Nathan R. Sooy, Oral History
Recorded: May 4, 1990
Interviewed by Nancy B. Brendlinger
Transcribed by Rhonda Rinehart
[Nathan R. Sooy]: My name is Nathan Sooy and I'm 36 years old. And, I'm married and have a 5-year-old son now. I first got involved in the May 4th efforts through - when I came here as summer student as a summer student in the summer of 1973 - when I came here, I went to my freshman English class, and there in my freshman English class there was this - a young red-haired fellow in a wheelchair sitting there and I got to know him over the course of a couple weeks; found out his name was Dean Kahler. I guess Dean had - after he had sufficiently recovered from the shooting, he came back to Kent State to finish his education. It was really through getting to know Dean that I began to be concerned about May 4th. And through Dean, I got to know other people such as Dennis Carey at the Center for Peaceful Change; I got involved in some of the efforts coming out of this Center for Peaceful change. It really didn't take very long after I got here because I think I had a social justice kind of orientation, so I basically kind of glommed onto that kind of thing on a regular basis.
I really think that, for a lot of people who, over the years, have struggled on the May 4th issue, it sometimes gets pretty abstract, you know, as to why they're involved or, you know. But I guess for me, I keep coming back to--like this wasn't an abstraction to me--like here was a real, live human being who had history happen to him. And it was a shock to me. I think I had, well, you know, I'm from Amherst near Lorain, so, you know, when the shootings happened I was almost 16 years old. It was probably something that drew my attention that night on the TV, but it really didn't get me then, but it was really coming here to Kent. And then I started to get involved with the various May 4th commemoration committees, and I was appointed by Raghbir Basi who was the head of the Center for Peaceful Change at that time, onto the May 4th Commemoration Committee. And I became part of that kind of almost institutionalized group of people who commemorate May 4th. And, I got kind of burned out on it after a while, but I remember one May 4th in particular--this was May 4th, 1977. I went to the commemoration rally that day, and my mind wasn't on very much politically like I was there. I met at the rally this woman who I hadn't seen for a long time, she is a former girlfriend, and what my mind was on was that she and I were going to go out for a date that night [laughing]. Well, the long and the short of it is that I didn't go out for a date that night; I spent the night in Rockwell Hall. I was one of the people who led the initial occupation of Rockwell Hall, which began the 'Move the Gym' episode.
It was real weird how it happened. There was--during the rally, it seemed like every speaker was kind of coming down on the gym, like the injustice that they wanted to build the gym there--one speaker after another--and William Kunsler who spoke today, he was one of them, and there were many others. So that got us really thinking about it--and it got us riled up. And I wasn't any different; I was basically pissed, and I was just real mad. So, after the rally, the weather had improved, it had been raining earlier in the day, and the commemoration was moved into the gymnasium. So the weather had improved, and we went around on campus for a march. Well, at the end of the march, we were back in the Student Center area by the fountain, and I remember it was Ken Hammond, former member of the Kent 25 and all that. Yeah, Ken Hammond, who I knew and who was a friend of mine, got up with a loudspeaker and said [yelling], "If ya care about that gym, the trustees are meeting right now at Rockwell Hall." And I just turned around and I started running;I ran ahead of everybody else, and it was like there was only one or two people who were up with me, and the people were trying to form a march; they had the banner--I think it said "the truth demands justice." They were encouraging us to come back and march behind the banner; there was maybe about ten of us up ahead. I remember one woman coming up to me and said, "Well, should we go back?" "No, I'm not waitin' for the vanguard this time, I'm gonna go!" Because I was kind of disgusted at this point with the institutionalized radicals, you know. Like my thing was entirely personal;I wanted to go talk to the members of the Board of Trustees because of the gymnasium situation.
Well, it was fortuitous that I got there up ahead because I got inside Rockwell Hall before security knew that anybody from the march was there. So, I was able to help to ease the entrance into Rockwell Hall. And when people were marching--and I remember it was Craig Glassner who was on the Student Caucus, which was the student government at the time--and Craig said, "Nathan, what's goin' on?" And I started telling him. And then there was this other guy standing there, Cliff Burns, and Cliff says, "Okay, Nathan, you take the bullhorn; you tell everybody." And, so all of a sudden, I was on stage, and I said, "The Trustees that are right in here!" And people went, "Ohhhh!" And they started going into the building. Well, once people were inside, I was on the spot again because they'd given me the bullhorn all of the sudden I was supposed to be leading this thing. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing [laughing], and it's like, I found myself mouthing slogans like, "It's gonna be bodies against bulldozers--we're gonna go after 'em!" And, you know, that worked for a time, but it was a good thing that there was alsosomebody else there who was one of the speakers that day, Ron Kovic. Ron had been in demonstrations before and I hadn't. And Ron started whispering to me as to what to do. He says, "Well do this; get everybody to sit down." [Laughing] So, I got everybody to sit down. And then he says, "Well, get everybody to do this," and then I did this. Then it was, "Okay, now Nathan, go call the press and tell them what happened." Now, Ron was being a sly organizer; he was doing two things. One, he was getting the press informed, and two he was getting this kid who didn't know what he was doing off of center stage [laughing].
So what I did was I ran to the Center for Peaceful Change, and I got on the telephone, and I - I had a key to the Center for Peaceful Change - because I was a work-study student and I had a key. And I got in and I called the United Press International and I called AP and I called all the local newspapers, and told them what was going on. And that night, the story that went over the wire services had my name on it. The other thing I did is I called Kent Natural Foods and I talked to Cliff who was one of the workers down there; I think he still is. I said, "Cliff, we've just taken over Rockwell Hall, send as much food as you can down to Rockwell Hall!" And I must have done it with authority because Cliff goes, "Okay!" And so I got back down to Rockwell; the situation had stabilized, you like, the old hands had taken over.You like, the people who were some of the old Kent 25 people, Kenny Hammond, Bill Arthrell, and some of the others. And I joined in, you know, but I became part of the coordinating committee of what became the May 4th Coalition. That's an interesting little story.
I, uh, then, as things moved on, I also - well, the main role that I played in the May 4th Coalition was I was the Coalition's crowd control expert. I was the guy who headed up the peace marshals. So, I trained a crew of twenty people for most rallies and had systems of, I used walkie-talkies and such where we could, like if the march was going too fast and people were getting left behind we could slow down the march, like by having the front slow down and, uh, you know, it's kind of hard to go much further on this without some questions on your part. But it's pretty much it--like, there's much more, but you know ...
[Interviewer]: Well, what was it like to meet Ron Kovic? Because, by 1977, he was very much the radical. I mean, he didn't stop with the Vietnam War protests. We knew the war was ended; it really wasn't ended for many people.
[Nathan R. Sooy]: Right, right. Uh, I had met Ron once before, in 1974, when the national organization called the Indo-China Peace Campaign held a rally at, uh, Kent State University, and Ron came that year as a speaker. So, I had met him once before. And so, like there wasn't a whole lot of, I mean, like, he was a celebrity, but kind of a minor celebrity; it wouldn't be like meeting Ron Kovic today, you know. But the thing that impressed me about Ron was that he was obsessed, absolutely obsessed.
[Interviewer]: And when he began the Vietnam Veterans Against the War he became obsessed with that.
[Nathan R. Sooy]: Yeah. And he became obsessed about the gymnasium issue, too. He stayed here; he originally just came to speak, but he stayed for months. And after we founded Tent City, he was still here [laughs];I don't think he lived in Tent City, a lot of us didn't, but he stayed through that and he dated Chick Canfora for a while.
[Interviewer]: Huh, interesting.
[Nathan R. Sooy]: Yeah.
[Interviewer]: I didn't know that.
[Nathan R. Sooy]: Yeah.
[Interviewer]: Well, thank you very much for...
[Nathan R. Sooy]: Okay.