Special Collections and Archives

Brinsley Tyrrell May 4, 1970 Oral History

Brinsley Tyrrell -- Tape 2:B

Recorded by Sandra Perlman Halem, May 3, 1990
Transcribed by Kathleen S. Medicus

Interviewer: OK, give your name, address, and your age

If I can remember my age.  My name’s Brinsley Tyrrell, my address is [removed for privacy], Freedom Township, Ohio, which is actually the area that the God came from.

Interviewer:  What message do you want to leave here?

Well, I don’t know that I want to leave a message as much as remember some of the things that were happening, or that happened to me or that I felt during that—that time.  I just started teaching here two years before, and in fact during May, I had a glass student, his name was Nickson, I can’t remember his other name.

Interviewer:  Nick, right.

He had come here from Berkley to get away from the politics, staying in my house.  I think he was in some ways…

Interviewer: Henry Nickson!


Interviewer:  Black glass student…

Yes, he died a couple of years later, cleaning one of those gas station signs, and he fell off it.

When it first happened, I was working at home in my studio and listening to the radio; I suppose I’ve never believed the radio ever since [laughs].  And I really didn’t dare go near campus Saturday and Sunday, partly because I was an immigrant here from England, I’d been arrested four or five times outside U.S. air bases and outside the U.S. Embassy protesting—protesting the stationing of nuclear weapons in England and protesting the Cuban missile crisis.  And I had some experience of unruly crowds and I knew that if I went to campus I would lose my temper.  The Monday of May the 4th, University was open so I went down to class.  That was in the Lincoln Building on Gougler Street and it was guarded by two or three Guardsmen in full gear.  It was a very bizarre situation because the students who were coming to class and I as the teacher couldn’t really understand what the Guardsman was doing outside and neither could the Guardsman understand.  And all the morning, we—all the morning we discussed sculpture as we were wont to do in that class.  And then left about a quarter to twelve to get up to campus for a meeting that I think everybody on the University knew was going to happen, whether it had been organized or not.

When I got there, I went to the area behind Van Deusen which, at that time, was terraced with orchard trees and things, joined a number of the—the other Art School faculty and some students and a large crowd of people watching the most bizarre situation I’ve ever seen with a group of students gathered at one end and a large group of Guardsmen, and armored troop carriers, and Jeeps, etc., down the other end.  And we watched—we watched the Guard go up the hill and vanish over the top of the hill at which point they were invisible to us.  And then I, in my innocence, heard a group of firecrackers go off.  And I suppose it wasn’t ’til ten, fifteen minutes later that at least the part of the crowd I was in sort of realized what had happened.  We saw the Guard come down in a rather hurried fashion.  But then, people from the other side of the hill came down, in tears, incoherent, crying.  I remember a Vietnam veteran coming down—big, hulking guy, crew cut—screaming at the Guard, calling them toy soldiers, calling them a disgrace to their uniform.  And in a very chaotic way, I think everybody left campus.  All of that’s fairly well documented.  All of that.

I suppose it’s about two days after the shootings, when I start to get students turning up on my doorstep, pretty incoherent, bursting into tears.  There was one person whose name I don’t remember who’d been in my class who came back.  His parents had not allowed him in the house, screamed through the letterbox at him that they never wanted to see him again.  And this was repeated four or five times or vari…

Interviewer:  They had been in the demonstrations, was that the reason?

No, they were students at Kent.

Interviewer:  Right.  OK, that was the stigma.

There was nothing specific about it at all.  My children—in fact, my daughter was telling me the other day that they sent the kids home—my daughter would have been five or six at that point—and they sent all the kids home from Kindergarten on a bus.  She was terrified, she thought the nuclear war had begun.  Both my kids were not allowed to play by—with any of their friends simply because they were children of someone who worked at the University.  My wife reminded me last night that they were both stoned at one point by other children.  In fact, William got hurt—quite nasty cut from a stone.  It’s the only period in my life when I’ve realized that I would be sitting in my living room and suddenly realize I was in the line of sight from the window and move.  And I don’t think I’m usually a paranoid kind of a person.  I got no mail for six weeks after the shootings.  I didn’t even get bills.

Interviewer:  I don’t remember that, that’s interesting.

But you see, I’d been arrested in England.  And I suspect that any checklist would throw me out as someone to be careful of.

Interviewer:  In England, during a smarmy demonstration, would you have expected—how did… well the police in England didn’t carry guns?

The police in England didn’t carry weapons.  The situation’s altogether different.  It was rather hairy outside the Cuban Embassy because that was not an organized demonstration, that was a spontaneous gathering of people.  The other demonstrations I was in it was very much policeman would say you’re obstructing the path if you don’t move we have to arrest you.  I would say, “OK, arrest me.”  They would say, well, you know, “You’ve got a book there, you’d better pick it up.  Mind your leg, it might get hurt.”  Very straightforward: I’m demonstrating, they’re arresting, we understand their roles, there’s no venom in this.  That is not the situation at Kent.

Interviewer:  Yes, and that’s very important to put down, yes.

Not the situation at all. I’ve noticed a lot in the papers about the helicopters coming over.   I remember on the radio the talk of the student column going through the tunnels onto campus and going through the sewers out to burn Clarkins.  Do you remember that?  There are no sewers that go out to Clarkins, but this was reported authoritatively with news briefs and the police were trying to check to find out how far they’d got.  Total paranoia.  I remember going downtown; I’ve never had as many people—long-haired hippies—ask to buy me a drink in my life.  People I had never seen before, wanted to talk to me, wanted to buy me drinks.  I suppose they could have been lonely returning students, but one certainly felt they were FBI.  I remember walking down Main Street and having a gentleman sitting on his porch in a rocker, train his shotgun on me, follow me as I walked down the street, not doing anything, but very clearly pointing the gun and keeping it there.  After all that, of course, we had these groups of faculty and business people get together.  I was involved in one of those.  We had the strange situation of teaching the University but not being allowed on campus.  Not even being allowed to hold a faculty meeting in Kent.  So, working on my front lawn and trying to do sculpture.  I had a show coming up two weeks after the shootings in a now defunct and not very prestigious gallery in Fairlawn called the—it was in the foyer of a cinema—I suppose it was called the Fairlawn Art Gallery that was curated by Charles Walker.  How times change!  And I tried to call the show off because there was no way I wanted to show ordinary sculpture.  But it had been scheduled, announcements had been printed, and they couldn’t do that.  And I made a whole series of vacuum-formed sculptures with sort of fragments, a lot of simulated blood, some writing—very gruesome things that were all shown in this show and just about all given away to students afterwards.  In fact, I tried to see if I couldn’t find one recently for the art show for it, but I know I kept a couple and I think they must be somewhere in England, and I couldn’t locate any.

As luck would have it, recently, the last two or three days, one has started to meet faces.  Not students I knew, but faces that—that you remember.  And I’ve spent some time up by the memorial and it’s a very emotional time.  It’s very strange with people coming back.  There’s a Vietnam veteran up there this morning that told me he’s brought a flag to leave by the memorial.

 I’m not sure I really need to say any more.

Return to 1990 Oral History Inventory