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Albert Van Kirk, Oral History

Albert Van Kirk, Oral History

Recorded: October 9, 2009
Interviewed by Craig Simpson
Transcribed by Stephanie Tulley


[Interviewer]: Good afternoon, the date is October 9th, 2009 and my name is Craig Simpson. We're conducting an interview today for the KentState Shootings Oral History Project. Could you please state your name?

[Albert Van Kirk]: Al Van Kirk.

[Interviewer]: Where were you born, Al?

[Albert Van Kirk]: Albuquerque, New Mexico.

[Interviewer]: Where did you go to school, to college?

[Albert Van Kirk]: I started college at ParsonsCollege in Fairfield, Iowa, 1963. Went there for three and a half years. Decided that I needed to change my major. Dropped out for a year, during which time I got drafted. Served in the United States Army. Got out of the Army in Spring of 1969, and came to KentState. Transferred into Kent as a third quarter freshman, which was sort of a comeuppance after being a second semester senior. But when you change from philosophy of religion to business there's not a lot of overlap, and so I transferred in as a third quarter freshman and graduated in June of 1971.

[Interviewer]: What made you decide to switch majors?

[Albert Van Kirk]: I decided I didn't want to go to seminary. And then my time in the service sort of reinforced that. Business was always, I guess, an avocation of mine from the time I was twelve years old, so I'm not sure how I got involved in philosophy and religion to begin with. It was clearly not where I was going to spend my life. I started college when I was seventeen, so I was very young, very immature. Frankly, I was frightened of the idea of graduating when I was twenty because I went straight through. Just decided to make a really dumb decision and took a year off. At which time I got an invitation for an all-expense-paid vacation around the world.

[Interviewer]: So you served in Vietnam?

[Albert Van Kirk]: I did.

[Interviewer]: How long were you there?

[Albert Van Kirk]: One year, eight months, and twenty-nine days.

[Interviewer]: And that was the Army?

[Albert Van Kirk]: Yes.

[Interviewer]: Okay.

[Albert Van Kirk]: I'm sorry, I said one year. I was there eight months and twenty-nine days.

[Interviewer]: You were there eight months, okay. How many tours was that?

[Albert Van Kirk]: One.

[Interviewer]: It was one tour for all --

[Albert Van Kirk]: Well, actually, I got an early discharge to go back to school.

[Interviewer]: Okay.

[Albert Van Kirk]: So I got out 90, I think 92 days early, or something like that.

[Interviewer]: Were you drafted or did you enlist?

[Albert Van Kirk]: I was. I was drafted.

[Interviewer]: How did Vietnam - - when you came back from the war, what was your attitude toward the war, and the protest movement, and things of that nature?

[Albert Van Kirk]: Well, you've asked me several different questions.

[Interviewer]: Take them one at a time.

[Albert Van Kirk]: My attitude toward the war was that the politicians were doing everything in their power to keep it from being victorious for the United States.That the government had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. I was there for the Tet Offensive and I think history has now proven that we won that hands-down, and it was only the whining of the American media that reinforced the effort of the North Vietnamese to continue the fight. That has been validated through the testimony -- not testimony, but biographies of a couple of the commanding generals of the North Vietnamese Army. So I was not pleased with politicians getting involved in a war. And there were several reasons for that, not the least of which is their actions cost the lives of American soliders. John Kerry would be an excellent example of while he was the United States naval officer in the Reserve, went to North Vietnam and psychologically aided and abetted the enemy. Those kinds of actions left a bitter taste in the mouths of men that had experienced combat. And my tour was there as an infantry solider and I had experienced that, was not pleased with that.

The second question you asked was what was my attitude towards the protesters. And that was sort of a mixed bag. For the most part I think I felt a sense of sympathy for them, because they didn't know what they were talking about. They had taken media, what we would call today media talking-points, and created from that, oh, I think what they viewed as a political statement relative to the war in Vietnam. As I subsequently found out while I was here, one of the reasons Kent was the focal point for much of the radical activity was because of the Liquid Crystals Institute. I don't know if you're familiar with what that is or not.

[Interviewer]: I'm familiar with it, but it’s interesting you drew that connection. It’s been drawn kind of indirectly, but that's interesting.

[Albert Van Kirk]: Oh, it was very clearly stated by Jerry Rubin when he was on campus at the invitation of Dr. White. He specifically stated, "We're going to shut down" -- his staple was something to the effect of, "We're going to shut down this war machine, that Crystal Institute is going to be a thing of the past." He was here at White’s invitation the week before the riots. I along with five other guys from the Vets Club listened to him. We laughed. We thought he was full of baloney. And what he said came to pass. The riots took place, the ROTC building was burned down, and there was bloodshed on the campus. And he outlined all of that in his talk, speech, diatribe, whatever you want to call it, to the students.

[Interviewer]: And you said this was about a week before the shootings?

[Albert Van Kirk]: It was one week before, yes.

[Interviewer]: Backing up just a little bit --

[Albert Van Kirk]: Sure.

[Interviewer]: -- because you said you started in the Fall of ’69?

[Albert Van Kirk]: No, I started in the Spring of ’69.

[Interviewer]: I’m sorry, the Spring of ’69. The year before.

[Albert Van Kirk]: Yes.

[Interviewer]: Prior to the Spring of 1970, how would you describe the atmosphere on the campus -- say ’69, late ’69, early ’70?

[Albert Van Kirk]: I really am not a good person to ask about that, because I was married, I had a child, I lived in Ravenna. I was taking twenty-three [credit] hours. Well, let’s see -- no, that Spring I took a minimum of, well, I think maybe twelve hours. Then worked that summer, and then started again in the Fall. By that time I had begun to crank up my hours, because my wife informed me that she was only going to teach two years and then we were going to have more kids. Obviously, I wasn’t going to argue with that.

[Interviewer]: [laughs]

[Albert Van Kirk]: [laughs] That would be a foolish argument.

[Interviewer]: Uh-huh.

[Albert Van Kirk]: But I had started a business, working to augment our income, and so I had that going. I was carrying, I think by the Winter Quarter, I was up to eighteen or twenty hours. I had taken as many as twenty-three hours. I don’t know if the hours still relate the same?

[Interviewer]: I’m not sure.

[Albert Van Kirk]: But in those days, a full course load was twelve hours. So if you had over, I think, sixteen or more you had to get a sign off by the Dean of the school to take the extra load.

[Interviewer]: And you’re on quarter, then, not semester?

[Albert Van Kirk]: Quarters, yes. I went straight through. I didn't spend a whole lot of time on campus, per se. I was there, and I spent some time in the Student Union with other guys from the Veterans Club in the mornings, in between classes; and then in the afternoons, for the most part, I was working. So I didn't hang out, I didn't live in the dormitories. I can't really tell you that.

I observed a lot of young people that I would call "malcontents" that were -- some of them came across to me as the kind of kids that if you gave them ten dollars they would complain because they didn't like the serial number on the bill or something. Others, I think, had a very sincere attitude toward the war. And I think there were others, maybe the vast majority -- particularly in the guys -- were using this as a justification for them not having to go and serve. And I guess I felt about it then as I do now: that's something they have to live with, not me. So I don't know if I've answered your question.

[Interviewer]: You answered it very well. I was just curious, what prompted you and the handful of vets to go to Jerry Rubin’s speech?

[Albert Van Kirk]: We were interested in knowing what in the world was going on, because you could tell momentum for bad things was building. Particularly the SDS Weathermen, who were becoming more and more vocal, more and more violently vocal. It wasn't uncommon if they could find one vet and there were five or six of them, that they would try and pick a fight. But did I know this was going to happen? No.

But I knew of Rubin from the “Chicago 7” fame. We had been told he was here at the invitation of the president of the University, which I couldn't believe. Subsequently that proved to be true. But I couldn't understand why you'd have someone like that to a university. So we went out of curiosity, really. I wanted to see the guy who was advocating the destruction of our country, so I went and I saw him.

[Interviewer]: You mentioned the SDS Weathermen. When you said that they were, I forget your exact words, but were you referring to them specifically on campus or nationwide?

[Albert Van Kirk]: I was only aware of what was going on on campus. It was only after the fact that I became aware of their network, and their organization, and their finances. But I was only aware of what was going on right here. I was a man focused on getting through school and getting on with my life. Vietnam took its toll on me, and I wanted to get that and school behind me and get on with a career.

[Interviewer]: What do you remember about those four days in May? And you can start wherever you like, some people start the weekend before.

[Albert Van Kirk]: I can't. I can't do that because I was in Buffalo.

[Interviewer]: You were in Buffalo.

[Albert Van Kirk]: We were driving back, I was driving back with my wife and daughter, and we heard on the news that the ROTC building was on fire. I'm going to guess that was maybe nine o'clock at night. I thought -- well, what I thought doesn't matter. I had some adjectives for the people who do things like that. Because at the end of the day I don't care if you protest. I'm all in favor of peaceful protesting, so let me make that very clear. I'm also all in favor of obeying the law, and I don’t grant individuals rights to break the laws simply because they feel like it.

Anyway, I went back to our apartment. We lived in Green Acres in Ravenna. Got home, I guess it was ten [coughs], pardon me, ten o’clock. I had a paper due on, I want to say Tuesday, and which meant I had to get the draft done because I took it to a lady that lived in married student housing. She would type it for me for a quarter a page, which I thought was a bargain because I could never figure out how to type footnotes. So that’s when my weekend started, when I heard that on the radio. I came in the next day, which I think that was Monday. I’m not posi -- but I think it was because we were there for the weekend, there in Buffalo with my in-laws. I came to town from Ravenna in my truck. I saw all these APC -- armored personnel carriers -- and I thought, What in the world is going on? And I couldn’t get through. So I parked my truck out on the east end of town and I just started hiking across campus diagonally from 59 to get back to where married student housing was. I assume it’s still there, I don’t know what street that is.

[Interviewer]: It’s still over there.

[Albert Van Kirk]: Is it?

[Interviewer]: I forget the street, too.

[Albert Van Kirk]: But anyway, I just started hiking across --

[Interviewer]: It’s a long walk, yeah.

[Albert Van Kirk]: Yeah, well [laughs], I was used to long walks.

[Interviewer]: [laughs]

[Albert Van Kirk]: And no one was shooting at me. So I thought. And so I was hiking across campus when the shooting started. I actually gave first aid to several students that were injured. Kept on going, and got my term paper typed.

[Interviewer]: Do you remember who they were, the wounded?

[Albert Van Kirk]: No, I had no idea. I believe -- well, one of them was dead. And I think that was Jeffery Miller. It was a guy. But I don’t know that to be factual. I know he was dead, because I was cross-trained as a medic, and I had seen dead people before. 

So, I kept going. Dropped the paper off. The lady was all in a dither. And I just asked her point blank, “Are you going to be able to get this done for me?”

“Oh, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.”

So I left it and started back to my truck and I had to take a pretty circuitous route to get back, because by then the police had started to move in and seal the place off. I guess that’s what they were doing. Got back in my truck and went back to Ravenna. Well, no, that’s not so. I stopped in a gas station outside of town and cleaned myself up, because I had a lot of blood on me. I think that’s about as much as I can tell you about what I actually did in that specific timeframe.

[Interviewer]: Was there worry in Ravenna about student unrest?

[Albert Van Kirk]: Oh, yeah. Huh! They had guys walking down the street with guns, there were guys sitting on top of the buildings with guns. They were not going to come to Ravenna and burn Ravenna down. There had been some stupid talk about that. That wasn’t going to happen. And there were plenty of people that were more than willing to ensure that that didn’t happen. There were an awful lot of people in Ravenna with sons in the National Guard, and they were starting to get phone calls about their sons being taken to the hospitals. So, you know, it was a weird time. And it was completely unnecessary.

[Interviewer]: Did you take classes that summer?

[Albert Van Kirk]: Oh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I took classes that summer.

[Interviewer]: Was it the correspondence courses or --

[Albert Van Kirk]: No, the University mandated that the professors give take-home exams to the students enrolled in the spring quarter. Unfortunately, I was in a calculus class that about killed me when the class was open. But I somehow managed to pass the final, much to the lady’s dismay who was the professor. Because there was only myself and one other person who passed the test.

[Interviewer]: Really?

[Albert Van Kirk]: She was visibly upset. She summoned me to her office wanting to know how I passed this exam. Anyway, then, the Summer Quarter, I think there were two six-week sessions and you could take two courses each session. I loaded them up and got through my statistics that summer. I don’t remember what else I took. Then in the Fall, I think I was up to 19 or 20 hours, because you want to get it done. That’s all. Just had to happen. Probably the most organized I’d ever been in my life. I had a whole chart laid out with all the prerequisites and when the courses were offered. That calculus course was critical because the operations research course that I took had that as a prerequisite and it was the only way it was going to work. So it was fortunate that I was able to get through that.

[Interviewer]: When did you graduate?

[Albert Van Kirk]: June of ’71.

[Interviewer]: Were you ever asked -- I mean, obviously you weren’t directly involved, but just the fact that you gave first aid and things like that, were you ever asked to testify or --

[Albert Van Kirk]: No, and I always found that interesting. No, I was never asked to testify, nor were any of the other guys in the Veterans Club asked to testify, and there were many of them who witnessed first-hand what took place. They seemed to be very selective about who they wanted testimony from. I had a working relationship with -- careful how I say this -- I had a working relationship with several fellas that were involved in the intelligence agencies that were on campus. I heard bits and pieces of information through them. It’s amazing what sitting down after the fact and buying a guy a beer will do. I got bits and pieces of information from these fellas, and what was clear to me even as a young student was that what took place was very well-planned, very well-financed, and very well-executed. According to one of the guys, by FBI count, there were twelve-hundred license plates in Kent the night the ROTC building burned that had no, quote, business being in Kent. And that they subsequently uncovered a network of communication that took that. So, I mean, it was what it was.

[Interviewer]: So when you said “what was planned,” just to clarify, you were talking about the riots?

[Albert Van Kirk]: The riots, yes.

[Interviewer]: Okay.

[Albert Van Kirk]: It was a large telephone system installed in the basement of one of the buildings on

Water Street.
I want to say it was a bar, but I’m not sure of that. This was forty years ago. That costs money. I want to say it was a sixty-line system or something like that. A big system. There were just a number of things that you put together bits and pieces, and what it seemed to me was that nobody really wanted the whole story. They had a preconceived idea about how they were gonna report it and that’s what they did. Even Michener’s book really didn’t do justice to what had gone on before the riots, and he never even mentioned the original gunshots. You can go to that, whatever they call it outside the ROTC -- or, the Architecture, School of Architecture building -- at least it used to be there, I assume it’s still there -- and you can see the bullet holes. You don’t have to be a ballistics expert to tell which way the bullets came from. 

And as I am walking across campus -- you know, things get blurry -- but it seems to me, I remembered one or two shots before a volley of shots. I wrote all this down at one point in time and I went looking for it in preparation for my time with you, but I couldn’t find it. Because I wrote it that week. It was fresh. I had to do my hunt-and-peck on a manual typewriter to do it. I do remember that. I don’t remember the specifics, whether it was two shots or three shots or what it was. But I do remember a “pop pop” and then a volley. I deduced from that the “pop pop” was what was claimed to be shot at the National Guard that subsequently struck that metal piece behind the Architecture building.

[Interviewer]: The Don Drumm sculpture, I think is what it is. Yeah.

[Albert Van Kirk]: I think there is a building in the way now, but if you were to look at that you’ll find that the building across the street, I think it was, where the National Guard claimed they were fired on from. Who knows what the facts are, but that piece seemed to make a great deal of sense to me at the time. But it was completely discounted, I suspect, because it didn’t fit the story that they wanted to tell.

So I don’t -- I’m glad you’re doing this. I have no idea what will come of this, but I don’t believe that all the facts that took place leading up to the riots, the riots themselves, and the subsequent issues that took place have ever been accurately told. I have had the occasion to be here.

Our youngest child was born with multiple birth defects, we believe probably because of my exposure to Agent Orange. But since the government hasn’t been terribly forthcoming with information on that it’s hard to draw a direct correlation, but we believe that. As a result, he was in a Special Ed school -- classes at RooseveltHigh School. And in his Junior and Senior year, I think it was, worked afternoons here at the Student Union, the cafeteria. I was here to pick him up from work one day, and it was coming up on May 4th, and I noticed all these booths set up around the balcony, and I had to go upstairs to get him anyways because he worked in the cafeteria.

So I just started wandering around and this one guy, who was supposedly a professor, was pontificating about what had transpired on May 4th.  I did some real easy math and figured I was just about old enough to be his father, which meant he wasn’t here. I just stood in the back, in back of the kids, and I just listened. Finally he singled me out, probably because I had a shirt and tie on like I do now, and said, “You look like you have some questions.” All of the kids turned and looked at me, and I said “Well, I do.” I said, “I’d like to know where you got your information.” He said, “Well, what’s that have to do with anything?” I said, “Because what you’re telling these students is not true!” With that, a feather floating through the room would have sounded like a jet. I said, “What you’re saying is just factually not correct. And if you want to state opinion, then you should tell the students this is your opinion. But it isn’t fact, it isn’t true.” He got very huffity and he stormed away. He didn’t care to discuss the situation. And that’s been my only exposure since I left Kent , frankly, other then just bringing my son to and from work when he worked here. But it just sort of reinforced the feeling that I had, that no one was really interested in the whole story. Maybe it embarrassed people, maybe there were political agendas, maybe a lot of things, I don’t know. But from a factual standpoint, I don’t believe the whole story was ever told.

There was, supposedly, a couple of guns. Two or three, I’m not sure which, fished out of the river within an hour of the shootings, with witnesses, but that was just sort of deleted from evidence. They discounted or discredited the people that claimed they saw it. And that was the end of it. It ended that day. So it led me to believe that maybe there was something more at stake than just people’s reputations. I had no idea what, so I would not go to that level to say “I think this” because I don’t know. I have some ideas. But I think it was a complete error in judgment on the part of the president to have Jerry Rubin here. That added credibility and credence to the radical agenda that he was putting forth, and as a result of that four young people lost their lives. Several others are hurt badly for the rest of their life. I look at that and I say, “For what?” I mean, what was gained from that? 

They were protesting liquid crystals. Do you know what liquid crystals do?

[Interviewer]: Not really.

[Albert Van Kirk]: Okay. Liquid crystals gives you the ability to see at night. Your night vision goggles. That’s liquid crystals technology, came right from KentStateUniversity. It was being used in Vietnam to save American infantry soldiers’ lives. That’s what it was being used for. That offended people on this campus, and the radical element of the Weathermen were the vocal ones at the forefront of complaining about this. I was deeply indebted to it, because as a function of that I’m probably here today. They used the liquid crystals, in an archaic form relative today, but it was put on the belly of a helicopter and they would fly around bases looking for North Vietnamese trying to overrun them. And it was very effective, at least one time for me.

As I said, I fully agree with the idea that if people don’t like what the government is doing they have an absolute -- in my opinion -- responsibility to protest. But that protest, I also believe, needs to be within the confines of the law. You can’t take the laws into your own hands and call it civil disobedience. I mean, the reality of what -- I have very strong feelings about that.

[Interviewer]: Are there any other thoughts you would like to share?

[Albert Van Kirk]: No, I’m glad you’re doing this. I have no idea what will come of it.

[Interviewer]: Thank you, thank you.

[Albert Van Kirk]: You’re the first person that’s ever asked, from an academic perspective, what actually took place. I’ve read a number of the interviews you’ve conducted, and they all seem to come from a general bias of -- a general bias. I haven’t seen anything that, based on my perception of the facts, was factually based.

[Interviewer]: Well, Al, thank you very much for having time to talk to me.

[Albert Van Kirk]: My pleasure.