By Kurt Hurner
As a child and later, a teenager I had a great advantage that I had grandparents and a great-grandmother still alive and local. It was interesting to hear old stories and as I got older and understood history made those stories even more interesting. I know that when you're young one feels anxious and think that their family is not very interesting. When you're young, unless you were a news geek like me you are not aware of the history being made around you and no matter how insignificant you may think of it at the time, your story is just as important as that of the president of the United States' story. Examples would be the Kennedy Assassination on November 22, 1963, Oklahoma City Bombing on April 19, 1995, the attack in the United States on September 11, 2001, the Boston Marathon Bombing on April 15, 2013, and the US Capitol Insurrection on January 6, 2021.
Before I go on, in the last 30 years, we had a first couple with a sense of history; Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton. When you look at their years of youth in the 1960s, they were there. Bill Clinton, as a 16 year old member of Boy's Nation was able to make himself get to the front of the line at the Rose Garden to shake President John F. Kennedy's hand just shy of four months before President Kennedy's assassination. In 2012, I was at the John S. Knight Center in Akron, Ohio where I made it to the front of the crowd as the former president was shaking hands. I leaned forward pointing to my right eye saying, "Mr. President, I am legally blind. Can we get a picture together?" President Clinton took the digital camera from my hand, handing it to his secret service detail telling him to take the picture. He embraced me in that famous Bill Clinton fashion and for about 30 seconds it seemed as if we were the only two in that room.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, as a member of her church's youth group had the opportunity to go to Chicago at the age of 17 to listen to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and meet him backstage. When I was a freshman at Kent State University in the fall of 1996 I got involved with the Kent State University College Democrats. One of the four events I attended with my new found friends was a rally where Mrs. Clinton was to speak at. I remember it was in Akron, Ohio at what was then Inventure Place. Congressman Sherrod Brown got our group down front. This rally was in late October and the First Lady's birthday was a few days away. While she was shaking hands, I leaned forward and said, "Mrs. Clinton, happy birthday." She thanked me. Just then, the public announcement system came up saying, "Folks, we just heard that it is Mrs. Clinton's birthday. While she shakes hands let's sing to her Happy Birthday."
But to go back to how family histories can be linked to bigger events is an interesting way to weave the past together and make it more personal for you and for the generations after you. I will share some of my family history and weave it to outside events.
In 1907, my great-grandmother was a little girl. Because of health reasons, she and her family traveled by covered wagon from Texas to a place in the Midwest called Logan, Iowa. While on the way north my great-grandmother wrote in a journal with one entry being, WHAT I WOULD LIKE TO DO ON MY SUMMER VACATION.
In this particular entry, she wrote about how she wanted to go to Canton, Ohio to see the newly built McKinley Monument for the assassinated president. We had no idea about this entry until 2008 when my parents went back to Logan to clean out my grandmother's house as she was moving into a nursing home. Dad was reading his grandmother's journal on the way home to North Canton, Ohio and was fascinated by what he had read. His grandmother never made it to Canton, but 65 years later, in 1972 her only grandson moved there after being discharged from the Marines. A few years later, Monument Park was doing some restoration and to raise money they were selling commemorative bricks where you could have your name put on the brick. Dad bought one for his grandmother so that she could posthumously get to the McKinley Monument as she passed away in 1966.
I did meet my great-grandmother's sister as she lived until 1995. Dad was always hoping that his great-aunt would live to 2000 as she would have lived in three different centuries. She missed it by five years.
Back in 1987, we took the family vacation to Logan, Iowa and we visited my great-great-aunt in the nursing home. At the time; Johnny Carson was really big on NBC and we were related to him in how my grandmother's mother was first cousins with Johnny Carson's grandfather and her father was first cousins with Johnny Carson's grandmother.
Anyway, Dad ended up recording a conversation that I was having with my great-great-aunt. Keep in mind, I was ten years old at the time. She told me how she knew Johnny when he was a little boy as he would come to family reunions. She told me that he was a snotty little kid then and he was a snotty little kid now. The now being 1987.
I mentioned earlier that my father was in the Marines. He had enlisted in August 1969. By April 20, 1970 it seemed as though the war in Vietnam was coming to an end as President Richard Nixon announced the withdrawal of 150,000 American troops from Vietnam by the spring of 1971.
After that Speech, Dad was told that he was going to be part of a "secret mission". He said that he had ten days of leave to go home to Iowa and get his affairs together. That leave started on April 26, 1970.
On April 30, 1970, President Nixon addressed the nation again. This time it was to announce the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. That was the secret mission.
Over the course of May 1 - 4, 1970, America's colleges and universities were seeing massive protests, but none more famous than Kent State University. What started out on Friday night as a Downtown Riot where a student threw a Stroh's beer bottle at a Kent City Police car. For decades there was a debate on whether the beer bottle was Rolling Rock or Stroh's. It was confirmed 45 years after the event that the bottle was in fact a Stroh's.
So what started out in Kent, Ohio as a protest against President Nixon sending troops to Cambodia turned into after ROTC was burned down and Mayor LeRoy Satrom called Governor James Rhodes requesting Ohio National Guard presence in Kent turned into a protest on Sunday night and into Monday afternoon a protest of the Kent State campus being occupied by the military. Four students were killed and nine more were wounded.
As mentioned, Dad was on leave for ten days waiting to be shipped off to Cambodia. But, because of the events at Kent State University his orders were changed several times before he ended up in Guam. Dad never got to Vietnam.
As for my mother's side of the family, my great-grandmother was a Methodist from Tuscarawas County, Ohio. She was courting with my great-grandfather who was a Catholic from Massillon, Ohio. To decide on where they would go on dates my great-grandparents would play a game of checkers and the winner chose where they would go on a date.
On Flag Day, 1922 my great-grandparents were married and my great-grandmother had converted to Catholicism. Back in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was a powerful force in the Midwest. They hated black people, Jewish people, and Catholics. My great-grandmother's father and brothers were in the KKK and they took it upon themselves to burn a cross on her front lawn.
Because of the Depression, my great-grandparents and their eldest three children, who included my grandmother moved for a time to Buffalo, New York where the family was living out of their car. It was also at this time where my grandmother contracted Infantile Paralysis, otherwise known as Polio.
At this time, the Diocese of Buffalo had a priest named Father Nelson Baker. It is said that he performed a miracle on my grandmother, curing her of the Polio. I remember my great-grandmother writing letters until her death in 1996 lobbying for Father Baker to become a saint. By 2011, Father Baker was declared venerable by the Pope.
As for my grandfather, he grew up on a farm in Jackson, Township, Ohio in Stark County. That farm today is where Kent State University, Stark Campus and Stark State College stand today. Grandpa always made sure we grandchildren knew what a great man his father was, and he always made sure we knew the story about the potatoes.
It could have been any night during the Republican Depression (that is what it was called up until 1953 when Dwight Eisenhower became president and the name was changed to Great Depression) that this story could have taken place. My grandfather was a boy and he and his father were sitting on the porch looking out at their potato fields. Grandpa saw some people coming in from the south towards Massillon and asked his father if he should go inside and get the gun. It was then that my grandfather learned a lesson in generosity that he carried with him for the rest of his life.
In 1887, my great-grandfather was seven years old and he and his nine year old brother were living in an orphanage in Louisville, Ohio. Apparently they were being abused and they both had had enough so they snuck onto a train and didn't care where it was going. After a while the two brothers were getting hungry so when the train stopped at Marchand Station (now a Mohler True Value Hardware Store) in New Berlin, Ohio (now North Canton, Ohio), they snuck off of the train.
As the two young brothers got off of the train, they noticed a light burning at the top of a hill. They went towards the light hoping that they could get something to eat. As the approached the brick house (now a Wendy's Restaurant) a man known to as as Old Mr. Frank answered the door. The boys explained their situation to which Old Mr. Frank made a deal with them. He said that he only had daughters and they could not work his farm with him, so if the two boys agreed to work with him on his farm until they reached the age of 21 he would not only give them something to eat but also a place to live and make sure that they also got an education; which in those days was most likely up until the eighth grade. They all agreed and that began a whole new life.
So back to the potato fields during the Republican Depression. My great-grandfather told my grandfather no about getting the gun. He explained it to him like this. We live out here in the country (wouldn't know it if you went by there today) and we have plenty to eat. The people out there right now, they're from the city and most likely they're hungry. They may even have children who are hungry. As long as they don't take everything I am not going to chase hungry people off of our land.
As the United States got into war, my grandfather was still too young to get drafted, but he had some older brothers who were already in the war. Then one day, in 1944 Grandpa went to get the mail and saw a letter addressed to his father from the War Department. I don't know the exact contents of that letter, but according to my grandfather it was telling his father that the War Department was of the belief that he had two sons of fighting age who have not served in the military as of yet. Grandpa told us that the letter in no uncertain words said that the War Department didn't care which one of these two sons joined the service, but one of them had to.
Grandpa knew that he didn't want to stay on the farm, but that his older brother wanted to be a farmer. Grandpa went ahead and enlisted never showing the letter to his father and never telling his brother the real reason he enlisted. Grandpa swore all of us never to say a word to his brother about that.
So in the summer of 1945, Grandpa was in Chicago getting ready to be shipped out to Saipan to be part of a mainland battle in Japan. He did not return back in time and was considered AWOL. The rest of the company went ahead to Saipan while Grandpa took a detour to Pearl Harbor for a reprimand. He would join up with his company in August.
While on the carrier heading for Saipan, there were two things played over the public address system. One was the song, Sentimental Journey by Doris Day; which Grandpa hated for the rest of his life. He felt that was an inappropriate song to play because there was nothing sentimental about going off to war. The other thing that came across the public address system was that President Harry S Truman had dropped an atomic bomb on Japan. The war was over. That one, Grandpa loved and for the next 58 years he swore that Harry Truman personally saved his life.
So instead of fighting Japan for a year, my grandfather helped rebuild Japan for a year. As for the company he was to join up with in Saipan; they were all wiped out.
The war I remember most was that of Operation Desert Storm back in 1991. At the time, I had a cousin who was a medic in the Ohio Air National Guard. Before Iraq had invaded Kuwait in August 1990 this cousin had proposed marriage to his girlfriend with a wedding date for July 1991.
The day after President George HW Bush sent ground troops in to drive Iraq out of Kuwait my cousin got the call to report for active duty. Not knowing at this point where he would be going, my cousin went to the home of his fiancé on Friday, January 18, 1991 asking if they could get married that day.
I remember I was in my third period math class at Lake Middle School when I was asked to report to the principal's office. I had never been called to the principal's office so my thoughts were concerning. I had no idea what trouble I was in.
When I got to the office I was told that because my cousin was called up to active duty he had requested that all of his cousins be pulled out of school so that could attend his impromptu wedding at Saint Joseph's Catholic Church in Massillon. It was the quickest Catholic wedding I had ever attended.
As for my cousin, when he was issued winter gear he breathed a sigh of relief. Instead of going to a M*A*S*H unit in the Middle East he was going to England where he was going to help treat wounded from Operation Desert Shield.
When you think about it, a grandfather, a father, and a cousin, oh and that cousin's father who broke his leg during paratrooper training that kept him out of Vietnam from one family were all spared in three wars. If all families were so blessed.
And of course, there is that event in the early 21st Century that would define American Foreign Policy Post Cold War for the next 20 years. That event is the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon where terrorists thought that be attacking the United States' financial district and our military they would bring us to our knees.
To understand that day, I will describe September 10, 2001 first. I remember the day was cool and cloudy. We had a rain late in the morning and early in the afternoon. I was working for the local newspaper; THE HARTVILLE NEWS as the Political Correspondent for Marlboro Township, Ohio. I remember during the 11PM hour of September 10 going into the midnight hour of September 11 working on my newspaper story, and I had the Jim Bohannon Show on in the background. That hour had a topic where callers talked about drive in movie theaters in the 1950s. The bumper music was WAKE UP LITTLE SUSIE by the Everly Brothers. I went to bed around 1AM.
The next morning seemed like a day of promise. The sky across the continental United States was a clear blue and the temperatures were in the mid 70s. It was a beautiful late summer day.
At my parents' house, we were all getting ready for a wedding as my sister was getting married in September 15th. Dad and I were in the garage preparing for the out of town guests coming in from Iowa. We talked presidential politics like we always did wondering if Former Vice President Al Gore would challenge President George W. Bush. Just then, my mother came outside and told us that a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center. For the next two hours it seemed like we were watching a Bruce Willis movie; (there was a 1998 film called the Siege about a terrorist attack in New York City), in real time.
That day, I thought about Pearl Harbor and how Americans felt on December 7, 1941. I thought of technology and family. I was with my parents, but my sister was working in Cleveland at the time and she was sent home. My brother was a sophomore at the University of Toledo. That day, my parents used the cell phone and the landline to keep connected with their other two children. My sister said that she heard on the radio that an airplane was spotted in Toledo air space. When she said that, my mother heard in the background in Toledo with my brother on the other phone, sirens blaring.
President George W. Bush had grounded all commercial flights in the United States. By Wednesday, my grandmother, who was still living in Logan, Iowa and my dad decided that he didn't have time to drive from NE Ohio to SW Iowa to pick her up and get back to Akron, Ohio in time for the rehearsal dinner on September 14, 2001. My grandmother was going to miss attending her only granddaughter's wedding.
About 90 minutes later, Dad received a phone call from his childhood best friend asking hoeing my grandmother was going to get to my sister's wedding on Saturday. Dad explained that it was decided that she was not coming. He was told that my grandmother should not be forced to miss her only granddaughter's wedding and told my father to call his mother back and let her know that he and his wife were leaving for the wedding at 6:30 the next morning and if she was interested; she could ride with them. My grandmother made it to the rehearsal dinner and the wedding. My sister even bought her a dress that Grandma loved so much that she wanted that to be her burying dress; which it was when she died in November 2010 at the age of 93. (Grandma always loved telling us that she was born on May 25, 1917, just four days before President John F. Kennedy).
A footnote to my sister's wedding days after the September 11, 2001 attack…There were 70 out of town guests expected to attend and of those 70 only seven were unable to attend.
So that is some of how major events in history can help shape your personal history. You should never be ashamed of bad things that happened decades before you were born. You don't have control over that. But you do have a responsibility to know about things like that; in my case the KKK blood that I have so that I can tell that story to the next generation and hope that the cycle of stupid in regards to racism and hate can stop.
So please, take the time to talk with your older relatives and friends. Listen to their stories and how they were affected by outside events. If there is an oral history project of an event that a relative or friend might have been involved in, encourage them to do a recording. That way their stories don't die with them. I have asked people whom I know in my area to share their stories about May 4, 1970, and they're forever preserved. It is a great way to weave personal and historical events together, and then you have a greater appreciation for what kind of a nation we are.