over the top of the hill. And that was an ambulance. I guess they had an ambulance there. And I thought, Jeez, okay, that’s another sign. So, Tony and I sort of eased our way back while this professor was giving this impassioned plea. And we went into—or after he had finished, I said, “Well, I guess we better go.” So instead of leaving, you know, that’s great, he made that decision you’re going to go home. Instead of doing that, we went into Van Deusen Hall. And we went into Professor Blankenship’s office.
And we—it was Tony and I and maybe one other student, we were in there, and he was sitting behind his desk and he offered us coffee, but the coffee pot had been sitting there for hours. It was the absolute worst coffee I’ve ever had in my life. So, we were sitting there—
[Interviewer]: That’s a funny detail.
[John Wilsterman]: —drinking coffee, and he was saying, “Well,” you know, “it’s inevitable when you put these kind of forces, that this kind of thing should happen. We should have all known better, and we didn’t. And it happened.” And we stayed in his office just talking, trying to relieve our own nervousness, but Professor Blankenship sort of knew that the longer we stayed there, the more trouble we were going to be in.
He gets a phone call, and he talks and he hangs up and he says, “The campus has been shut down and most of the people are evacuated. I just got a word that if we don’t leave now, we’re going to be arrested.” So, I said, “Well, I’m going to leave.” Tony and I walked out the back of Van Deusen Hall, exactly the direction we had come in, and we looked out on this scene where previously there were ten thousand people standing around, and now there’s nobody. It was like being in like a post-apocalyptic movie, where you’re the only survivors and the town is still there but it’s empty. No people. And we didn’t talk. I don’t remember him and I exchanging a word, we didn’t. We walked together towards Taylor Hall. We walked up the hill and we saw it. And it was all there before. There wasn’t anybody there. There weren’t any police there, there weren’t any Guard there. There weren’t, there wasn’t anybody in this place where the shootings had taken place. We walked down there to where that spot where Jeffrey Miller—the photograph of Jeffrey Miller and [Mary] Ann Vecchio—we walked down there and stood next to the blood, the pooled blood. And we looked around, there was like a two-inch maple sapling that somebody had planted, just—a bullet took it down, and so it was sticking—three-foot stump was sticking up. And the tree was laying over, just, you know, having been shot.
And we looked and saw—we walked around the parking lot where there was human—chunks of human beings lying on the ground and broken car windows and bullet holes in the cars and, just, you know, it was just like the most vivid thing I have in my memory. Tony and I walking out there in that parking lot, all by ourselves, looking at this. And, there’s nobody else around. Well, of course, they were smart, they left. We kind of gave each other a hug, and he went towards his car and I went towards mine, which required me to walk back towards Bowman Hall, I can’t remember where I was parked.
And I got in my car and went home. I got home and my stepmother was there. And she had been watching the news. She looked at me, she said, “Oh, thank God. But you better call your dad.” So, I called dad at work, he worked in Akron. He was an accountant, he had an office in Akron. He’s a private company accountant. He picked up the phone and he said, “Oh, hi John.” “Hey dad, I just wanted to let you know I’m okay.” And he goes, “Well, why wouldn’t you be?” “Well, I didn’t get shot at school today.” And he goes, “What?” “I’m okay.” He says, “Well, what happened?” And I kind of gave him a brief. He says, “You’re not going to work tonight.” That’s what he told me. And I said, “I have to go to work tonight.” But I couldn’t get to sleep, you know. No way I was going to be able to sleep. So, I went to work, and they were waiting on me.
And this may be the worst that happened to me during the thing, because I couldn’t keep it together. Came up to me and, these guys, and they said, “There should have been more of you dead. Should have filled the hospitals with you. If I had been there, it would have been a lot more of you dead.” And, you know, I listened to this for a while, and that after a while I said, “So, if it was your son and your daughter, you would have pulled the trigger on them?”
And one guy looked at me and he didn’t know what to say, he walked off. And my supervisor came up to me, and he said, you know, “Everybody’s kind of angry. I mean, not doing any work.” And he said, “If you want to go home, you can.” And I said, “Well, I had to come in because I had some things that had to get done.” Sort of had a specialty in the computer room that nobody else could do, and a lot of things that were my responsibility would have been—but I wasn’t thinking about that. I just kind of went through the motions. It was the toughest eight hours of my life.
That was kind of it. I never went back. I did go back on campus, but for—the school was shut down. It was closed and I had a conversation with my student advisor, and he said, “Don’t come back onto campus.” He said, “There’s only a few people that are allowed to come back onto campus. And anybody else is going to get arrested.”
I got mail, over the next few days, I got mail from all of my professors. They were going to—one guy was going to send me a test that I’d do at home and mail it back and, you know, finish the courses and all that. Another guy sent me a letter with a postcard in it and he said, “Apparently, we’re not going to be able to get back and I know you want to finish, so indicate on the back of this postcard what grade, letter grade you want in the class.” And he had A, B, C, D, and F, and incomplete, or withdrawal, you know, incomplete. And I said, well, let me think about that for a second
[Interviewer]: I’ve heard people talk about that, other people mention this, that professors would say what grade do you think you deserve, or what grade do you, should you have.
[John Wilsterman]: Well this guy was—he made no pretense about it. He said, “Go ahead and tell me what grade you want and that’s what you’ll get.”
[Interviewer]: Was that a class in your major or was that one of your elective classes?
[John Wilsterman]: No, I had finished all my major courses. Only thing I was doing was taking these elective classes, and they were interesting, but they weren’t very—some of them were interesting and some of them weren’t. And these were all pretty much fluff courses that—rounding out your liberal arts education.
[Interviewer]: So you were able to finish that way?
[John Wilsterman]: Yeah. And I snuck back onto campus one time, to see an old professor I had that I really, really liked this guy. Took two English classes from him. His name was Bill Strunk, S-t-r-u-n-k.
And when he saw me standing in his doorway, he said, “What are you doing here?” Looked around like the police were going to arrest me. Well, I knew that our—I wanted to come by and, you know, say goodbye.
And we kind of had thirty minutes to talk and everything and we hugged (?? [01:16:26]) and everything and he wished me well. He said, “I wish you’d have been an English major.” “But because you’re one of the best writers I’ve ever had in my class.” Well, I appreciate that. I really did.
[Interviewer]: That was shortly after, sometime that summer, or—?
[John Wilsterman]: It was just a few weeks after the shootings. Wasn’t even the end of the quarter. But, you know, there was no end to the quarter. The quarter was over.
[Interviewer]: Yeah, the quarter was truncated, right.
[John Wilsterman]: And I kept in touch with the Registrar’s Office, and they kept in touch with me and went through all the motions. You know, the really interesting thing was that there was so much of a curfew going on at Kent. I had all the time and freedom because I wasn’t going to school anymore and just work to deal with. And, you know, things at work kind of got a whole lot smoother. And I think, generally, the guys that were such hardliners on these protests got to see, got to have—they changed. I mean, they softened a lot. The country softened a lot.
You know, there was this huge rally that went on all over the country after Kent State. And it was, it really did tell us that we didn’t belong doing what we were doing. If this is how divided we’re going to be, we weren’t willing to take it to a level beyond this. And, you know, it was a big change. But one of the interesting things that occurred was that Kent had to go through months of curfew. Livelihood was threatened because it was a great drinking spot for all of northeastern Ohio.
[Interviewer]: Sure, downtown was a destination.
[John Wilsterman]: One of my favorite places to go was JB’s in Kent. JB’s was where I got to see the James Gang and Phil Keaggy and all of these great, great bands. James Gang was one of the best bands. And, of course, Joe Walsh. Joe Walsh was a great guy and he’d hang out with you during the breaks and we talked motorcycles and all kinds of things. And he went on to fame and fortune and, you know, and I went on to fortune.
But one night, we were downtown in Kent, Ohio, this is Tony and I, and there was a British broadcasting company had come over to Kent to do a documentary. And it was the most bizarre night I remember. You are not going to get this story from anybody else.
[Interviewer]: So when was this? That summer?
[John Wilsterman]: This was maybe a month and a half after the shootings. So, it was late June, early July , something like that. So, the BBC was over there filming a documentary, and we knew it because they were driving around in this big flatbed truck, with a big TV camera on the back of it, and just filming all these radical Kent students. And filming—getting the background, so that this worldwide event would be better understood. So, Tony and I were going to see a band that night at JB’s, a band called the Damnation of Adam Blessing. That was the name of the band.
[Interviewer]: Have to admit, I’m not familiar with this band.
[John Wilsterman]: Okay. So, we were down there watching the band, and it was a great band and we had a great concert. They were going to take a short break, so during the break, we went out, and there was about a hundred people. And we went outside—can’t, you had to—if you’ve ever been JB’s, it’s down in the basement. You walk from Water Street down into this basement and then you come back up.
So, we came back up and we were on Water Street and it’s dark, maybe ten o’clock, and the BBC is there filming and a hundred people standing around the street. And somebody blows up, or has a beach ball, and they start blowing it up and we start batting this beach ball around like we’re playing volleyball with no net. And this was, you know, this big crowd and the BBC is just closing in on us and just filming like crazy. And the next thing that I know, more than a half a dozen State Highway Patrol police cars come roaring down Water Street and around this crowd. And they get out and they start using their batons on people and arresting them and taking them to the ground and putting cuffs on them, and dragging them off, and it was unbelievable. And Tony and I saw this thing and we stepped back into this alley. There was like a grain warehouse next to the building that JB’s was in. We sort of got out of the scene, we were watching it from the darkness of this alley. So, after about ten minutes, the police left. And everybody’s going, “What the hell happened?” And we were trying to get back into JB’s but they shut the doors. It was crazy.
So, the people that didn’t get arrested are standing around going, “What was that all about?” And the BBC had gone, and it was dark and nobody’s there except for this crowd of maybe twenty people. And we’re all talking about this bizarre incident. And then the guy with the beach ball shows up again. He blows it up and starts batting this beach ball around. We batted it around until past midnight. I swear to God, that is a true story.
The other thing, I got with Tony about a year and half ago and I started reminiscing about that event, and he looks at me and he said, “How do you remember all this stuff?” I hadn’t thought about that. But, that was a true story.
[Interviewer]: Well, you have a good memory, clearly, and that was also a memorable event.
[John Wilsterman]: Yeah, it was.
[Interviewer]: So that took place on North Water Street, kind of just outside of JB’s?
[John Wilsterman]: Yep.
[Interviewer]: No, I’ve never heard that story.
[John Wilsterman]: Yeah, it was, yeah. It was kind of a funny place for a while because, you know, they wanted to have people, bar patrons, down there. They had curfews for the longest time. And then they had—pretty much midnight was the end of the night.
[Interviewer]: Okay. So if you did come with your friends to go to a bar, that summer, you had to be out and leaving by midnight typically?
[John Wilsterman]: Yes.
[Interviewer]: [01:23:42] Did you go to graduation ceremony?
[John Wilsterman]: Oh yeah. Yeah. Graduation was in August. And I went to graduation. Got my diploma. It was pretty big, I don’t know how many people were there, but it was big enough to hold it in the stadium.
[Interviewer]: The football stadium? Right on campus, that old stadium on campus?
[John Wilsterman]: Right.
[Interviewer]: Okay. And your family was able to come, and—?
[John Wilsterman]: Well, my brother and sister were gone. My brother had—he lived in San Diego and he was working as a contractor for the Navy out there. My sister had—she was living in Florida, I believe. She was in Florida. So it was just my dad and my stepmom.
[Interviewer]: [01:24:45] Do you have any other memories from that summer that you’d like to share?
[John Wilsterman]: I was also working out at the airport.
[Interviewer]: The Kent State Airport?
[John Wilsterman]: Finishing up a pilot’s license. My friend, Dave Ellis and I worked on taking apart a radial engine. We didn’t have to do it, we were just helping out. So, you know, that was pretty much it. I didn’t go on campus much after that. No reason to. I met the requirements for graduation.
Nothing but work for me. I didn’t stay at the job longer. I left the job at BF Goodrich in November. My friend Tony and I, we had both graduated. Tony didn’t go to graduation as far as I know. We didn’t make any plans. But we went out to San Diego and stayed with my brother for a while. And we went and interviewed aerospace companies out there. They were all very interested in hearing about our Kent State exploits. They weren’t hiring engineers, so we hung out there for a while. He came back, he also had a job, he worked for BF Goodrich [editor’s clarification: Goodyear] part-time, and he stayed with them his whole career. But I quit my job and came down to Georgia. And never left. Never went back.
[Interviewer]: So you moved to Georgia in 1970, that fall, or soon—?
[John Wilsterman]: Yeah, it was more like, no, it was after, it was in ’71. It was after New Year’s.
[Interviewer]: The next year.
[John Wilsterman]: I came home after Tony and I had our mad tour of California. We came back here and I worked for my dad for a little bit and then after a few months I said, “Tony got transferred down to Atlanta.” He had to work in a tire factory down in Georgia. So I went down to visit him, and he came home, and I stayed. Got a job as a computer programmer. And, later on, got on with IBM. That’s where I spent the bulk of my career, working for IBM.
[Interviewer]: [01:27:17] I wanted to ask, I’m hesitant to do this, but I’m afraid that when our phone call was breaking up, I’m not sure what parts that we missed in terms of: you were standing, you went a little bit back up the hill, more toward Taylor Hall again.
[John Wilsterman]: Oh, I see. Right.
[Interviewer]: And you saw the Guard.
[John Wilsterman]: Saw the Guard.
[Interviewer]: Do you mind just repeating that, when you could see them, just their heads and shoulders over the crest of the hill and when they turned. If you don’t mind just going through that again, just in case.
[John Wilsterman]: Sure. No problem.
[Interviewer]: Thank you.
[John Wilsterman]: It’s probably easier the second time.
[Interviewer]: Sorry. Okay.
[John Wilsterman]: The Guard had gone up there and they had disappeared over the crest of the hill. And what I read from the historical accounts is that they went all the way down into the practice football field and the crowd had just sort of drifted away. But, when the National Guard retreated back up to the top of the hill, which is where the—an area they called where The Pagoda was, they—the protestors had gotten back together, and they were sort of in that parking lot area between the practice field and Taylor Hall.
And there was some activity that caused the National Guard—they were on their way back, but they stopped and turned around and faced the protesting crowd again. And that’s where I was watching them. And they stopped and they turned back towards that parking lot where the protestors were. That’s when we heard the sound; it sounded like firecrackers.
[Interviewer]: And when they turned, was that kind of, was that really uniform, like they turned in unison, from your perspective where you were standing?
[John Wilsterman]: It seemed, yes. Seemed to be pretty much they turned together. And they stopped, and they were there, and I could see about half of the National Guard. I think there was a group of about sixty Guardsmen. And I could see half of them, but some of them were down on the other side of the hill and I couldn’t see them, or I could see just the tops of their heads, their helmets. But they had turned, and they were focused on—and, of course, I couldn’t see what the crowd, the protesting crowd, was doing.
[Interviewer]: Right. Because they were on the other side of the hill, yeah.
[John Wilsterman]: On the other side of the hill. But then, I heard, I did hear these firecrackers sound. And we all stopped and got very sober at that point. Yeah.
[Interviewer]: [01:29:52] And that professor that you mentioned, that was pleading with students to please leave, you know, this is not safe—
[John Wilsterman]: Well that was a professor that was—
[Interviewer]: -that was Dr. [Glenn] Frank, did you know him?
[John Wilsterman]: No.
[Interviewer]: Had you had class with him?
[John Wilsterman]: I didn’t remember him. But I knew, I could tell by the tone of his voice and, of course, the evidence that we had at that point had really changed our perspective. I mean, we were just—we were all on the verge of going into shock. At whatever level. You know, when Tony and I went into Van Deusen Hall, that was not the act of a rational person. A rational person follows the orders and leaves.
[Interviewer]: And gets to their car and, right.
[John Wilsterman]: We were so stunned, and I’m sure there were other people that were stunned as well. It was a traumatic event.
[Interviewer]: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.
[John Wilsterman]: It was the end of our carefree time that day. We were carefree and innocent up to that point. But not—we were now in the line of fire and, if we didn’t get out of there, we were going to get arrested.
[Interviewer]: Right. Wow. I can’t imagine. I can’t even imagine.
[John Wilsterman]: You didn’t want to be the slow person getting the heck out of there. However, what we did was really not an act of defiance. It was an act of a person stumbling around in shock.
[Interviewer]: Right, yeah. It must have been helpful to talk with Professor Blankenship, you know, someone you knew and trusted and liked, one of your favorite professors.
[John Wilsterman]: Yeah, it was. He was a very funny guy. Was very entertaining. He was a stickler for the academic part of his class, but he knew how to make it entertaining because he was funny. You didn’t get in there and get bored or lectured to, you just felt it was worth your while to pay attention to him because he knew what he was talking about. And he was a great professor and he would sit there and talk to you anytime you wanted to talk to him, you could talk to him. I did like him a lot; I hope he fared well after we parted ways.
[Interviewer]: It’s totally understandable that you, you know, you’re stunned, you’re in shock, you would just sort of gravitate to his office, you know, someone you knew. Did you ever get your books, or whatever it was, you were going to Van Deusen Hall initially to retrieve?
[John Wilsterman]: Yes, I did.
[Interviewer]: Oh, good!
[John Wilsterman]: Yeah.
[Interviewer]: I had to put closure on that story, okay.
[John Wilsterman]: Well, I had, I think I had to lend somebody a book and they were going to leave it with Blankenship, and that’s why I went back to his office.
[Interviewer]: Oh, I see.
[John Wilsterman]: But somebody had borrowed a book from me and that’s what I went back for.
[Interviewer]: [01:32:58] Another thing I wanted to ask: you described the crowd of people who were predominantly spectators kind of ringing The Commons, as being just, you know, at least five thousand people. Did you have a sense of the number of people that you felt were more in the core that were the really vocal protestors? Do you have kind of a rough number in your mind from that?
[John Wilsterman]: I had in mind that it was less than a hundred. Initially, when I started telling this story and, you know, somebody would be curious about it and they’d ask me. And that might be why I remembered a lot more about it than Tony did. Nobody asked him, because he didn’t leave home like I did. And I got out of it.
[Interviewer]: And everywhere you went—
[John Wilsterman]: Everybody, nobody asked about Kent State in Ohio, because they were part of it. It was a lot closer to them. But down in other areas, they did. Plus, when you’re a stranger in town, there wasn’t as much antagonism towards the anti-war protestors. There may have been, people didn’t express it quite as openly. But when I looked at that crowd, I looked at that, the active part of the crowd, and I would have said they were less than a hundred.
[Interviewer]: [01:34:32] Is there anything else that you are interested in sharing about how these experiences affected your life over the years? Your choice of career, decision to move to Georgia? I mean, any impact this had on you kind of long-term? Witnessing what you did.
[John Wilsterman]: No.
[John Wilsterman]: I mean I, the observations that I had is that it was a traumatic experience, but I don’t feel like the—the impact it had on me had a lot more to do with my understanding about government. There’s a lot of us feel a little less comfortable around authority. Not so much that, a true leader is somebody you trust and believe in. I would say I had really great professors while I was at Kent who I trusted and I believed in them and enjoyed the learning experience with them. And some of them were just so authoritarian, I didn’t trust them at all. And I had professors who were totally corrupt. Well, extend that beyond to your own government, and your sense of government and your sense of leadership. That I didn’t trust our government, after that. I was growing more distrustful of it as the war progressed. And it wasn’t Kent, the shootings, that caused this, it was my perception of what was happening with our leaders. And then, I do believe that a lot of people made a lot of money and gained a lot of power based on that war. And I do believe that this still goes on today. I’m very distrustful. And I found out that our leaders aren’t really good at what they do, because look at our Governor, he did nothing to protect us. Matter of fact, he claimed that he was coming after us. Guys like me, who weren’t a war protestor. The fact that I would feel resentment at having the symbol of absolute authority on my campus. He was coming after me as well as these people who were down there shouting and throwing rocks or whatever.
So, why didn’t he? I felt like he totally let us down. I felt he deserved to be totally repudiated. Apparently, the voting public felt the same way. Because I think he tried to run for office and didn’t succeed. But, the Governor and, well, even the president of the university. They didn’t protect us. That’s kind of a big letdown.
[Interviewer]: And that stayed with you, sure.
[John Wilsterman]: Yeah, it still does. I still sense that faith, not so much that they were bad people, it’s just that they’re limited. Everybody is, they don’t have the power or the authority to make the right decision. They make a decision. The predominant view was support for the war and, if you look at the voting public, the number of kids who were going to vote in the next national election are overwhelmed by the number of adults that are out there that take a more supportive role towards the war. So, you have to lend your allegiance to your constituency. And it went on, it didn’t end at Kent. Kent should have been the big shocker that set everybody straight, but it didn’t. And that’s kind of a disappointment to me. We didn’t get out of Vietnam for five years. And it was a horrible experience. It got worse, not better. And it gave government this license to act on the so-called War Powers Act. It’s still going on, it still happens all the time. We behave irresponsibility towards our fellow man on this earth. I’m more of a conservative than I would call myself a liberal, but I have an anti-war thesis that goes through my whole outlook on life.
Not so much an anti-politics, but I have to realize that these people are human. That they are weak, humans are. And they don’t always make the right decisions and they have to stand up and take responsibility for it. It’s a lot higher position than trying to go around and pointing fingers at other people. Those kids didn’t get killed because they wanted to end the war, they got killed because they didn’t believe they were going to get shot. And that’s the bottom line.
[Interviewer]: Right, yeah. No one would have guessed that could happen. I’m sure most students assumed it was rubber bullets. Well, thank you for sharing that, thank you. Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about that we haven’t covered at this point?
[John Wilsterman]: I think that pretty much does it. I’m ready to take a nap!
[Interviewer]: Me too!
[John Wilsterman]: I’m just kidding, I’ve got to go to a party, so—
[Interviewer]: Well, thank you so much. We’ll end the recording here and I just want to thank you, really, for taking this huge amount of time and telling your very important story. I appreciate it.
[John Wilsterman]: Okay, and I’m very grateful to you for the interview.
[End of interview]×
Student at Kent State University in 1970
|Date of Interview||
This recording and transcription include content which may be harmful, offensive, and/or disturbing to some users.
John Wilsterman was a senior studying aeronautics at Kent State University in 1970. In this oral history, he shares anecdotes about his student days while he also held down a full-time job at BF Goodrich. He relates what happened to him and a friend while attending a film festival on campus the night of the ROTC Building fire, including being stopped at several police and military checkpoints while driving home. He provides his detailed eyewitness account of the shootings along with discussing his experiences on campus during the immediate aftermath. He and a friend walked through the parking lot and practice football field where the shootings had just taken place; the area was completely deserted at that point.
|Length of Interview||
|Time Period discussed||
Arrest (Police methods)--Ohio--Kent
Canterbury, Robert H.
Evacuation of civilians--Ohio--Kent
Frank, Glenn W.
JB's (Kent, Ohio)
Kent State Shootings, Kent, Ohio, 1970
Kent State University. Commons
Kent State University. ROTC Building--Fires
Kent State University. Van Deusen Hall
Miller, Jeffrey, d. 1970--Death and burial
Ohio. Army National Guard
Polarization (Social sciences)
Roadblocks (Police methods)
Tear gas munitions
Vietnam War, 1961-1975
Special Collections and Archives
This digital object is owned by Kent State University and may be protected by U.S. Copyright law (Title 17, USC). Please include proper citation and credit for use of this item. Use in publications or productions is prohibited without written permission from Kent State University. Please contact the Department of Special Collections and Archives for more information.
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