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Brothers, memories, Kent State

It looked like any fraternity reunion. Lots of back slapping. Grown men trying to remember the secret handshake. A drunken driving arrest.

But deeper undercurrents were swirling when members of Tau Kappa Epsilon gathered recently for a weekend of carousing.

It was the first time most of this group had gotten together since the National Guard shot four students dead in an anti-Vietnam War protest May 4, 1970. The fallout shut down Kent State University for four months and eventually broke up the fraternity.

The reunion offered some insights into the weird odyssey Kent State students endured after the violence. But lurking beyond the tales of how a bunch of long-haired, baby boomers turned into lawyers, government bureaucrats and business executives, there were some New Age surprises.

The chapter's resident Barry Goldwater conservative is now a left-leaning public school teacher in Orlando. Seven of the 140 people on the chapter's rolls have died. AIDS claimed three, more than any other disease. And one brother is now a sister _ a 6 foot, 200-pound transsexual who pitched a mean afternoon softball game.

"No problem," chirped Jennifer Wells, a divorced father of five. "I know all about switch-hitters."

At Kent State, TKE was progressive, among the first fraternities to ditch pledge hazing way back in the mid-1960s.

Still, the group was like something right out of the movie Animal House. Wild pranks were considered harmless high jinks, even though a few bordered on the felonious.

The good times ended the day tear gas cleared the house and the National Guard posted an armored personnel carrier at the campus gate across the street. Armed helicopters hovered over the campus, just like they did over the rice paddies of Vietnam.

Gov. James Rhodes had ordered in the National Guard after windows were smashed in the downtown bar district in protest of President Nixon's decision to expand the war into Cambodia.

After the armed occupation began, someone burned down the wooden ROTC barracks. Every reserve police officer in Northeast Ohio was called in, setting the stage for one of those pigs versus hippies confrontations that became a hallmark of the '60s.

Two tense days later, a company of guardsmen shot into a mob of students on the run, killing four and injuring nine. The university closed, forcing 20,000 outraged students to go home.

Political pundits would hash over what it all meant, including conspiracy theories that ranged from "outside agitators" to some CIA plot. James Michener published a best-seller about it. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recorded a song about Kent State (the refrain: "Four dead in Ohio") that became an anthem for the anti-war movement.

After the school closed, students struggled to finish classes in absentia. Many professors held classes in their homes or set up correspondence courses. Some students and faculty just bagged the whole thing.

Hundreds of students got their diplomas in the mail, without setting foot on the campus again.

For the brothers of TKE, the riot aftermath became a lesson that life isn't always fair, that politics and governance are not always driven by common sense.

"After the shootings I never could think of my school or my government in the same light again," said Bob Hess, now a corporate spokesman for GE Plastics.

About half the TKE membership never went back to school at Kent. Those who did found the rules changed. People were judged on their lifestyles, most of which were rooted in a rage over war and politics.

The fraternity, one-fourth of its members destined for careers in the military, fractured along political lines. The party crowd versus the scholars. The draft dodgers versus the patriots. The marijuana culture versus the straights.

Bob Williams returned from a hitch in the Army to get back his graduate assistant's job. His military experience didn't fit the anti-war sentiments of the broadcasting department faculty.

"All of a sudden I got a hint of what it was like to be black. They wouldn't give me the job, but nobody would say why," said Williams, now an advertising executive in South Bend, Ind. "I went all the way to the provost before I got the general idea."

Meanwhile, the draft hung ominously over most fit males who dropped out. Most went with the flow, doing their time with Uncle Sam. Others dug in. Rich Phoenix hired two doctors to convince the Army he had flat feet. Dutch Frank, who lost one of his hands in a childhood accident, had trouble certifying an obvious disability.

Dave Lester learned draft exemptions were permitted for men under "continuous medical care." He got braces for his teeth and missed the long ride to Fort Knox. Today Lester gets state grants to develop a way to recycle newsprint into fertilizer for farmers.

"A lot of them beat the draft by simply being grossly overweight," said Jim Wagnitz, a TKE who was a friendly military face as the assistant processing officer at the Army induction center in Cleveland.

The disillusioned drifted aimlessly a few years. One cut short a career selling Jif peanut butter and headed to Alaska.

Years later many resumed their student lives at other colleges. Back at Kent the remnants of TKE were constantly at odds.

"After the shooting, it got real strange," said Dale Lintala, a public school teacher in Cleveland for two decades. "The riots polarized everything. There was no neutral ground."

Homecoming floats, the interfraternity Ping-Pong league and an endless torrent of theme parties immediately became irrelevant.

When TKE folded, it went fast.

"One day it was here. The next day it was gone," recalled Bob Baisch, who now teaches earth science at a Cleveland high school.

A few brothers pulled the plug when they began splitting up the furniture between classes one afternoon. A feeding frenzy erupted as scroungers carted off couches and beds in all directions.

TKE was hardly unique; only three of Kent State's 19 social fraternities survived the turmoil.

Eventually the empty old house was leveled. Today it's a Wendy's.

+ + +

The beer (and several cases of non-alcoholic brew) flowed day and night as conversations turned to topics of the middle-aged.

Aging jocks compared surgical scars. Dave Francisco, now a bank president, got mentally prepared for heart surgery scheduled the following week. A half-dozen left jobless by corporate downsizing swapped horror stories.

Jim Russell was one of the nine students injured by gunfire in the riots. Unlike others who were struck by military-caliber rifle fire, he was hit with buckshot.

After years of lawsuits filed by the victims of the shootings, the courts awarded Russell just enough to pay off his lawyer.

Now he and his family live in a home he built in the Oregon woods. He got a job as a city engineer. He got an unlisted phone number to screen out the media calls.

"I never thought it would turn out like this," he said. "But it's cool. It's all different now. The local police chief is a good friend. So is my state representative."

There was clearly a renewed bond here, a form of unconditional love that survived 24 years. People who couldn't stand each other two decades ago were close pals. Even Jennifer Wells found unanimous acceptance of her right to change genders.

TKE has a new undergraduate chapter at Kent State. The old guys promised to get together more often and raise money to help their successors.

The 25th anniversary of the Kent State riots is coming in May. The media already are contacting victims and the families of students who died at Kent State for those anniversary stories they love to do on past tragedies. But like most of the innocent thousands of bystanders whose lives were consumed by the Kent State riots, the TKE alums don't expect any calls.

"It changed an awful lot of people's lives," said Wagnitz, now a high school shop teacher. "But in the course of history, Kent State was really just one spark in a great big bonfire."

Mark Albright is a member of Tau Kappa Epsilon who graduated from Kent State in 1969. At the time of the shootings, he was waiting to be shipped to a U.S. Army unit in Vietnam.

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