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Interview with John Cleary

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McKiernan Interviews
Interview with: John Cleary
Interviewed by: Stephen McKiernan
Transcriber: Eden Lowinger
Date of interview: 26 January 2022

(Start of Interview)

SM: 00:01
All right, we are all set. I can put it on? Okay, I am going to put you on... All right. Again, John, thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview. I always start out the interviews with a question about your early years. Could you, could you describe your growing up years, where you were born, what kind of a neighborhood you came from, what your parents did for a living, kind of your hometown environment during your elementary and secondary school years?

JC: 00:34
Sure. I actually grew up in a very rural area in upstate New York, near Schenectady, Albany. The actual name of the town was Scotia. And we actually live probably about five to six miles outside of Scotia. So we were really in a very rural area. My parents had a small Cape Cod house on probably about three acres of land. Actually, they were right near kind of an intersection. And on the one corner, the intersection was Centre Glenville Methodist Church which we went to, we attended. And so it was basically within walking distance of our house, even though we were in a rural area. And then on the other side of the intersection was Glendale Elementary School, where I basically went to, you know, first through sixth, you know, I spent, I was very much of an outdoor person and my younger years, spent a lot. I was involved in scouting quite a bit. And so we did a lot of camping trips and fishing trips. And I just really enjoyed that aspect of it. Trying to think here, oh and then we you know, these were the days when you kind of had pickup baseball games, no, no adults involved. Everyone grabbed their mitts and a baseball. And since we were within walking distance to the elementary school, there was a ball field in the back. And I just remember in spring and summer, after school, going over there and some of the kids did not have gloves. So when you, when you were in the outfield, and you got your turn at bat, you just dropped your glove on the ground where it was, and then people would run out and they would share your gloves but that was just kind of our upbringing. Probably in about fifth or sixth grade, I really got interested in skiing. And my parents, there was a golf course, probably within a 30 minutes’ drive of our house where they set up a rope tow in the winter. And so I would go over there, they dropped me off at eight in the morning and pick me up at five and I skied all day and have a great- -great time of it. Later, when I got into high school, we used to have a ski club and my parents had dropped me off. We would get a bus at like six in the morning and drive two to three hours. You know we were at the foothills of the Adirondacks and close to Vermont. And so we would ski a different resort every Saturday. And gosh I remember I think this is like, you know, it was not a school bus, it was pretty nice Coach bus and I think that the cost of the bus and the lift ticket was like $7.

SM: 03:33
Wow. It is a little different today [laughs].

JC: 03:51
No, it is different today could not even get a, probably could not even get a hamburger and a coke for that.

SM: 04:29
[laughs] That is true, when you were a kid were you a Pittsburgh pirate fan?

JC: 04:34
Well I grew up in upstate New York so.

SM: 04:36
Okay, who was your, who your favorite players?

JC: 04:42
You know what I did not really follow the-the you know, well I followed the Yankees and gosh, you were going to, you were going to try to- there was of course Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford. There were you know some of the other major players. My dad was a huge New York Giants fan. So I remember on Sunday afternoons, sitting in the living room and watching football with my dad.

SM: 05:13
Yeah. I am a big Giants fan. I grew up in Ithaca and Cortland. So that is, that Giant's country.

JC: 05:20
Yeah, there you go.

SM: 05:21
Yeah. When you were, how did your parents and your young peer friends feel about the issues in the news that were taking place during those early years, particularly in the early (19)60s, their thoughts on, you know, at the dinner table when you were with your parents or your, really your friends in school. Did you ever talk about the-the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement and some of the other movements that were taking place at that time, some for the first time?

JC: 05:53
Well, I mean, I have to be honest here and say that really, I was not really political at all, I was kind of in my own little bubble in upstate New York. And basically, like I said, I was very much involved with the doing things outdoors and did not watch hardly any TV, did not watch or read any, any papers per se. We did not really talk politics at the dinner table. Usually, it was about the day's events, or, you know, when I say day's events, meaning what I had done, or what my parents had done, or you know, those-those types of issues. We really did not talk politics at all in our family.

SM: 06:48
Did-did you ever, just as just as you now, this is not talking about, did you ever feel that you were something- this was way before college- that your generation was so different than any other generation? Because it was the biggest generation in history, because you were one of the children of the world war two generation- 74 million. And it seemed like everything in the news in the late (19)40s, (19)50s and (19)60s was all about these young boomers. Did you ever think about the, being a part of that generation that seems to be in the news every minute?

JC: 07:26
To be honest, I really did not and, and, you know, probably in my own naïveté you know, I was just kind of cruising along with my, you know, friends that I hung out with and did things and did not really look at the overall picture nationwide, what was going on. It really was not until I went to Kent that I really began to be exposed to anything going on outside our little community. You know, we had one, one TV in the house. And basically, you know, we were watching Bonanza and Disney show. I do think my parents watched the nightly news. But, you know, I certainly was not involved in that. So, I did not really kind of piece together any kind of an overall picture what my generation was doing or, you know, I obviously had some brushes with the Vietnam War, especially. And then this was really more, maybe my senior year or my freshman at Kent, when they had the draft. I fortunately got a high number. And so, I really did not have to worry about the draft, but I did have some high school friends, especially those that I hung around with, who got low numbers, and one, one, one went into the Navy, and the other one enlisted in the Air Force. So, they-they were basically, you know, avoiding having to go into the army.

SM: 09:32
Right. Now, why did you pick Kent State?

JC: 09:39
Well, I was vacillating my senior years to what I wanted to major in and I started it started to gel that I thought architecture might be the right direction for me and at one time thought about going into the medical field to become a doctor. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that I was a little more of a creative person. And so I thought architecture would be the better route for me. And my dad worked, it was like, probably the only, it was the major employer in the area, General Electric. And he had a coworker, a friend of his, whose son went to Kent, and majored in architecture. And so, my dad said, "Hey, look, my, you know, my son, John is thinking about going into architecture and I know your son is going to Kent, would you mind if he came over and just kind of looked at what, what your son is doing at Kent?" And so we went over and visited them. And of course, he pulls out these presentation boards that he had done, and some models that he had done. And I was kind of blown away. I said, this is really cool stuff. And, you know, I loved what he what he was doing and what he was involved in. So, we-we decided to go out in the spring and check out Kent. I had looked at Syracuse University, which is the you know, it still is- it was pretty expensive, even for somebody who lived in the state. And Syracuse is a little more of an urban campus. And when I went to Kent, and we went for a weekend because a little bit of a drive, and they had an orientation, where they gave you a tour of the campus. And I just remember feeling really comfortable. And you know, on, I liked the size of the campus, I liked the layout of the campus, it was more spread out and just had a really nice feel for it, and that was really what would push me to go there.

SM: 12:15
Now I know that I, I am from Ithaca and Cornell has a really good architecture program too. I believe their program was five years. Was your- a five year program? Or was it four?

JC: 12:26
Yeah. It actually was, it was a five year program.

SM: 12:29
Yep. And I thought that is pretty common now. And that is a pretty, it is a really good program to get into. It is sometimes very difficult to get into too.

JC: 12:39
Yeah, I think we thought maybe Cornell might be out of reach for me. I mean, I was a fairly good school student in high school, but I was not outstanding.

SM: 12:49
Now, when you went to Kent State University, what was your first impression? So that first year you were there, what kind of an environment was it? Was it one with a lot of activism going on? Was there good relationships between the community and the students? What kind of a feel did you get beyond the classroom?

JC: 13:10
Well, the interesting thing is, I kind of felt this almost tidal wave of change, which I felt happened the year that I was a freshman. Because when I when I first arrived on campus as a freshman, you know, people were still kind of dressing up to go to classes. You saw boys with ties and women in, you know, skirts and dresses, and we have RAS. And they had like a kind of a freshman orientation. And we were supposed to wear these goofy hats called thinks. So that upperclassmen could pick on you, you know, it was kind of still that kind of (19)60s type of mentality. That kind of began to fall by the wayside in the winter. And by spring, I mean, really, everyone was dressing extremely casually, jeanies, hair was getting longer, you know, just really saw a tremendous change in environment there. I guess the other point I was going to make was because architecture is a little bit of a difficult program, you-you really needed to have study groups to kind of help each other along with homework and classroom assignments. So, you know, I immediately began to bond with about maybe five or six freshmen architectural students. You know, we would study together, we worked together on projects. So, you know, the friendships really began to form fairly early. And that was kind of specific to my architectural programs. I guess I like to say, you know, I probably missed some great times down on Water Street and the bars that first year-

SM: 15:21

JC: 15:22
-because I was I was a little bit too concerned about my grades and everything.

SM: 15:28

JC: 15:30
But and I suppose I was not a drinking age yet then either. But either way, I did not really discover much of the downtown life until spring.

SM: 15:42
Yeah, what year you begin there?

JC: 15:48

SM: 15:49
(19)69. You know (19)69, you know, I was just, I just had an interview with another person and who was there at that time. And the political environment of about Kent State from afar was that it, you know, Ohio University and Ohio State, were the two that were more very activist oriented with a lot of protests and everything, did not realize how many protests took place at Kent State. And-and how big these Students for Democratic Society was on the campus, who were against the war. Did you see any friction between the students at that time between those who were against the war and those who were for it?

JC: 16:35
I do remember. I mean, let us, let us fast forward to the spring. I do not really do not really remember any of that in the fall or the winter. I am not saying that it was not there. But I do not remember seeing any of it. And then in the spring, there were some more outdoor rallies. And I, you know, I began to see these anti-war protests. And the school of architecture was located on the top floor of Taylor Hall. So we oversaw the campus, so when there were rallies and you know, things going on-on the commons, we would overlook that, and we would see it, and we would hear it. But I will be honest with you, I did not really attend any, any of those rallies, but I was witness to them. I did not really see any clashes between regular students and activists, but I did witness the spring rallies that were going on-on campus.

SM: 17:59
Did you get a feeling there at the time that there was a tension within the community toward the students? That is the city, the city of Kent, the people who were not students?

JC: 18:12
Well, I have to be careful here. Because, you know, obviously, you know, we read it, you know, we have read things and you know, you know, I have read a lot about how the townspeople resented the students, and were concerned about the students. But for me, personally, I did not spend a lot of time in town. Like I said, I did not really discover Water Street or Main Street until the spring. So, I cannot honestly say that, that that myself personally, that I saw any of that.

SM: 18:52
Leading up to that, the terrible tragedy that happened on the fourth of May (19)70. Can you describe that day? What, how that opened? What you were doing in the day itself? And then sadly, how you were in the line of fire?

JC: 19:12
Sure. I do not know if you want me to or not, but I, I can kind of go over the entire weekend, if you want.

SM: 19:21
I would like that because I have got five interviews I have done now. And I- what is important, John, is I just want people who are not alive today. These are going to be for research and scholarships for students, faculty and national scholars down the road. And in Kent, what happened at Kent State is the, one of the historic events of the (19)60s, no question, in fact, in American history, in my view. If you want to go over what happened maybe from April 30th when Nixon announced his speech or about going into Cambodia?

JC: 19:56
Yeah, what I was going to do is pick it up from Friday. Because, you know, things really changed for me starting on-on Friday. I was once again haven't really [audio cuts].

SM: 20:23
Still there? Whoops. Okay, we are all set, we are back.

JC: 20:48
I was talking about Sunday. And there was really kind of a real tension that you could feel between the students and the military on campus. When you walked around campus, there was military presence everywhere. And I think for a lot of the antiwar students and the activists, you know, this, this was a really upsetting thing, to-to have this strong military presence on their campus. And so everywhere you went on Sunday, there were National Guard, at campus buildings, parking lots, driving up and down the streets. It was really kind of a little disconcerting. And right around dusk, there was a curfew that went into place. And basically, what they told us was that no groups of students more than three could be out at any one time. And we typically ate dinner a little bit later, because we would be doing work or doing some stuff up at Taylor Hall. So when we were done with dinner, and trying to walk back across an open area to our dorms, they were threatening to tear gas us because there was like three or four of us. So we had to break into smaller groups. And I know there were some groups that came out at the dining hall later, after we did, that were tear gassed. And probably around eight in the evening or so there was an attempt to have some sort of a rally on Commons. Helicopters appeared, with search lights and bull horns. And the group was tear gassed. The tear gas drifted back into our dorm. And so, we-we ran out of the building, because we could not breathe. And the Guardsmen who were deployed outside, forced us back into the building. They did not want to hear any of our excuses. They said there was a curfew, we had to stay in the building. So, we finally went into the study lounges and kind of hunkered down, because they were not as bad with the tear gas. And we really did not get much sleep that night. There were helicopters hovering all over campus that were loud. They were kind of harassing anyone that was outside. So you know, it was a pretty tense night. And it was a long night. Like I said, we did not get much sleep. So then, Monday, classes were still in session. So that Monday morning, I went to, I believe it was my English class. And the-the building entrance had soldiers on each side of it. And our professor said, you know, that there was probably going to be a rally at noon and it was our decision whether we should attend it or not. And pretty much everywhere I went that morning, the talk was that there was going to be a noon rally. So when I was done with my English class, and I decided that I would borrow my roommate's camera, he had a little instamatic. I enjoyed photography but unfortunately at that point, I did not have my camera with me. So, I borrowed his camera and thought, well, I am going to go to the rally more out of curiosity to see what was going to happen, than really, to support any cause one way or the other. And so I did go to the, to the rally, I kind of stood off to the side. I watched it as it grew in size, I really felt there was kind of a hardcore group that were right around the victory bale of maybe 100 to 200 students that were really actively protesting. And there were probably a couple 1000 there around that were just kind of watching similar to what I was doing. Some of them were going to their classes. The, the commons area is kind of in the middle of campus. And it is really a crossroads for anyone going to class. So it is a natural point where people are going to be walking through to get to maybe the union or for-for lunch, or to, to go to class. So, you know, I saw a Jeep come out with a bullhorn. And they ordered everyone to disperse and said, this was an illegal rally, and you were ordered to disperse, which pretty much everyone ignored. And so they, there was a line of guardsmen that were down, kind of almost guarding the burned out ROTC building, which was at the end of the commons, kind of sitting there in ruins. And so they, they started to move out, the guardsmen moved out on file. There were two companies. I could be incorrect, I believe it was A and C. And one, one went to the right of Taylor Hall, and one went to the left of Taylor Hall. And they started to push students back with tear gas, firing tear gas into the students. Some of the students were able to pick up the tear gas and throw it back at the guardsmen. So you can kind of see this back and forth between the guardsmen and the students with the tear gas. I did take some pictures of the guardsmen as they walked up. I was to, as you face Taylor Hall, I was more towards the left hand side, near the pagoda. And the National Guards kind of walked by me, I was fairly close to them. You know, I felt these are professional soldiers. And I did not feel threatened by them. And I felt as long as I behaved myself and did not do anything, that there should be no issue with them. And so they did go by me. And I took some pictures as I went by. They went down to, there was a parking lot in front of Taylor Hall. And they ended up in a practice football field, which is no longer there. And at the soccer or football field, well, I do not remember exactly, there were some chain-link fencing on two sides of it. So they were kind of hemmed in just a little bit, and they kind of regrouped there and kind of huddled together. And the students, by that time had been pushed down into the parking lot. And there was a small group that were still pretty active. Kind of yelling obscenities at them. There might have been a few rocks that were thrown, but at the distance they were, they certainly were not reaching the guardsmen. At one point the guardsmen did kneel and aim their weapons into the crowd. And did not really discourage any of the protesters. And then at some point, the-the guardsmen kind of re huddled together, it felt like they were discussing what they were going to do next. And then they reformed into a line and begin to walk back up this hill towards the pagoda. And to what I was thinking, that they were going to go back over, they called it Blanket Hill, and to the, to the commons. And there, there was kind of a feeling, I think, at that point, that things were wrapping up. And I do know that some of the students were beginning to leave, heading to their classes. And I was going to go into Taylor Hall, I had a design class that afternoon, and I was going to go in and get ready for my class. And so, I walked up to the-the entrance of Taylor Hall, and there is a metal sculpture there. And I was standing next to the metal sculpture, and I thought to myself, I am going to get one more picture of them right before they get over the crest of the hill. So I stood there. And I was with this instamatic and I had to rewind the camera so that I could get to the next shot. So, I was rewinding, you know, the camera, getting it ready to take a shot and they-they reached the crest of the hill, and I was getting the camera ready to raise up. And suddenly, they just turned and fired. And without any warning. And it just seemed like there was this instantaneous movement in unison, where the soldiers all turned and fired. And I believe they were firing more towards the parking lot. But I happened to be in their line of fire. And I do kind of, before I was hit, I do kind of remember, Joe Lewis was in front of me, maybe by 50 or 75 feet, not a lot. I do not think there was anyone else. I do not think there was anyone else in front of us other than the two of us, because really, the bulk of the people were either off to the side or behind me. And I do remember thinking, he was giving them the finger, you know, he was, he was flicking them off. And seconds later, they-they fired, and I got hit in the chest. I like to say, it is like, I felt like I got hit in the chest with a sledge hammer. I dropped to the ground. And I really do not have any more recollection of what happened at that point. I do remember kind of coming to in the hospital. And they were, they were doing triage at the time. And I was out in a corridor, and I was in a fair amount of pain. And my concern was that I would be forgotten. And I remember kind of panicking a little bit. Because, do they know that I am out here in this corridor? And finally, a couple of nurses came out and the first thing they wanted to know was, "Do you have your parents phone number, do you have some contact numbers?" And it is like, "Why aren't you helping me?" and they are, you know, they are, "Well, you are going to go in shortly to see the doctor but we need to be able to contact your parents." So I remember reeling off a bunch of phone numbers, home phone number and office phone numbers, and they finally wheeled me in to see a doctor. And I think I almost immediately went into surgery. And the next thing I remember, was in a hospital room with Dean Taylor and Joe Lewis as, as roommates.

SM: 35:18
Wow-wow. I know, the picture of, on Life magazine is a picture of you, I believe with-

JC: 35:27

SM: 35:27
-students around you. And I had that magazine along with the one from, I think, Newsweek, hanging in my office for many years. I was reading about that particular picture. And it is my understanding that students were in a circle around you were kind of protecting you. And they were holding hands. So no further harm could come to you.

JC: 35:54
Yeah, and I- the interesting thing is, like I said, I do not have any recollection after the point that I was shot. And I was not aware of that. And Howard Ruffner took that picture. I am sure you are aware of that. And about two years ago, Howard Ruffner was in Kent to promote a new book that he had written. And basically, it was a series of photographs taken on that day. And it was right before the 50th anniversary, before COVID had hit. And so I decided, well, this is be a great opportunity to see Howard because he lives in California. And so, we certainly do not have many opportunities to get together. So I went up to Kent, and we had a reunion of sorts. Unfortunately, the media kind of made a little bigger deal about it than I thought they would, but they did. But he was showing me pictures. And he had taken a picture of the students circled around me holding hands. And that really hit me, that was a very impactful picture. And in some respects, I liked that picture better than the one he took of me. Because it really shows, you know, at that point, they did not know if the guards were coming back or not. And they were putting their life kind of on the line to protect me. And not only that, but the students that were working on me, Joe Kolum, and some others, you know, really saved, I think, saved my life. So I am really in a debt of gratitude to them for doing that.

SM: 38:10
I know, when I interviewed Joe, he said that when he was put in the ambulance, you were right by his side, in the same ambulance.

JC: 38:20
That very well could be I like I said, I just do not remember the ambulance ride at all.

SM: 38:27
Now, how long did it take you to recuperate from this serious injury so that you can get back to school?

JC: 38:33
I was in hospital for about two weeks. I was intensive care for about a week. There was, there was some concern early on about infection and some other issues. Because of the extent of the injuries, but you know, you are young. I was 19 I think at the time, 18 or 19. So I did, was able to bounce back and after two weeks what they kind of quietly got me to the airport. I have to tell you this. I guess it is an amusing story. But when-when I was at Kent as a freshman, I bought a car there and it was an old car, Chrysler, 1957 Chrysler. It was like a limousine this thing was a boat. And after I was shot, my parents flew out and they were able to use my car and because it had Ohio plates on it, pretty much could go anywhere and not be bothered by the press because they did not know who they were. And I flew home two weeks later, and they drove my car home with all my belongings. And when they got to the driveway of our house, the power steering pump caught on fire. And the car, there were flames coming out of the hood. And they flung open the door and threw all my belongings on the lawn. And fortunately, the car did not. It was just a small fire and they were able to put it out. But my parents loved to tell the story how every belonging I had was thrown out on the front lawn.

SM: 40:48
Wow. And now, of course, classes are canceled. And you did you start back in the fall?

JC: 40:57
Yeah, I flew home. I flew home about two weeks later, and recuperated that summer. And the professors were really great. And they did it for everybody, not just me. They sent us homework assignments, they sent us classwork, and we are able to complete our semester. You know, this is before the internet and emails, everything was done through the mail, you know, US Postal Service. And they would mail me assignments, and they and they did not cut me any slack either. And I did the work and got grades for it. So I was able to complete my freshman year. And then the following fall, you know, I went back to Kent.

SM: 41:59
Now, and you got your degree in five years.

JC: 42:01
I did.

SM: 42:02
And, and well, how has your career been? Yeah, you, and how did you end up in Pittsburgh?

JC: 42:12
Well, my-my wife was originally from Pittsburgh. And when we graduated from Kent. It was (19)74. And the economy was not doing really good right then. And jobs are really scarce. And trying to go back to upstate New York, there was just absolutely nothing there. Like I said, I was in more of a rural community, small town. And really, for architecture, you need a bigger, you [inaudible] you need more of an urban town. So, we had looked at Cleveland, that was one of our thoughts. And we also looked at Pittsburgh, and I liked the lay of the land of Pittsburgh, it was a little more mountainous, and had the hills and the rivers. And it reminded me a little more of upstate New York. So we ended, up I got a job in Pittsburgh, it was touch and go. If I had not gotten a job in Pittsburgh, we probably would have ended up in Cleveland. But I did get a job in Pittsburgh and that is where we, where we ended up.

SM: 43:37
Now, after the, what I have also noticed about coming to the remembrance events over the past month, not the last two years, obviously. But last, over the 50 year period, is the camaraderie between those who are wounded and the families of those who died. I know there are a lot of issues after the, after the initially because I know there was a, there was a trial for some of the activists and so forth. But how did who was responsible for the camaraderie between the nine that were wounded and the families of the four that were killed?

JC: 44:15
Well, I think a lot of that had to do with the May Force Task Group. And, you know, I will be honest with you, I was starting out in my career and work was tough. And I really did not attend the trials the way that I should have. And I had a family that I had to support. And so, I could not really take the time to go up to Cleveland for the civil trials. So I was really only there when-when I had to be and so I really did not bond with the wounded students and the families until a few, quite a few years later, maybe 10 years later. My, believe it or not, my son was born on May 4th.

SM: 45:13
Oh my God.

JC: 45:13
And obviously that was not planned. And it just happened that way. And so I have a pretty strong faith. And I felt like God was telling me something, you know, you cannot, you cannot bury this, you cannot pretend it did not happen to you. You cannot put it behind you. It is something that you need to confront. So I started going back to the commemorations and the May Fourth Task Force would put on a breakfast on those mornings on May 4th, and at those breakfasts would be the other wounded students and family members. And so it just began a process of getting to know people casually at first, just sitting there and having breakfast with them, and spending a little time with their family and bringing my family and Tom Grace and Alan Canfora reached out to me. And both Tom and Alan are big baseball fans. And so I guess in Buffalo, where Thomas from, the Pittsburgh Pirates had a [inaudible] team. So we did, both Tom and Alan came down one time. And we went to a pirate’s game. [crosstalk] So yeah, we had a great time. And so, you know, it just began a process of getting to know one another. And I have tried, in the last four or five years since I have been retired, to try to reach out and get to know, some of the wounded students a little better. About two years, two and a half years ago, my wife and I were out. And we did a Northwest trip to Seattle and Portland. And Joe lives out there. And so we made a point to swing by and have lunch with Joe and his wife, got to see where Joe lived. And, you know, that was meaningful for us. And Tom and I have gotten together several times. And so it is just a matter of and-and Dean Kahler. We, about a year ago, Joe was traveling through Kent, he was actually moving one of his sons back to Oregon. And the three of us got together at a local, I cannot even remember if it was a Ponderosa or what it was, but it was a lunch place. And, you know, we commented on it was, you know, these were the three of us that were hospital roommates. And it was kind of nice to get together without the, all the noise and attention that May 4th typically brings. So the times that we get together when we can kind of be out of the limelight, and just be ourselves-

SM: 48:57

JC: 48:57
-I think has gone a long way to establishing some, hopefully some long-term relationships.

SM: 49:08
And that is very important, that whole issue of healing. One of the questions I have asked him a lot of the people that I have interviewed are dealing with the Vietnam War, and healing from that war and the divisions it caused in America. And, and Jan Scruggs wrote a book and I think it can apply to any kind of a tragedy, To Heal a Nation. And the basic premise behind the building of the Wall in (19)82 was to heal the families who lost loved ones in that war and not to make it a political statement, but to remember those who lost their lives, and so that they will never be forgotten number one, and then also provide healing within the family and the families of the veterans, but also to pay respects to those who fought in that war and came home and were treated so poorly by America upon their return. So, the one thing about healing, do you use have do you, it is a word that sometimes is overused. But do you have still any issues with healing from this tragedy?

JC: 50:17
What I have found is going up to the commemorations I, I used to always kind of hang in the back and you know, kind of be anonymous in and not really want to, you know, participate. But the last five years or so I have kind of taken on the tact that, you know, we, you know, our numbers are dwindling, and we need to respect those that were slain on that day, and the other wounded students, and, you know, remember them. And walking around the parking lot during commemoration right before them, where the markers are where the students were slain. People have come to me that maybe they recognize me, or, you know, they might just say, "Were you there?" You know, obviously, I am in my 70s, I look the part, you know, "Where were you on May 4th?" And when I share my story, I find that there are a lot of people out there that were there that day that are hurting, and they, they need to share their story. And so, I find that many a time when I am out there talking to people who were there, they were filling in the blanks for me, when I was unconscious, and when I did not witness what they witnessed the hurt and the pain, that they went through seeing the carnage and seeing the bodies on the ground. You know, I was lucky in that I did not witness that. But they did. And I think it becomes a healing process for all of us, when we talk about it together, and we have these shared experiences of being there. Each of our stories are different. And yet they are kind of weaved together to make this one large picture.

SM: 52:45
Very-very well said, I know that Alan, before he passed, a couple of years before he passed, he was adamant and brought in some great programs. He was always a leader, he was always he was always lead taking the lead. And you know, and making sure because it was all about the four that died and those that are wounded. He was all about them. And, and he did a tremendous job. But he but he and several others wanted to find out who, who gave the order to do the shooting. This is the whole issue. And they brought that man there that they said they think they had him on tape. And I know that Alan was up there in the front. And there were a couple other guests there too, who were, you know, supporting that concept that whoever gave the order. And-and so do you still feel that we need to find out who did it? I mean, we know that who that they were shot my guardsmen, but who gave the order?

JC: 53:42
Well, I think there is some frustration out there. Because people are looking for justice. And they certainly do not feel that justice was served here. And yeah, it would be great to find out who gave the order. And it would also be great to maybe hold some of the guardsmen that shot indiscriminately into the crowd to make them accountable. But there is so much time that is gone by, you know, we are beyond the 50-year mark, that I am just [inaudible] that that we are never really going to get to the bottom of that. And it is just going to be something that is always going to be a question mark out there. And unfortunately, I do not think there is ever going to be an answer. You know, everyone kind of has this hope that there will be some guardsmen on their deathbed that is going to share the some story about what actually happened. But short of that, I do not think we are going to really get to the bottom of what actually happened.

SM: 54:59
You were there. And you know some of the things that took place, [inaudible] you read the student newspapers, at Kent state the following year when school started again. When you look at the whole that whole period from the 30th of April till when Nixon gave the speech at 9pm, until the killings and the wounding, on the fourth. Who- is that, that is, that is part of our history, is-is an important part of our history. When you look at the (19)60s, what other big major events affected your life? Even before Kent State, and I say, when you look at the, when boomers were young, there was one word that kept coming up over and over again, in my mind, assassination, assassination, bullets, killing. What is the say about our democracy? We lose a President of the United States in (19)63. That is when [crosstalk]. Yes, go ahead.

JC: 56:04
Yeah. I think that everyone kind of remembers John F. Kennedy's assassination. I think I was a little too young to totally understand the implications of what had happened, but I do remember my parents being a little fearful, and that the TV was on constantly with the funeral, and all the other proceedings going on.

SM: 56:36
And then only-

JC: 56:39
The only other highlight, and I am sorry, go ahead Stephen.

SM: 56:42
I was just going to say that the course five years later, his brother gets assassinated, as well as the Martin Luther King. And when-

JC: 56:49

SM: 56:49
-when you look at the Jackson State issue, which is important because Kent State students in the group have done a tremendous job of making sure that those who lost their lives there at Jackson State 10 days later are, there was camaraderie between them and the students at Kent State. I admire them so much for this, they are, thatis a lesson for America to reach out because they also had a tragedy. But to lose some-

JC: 57:17

SM: 57:17
-it seemed like the people that our age when the boomers seem to see even when you talk about Jackson State, that was in Jackson, Mississippi and Medgar Evers was killed there in that same year. So it is,-

JC: 57:35

SM: 57:35
-it is, so it is like, we grew up with assassinations, one assassination after another killings, and we are still having a lot of issues. But the tragedy, you know, it is like, I have learned one thing, and Alan said, you know, these were murders at Kent State, quit saying it is a tragedy at Kent State. They were murderers.

JC: 57:55 Yeah, yeah. It took me a while to say that I felt that was maybe would turn people off when you discuss it. But Alan is absolutely right. What happened there was, when you think about Dean Kahler, who was shot in the back while laying on the ground, and Sandy Scheuer and others that [inaudible], were just going to class. It was just an indiscriminate shooting. And they are certainly, their lives were not in any kind of danger. And you know, it was just wanton or wanton shooting that which really cannot be explained.

SM: 58:46
One of the things that I, I do a lot of reading, and I have heard this for years, and it is in so many books. I know, Tom Grace, I talked to him about this too, is that why Kent State? You know, of all the universities in America with all the major protests, you know, and of course, Ohio State had ma- I went to Ohio State to grad school. So Ohio State had major protests at the very same time, but no one died. And in Ohio University, where I worked in my first job, they were always considered the most liberal campus in Ohio. And they were actually purging students when I was there. Because they were up to 18,000. Then then they were down 1000s. That is why the branch campuses were helping their enrollment, but [crosstalk] but they could they get kind of tired. I think I said this to Alan, when he came to West Chester University, [inaudible] there twice. I am getting tired of hearing this in history books. Why at Kent State, because why not? It is worth I think all the major crises happened at state universities where there seemed to have been tragedies. So-so, you know.

JC: 1:00:03
Well, I think I think that if you look at the governor Rhodes, and you look at the burning of the ROTC building, and the mayor of Kent, Mayor Satrom, calling in the National Guard probably prematurely. And, you know, it was just all these things kind of led up to this and the rhetoric that was said, by the governor prior to the weekend. You know, I just think that all of this kind of, unfortunately, fell in place for-for something like that to happen.

SM: 1:00:46
I agree. It is the word that we use nowadays is the perfect storm, seemed like the perfect storm.

JC: 1:00:54

SM: 1:00:54
Everything came in. And I, as I was saying to Tom when I interviewed him, you know, I my very first book that I read on Kent State was James Michener's book- it is full of misinformation, it has got, it is incorrect, it is not a very good book. But one thing- [crosstalk] Huh? Is that like, Kent is the hotbed of SDS? Yes. Yeah. And also, he talked about President White. And he is a culprit in this in my view, because I spent my career in higher education, and you have to have a strong president. Yet, not, every university and, and the person, and everything stops, anything that happens on your campus, you have to take responsibility for it, you are in charge. And Tom, Tom was great in terms of explaining what he has historically done in the past of not being there at the time when he needed to be there. And I blame a lot of it on him. If he if he had come-

JC: 1:01:56
I am just [inaudible], I am incredulous that he would be out to lunch, off campus, when everyone knew that there was going to be a rally that-

SM: 1:02:08

JC: 1:02:09
-day at noon. He had to have known.

SM: 1:02:11
He did, I he should have gotten back. He was away. But he could have gotten back, he certainly could have gotten back before May 4th. And because everything was happening.

JC: 1:02:21
You know, I have a feeling if that had been Dr. Beverly Warren, she would have been out there on campus, next to the guards. You know, talking to them, talking to the leaders, the guardsmen, he should have been out there, you know, talking to them and making sure that things did not get out of control.

SM: 1:02:48

JC: 1:02:48
And with him gone. It just gave the military carte blanche to do whatever they wanted.

SM: 1:02:56
Yeah, so it is a kind of a combination of everything coming to a head and unfortunately, sadly, it cost lives.

JC: 1:03:02

SM: 1:03:03
You know, do you have one May 4th comes every year, now I am thinking of involving the remembrance, but even those years that you were not going to the events, does that May four- obviously you have a child born on May 4th. But does that, you feel like it is like April 27, that you are only four, seven days away from that, that that day that help- really had an impact on your life?

JC: 1:03:32
Well, it is something that I now that I am retired and I can dwell more on it, yes, I do think about it, anticipate what the significance of the day means and trying to make plans to be there. And, you know, if there is interviews or whatever, to make myself available for that. I think that is the other thing I am trying to do on retirement is there are some Ohio teachers who were teaching May 4th in the classroom to their students, and I have tried to make myself available to talk to these people. And so yes, when May 4th comes around now, you know, there-there is some anticipation towards it and-and what can be done to keep-keep the memory alive. There were times after I was first married and were struggling at work that may 4th came and went and I think about it over lunch hour and that, you know, that might be might be the extent of it. That is it certainly has changed here in the latter years.

SM: 1:04:58
Have you had any flashbacks from that day?

JC: 1:05:05
No, I cannot say that I have. I have always, like I said, I think, in a weird way, I was fortunate in that I do not recall what happened to me after I was hit. But no, I cannot say that I have any unpleasant flashbacks to it. Sometimes, you know, a lot of people ask me, you know, you were you were shot in front of the metal sculpture, and does it bother you when you walk by that place you were shot? And I guess my answer to that is that, you know, when I went back to camp- I would walk by that spot every day going into Taylor Hall. And if anything, it inspired me saying, Look, you, you were given a second chance here at life, and you need to take advantage of it.

SM: 1:06:00
Yep, very positive attitude, that is excellent. Yeah, I have taken pictures of that sculpture, and it has got a hole through it and one spot. So you can see how powerful those bullets were.

JC: 1:06:13
Yeah. Imagine that hitting a person.

SM: 1:06:16
Yes, I know. The other thing I wanted to mention, because of the I am talking really about the boomer generation of which we are a part, and what the (19)60s were all about, is the fact that we lost so many good people, and but there were a lot of positive things too, along with the negatives. Do you, we are, we are reflecting on now what is going on in America today, with all the great divisions we are having, it is very- I do not think I have ever lived at a time like this. The pandemic does not happen either. But it is everything else has been going on in the news. But when you come here-

JC: 1:06:55
Well, I think social media has a lot to do with that.

SM: 1:07:02
In terms of what they are what they are-?

JC: 1:07:06
Why we are so why we are so divisive, versus maybe 20 years ago. I mean, obviously, every generation, you know, we had the-the war protests and kind of a culture counterculture movement, where there was, you know, our parents, I think we were trying to comprehend what the heck we were doing. But yeah, this seems to be much more, I think with social media, you can kind of anonymously sit back and be very what is the right word, insensitive or cruel. And when you are not talking to somebody face to face. You can, you can say a lot more damaging words, and not feel guilty about it. And yeah, it is, it is very frustrating to see the misinformation. And the how things are taken out of context constantly on social media.

SM: 1:08:21
How, there-there came a time with your children, when they probably put two and two together and "Dad, why were you shot, Daddy? Why were you shot?" Trying to explain to them and how do you explain that to a child? As they, and as they get older, what at what juncture did you tell the whole story? Because, you know, they are, when they are young, they do not kind of grasp things.

JC: 1:08:47
Yeah, I do not think we really talked too much about it until they were maybe in junior high, or you know, about that age. And I think the other thing that kind of came into play was probably like, whenever there was like a pivotal anniversary, like the 10th or the 15th or 20th anniversary, the press tends to come out of the woodwork and want to interview you and they want to do newspaper articles and they want to do you know, maybe a little local TV segment or something. So obviously that became apparent to them. So, you know, we did explain to them what had happened. And, you know, it is interesting, we were going through my daughter's paperwork from you know, my wife saves everything she will not, you know, if it is kid related, she keeps it. And there was a paper she had done probably in eighth or ninth grade for English class about the Kent State shootings. And I was, I was pretty impressed with her insight and being able to describe the events and what-what had happened, you know, without, you know, from her point of view from a younger generation not being there.

SM: 1:10:25
That is excellent. I only got a couple more questions here. One of them is the, what- two, it is a two-part question. What are the major lessons to be learned from the killings at Kent State and Jackson State? And what are the, and the second part of the question is, what are the lessons from the (19)60s and (19)70s in your opinion? As we pass on, we are now we are talking we are now three generation starting of the third generation beyond boomer that are being born today.

JC: 1:11:05
Well, there is lessons to be learned. I guess the question is, are we really learning anything from it? You can draw some parallels, I think, when you go back to May 4th, and the rhetoric and I am talking about Governor Rhodes' inflammatory talk about students being worse than Brownshirts. And, you know, I think, that might have been in reference to communists, communist, I do not remember, but-but anyway, you know, this kind of inflammatory discourse, which then leads to violence. And I still, unfortunately, think we are seeing it today when people say things, to inflame groups, and then violence occurs. And so there is some frustration, because you wonder, are we really learning from these lessons? Are we learning that you know, gun violence, escalates, when followed by angry words and discourse? And so, the lessons, you know, are, I suppose, that you know, we need to pause and look at where we are going with some of this, and, and try to de-escalate situations, versus escalate them. And we are even seeing it today where rather than a calm voice, and trying to resolve a tense situation, things get ramped up, and then we have an unfortunate shooting, and it can even be police that are doing the shooting, because rather than try to de-escalate a situation, things are getting ramped. So, you know, unfortunately, I see some parallels to what is happening today, to what-what happened back there. Your second part about the (19)60s and (19)70s. I think that there was an attempt by our generation to try to break from the norm, and create a more loving and caring society, one that that takes care of its own. Unfortunately, I think that has not happened. And it is kind of fallen on deaf ears. And we have a lot of social issues today that if we showed more compassion and more understanding, I think we could start to resolve some of the- these issues, but instead, everything has become political. And it just seems like any issue today, even when we are talking about science, somehow, we end up with two sides to a story. And it baffles me on some of this. Where, where, you know, we are just trying to take care of people, or we are trying to do what is best for the common good and somehow this has to become a political issue, and it truly is sad that we have gotten to that point. So you know, I think we started out in the (19)60s and (19)70s, very idealistic, we were going to change the world. But here we are, you know, 40, 50 years later, and not much has changed.

SM: 1:15:48
[inaudible] I am going to end with this. I am going to ask you to talk to someone who is going to be listening to this 20, 30 and 40 years from now, and this is January 26 2022. If there is any lessons that you yourself can give to the future youth of America, in terms of, based on the experiences of what happened at Kent State and Jackson State, what would that be in terms of advice? And one thing I want to add to this, John, you have already mentioned it, you cannot forget your history, you got to know your history and where we came from.

JC: 1:16:29

SM: 1:16:29
Yeah, not and I am really worried about, and this has been not just my generation, boomers the generations that followed, their lack of knowledge of history is amazing. I am shocked, I work with young people. They do not know the Vietnam War. I had, we have had people tell me the Vietnam wars before World War Two, how do they get through high school that way? And so, it is the, it is the knowledge of history. But what would your advice be to future generations with respect to this historic event, Kent State and Jackson State?

JC: 1:17:03
Well, I think my, my advice would be, is when you look at history, I remember, in my history classes, it is more than just memorizing dates and times and when-when these things happened, you have to try to put yourself in the time and in the place, and what people's mindsets were, I think it is more important to understand the events leading up to what happened at May 4th, versus, you know, trying to remember that it happened in the (19)70s, or whatever. And if you are a college student, and you are listening to this, try to imagine yourself being on a college campus, and being confronted with the military, with guns and halftracks, and helicopters, with them preventing you from saying what you are, what you want to say. So your freedom is being challenged by powers to be in and by your political system. And you need to just visualize what would you do as a student, if you were confronted with this, and this is what we had to face. That we did not ask for the military to be on campus. We felt that we had a right to be on our campus, our campus was open, and to be assaulted in the way that that crowd was, to be shot indiscriminately and then listen to the hatred and the vitriol that came out of the country as they came out of the state, towards the students who had done nothing more than congregate on campus, to present their political views, and think about how you would react if you were confronted in that in that type of situation.

SM: 1:19:50
Beautifully said. Beautifully said. John, on that note, I want to end the interview. And I want to say thank you very much for taking part are in this. I will say this, I hope to meet you. I am going to be at Kent State on the fourth. I will be there probably the second through the fourth. I love the walk that walk.

JC: 1:20:11
Yeah, I am going to, even if you know that from what I am understanding, there is some uncertainty as to whether they are going to do something because of COVID.

SM: 1:20:21

JC: 1:20:21
And but I have missed two years there. And I think I am going to be there no matter what, even if it is just unofficial.

SM: 1:20:31
Same here. So, I look, we will be in touch and I am, I am going to turn this off. Thank you very much. Do not leave me yet.

(End of Interview)

Date of Interview



Stephen McKiernan


John Cleary

Biographical Text

John Cleary, a native of Scotia, NY, was a student at Kent State University when he was shot in the chest by the National Guardsman. After his recovery, Cleary received his Bachelor's Degree in Architecture from Kent State University and practiced in Pittsburg, PA until his retirement.





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Binghamton University Libraries

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Interview Format


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"Nineteen sixties; Baby boom generation; Kent State shooting; Protest; Activism; Architectural degree; College campus; College education; Life magazine.


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Stephen McKiernan's collection of interviews includes more than two hundred interviews with prominent figures of the 1960s, which were collected between the mid-1990s and 2010s. The collection provides narratives of people who were actively involved in or witnessed events in the 1960s, an era which spurred profound cultural and… More

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“Interview with John Cleary,” Digital Collections, accessed March 3, 2024,