In March, Florence Schroeder of West Chester added a fresh newspaper clipping to the books, files, and boxes she keeps in storage. It was the announcement that a 17.4-acre site at Kent State University had just been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For the 90-year-old great-grandmother, that swath of land was historic long before it earned its National Register designation. It’s the place where her middle child, Bill, died 40 years ago this month. He was killed when Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on protesters and bystanders, killing four students and wounding nine. Florence Schroeder is gratified that the site has earned this distinction. Still, she says, the announcement “brought back all the years.”
If you were in college back then, chances are that hearing the date May 4, 1970 does bring it all back. The killings at Kent State stunned the nation. Thousands of students went on strike across the country. Hundreds of campuses closed. The incident polarized attitudes about the peace movement and about the war in Vietnam itself. Many believe that Kent State paved the way to the implosion of the Nixon administration. Others see the tragedy in more personal terms: In some households, parents who were on the fence about student activism now joined their kids; in others, it drove a wedge deep into already-fractured families. No wonder it’s been called “the day the war came home.”
To mark the anniversary of that event, we talked with people who experienced it. Some were there; others were caught up in it at a distance. Four decades later, we’re beset by a new era of protests and demonstrations. How do these things go bad? Consider Kent State.
“WE COULD HAVE HAD KENT STATE HERE.”
By the spring of 1970, the student unrest of the 1960s that caught fire on campuses such as Berkeley and Columbia had rumbled into the Midwest. Some of the issues seem archaic today: restrictive dormitory hours for women, for example. Others echoed the larger civil rights movement, as black students pushed for more academic diversity. And then there was the 800-pound gorilla of national concern: the war in Vietnam.
In Ohio, campus anti-war demonstrations—however noisy they got, however much they irritated the students who were trying to study and the faculty who preferred a more traditional form of discourse—were generally regarded as part of the intellectual freedom of campus life, not as a threat to life. But at Miami University in Oxford, that changed in a matter of hours. On April 15 that year, a routine gathering on the leafy red brick campus ended in a mess; one that foreshadowed worse things to come.
Rick Momeyer is a professor of philosophy at Miami University, where he has taught since 1969. Every month, the Student Mobilization Committee [a national anti-war group that had a chapter at Miami] would organize an anti-war rally, and people would give speeches condemning the war [and] the presence of the military on campus. On April 15, it was very conventional until [a student] grabbed the mic and said, “Talk, talk, talk: All we do is talk. We need to take action.” He led some students over to Rowan Hall [the ROTC building]. They broke in, they occupied it, and they started to party.
Phillip Shriver served as Miami University president from 1965 to 1981. He is 87 and still lives in Oxford. We heard that there was a possible sit-in coming at our naval ROTC building. So we told the ROTC to close the building, lock the doors, don’t have a confrontation, just have the building empty.
Curt Ellison, Professor of History and American Studies, edited the bicentennial history of Miami University. He joined the faculty in the fall of 1970. It was a festive atmosphere. I think the students had no idea things would get out of hand.
Shriver sent the university’s vice president to Rowan Hall to tell the students that they had broken into a military building and were therefore trespassing. After multiple warnings, the Ohio State Highway Patrol arrived to make arrests.
Phillip Shriver [Early in the school year] Governor James A. Rhodes said, “We’re going to have a highway patrolman assigned to each state university campus incognito. And when there’s an emergency, he’s going to alert the state highway patrol and they will send patrolmen to the scene.” We never called them.
Curt Ellison The highway patrol started arresting people, but every report I’ve heard said that what went on in Rowan Hall was quite orderly. Students were taken out [and] they were put on a bus, but the bus broke down.
Phillip Shriver [Then] Oxford city police, police from Hamilton and Middletown, and the Butler County sheriff arrived. The sheriff had deputies with him—I think over 100. About 1,000 students had gathered and began to throw rocks and sticks and debris at the officers, and the officers responded with tear gas, and everything broke loose. [Police] dogs bit students; some of the fraternity men were bitten as they got into their own fraternity houses. It was a terrible scene.
Rick Momeyer [A colleague] called me and said, “Do you know what’s happening on campus? Don’t you think there should be faculty observers?” So I went. I was across from Rowan Hall, and I saw a sheriff’s deputy walk up to three students who were just talking to each other and drop a tear gas grenade. I approached him and said, “I’d like to know your badge number.” And he arrested me.
Phillip Shriver Gov. Rhodes came to the campus the next morning. He told me there would be 700 National Guardsmen deployed to the Nike missile base off Route 27 and they would stay there as long as there was this emergency
Curt Ellison The whole affair strikes me as a confrontation of the clueless. I don’t think the police knew what they were dealing with. I don’t think the students knew what the consequences might have been. The administration—they couldn’t understand this was one of those turning points in history.
Rick Momeyer We could have had Kent State here.
“NOW WE’RE GOING TO INVADE ANOTHER COUNTRY? IT DIDN’T MAKE A LOT OF SENSE TO COLLEGE KIDS.”
Rhodes had set his future political hopes on a U.S. Senate seat, and he was in a tight primary race with the grandson of a president and a conservative favorite—U.S. Representative Robert Taft Jr. With the GOP primary set for May 5, his final days of campaigning were disrupted when, on April 30, President Richard Nixon announced that U.S. troops had invaded Cambodia, thereby expanding the war in Southeast Asia.
Dean Kahler was a first-quarter freshman education major at Kent State University that spring; recently retired from teaching, he lives in East Canton. I went to a bar to watch Nixon. How many times do you walk into a bar to watch something on TV and everybody’s got their notebooks out, pens handy, quiet, waiting for the speech to come on? [When it was over] everybody booed and jeered and threw things at the TV. Nixon had campaigned to end the war. He hadn’t revealed what his secret plan to end the war was yet. Now we’re going to invade another country? It didn’t make a lot of sense to college kids. Especially when we had a draft. Especially after ’68 and ’69, when we had the two highest casualty years in Vietnam.
Mark Painter is currently serving as a judge on the United Nations’ newly-established Appeals Tribunal. A senior at the University of Cincinnati, he was the outgoing president of the student body on April 30, 1970. I was on the Union Bridge at about 11 o’clock; there were hundreds and hundreds of people. A few windows got broken. It wasn’t major, but there was going to be a march up the street and who knew what was going to happen. My successor, Mike Dale, was there. [At midnight] I said, “Tag, you’re it. It’s all up to you.”
Alan Canfora was a Kent State junior and former member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which had been banned from campus the preceding year. Today he’s chairman of the Democratic Party in Barberton, Ohio. The brother of one of my roommates was killed in Vietnam; we went to the funeral on April 24. And on the day of his funeral, we made a solemn vow that we would protest vigorously at the next opportunity, to send a powerful anti-war message to President Nixon. Just six days later we saw Nixon announcing the invasion of Cambodia, and we were very emotional and angry. The funeral was very fresh in our minds. We became central participants in the protest—myself and my roommate.
Philip Shriver I remember hearing about Cambodia, and I thought, Oh no. This will encourage more student mobilizations. And it did.
“IT SOUNDED LIKE A SPRING RIOT, NOT LIKE ANYTHING POLITICAL.”
The next day, a Friday, student demonstrations swept across the nation, and President Nixon, on a visit to the Pentagon, referred to “These bums…blowing up the campuses.” At Kent State, the protest was theatrical but limited: demonstrators buried a copy of the U.S. Constitution near the “Victory Bell” on the school’s Commons at a noontime rally. There were speeches and an announcement about another gathering at noon on Monday, May 4. That evening, disturbances at bars in downtown Kent escalated into vandalism, violence, and police confrontations. The mayor declared a state of emergency and alerted the governor’s office that a serious situation had developed.
Anne Bertholf was a graduate student married to a Kent State faculty member at the time. Today she’s retired and lives in Austin, Texas. I’ve always thought that an unacknowledged factor in all of this was weather. The university had a system where you couldn’t effect what the temperature was in your dorm or office, and the heat was still on. People poured out of their dorms and into bars downtown. I don’t think all of them were politically motivated.
Donna Clark Taylor, a Deer Park High School graduate, was a Kent State sophomore, president of her dorm, and a member of the student senate. Today she lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C., and works for a company that provides computer services to colleges. I remember waking up Saturday morning and being shocked that there was all this activity on Friday night. That just was not something that happened at Kent State—or in Ohio.
Dean Kahler I had gone home for the weekend because it was my birthday. I heard about what happened Friday evening. It sounded like a spring riot, not like anything political. The mayor and the governor made it political.
“THE WORST TYPE OF PEOPLE WE HARBOR IN AMERICA.”
On Saturday, with rumors of radicals targeting the town for destruction, the mayor officially requested National Guard assistance from the governor, whose office dispatched troops recently on duty at a truckers’ strike. The guardsmen arrived in the city, then moved onto campus because the university’s ROTC building was on fire. Rioters slashed fire hoses and there were injuries and arrests. On Sunday, Rhodes was in Kent, accompanied by Major General Sylvester Delcorso, head of the Ohio National Guard. Robert White, president of the university, who up to that point had been out of town, was there, too. At a press conference in a Kent fire station, the governor said that the protestors were “worse than the brown shirts and the Communist element and also the nightriders and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”
That day Rhodes indicated he would declare a state of emergency; in fact, he did not, which caused confusion. University officials assumed that the campus had effectively been put under the control of the Ohio National Guard.
Howard Ruffner, a 24-year-old Kent State sophomore and U.S. Air Force veteran, was working as a photographer for the school yearbook and newspaper that spring. Today he lives in California; he is retired from a career in public relations and government affairs and now teaches high school journalism. Saturday night I took pictures of the half-tracks and the armored vehicles; Sunday I obtained a National Guard press pass. [That afternoon] we took pictures of the National Guard and the students out in front of the administration building—and it just seemed like camaraderie. [But] Sunday evening there were riots; I remember being tear-gassed.
Nancy Angerman, a 1969 Wyoming High School graduate and the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, was a freshman special education major at Kent State. Her older brother had been killed in Vietnam in 1968. I’d gotten a ride home to Cincinnati that weekend. On Sunday a friend called and said, “Better get back up here fast.” She’d heard there was a curfew and we needed to get back in time. But when we got to Kent, it was too late; I couldn’t get on campus even though I showed the National Guard my I.D.
Dean Kahler My parents drove me back to campus on Sunday after dinner. It was like a fortified city. National Guard troops were everywhere. My dad said “Don’t be stupid; don’t get in trouble.” Then we gave each other hugs and kisses and said goodbye.
Florence Schroeder’s son Bill was a sophomore on an ROTC scholarship. Bill was born in Deer Park; when he was 4, the family moved to Lorain in northeast Ohio. Today Florence Schroeder shares a home with her grandson and his family in West Chester. I called Bill a couple times Saturday, but he and a friend had gone to Akron. When they got the word that the ROTC building had burned, they came back. Sunday he called us: there was a curfew, his roommate wasn’t back, and [he’d heard] the Guard were bayoneting kids. He was very worried about his roommate.
“IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL, BEAUTIFUL DAY.”
On the morning of Monday, May 4, the university distributed leaflets indicating that all rallies were prohibited; who made the decision to ban the assembly would become one of the many points of confusion in the days (and court cases) to come. Still, students began to gather. It was a bright spring day and by noon, a crowd of 2,000 people were milling around the big, bowl-shaped Commons—ardent protesters at the center, catcalling bystanders further out, and on the fringes, students who’d stopped between classes and those who were simply walking from class to lunch.
Howard Ruffner Around 10 o’clock Monday morning the editor [of the school newspaper] put me on the phone with a lady in Chicago from Life magazine who wanted to know if anyone had photos from the weekend. She said, “Well, if anything happens today let us know and maybe you can send us some stuff from that.”
John Filo, now director of photo operations for CBS television in New York, was a student photographer, too. During the weekend turmoil he’d been out of town. I’d missed it all. My professors said I could go out at noon, skip lunch, and maybe take some kind of an iconic image.
Alan Canfora I walked up to the campus carrying two black protest flags. When I walked past the guardsmen that were around the remains of the ROTC building, [one] said, “Hey boy, what’s that you’re carrying?” I said protest flags. And he said, “Well, today we’re going to make you eat those flags.”
Anne Bertholf I was pregnant with my third child and working on my PhD. I went to campus with my husband, where I could study. The sight of tanks on campus was so incongruous and so wrong. But it was a beautiful, beautiful day. My sister was a sophomore that year; she came to my office and said there was going to be a demonstration at noon. I asked her not to go, and she said, “You know you would go if you weren’t pregnant.” And she was probably right.
Donna Clark Taylor I was there to see the rally with my roommates and my boyfriend. There wasn’t a sense of outrage. The Victory Bell is sort of the centerpiece of the Commons. The speakers were there, and those guys were saying more stridently anti-war things. But there was not any call to confrontation as I remember it.
Howard Ruffner I was really surprised when I saw the Guard put on their gas masks. And the fixed bayonets kind of bothered me. I mean, I’d seen this kind of stuff before, but it just seemed overdone.
“IF THEY HAD WAITED, MAYBE 85 PERCENT OF THE STUDENTS WOULD HAVE GONE TO LUNCH.”
At noon, the National Guard sent a jeep across the Commons with guardsmen and a campus police officer, ordering students to leave. After that effort failed, guardsmen fired tear gas, then marched across the Commons to disperse the rally. A detachment of guardsmen herded a number of students up Blanket Hill—the steep slope beyond the Victory Bell—past an ornamental pagoda between Taylor and Johnson Halls, and followed them down the other side.
Dean Kahler The law enforcement and National Guard were all telling us we were gathered illegally. That was obviously greeted by lots of jeering—“Pigs off campus” and the like.
Alan Canfora They came marching toward us, and of course we ran away. We ran down the other side [of Blanket Hill], mostly into the Prentice Hall parking lot.
Howard Ruffner If they had waited, maybe 85 percent of the students would have gone to lunch.
Several dozen guardsmen found themselves on a practice field, partially hemmed in by a fence, and facing stone-throwing students. They huddled, then knelt and pointed their weapons.
Dean Kahler I remember grabbing a handful of gravel [and] flinging it underhand in the direction of the National Guard. Actually, I hit some college kids standing in front of me.
Alan Canfora I ventured a little closer, to the point that I was about 150 feet away. There’s a well-known picture of me, waving a black protest flag.
John Filo I saw [Canfora] and thought: This is my picture! A few minutes later, the guard regrouped and moved back up [Blanket Hill]. I thought, That’s the end of it…they’re going back to square one.
Howard Ruffner It was kind of like George Bush [in Iraq]: They didn’t have a plan for when it was going to be over.
“OH, THIS IS GOOD: I’LL GET A PICTURE OF HIM POINTING HIS GUN AT ME.”
At the top of Blanket Hill, 28 of the guardsmen from Troop G—part of the group that had been on the practice field—suddenly turned and fired at the students below.
Dean Kahler When they turned, I thought to myself, It looks like they’re really going to shoot. So I got on the ground.
John Filo I thought they were firing blanks. I noticed a guardsman pointing a rifle in my direction and I thought, Oh, this is good. I’ll get a picture of him pointing his gun at me.
Dean Kahler It actually felt like a bee sting when it hit me. My legs got real tight, then they relaxed.
John Filo The gun went off, and in my line of sight a metal sculpture sort of erupted in a cloud of rust.
Howard Ruffner I heard some lady scream, “Get down! They’re firing real bullets!”
Alan Canfora I was shot through the wrist as I stood near the bottom of the hill about 225 feet away from the guard. I jumped behind a tree; that saved my life.
Donna Clark Taylor I had walked toward the parking lot. When I heard this pop-pop-pop, I hit the ground and scrambled toward a couple cars.
Howard Ruffner It was just bizarre; it didn’t make sense. I was dazed for a minute and then I started thinking about taking the pictures. I didn’t think about Life magazine; it was just the fact that you should document what’s going on. It was difficult to take those pictures because you’re invading people’s privacy. But, I mean, you just need to do it.
John Filo I said, “This is crazy. I gotta get outta here.” And then I saw the body of Jeffrey Miller and I just stopped and said to myself, “Why are you running? It’s all over.” I made a few images [and saw a girl] running up and kneeling beside the body. I knew I was running out of film and I was having this debate—shoot the picture, don’t shoot the picture. She let out a scream. Then the internal debate I was having was over. I just shot the picture.
“IT WAS JUST CHAOS.’’
The gunfire—mostly from M-1 automatic weapons—lasted 13 seconds. When it was over, four students were dead or dying: Twenty-year-old Jeffrey Miller, shot in the mouth about 270 feet from the guardsmen, was killed instantly; 19-year-old Allison Krause, hit in the left side as she stood 330 feet way in the Prentice Hall parking lot, had managed to get behind a car; 20-year-old Sandra Scheuer was about 390 feet away when she was shot in the neck; 19-year-old Bill Schroeder, 386 feet away, was struck in the back. Nine students were wounded. Dean Kahler, lying on the ground 300 feet from guardsmen when a bullet struck his spine, was paralyzed from the waist down.
Dean Kahler When it stopped, all hell broke loose. Someone came to me and asked me who I was and I gave them my parents’ phone numbers at work. I didn’t bleed externally; I was starting to fill up with blood and I was having a hard time breathing because my diaphragm had holes in it.
Donna Clark Taylor I know from seeing pictures that I must have walked past dead and wounded students, but I don’t remember that at all. I was totally stunned.
Anne Bertholf As soon as it happened, it was just chaos. The phones were completely jammed and I couldn’t find my sister.
Nancy Angerman I got to the demonstration [late]. People were telling me that one of my friends had been shot, and I was trying to find out what was going on.
Glenn Frank, a professor of geology who was present as a faculty marshal, commandeered a bullhorn from the National Guard and begged the enraged students to leave for their own safety.
Donna Clark Taylor What I do remember very clearly is [Glenn Frank’s plea]—the most phenomenal thing. He got everybody to sit down and calm down. Then he said, “I want everybody to go back to where they live.” I am convinced that if he had not done that, there would have been a bigger bloodbath than there was.
Alan Canfora When I got to Robinson Memorial Hospital in Ravenna, there was blood everywhere and gurneys, and some of the students were screaming in pain. It was a small community hospital and they were not expecting 13 gunshot victims. One student was shot in the stomach and was in convulsions. My roommate was shot in the ankle and the bullet went through and blew the bottom of his foot open. I realized my wound was relatively minor.
Donna Clark Taylor My boyfriend had a car and we drove to get my stuff because rumors were starting that they were going to close the campus. But the guard was blocking the entrances, so we tried to get onto campus through Ravenna. There were all of these American flags lining the streets for Election Day, blowing in the wind. That was the first cognitive dissonance I had, where I thought, What are these American flags doing where soldiers have just shot at students?
“THEY THINK HE’S DEAD.”
The first confused scraps of news broke into afternoon television and radio shows: Shots fired at Kent State, students dead and wounded, the university shut down. The city’s telephone lines were jammed. It was before cell phones, before live remotes, before instant information and instantaneous images. The news media scrambled for accurate details and desperate parents scrambled to contact their kids.
Stanley Aronoff, serving his first term as a Republican state senator from the 8th district, was working on Robert Taft Jr.’s senate campaign. It was similar to my reaction to 9/11. I was stunned. Is it true? Did I know anybody there? How could this happen in Ohio? How could this happen on any campus?
Howard Ruffner I didn’t have a car, so another photographer drove me to the Akron/Canton airport and I sent off my film the way this lady at Life told me to: I bought a seat for it and shipped it to Chicago.
John Filo I grabbed some clothes and drove home two hours to western Pennsylvania, to the newspaper where I worked on vacation, the Valley Daily Dispatch. We had a hard time getting on the [Associated Press] network. The AP guy got very curt with me [on the telephone]. “Look buddy, we have a shooting at Kent State and we’re moving photos from the Akron Beacon Journal.” I explained that I had some pictures from Kent and I thought they were better than what they had. So the guy said, “All right. I’ll try to work you in.” After my picture [of Mary Ann Vecchio screaming over Jeffrey Miller’s body] transmitted, I didn’t hear anything for a minute. Then the voice that had been arguing with me from New York said, “Wow. Do you have any more?”
Donna Clark Taylor My mother was watching her soap operas when the news came on. There were five or six hours where she had no idea if anything had happened to me.
Howard Ruffner My mother had called the school when she’d heard what was going on. Whoever she had gotten hold of said, “I think he was shot”—because I was right there and when they started shooting I went down.
Nancy Angerman You had to leave campus, so we went to my friend Barb’s boyfriend’s apartment. It took us until about two in the morning to get through to my parents in Cincinnati. Barb’s boyfriend lived in an attic of a house; there were helicopters with searchlights flying over, and I thought, It’s like Anne Frank.
Florence Schroeder My sister lived with us; she heard it on the radio. One of the [dead] students—they said his name was Schneider. They even spelled it. So I thought, I don’t have to worry. I had been calling Bill’s apartment all afternoon when the lady across the street, whose husband was the chief of detectives in Lorain, came running in. She said, “They think he’s dead.”
“WE WALKED DOWN THE VINE STREET HILL ALMOST ENTIRELY IN SILENCE, AROUND FOUNTAIN SQUARE, AND BACK TO U.C.”
As word got out, campuses across the country boiled over. More than 700 would close within days—some in response to the tragedy; some pre-emptively to avoid more mayhem; most because a massive student strike made it impossible to continue. The concerns about further tragedy were warranted: Less than two weeks later, at Jackson State College in Mississippi, police fired into a crowd of students demonstrating over racial issues, killing two and wounding a dozen.
Phillip Shriver When the news hit campuses, BOOM! Everything dissolved. At Ohio State in Columbus—thousands of students out in the streets, property damage to the campus, to the town. Here at Miami we had seven fires on campus in one night. At that point I said, “This is enough.” We closed on May 7 and we were closed until May 17.
Bill Muse, former president of Auburn University and the University of Akron, was a member of the faculty in the School of Business at Ohio University in Athens that spring. Today he’s retired and lives in Montgomery. I’d gone to a conference in San Francisco with the dean. While we were there, he got a phone call describing the shooting at Kent State. We flew back immediately. By the time we got to the university, the National Guard was on its way. They lined the streets and surrounded the campus, and the president closed the school. I think it was a good decision. All of us were concerned that the mistakes that had been made at Kent not be repeated at OU.
Tim Burke was a senior at Xavier University and president of the student body; today he runs a law firm and chairs the Hamilton County Democratic Party. We called an emergency meeting of student government and passed a resolution calling for a “Strike Against Violence” for the next day. We sent a delegation to UC and Edgecliff and the Mount, urging them to do the same thing. Then we got a couple of the Jesuits and we held a mass at midnight on campus. The next day we held another open air mass; we had a dozen Jesuits and hundreds of students. Then we marched from Xavier down Victory Parkway [and] met a contingent of UC students. We walked down the Vine Street hill almost entirely in silence—that was the plan—around Fountain Square, and back to UC.
Warren Huff is a professor of geology at the University of Cincinnati. I marched in it, down to Fountain Square and back up to campus. I remember people were hanging out of windows and cheering.
Mark Painter recalls that UC closed for 10 days, then the university senate voted to shut down for the rest of the term. It was clear you couldn’t stay open. Nothing was going to get done; everybody was so upset, and [activists from] every other university were going to come here.
Warren Huff Walter Langsam [then-UC president] was completely discombobulated by student demonstrations. There was concern on the faculty about the National Guard coming here, and they worried that Langsam was losing his control.
Tim Burke Xavier didn’t close. But the president’s annual review of the ROTC students was scheduled to happen that week, and I had to convince [the administration] to cancel. There was an editorial in one of the newspapers—they called [Xavier’s reaction to Kent State] “A Mark of Civility.” I think we tried to handle it in a way that was appropriate to a Jesuit education.
“THEY WERE LOOKING FOR OUTSIDE AGITATORS. AND I DIDN’T KNOW OF ANY.”
On May 5, Governor Rhodes asked the FBI to investigate the incident at Kent State and the agency responded immediately. The same day, Kent State president Robert White called for a federal commission to begin a comprehensive investigation. That would happen a month later, when Richard Nixon appointed the Scranton Commission to study campus unrest.
John Filo The first visitors we had at home were the FBI. There were two guys; my mother was making them coffee and offering them pie.
Donna Clark Taylor My parents were furious—with me, with the situation. They thought I was going to hell in a hand basket. [Then] the FBI came to interview me in Cincinnati. Well, this just about drove my parents over the deep end. I remember sitting around our kitchen table with the FBI agent asking me names and places. They were looking for outside agitators. And I didn’t know of any.
Howard Ruffner The FBI came to my parents’ house. They were upset that I couldn’t provide them with any information, because I didn’t have any of my pictures. They left very sarcastically. They said, “Well, if that’s what you want to do with your blood money, Mr. Ruffner.”
Dean Kahler was in a medically-induced coma for days after the shooting. When I started coming to—I hadn’t even seen my doctor yet—the nurse said, “There’s an FBI agent that wants to talk to you.” It was still dark out, and he was in a corner. I could barely see him because he had on a black suit and a black tie. I said, “I’m not talking to anybody until I talk one, to my doctor; two, to my mother; and three, to my lawyer.”
“NATIONAL GUARD 4, STUDENTS 0.”
Misinformation fueled speculation about what had prompted the guard to shoot. Americans were horrified—and polarized—by the rumors and the reality of what had happened on the Kent State campus.
Alan Canfora [Guard officials] said students fired first, [they] said there was a sniper. Every investigation afterwards proved there was no sniper.
Howard Ruffner The further away you’d get from Kent, the less credible the information was. By the time you got 200 miles away [the story was that students] were shooting at the guard.
Florence Schroeder We didn’t know. You can say, “My son wouldn’t do anything like that,” but you never know. Bill’s friends [explained where Bill was during the shooting] when my husband and his brother went to Kent to clean out his room.
Nancy Tuttle, Bill Schroeder’s sister, was 20 when he was killed. She has recently retired from a career in music education in northeast Ohio. [We got] very little information. The Life magazine account, the pictures…that destroyed me the first time I saw it. He was not a threat to anybody…standing around with his hands in his pockets all those yards away.
Anne Bertholf Had it happened at Berkeley, I don’t think the impact would have been as dramatic. But it happened at this cowtown university. This was not a sinister “other.” This was us. I think it was huge for that reason.
Dean Kahler The first letter I got while I was still in the hospital was “Dear Communist hippie radical: I hope by the time you read this, you are dead.” Because Richard Nixon and James Rhodes referred to college students as effete snobs and bums…those kinds of things created some legitimacy with some people, and some people weren’t afraid to express that.
John Filo The hate mail that summer! At home we finally had to take the phone off the hook at night; I’d get crazy mail, crazy phone calls. “I had a friend die in Vietnam: You’re next.”
Anne Bertholf We lived in Ravenna, which was always more conservative. I remember going to the convenience store on my street during the week after the shooting. When I walked outside there were two gentlemen and one of them said something like, “I’ll show you what I’m going to do with those students.” And he opened his car and it was full of guns. It was just chilling.
Mark Painter In my neighborhood, which is Clifton Heights, I remember having a beer at one of the local bars and one of the guys said, “National Guard 4, Students 0.” I mean, that was some of the thinking.
“IT’S NEVER GOING TO REST.”
The tragedy was quickly immortalized by Neil Young’s song “Ohio,” and by the photographs taken by Howard Ruffner and John Filo—especially the image of Mary Ann Vecchio, which later won a Pulitzer Prize. But stretching beyond it all were years of legal action. Twenty-five people (none of them guardsmen) were indicted locally on riot-related charges; most of those charges were eventually dropped. That fall, the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest issued its report, stating that the shootings were “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable” and that the tragedy “must surely mark the last time that loaded rifles are issued as a matter of course to guardsmen confronting student demonstrators.”
The FBI report had concluded, among other things, that there was no sniper, the guardsmen were not surrounded, and there was evidence that the guardsmen’s claim that their lives were in danger was fabricated. There were calls for a federal grand jury probe. In 1971, Attorney General John Mitchell said there would not be one because there was “no credible evidence of a conspiracy…to shoot students on campus.” But two years later, the Department of Justice reopened the case, and in 1974 a federal grand jury indicted eight former guardsmen, charging them with violating the students’ civil rights. All eight were acquitted.
Wounded students and the families of those who were killed also fought a lengthy battle to bring a civil suit against Governor James Rhodes, Kent State president Robert White, and 27 guardsmen. Their claim: that the shootings were willful, deliberate, and in violation of the students’ right to assemble. In 1979, after one trial and an appeal, the group of plaintiffs received $675,000 in an out-of-court settlement.
Rhodes, term-limited out of office, lost his primary bid for the U.S. Senate the day after the shootings. But he was returned to the governor’s office in 1974 and ’78. At the conclusion of the civil case in 1979, he and other defendants signed a statement of regret that read, in part, “We hope that the agreement to end this litigation will help assuage the tragic moment regarding that sad day.” For most who were there, it has not. The tragedy left many questions unanswered, including the one that has never gone away, despite the National Guard’s repeated insistence that their men acted in self-defense: Why did they shoot?
Howard Ruffner I was involved in every trial as the lead witness. I was usually on the stand for two or three days because I was the person who would introduce all the photographs into evidence. [Before the grand jury met] they wanted a copy of everything, so my brother and I put black plastic over the walls and windows in the apartment, set up an enlarger, and printed for days. Finally the manager came up to make sure we weren’t doing porn films.
Dean Kahler I remember the treatment of the governor when he arrived at the civil trial. He was addressed as “Your Excellency” and treated like royalty.
Florence Schroeder Not another Kent State. That was what we wanted to be sure about, that it didn’t happen again.
Stanley Aronoff That it happened in Ohio, whether we like it or not, has caused a sense of guilt.
Howard Ruffner The fact that Rhodes got reelected just floored me.
Florence Schroeder The guard, they were young men. Somebody has said to me that they suffered as much as we did. If they’ve had 40 years of regret, that’s justice, too. [But] Nixon and James A. Rhodes—if I ever hated anybody, it was those two men.
Alan Canfora, in 2007, recovered an audiotape made at the scene that he believes contains an audible order to fire immediately before the gunfire that day. I was the first person to request it [from Yale University, where it is archived]. I was just stunned to hear a verbal command immediately preceding the gunfire, which was something like “Right here! Get set! Point! Fire!” I had always been perplexed that the guard commanders denied that there was an order to fire; they shifted the blame to the individual shooters, who could [say] their lives were in danger. That was the heart of the cover-up. Now we’re preparing to make presentations [of the audio tape] to the attorneys general in Washington and Ohio.
Howard Ruffner It’s never going to rest, because they died without any reason.
“WE DON’T NEED TO SHOOT OUR OWN PEOPLE.”
In March, the site of the shootings was added to the National Register of Historic Places, a recognition of the significance of the tragedy in a country divided by an unpopular war and rocked by social change. And in May, at the 40th anniversary commemoration, the university will dedicate a walking tour, part of a larger plan for a visitors center that will interpret the event in the context of the times. For many, though, the past is still not past.
Mark Painter I had always been a very right-wing conservative. I think [Kent State] moved me a little bit toward the “individual rights” side of the equation. That and seeing the intransigence of the university administration, and the establishment in Cincinnati, that just took it for granted that students had nothing to contribute.
Donna Clark Taylor Something happened there that fundamentally broke my trust in our government as an institution. I have hopes and expectations of some individuals in the government. But as an institution, it sort of revealed to me its flaws. I truly believe all of this happened because Jim Rhodes wanted to win the senatorial primary. So that kind of cynicism about politics and the politics of personal gain has stuck with me.
Dean Kahler I’m not a person who hates government; I’ve been an elected official myself. But you have to make a very clear distinction between government and politics; when you don’t, it can allow elected officials to become abusive with their power.
Tim Burke Kent State sent the signal out that this is for keeps. I’ve always thought that student activism was important; that’s probably what has kept me as involved in the [political] process as I have been. But what happened at Kent redoubled in my mind that you can’t ignore what is going on in the rest of the world. You’ve got to be a part of it or you’ll never change it. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot.
Nancy Tuttle [It made the nation ask], How does the government handle responding to what its citizens have to say? It changed how the country looked at itself for a while, and I think that’s amazing.
John Filo There are so many lessons to be taken from Kent State. Today, you see the rhetoric over health care, creationism, Right to Life, and you say, “Wait a minute. There are many voices.” That’s what makes this country great. We don’t need to shoot our own people.