Kent State Remembered

It was 30 years ago.
Has the lesson been learned?

The four students who died at Kent State on May 4, 1970. (Photos from

Students From Then and Now Pass On Painful Lessons of Kent State

NY Times April 28, 2000

KENT, Ohio — The sense of history's turning is strong this spring at Kent State University as a campus meadow of 58,175 carefully planted daffodils bursts to life once more in memory of America's body count in the convulsive war in Vietnam.

The power of that memory is at a definitive point for the nation. For it was a generation ago — 25 years — that the war was brought to an inglorious end, its meaning left to the encroaching forces of history.

And it was 30 years ago that the home front of that war — the confrontation between government authority and popular resistance — was made shockingly clear as civilians fell here on this prototypical American campus. National Guardsmen, confronting students in one of the countless protest pavanes of that time, unexpectedly wheeled and opened fire down a hillside, killing four students and wounding nine.

"It brings back this flood of memories that stay very real," said Laura L. Davis, a freshman then who cowered in witnessing that 13-second, 67-shot volley and still tries to come to terms with its meaning as an English professor and assistant dean at Kent State.

"The lesson from it that I tried to teach was to emphasize the power of language, how people are manipulated through language, and how to see through the language to reality," she said, recalling the furious debate over patriotism and free speech between government officials and protesters.

Across campus, her 20-year-old son, Jesse Clapper, a sophomore at the university, looks back on the Vietnam era with a vagueness that many students readily admit.

"My generation doesn't have a strong understanding of that era," Mr. Clapper said, even as the university prepared a memorial conference on freedom of expression and students readied their annual all-night vigil to mark the May 4 shootings.

"Never once till college did I get past World War II in history. That's ridiculous. I mean, it's important to be able to look back and see how, if people band together, change can occur, to see how ultimately the students of that day won."

Here, as anywhere else in the nation, there are multifarious answers to the question of what the lingering lessons of Vietnam are. Older teachers emphasize the dangers of government hubris in enlarging a disastrously unpopular war. Students with fresh campus causes are clearly becoming fascinated by the era's lessons in the power of organized protest.

Alan Canfora, 51, is one of the Kent State casualties. He was shot that May 4 as he brazenly stepped forward to wave a black flag of antiwar protest.

"There's a good number of students nowadays that are still very active across this country in the student movement, and they want to learn the lessons of the antiwar movement in the 60's," said Mr. Canfora, who belonged to the militant Students for a Democratic Society. Now, he is a bullet-scarred alumnus who never really left the campus. He founded the Kent May 4 Center, an information outlet on the shootings, the war, and its escalation when American troops attacked Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia. (Its Web site is

The incursion into Cambodia ignited Kent State and countless other sites in spring 1970. The R.O.T.C. building on campus here was torched. And the state government sent in the National Guard.

The events of the war protest, Mr. Canfora finds, are being consulted increasingly by a dedicated minority of students. They lack a singular rallying cause but have a portfolio of protest issues, from global trade to capital punishment to animal rights.

"The vast majority we're hearing from are from middle school, high school and college," said Mr. Canfora. He noted that the teachers and parents with influence over those students are trying, before their power ebbs, to pass on eyewitness lessons.

Thus here, as on many campuses, the Vietnam era has gradually become an elective, often driven by faculty members who lived through the experience.

"Once we leave, who's going to do it?" asked Gayle L. Ormiston, who witnessed the shootings while a student and is now chairman of the philosophy department. "But these days there's a great emphasis from students demanding to know the relevancy" of Vietnam to their career hopes, he said.

For decades, two professors who witnessed the shootings, Jerry M. Lewis, a sociologist, and Thomas R. Hensley, a political scientist, have made a passionate academic specialty of the subject. Dozens of students recently took notes as Mr. Lewis lectured on what has come to be known as the Pietà photo — the photograph of a young woman keening with upraised hands as she knelt by a mortally wounded victim.

"We're not talking about Beirut or Berlin; we're talking about 200 yards from here," he declared as the class looked back upon one of that time's definitive images. In the back of the room, Sean Wheeler, 22, explained that his war curiosity had little to do with student activism.

"It's still a relevant event, not only because of the war but also because kids my age are interested in that period for the surrounding culture in terms of music and film," he said. "That's where we get our information — like Jimi Hendrix playing the national anthem at Woodstock. But I don't think you can really understand it unless you were there."

Across the years, it has been a small group of students, far more than the university administration, who have forced candid remembrance of the May 4 shootings and their historic context of Vietnam protest.

"We've always been a pain in the university's side," Jeffery Ritter, a 21-year-old senior, said proudly as a leader of the May 4 Task Force. This is a student group, formed after the shootings, in which freshmen are taught about the Vietnam era and the dynamics of protest by departing seniors.

Last fall, the task force organized demonstrations and succeeded in having parking lot sites near the places where the four students were killed cordoned off with plaques and memorial lanterns.

"If those children hadn't applied pressure, nothing would have happened," said Doris Krause, whose daughter, Allison, was one of those four students. "Those children had a cause and were seeking justice.'

Critics rate the university administration's history as spotty on the issue. Officials enraged much of the campus to protest in 1977 when a new gym was built on some of the land where the shootings occurred. In 1990, after long controversy, the university finally built a formal hillside memorial with four pylons representing the victims.

"There are still some mixed feelings about the events back then and the university's role within world history," said the university president, Carol A. Cartwright, who feels the passage of time finally is allowing a more scholarly approach to this commemoration. "I want people to begin to turn their eyes forward."

This spring, visitors who look beyond the daffodils can notice one telling sign of change, the return of the full "Kent State" to campus logos, a title that was expunged after the shootings. A simpler declaration of "KENT" had been used, but the familiar title is being restored, as if the university were coming to terms with its own dark tableau in the history of the Vietnam War.

5 Years Ago:

At Kent State Remembering 13 Seconds After 25 Years

By Edward Walsh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday , May 5, 1995

KENT, OHIO, MAY 4 -- By now, 25 years after the event, the rituals that commemorate the terrible 13 seconds are well established.

They began late Wednesday night when about 1,000 people holding candles, most of them students, gathered on a low grassy area on the Kent State University campus known as the Commons. Drums pounded in the background, a bell was rung, then the crowd began to move slowly in procession, winding around the campus and ending up in the parking lot behind Prentice Hall.

There the candlelight vigil continued until precisely 12:24 p.m. today. Then the "Victory Bell" in the Commons was rung again and once more Kent State recalled the moment on May 4, 1970, that forever stamped this school as a symbol of the Vietnam War era and the bitter dissent it provoked: 13 seconds of gunfire from a phalanx of Ohio National Guard troops on a ridge overlooking the parking lot, four students shot dead -- William Schroeder Jr., Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller and Sandra Scheuer -- and nine others wounded.

Today, the students of the 1990s sprawled on the steep slope of Blanket Hill over which the troops marched, and which now is planted with 58,175 daffodils to honor the Americans killed in Vietnam. The Victory Bell tolled 15 times, once for each of the Kent State casualties and for two students who were killed at a protest 11 days later at Jackson State University in Mississippi.

Events like today's have propelled the war back into the national consciousness. On Sunday the 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon was remembered. Robert S. McNamara's new book, confessing his errors and doubts about the war, has reignited the old arguments and called forth a torrent of admiration and contempt. Vietnam "is a shared experience that is truly amazing," former senator Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) told the crowd on Blanket Hill. "It both bonds us and divides us."

The prelude to the killings here was the invasion of Cambodia, ordered by President Richard M. Nixon, who during the 1968 presidential campaign had promised to end the war. Student protests erupted here and on other campuses. On May 2, the Kent State ROTC building was destroyed by fire.

Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes (R), in the midst of an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate, ordered the National Guard to the campus. On May 4, in a haze of tear gas fired to disperse an anti-war rally, Guardsmen on the right flank of Troop G suddenly and inexplicably wheeled, aimed and fired. More than 60 shots were fired in the direction of students.

A presidential commission called the shooting "indiscriminate, unwarranted and inexcusable." Eight of the 27 Guardsmen who fired were charged with civil rights violations, but a federal judge acquitted them in a directed verdict before the case went to the jury.

In the years since, May 4 has continued to haunt those who were here, the families of the victims and the university that bears the stigma. Some on the campus have wanted to forget, but even today's Kent State students cannot entirely escape the legacy. Others don't want to, for they consider this unfinished business.

Of the nine wounded students, Alan Canfora, 46, is the most outspoken. He believes federal agents may have set the fire that destroyed the ROTC building as part of Nixon's campaign for "the suppression of student activism." Recently, Canfora wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno asking for the creation of a "truth commission" to reopen the case.

"We don't have the truth," Canfora said. "There's been no healing here."

Dean R. Kahler, 45, was far more grievously wounded than Canfora. Shot in the back, he was left partially paralyzed and uses a wheelchair. Like Canfora, Kahler said he believes the truth of the incident is still not known, but he is more willing to let go.

"I do believe in forgiveness and I've come to terms with it," he said. "If I didn't, I'd be consumed by it."

Mary Ann Vecchio Gillum, 39, was not a Kent State student, but the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of her anguished face as she knelt over Miller's body became the indelible image of the shootings. Wednesday night, following a dramatic reenactment of the event, she told a hushed audience, "It's time to move on now."

"If together we helped stop the war and saved lives, it's all worth it," she said. "We had a purpose. We had a good purpose in life."

Stephanie Campbell, 20, co-chair of the students' May 4 Task Force, has devoted much of her energy this year to planning today's commemoration. She refers to the four dead students by their first names. "I honestly feel as though I knew these people," she said.

Not everyone here shares her passion. Many students are apathetic, Campbell said, and "there are still students that say they should have killed more. Their parents said that at the time."

But, she added, "I've never met anyone on this campus, once they know the basic facts, that doesn't care. Some of those people are angry at the Guardsmen; some are angry at the students. But I've never met anyone who doesn't care."

Zach Brandon, 22, who has been elected to a second term as head of the Student Senate, contends Kent State should not forget May 4, but "I was the first student body president to say it's time to move on."

Too often in the past, he said, planning for the May 4 ceremonies has been dominated by graying relics from Students for a Democratic Society. Gradually, Brandon argues, the annual May 4 rite is losing its significance to today's students, who are more concerned with tuition increases and financial aid cutbacks and who have little appetite for the protest tactics of their parents' generation.

"We need to get past the hurt and pain," he said. "I can't feel it, I don't understand what you're trying to ram down my throat. I don't have a point of reference to even begin to understand what you as a generation went through."

One major actor in the May 4 drama was not represented here today -- the National Guard and the state authorities who ordered the troops to the campus. Rhodes later apologized for the incident, but he does not talk about it and did not respond to an interview request.

At Guard headquarters in Columbus, Lt. Neal O'Brien said that each year attempts are made to locate some of the Guardsmen who were involved but "we haven't had as much as a sniff."

The one exception is Charles R. Fassinger, 64, who now lives in Miami. As a lieutenant colonel, he was the senior uniformed officer on the scene and recalls the day's events vividly. After the tear gas canisters exploded, he said, the students' taunts turned to " Kill the Guard, kill the pigs.' It was obvious they knew we were out of tear gas."

Like others who were with the Guard here 25 years ago, Fassinger maintains that there was no order to shoot, no "simple, clear answer" to explain the sudden burst of violence. He says he does not often think about May 4.

"I don't try to second-guess myself," he said. "Is there anything that I, Chuck Fassinger, could have done differently? I'm still looking for that answer."

Survivors Mark Kent State Shootings

By Amy Beth Graves
Associated Press Writer

KENT, Ohio. May 4, 2000 – Students wounded 30 years ago during a Vietnam War protest at Kent State University gathered today for solemn remembrance and said they are still searching for the reason the Ohio National Guard opened fire.

"We don't know why this happened to us. We don't know who said 'Shoot.' We don't know when they said it or why," said Joseph Lewis, 48.

Four students were killed and nine wounded in the May 4, 1970, shootings that stunned the nation and galvanized the anti-war movement.

Seven of the nine wounded appeared at a news conference today that was part of ceremonies marking the 30th anniversary of the shootings. The two other survivors also were on campus for the anniversary, marking the first time all nine were reunited.

The remembrance also included the tolling of a bell at the exact minute the shots rang out: 12:24 p.m. Thousands of people gathered on the grassy hill overlooking the Victory Bell as it rang out 15 times, for each of the 13 students killed or wounded at Kent State and for the two students killed at Jackson State University in Mississippi 10 days later.

The shootings occurred following days of student protests and the burning of the campus Army ROTC building. The National Guard was sent in to quell the protest.

"They're my blood brothers," Alan Canfora, another of the students, said earlier. "We all shed the blood here and lived to tell the story."

The former students also planned to meet with the mothers of three of the four students who were killed that day.

"It'll be very emotional this year, particularly around the mothers," said Kent State sociology professor Jerry M. Lewis, who was 20 yards from one of the students killed by gunfire.

Wednesday night, hundreds of students marched around the campus before gathering at a parking lot for the start of an annual overnight candlelight vigil.

Senior Mary Sima said the vigil was "a chance to look inside myself and think about peace for everybody."

At least one shooting survivor, Robby Stamps, said he was unhappy about plans to play a taped speech by Mumia Abu-Jamal during this afternoon's commemoration.

Abu-Jamal is on death row in Pennsylvania for killing a police officer in 1981 but maintains his innocence. Stamps, who was shot in the lower back, said he is afraid that the 3½-minute speech will shift the focus of the commemoration away from events at Kent State.

10 Years Ago:

After 20 Years Apologies for Kent State Dead

By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday , May 5, 1990

KENT, OHIO, MAY 4 -- In private and in public, thousands on this peaceful college campus in the midwestern countryside grappled today with a moment 20 years ago when four students were shot dead by the National Guard and a nation was riven and left in shock.

Ohio Gov. Richard F. Celeste (D), at a commemorative service, apologized for the killings. A student who was wounded and partially paralyzed offered forgiveness, and another wounded student excoriated the university and the political right. George McGovern urged the nation to honor the struggles of the Vietnam era by helping to rebuild Vietnam.

Florence Schroeder, mother of one of the Kent State dead, eulogized them as "gentle souls with an artistic, literary flair and a great sense of purpose." And hundreds of Kent State undergraduates, many of whom were not alive when the events of May 4, 1970, transpired, stood quietly in pouring rain to honor students who died in a politically fractious era that they see as so distant from their own.

Twenty years ago today, National Guard troops on the crest of Blanket Hill fired 67 rifle bullets toward a parking lot full of students. The 13-second fusillade left Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer dead. Nine other students were wounded.

Kent State University chose today to dedicate a somber memorial to the event and to those who died. University President Michael Schwartz said the monument was intended to help heal wounds from a time when hatred was the common coin of American politics.

But even Schwartz acknowledged that some of the wounds were slow to heal, and remnants of the old campus left teamed with a new generation of dissenting voices to protest the way chosen to memorialize May 4. They also promised new campus activism.

At the formal dedication, speaker after speaker sought to promote the healing process. Celeste, who took office 12 years after the shootings, offered official contrition, something that has never come from James A. Rhodes who, as governor, sent the National Guard onto campus.

"To Allison Krause, your family and your friends, I am sorry," Celeste declared in a slow baritone. "To Jeff Miller, your family and your friends, I am sorry. To Sandy Scheuer, your family and your friends, I am sorry. To Bill Schroeder, your family and your friends, I am sorry."

Henry Halem, a professor of art who witnessed the shootings, defended the idea of the university as a place of free inquiry and dissent.

"Our tragedy should never dissuade us from teaching young people not to be afraid to raise their voices, singly or in groups, when they believe their cause is just," he said.

Dean Kahler, who was partially paralyzed in the attack and now is a county commissioner across the state in Athens County, told the crowd from his wheelchair: "As a wounded student, I feel no bitterness. Only forgiveness is in my heart."

But almost from the beginning, the university's effort to honor the dead was mired in controversy.

In 1984, a committee was established to study a memorial and, a year later, it announced a nationwide competition to seek an American designer. The runner-up, Chicago architect Bruno Ast, was chosen after the design team originally selected was disqualified when its head was found to be a Canadian citizen.

Ast's original design called for a memorial that would have cost more than $1 million. In 1988, the Board of Trustees announced that only $42,000 had been raised and sought a more limited design. The monument of seven slabs of dark granite dedicated today cost about $200,000. Planted around it are 58,175 daffodils to honor the war dead.

Student groups and some parents of the slain students sharply assailed the university because the original design did not include the names of the victims. Just eight days ago, after meeting with Scheuer's parents, Schwartz annnounced that a plaque bearing names of the student casualties would be placed on the memorial grounds.

Critics of the administration, led by Alan Canfora, a student wounded in the attack who has dedicated his career to preserving the memory of the May 4 events, remained unsatisfied. Several hundred students, former students and Vietnam veterans staged a silent protest during the ceremonies today.

Later, kicking off a weekend conference on the events, Canfora condemned the university for "attempting to minimize the significance of these lives and deaths."

At a separate news conference, Schwartz expressed frustration with critics. "There are some people who are yet reluctant to be healed," he said. "There are some people who will have to heal themselves."

Even the man in charge of the Guard troops May 4 criticized the monument. "It does a disservice to other people, primarily Guardsmen, who were risking their lives to be on that campus," Charles Fassinger told the student newspaper. "The incident involved more than four people."

Reconciliation was decidedly not on the mind of William Kunstler, the radical leftist attorney. Speaking at the student conference, he attacked Rhodes, declaring:

"The real force behind the firing was a man who set the stage, created the climate and virtually influenced the firing by his intemperate and irresponsible language. Even Dante would have a difficult time finding a particular circle for him."

McGovern, still a hero to many veterans of the antiwar movement, sought to soothe feelings by noting that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the city's most-visited monument, also aroused controversy when first proposed.

The 1972 Democratic nominee against Richard M. Nixon also called for normalization of relations with Vietnam. "The war with Vietnam is unfinished," he said. "The killing has stopped, but the arrogance and ignorance which produced it survive."

Controversies seemed far from the minds of about 3,000 of Kent State's 23,000 students who gathered Thursday night for a candlelight vigil at the Prentice Hall parking lot where the students were slain. At this suitcase school where many students go home for the weekend, Thursday can be a raucous night. But the crowd carried itself with the solemnity of a church congregation.

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