Timothy DeFrange, Oral History
Recorded: April 30, 1990
by Helene Cooley
Transcribed by Lisa Whalen and Kathleen S. Medicus
[Timothy DeFrange]: I'm Tim Defrange, and I'm right now forty-one and I attended
Kent State. My final quarter was May of 1970. The question, "Where were you
on May 4th, 1970?" I was at Field High School, doing my student teaching.
Yet I have a very, very powerful memory of May 4th, a first-hand memory. That
I somehow stumbled upon the whole -- the whole process. My father was
dying, at the time. He'd been in intensive care at Robinson Memorial Hospital
in -- in that whole month. He -- he'd come there with a problem with gall
stones that turned out to be pancreatitis, and he was dying. There was
no way to save him, he was in intensive care. My mother had been practically
living there, sleeping on the couch outside the ICU unit, and going in
every, you know, couple hours, for fifteen minutes, to hold his hand.
He had become nothing but just skin and bones, and he was jaundiced and
very yellow, and very, very unlike the way he looked when he went in.
And our family had been going through a tremendous amount of stress throughout
this whole month.
So May 4th was a very upsetting thing for us as a family, but mostly
on a personal level. My brother Mark had been killed in Vietnam in '69,
and my mom had been against the war, and my father had been for the war,
and suddenly, the whole war just didn't matter anymore, with Dad dying,
and Mom at his side. And the -- the pain of Vietnam was -- was even --
you know, nothing compared with what we were going through as a family.
I got a call while I was -- well first of all, they announced -- or the
teachers were saying, when I came out of my last class, or in the middle
of my afternoon class, that there had been some National Guardsmen shot
at Kent State. Now I had at the time, in my wallet, a critical patient
pass, because the Guard had been stationed all around Kent, so that you
couldn't just drive through. But I needed to go that way to get to Robinson
Memorial Hospital from Field High School. So I needed to get through the
Guard, and I had this critical patient pass, which got me through.
I was, you know, thinking about this all, because I could see the burning
ROTC building from my house in Twin Lakes, when they burned that down
We could climb a tree and watch the fire, it was way off in the distance,
but we knew something bad was happening. But I still had to teach the
next day, and so I had an idea that something really bad was brewing on
campus, yet I really didn't care that much; I was more worried about Mom
And as I drove through Kent, I raced to the hospital, hurrying as fast
as I could, and flashing my critical patient pass to the guards that were
stationed on [Interstate] 59. When I got there, my mom was already downstairs.
And she said, "He's gone." And I said, "Well, how did it happen? How did he
die?" She says, "You just won't believe," she says, "I was upstairs, and
the -- all of a sudden there was all this noise and commotion. And then
all these young people were wheeled into the ICU, from the shootings.
And the doctors and the nurses were just crying. And one doctor went over
and he held an x-ray up, and he was holding it, showing it to another
doctor. And he said, 'Look where this bullet is lodged. This bullet is
lodged in this boy's spine. He's never going to walk again. In all my
years of medicine, this is the most senseless thing I've ever seen.'"
So my mom, who had been there for a whole month, she walked to the window,
and said, "Lord, Nick has had 55 good years. All this time, all this month,
I've been praying that you would spare him. But how can I ask for that
when these kids haven't even had twenty years? From now on, it's whatever
you want." She turned around and went back into the ICU, and he had died.
So, that's my story.
When I'd been going to school at Kent State, I was very, very upset about
the Vietnam War. And during my years at Kent State, I spent a lot of energy
and time trying to learn more about it. And the people who knew a lot
about Vietnam were the kids in SDS. Because they got the films and stuff
from off campus, and the stuff that they had was really, really excellent
material. You know, film material that was not available, even on the
networks. I'll never forget going to those SDS showings of the different
films. I wasn't an SDS member per se, but I really knew some of those
people that were in it, and I used to go to the meetings to learn more.
And I remember seeing a picture of the -- of a GI, an American GI, and
he was posing with a Vietnamese -- dead Viet Cong, hanging by his feet,
like he'd just shot a deer. And there were other scenes of them standing
with their feet on piles of the bodies of the Vietnamese. Posing, proudly,
as the -- they just looked like they'd been out hunting. And the dehumanization
factor was so intense.
My brother Mark, my younger brother Mark, had joined up. Wanted to -- wanted
to be in the Army, right out of high school. I -- I spent a lot of time talking
to him, trying to encourage him -- you know, the Army's great, but stay away
from Vietnam. Don't - whatever you do, avoid going to that zone, that combat
zone. And of course, he started off in boot camp, and did great, and was driving
ambulance, and really enjoyed the excitement of it all. And finally ended up
agreeing to go to Vietnam as a tank commander. And he -- he told me, he said,
"You know, Vietnam is a great short cut. I can get in and out of the Army so
fast, I get double the pay. It's just the greatest short cut in the world. I get
double the pay because it will be in a combat zone." And I said, "Mark, that's
crazy." I said, "There's nothing more dangerous in the whole world than for you
to go to Vietnam. And there's no way you can control whats going to happen to
you." And he said, "Oh, now look, if you get any MIA, missing in action notices,
don't you believe 'em. I'll be holed up in the jungle, using my survival
techniques. I'm trained. I'm really ready for this."
Well, he went, and he would write these letters that I knew were not
really what was happening to him, because they were too tame. Because
the films I'd seen in the SDS thing, I knew what he was going through
had to be a lot more dangerous, and a lot more desperate, than he was
describing it. I finally wrote him a letter and said, "You can come clean
with me. I'll tell you everything that's in my heart for you right now,
and I'll tell you what I think you're going through. And I'll tell you
why I want you to come back alive, and you do everything you can to."
And I wrote him a letter that was basically saying, "I love you. You know,
I never got to say that to you before, but I'm saying it to you now, and
I want you back. And we've got things we can do together." And he wrote
me a letter. And he sent it just to me. And he told me what he felt like,
and it's just a very powerful letter. Anyway, I could probably read it
into the tape machine, but it was a very very desperate, very awful letter.
He described a couple things ... [pause on tape]. He wrote me this letter
when he described that they were on their way to their first station,
and got shelled,
[Interviewer]: How long had he been there?
[Timothy DeFrange]: He died after nineteen days there. He just never got to live -- got through
very much. Anyway, he was on his way with the rest of the -- the crew,
to his first base. And they were shelled by Viet Cong. And the mortars
were blowing holes in the road all around, big enough to drop a car into,
they were dropping such heavy mortar fire. And everywhere men were screaming
for their mothers and there was blood all over, and you know, it was just
such a shock to him. "I had no idea it was going to be like this," he
said. And he said another time, he was up on a mountaintop, with the rest
of his tank crew. His job was to sit up on the top where the tank is open,
tell the gunner down below how to correct the fire, so it -- you know,
each time the cannon is fired, it needed to be corrected so they'd hit
right on target. He said that he and his men were up there, and some guys
came up in a jeep, they were just up there to send some communications
up to him and the rest of the guys. They talked a while, and then they
said good bye and the guys got back in the jeep, and were going back down
the mountain. Well their jeep hit an anti-tank mine, and he said, "Tim,
this mine is made to blow the treads off a tank. What it did to the jeep
and those men I can't tell you. All of us ran down the hill when that
thing went off." He said, "When we got down there, there were dogs eating
the remains of the bodies of the men. Wild dogs. We opened fire and we
shot all the dogs. I cry every day. And I tell my men to cry. Because
that's the only way we'll get through this thing without going crazy."
So he died June 25, 1969. He was -- he was levelling, according to his
commander, he was levelling accurate fire against the enemy, near some
highway, and a rocket-propelled grenade got him, from behind. Came up
from behind and, I don't know if the grenade was fired at the upper part
of the tank or what, but some of the guys in the tank lived. But he died.
He was in a hospital for twenty-four hours. You know, one of those MASH-type
hospitals, for twenty-four hours, before he finally expired. They brought
him there -- he died almost twenty four hours after he was wounded. So I don't
really know exactly how, and what happened when he died. But --
[Interviewer]: Was he buried back here?
[Timothy DeFrange]: Yeah. He's buried across from Roosevelt, at Standing Rock. When we had gotten
the news that he was missing in action, of course, you know, I remembered what
he had said. But there was no way that I believed what he said. I was really
scared. And when -- when we finally got the news that his body had been found,
I was up in Cleveland -- actually in Maple Heights, with a girlfriend, at her
house. My father called on the phone and said, "Is Tim there?" I came to the
phone and he said, "They've found Mark's body." That's all he said. And I said,
"Do you want me to come home?" And he said, "Do what you want." So I got in
the car and I raced home like crazy. I had visions in my head of the whole family
sitting around the table weeping. Just crying their eyes out, and just everybody
devastated. You know, the first time that one of us, one of our immediate, nuclear
family had been killed, had died. I got in there, I came in the house. Mom and
Dad and all the kids were -- my brothers and sister, were sitting around the
table, eating ham sandwiches. It didn't look like anything had happened. You
know, Mom looked like she'd been crying, but everybody had this real pale, numb
look about them -- their face. No one was discussing it. And the -- the conversation
was going to, "Well, what is everybody going to do this afternoon?" So Marilyn
and Dennis were going to go swimming, and Tom was gonna go do this and that.
This just was an unbelievable denial of what was going on, in my heart. And
I didn't know how to deal with that, and so, of course, when in Rome -- so I
just -- just the same as they were. But it was just eating me alive, ya know?
We went to the funeral home, and the casket was closed, because this
was Mom and Dad's intention to have a closed casket. And I was not having
any sensation except a numb feeling, and my mom was crying. She was the
only one who was crying, all the rest of us were just walking around -
just numb. I mean, it was to the point where, company dropped in to drop
off food, and Tom and I were sitting around joking, and we were just running
from it; no one was letting it hit. I had a friend that kind of forced
me to -- to face into it when she and I were alone. And then, later on,
I realized the reason I was having such trouble was that I didn't have
a sense of his loss, because I hadn't seen him. It was just a box to me,
it wasn't Mark in there. So I asked my uncle, who I was close to, I said,
"What do you think I should do? I think I really need to see." My uncle
said, "I think that's a great idea." He was a former Army captain, and
he said, "Look that's a great idea, I think some of the immediate family
that really knows Mark, need to make sure that Mark's in there. Things
can happen, mistakes can be made." He said, "I think we should ask your
father to open the coffin, let you see, to make sure. For yourself, and
for the sake of the family." I said, "He'll just say no." And he said,
"You asked my opinion. My opinion is: ask your father."
So when we got home that night from the funeral home, I asked my dad.
This was probably the most painful memory I have of my father. He -- he
exploded. Just all the emotion, all the pent up emotion in my dad just
exploded. He just yelled, he said, "Are you nuts? Are you crazy? Are you
crazy?" You know, just over and over again. And my mom -- my mom strode
over to me, she came up to me and she said, "Tim, you stop it." She had
to side with him, you know. "Tim, you stop this. You stop it right now."
So I just -- just -- I was wretched then, at that point. I just went out,
and sat alone on the front step. One other thing my dad did, just before
I left the room. He walked over to the telephone, and he dialed Bissler's.
And he said, "Mr. Bissler, Under no circumstances," and he's looking
at me the whole time he was talking to Bissler, "do I want that coffin
opened." So then I sat on the front step, all by myself. I was out there
- I don't know how long, and my brother Tom came out, my older brother.
He said, "Tim," -- No, the next thing that happened is the car, zoomed
out of the driveway. Dad was driving. He and my mom were in the car, and
the car backed out of the driveway. We had like a long driveway, and the
car went, "zrooom," and away they went. And then my brother Tom came out.
And my brother Tom said, "Tim, I think Dad's going to let you see Mark."
I said, "How do you know?" You know how brothers are: he goes (looks at
me), like that. "I think he is." That's all he said.
And so we went to the funeral home the next -- for the next, you know,
the next visiting hours. And after everything was over, and everyone had
left, Bob Bissler came up to me. He tapped me on the shoulder and called
me over and said, "You can see your brother now." And I said, "You know
what my dad said, my dad said no to this." I said, "What about him?" Mr.
Bissler said, "Well, your father's a very generous man." So, he brought
me in the room and closed the door, and said, "There's nothing to be afraid
of," he said. And he opened the coffin up, and it was a coffin that had
glass on the top part, where the head and the shoulders were, and metal
covered the rest of it, and everything was under glass, Mark was. His
hair had grown long during the time he'd been in combat, of course. That's
expected, no barbers. He had the colic(?). They had -- they had something
under his uniform, because it was pointy in spots that shouldn't have
been pointy. Like maybe, maybe there was a part of him that was not there,
and this was a brace to make it look as though he was whole, even though
he wasn't. But it was obvious, you know, that he was in a dress uniform,
and he was clean looking. There was nothing the matter with his face,
other than, they had set his jaw- he had a big overbite, all of us do.
And they had set his jaw in such a way that it was obvious they didn't
know that he never had his jaw that way. So it didn't look like him in
that regard, but everything else was him. And I could really tell, and
I just -- a tear rolled down my face, and I had no problem dealing with
the grief, then I could grieve.
[Interviewer]: Would it have helped your folks to have seen him?
[Timothy DeFrange]: I don't know. I think it probably would have helped my
dad. My dad said to my mom -- my mom told me this story later -- he said, "Ellen
dear, I wish I could cry. I just wish I could cry. I just can't." When the
-- when the funeral took place, later, I was good at crying, and little sister
and my mother cried. But my other brothers, Dennis and Tom, didn't seem
to cry much. But, I was really sobbing, and really, really needed to sob.
And when we got to the -- to the cemetary, after the -- the funeral, Bill
Cowling was the soldier that we had asked to accompany Mark's body back
from Vietnam. And he had come, and we'd been glad to get him out of the
combat zone for that short amount of time, which was something you were
allowed to do. And he led the Honor Guard, and then there was Taps, and
they fired the twenty-one-gun salute. And they took the flag, and they
folded it up, ceremoniously. The whole thing was over now. They folded
the flag up, handed it to Bill, and Bill went over to my dad, and said,
"Mr. DeFrange, please accept this flag in memory of your son, Mark, from
a grateful nation." And my dad just took that flag and tucked it under
his arm like a newspaper, no tears or nothing. I'll never forget that.
How tough he was, how hard it was for him to let go of his emotion. And
so there was that -- there was this grief we were undergoing, that Vietnam
had already, pretty much wiped us out as a family. I mean, we -- we were
just, you know. My younger sister Marilyn was struggling through high
school, and she was already having emotional problems. You know, losing
Mark like this just devestated her emotionally. She never really -- it
took years for her to straighten herself out from this. And then to lose
my dad in 1970, you know, it was just one thing after another for our
family. It was a very grief -- awful time.
[Interviewer]: You lost him on May 4th?
[Timothy DeFrange]: Yeah, Dad died on May 4th. Yeah. So, you know, later on I asked Bob Bissler,
I said, "Do you remember when you opened the coffin for me? Do you remember
how my dad said it would be all right?" Bob said, "I just don't remember."
I don't know if he didn't want to remember, or if, you know, he just didn't
want to get into it. But maybe I waited too long to ask him, he was already
struggling against his heart problems. He had already been in the hospital,
and I probably should have asked him sooner. I never thought to. But I
got curious one time and asked him. He just didn't remember, could be,
and that really could be it.
[Interviewer]: And what brought you to campus today?
[Timothy DeFrange]: Well, I've often thought about -- I know that one of the students that
was paralyzed is Dean Kahler, is that right? And I just wonder if he ever
knew that my mother was in the hospital, and that the doctors wept when
they saw the bullet in his spine, and their reaction, you know. I just
wanted -- I just wanted this little piece of -- of the experience to be
known. That up there, upstairs those doctors and nurses in the intensive
care unit -- they were just shocked and stunned. And mortified at the
waste, the senseless waste. I don't even know which doctors they were.
They probably really could say something about it. I'm sure the doctors
would have something to say.
[Interviewer]: That was a moving story, Tim.
[Timothy DeFrange]: Good, good. You might remember, though, hearing about a play, a peace play called
Alice in Blunderland. My brother Tom and I wrote that.
[Interviewer]: I was a real good friend of a teacher from Field High
School, I think, or Roosevelt, a woman.
[Timothy DeFrange]: Leslie Hudak?
[Interviewer]: Yes. Real good friends.
[Timothy DeFrange]: She's back there now, aren't they? She's back teaching there again, yeah.
[Interviewer]: That's how -- that's why I know your name.
[Timothy DeFrange]: Okay. Well anyway, a couple things. Let's see, what was
I going to say. I was talking about -- let's pause for a second here. I wasn't
in SDS, I really -- I had an ambivalent feeling about the SDS people. I really
believed the way they did, I was very angry about the war. There were moments
that I said, "Oh,
cool," when they were doing things like, carrying coffins through the middle
of campus, and showing the dead, and emphasizing how -- how this was a war
that was killing, and whatever. I said, "Yes. That's right. That's right." But
I could never go along with the way Joy Secora and a few of the other really
nice looking kids, dressed like bums, and stood on these soap boxes, and used
all this foul language. And insulted all these kids, that I thought could
be persuaded with reasonable dignity, you know. There was a lack of dignity
and respect in their anger. Their anger was just out of control. And they
really behaved radically, and they behaved socially boarishly. And it -- it
didn't do us any favors, in terms of the cause. I didn't want to -- I didn't
wanna belong to SDS, they -- they were people I agreed with philosophically,
but I didn't approve of their behavior. So I didn't join it per se, but I
loved hanging around them. And I was walking across campus, and I almost got
to the Education Building. And there was a whole van-load of kids in the back
of it. And I saw one of my friends, you know, that I -- his name was Scotty,
and he waved me, "Come on! Come on!
We're going!" So I jumped in the van. I didn't know where we were going. He
said, "we're going to demonstrate against Nixon. He's going to be at Akron
So I said, "All right." So we drove to Akron U., and we had the flyers to pass
out. We passed them out, then we all went up, we all had seats in the balcony.
And Dick Bliss, or Ray Bliss, the -- he was the speaker, he started to talk.
And the next Republican speaker was Governor Rhodes, and then Richard Nixon
came on. And all through this we were all chanting, and we had our balloons,
and we're saying, "Ho ho, Ho Chi Minnie" and, "Elemental F is going to win,"
and some of these other chants that we used, and we were angry. Yet there was
sort of an adventure about it, and finally, we were all done. And the whisper
was, "Okay, now we're gonna walk out." So everybody stood up all at once,
and they stared walking out, and I was the last one out. It made me angry,
I looked down, and there was Nixon, still talking. There were all these people
listening with rapt --he was their hero. And I just had this picture in my
mind of his insensitivity towards the blacks, and this thing about law and
order with justice, and I had a feeling of what was ahead, and all the suffering
that was about to happen. I had no belief that he would be willing to end
the war, he seemed to be so conservative. And just to me -- I just saw all
the grief that was about to happen. I leaned over the balcony, and I yelled,
at the top of my lungs, "God help America if you get
elected!" Really loud.
And there were two security guards that came up, and one and grabbed me this
arm and one grabbed me by that arm; they literally carried me out, but they
weren't violent. And I was appreciative for not getting beat up for that loud,
disruptive remark. But it gave me such a good feeling, even later, with all
that stuff with Watergate, and whatever, to have been able to say that, to
Nixon, in front of a lot of people, about my opinion. I was one of those 'rowdies',
you know. Even though I wasn't an SDS member. Then later on, as the years
went away, and we were learning to live with the -- with the consequences
of Vietnam and whatever, I raised a family and whatever. Of course, Leslie
went to Washington to hear about the Alice in Blunderland, well, she heard
about the issue from Helen Caldicott, and then that's when we wrote the play,
and thats another whole story in itself. But, that's really not what we're
talking about here, so...
This is one other memory I had during this time: it was the moratorium
on the war. We were all getting in buses, we're all going to Washington,
D.C., to demonstrate against the war. And this was sort of, to me -- I
was a little resentful of some of the people that were climbing on the
bus, because we had been fighting this war for so long, and now it was
finally catching on. And now everybody wanted to be against the war, and
there was a little part of me that was mad about this. That -- that a
lot of us had been all alone for so long, and now, suddenly the tide is
turning, and now it's a popular thing to do, and I just felt a little
bit resentful. But, I signed up and we climbed on the buses, and you know,
they were all Kent people. And as I sat sown in a seat, I looked back,
and there was a sea of this khaki, with all these Vietnam red flags, all
in the back. They were all in the back, and they were all ready, all pumped
and everything, al, "Ho ho Ho Chi Min," and everything else. Well, Harriet
Begala got on the bus. She got on the bus, and she said, "I have a
flag that I would like someone to carry to Washington, D.C. Will someone
carry this flag?" She held it up, and it was an American flag. You should
have heard that bus load of people. They all started all yelling and screaming,
"We don't love that flag, that flag stands for murder. That flag stands
for deceit. That flag stands for everything that's evil in the world."
They were just yelling all these abusive things at Harriet, and I stood
up and I said, "I'll take it." And I took that flag, and I carried it
all up and down the Mall in Washington, D.C. And I just think that the
American flag is the reason that makes those of us that believe that our
country's wrong, it gives us credibility with the rest of America. You
carry a foreign flag, you don't stand for anything. But if you're an American
against what America is doing, you stand for something. I think that's
the secret to what happened, finally, with the protesters. They stopped
carrying around a foreign flag and started carrying our flag. You know,
and then people start seeing that Americans don't believe that our country
is headed in the right direction. So I was really happy to be able to
carry that flag. I didn't bring one, but I'm so glad Harriet provided
me with one to carry. Because there were lots of red flags, and there
were not very many American flags. And I was proud to have the American
flag. It really made me feel good. That was the other thing I wanted to
I had a friend named Howard Ruffner. He was -- he was always carrying
his camera around campus and everything. And I remember, you know, a couple
of times -- I loved talking to the guy. He was a really nice guy. And
one time I was going over Taylor Hall, over -- right up over the hill
of Taylor Hall, on my way with my girlfriend. He stood right there and
he snapped my picture, with her. It was the nicest picture. It was just
a gorgeous picture, one of the nicest pictures -- we were just at a happy
moment, it was such a beautiful, romantic picture. And then I kind of
lost touch with him as I was student teaching and everything. Its just
so ironic that there's this picture that he took of us, on top of Taylor
Hill, there by Taylor Hall, almost the exact spot where the guardsmen
were standing when they shot. They were up there on the top, shooting
down the other way, and it just was so ironic. And there he was, taking
pictures of that time.
[Interviewed]: What year was that?
[Timothy DeFrange]: Well, that was -- that was -- the picture that he took was probably '69, and
then of course, the next year, he just happened to be there. And his pictures
were sold to Life Magazine and everything.
[Interviewer]: Is that right? I didn't realize those were his
[Timothy DeFrange]: Yeah. Those were Howard's pictures, a lot of those pictures he took.
He took those stills that are in Life, those black and whites. So that
was kind of neat, but amazing. So ironic. The whole thing is so ironic.
There's such irony in it. There were stories that people would tell, you
know, the people, the administrators, that stood there and watched the
building burn, that just sort of stood there quietly, without really saying
much. I don't know if maybe, whether or not they saw that they could have
any control over it. Maybe they feared for their own safety if they were
to try to stop a mob that was out of control. And I -- I don't blame them.
But I just wonder how it is when you -- when I deal with kids. And kids,
if these adults say nothing, they take it for approval. They take it for
permission. And that must have been a very, very upsetting thing for them
to be watching, but it also must be a thing that bothers them when they
think back. That they didn't say something.