Kent State tragedy echoes on audiotape

Former student goes public with 1970 recording that captures deadly gunfire in campus protest

By Kymberli Hagelber
Akron Beacon Journal staff writer

Originally published Thursday, March 8, 2001

You hear the first alone and clearly, then quickly several more gunshots - pop, poppoppoppop - one blast atop another.

A roar from the crowd kills the sound.

The brief silence is broken by an unknown young man's anguished obscenity.

Sirens wail, then fade.

Three decades after the May 4, 1970, shootings at Kent State University, the crackling sounds on tape are a record of a tragedy that was one of the defining moments in the political legacy of Gov. James A. Rhodes, who died Sunday.

The reel-to-reel tape, made after Rhodes ordered the Ohio National Guard onto the campus, is the only uninterrupted recording of the 67 gunshots fired in just under 13 seconds. The shots killed Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer. Nine others gathered on the Blanket Hill area of the campus were wounded.

Terry Strubbe, now of Wadsworth, made the tape when he was a skinny freshman from Cleveland who wanted to study television news. His account of four days of campus protests against the Vietnam War was made by stashing a portable recorder - bought with paper route money - in the window of his dorm room at Johnson Hall.

Neither the recording nor Rhodes' death quells Strubbe's ambivalence about the former governor's role in the event.

No explanation spills out of the muffled cacophony on the tape. None came from Rhodes, who last year told a convention of journalists: ‘Kent State was one day. The National Guard shot the people; I didn't shoot them.‘

‘At least I can't imagine that he would have sat back and had some idea what he was creating by bringing (the Guard) there,‘ said Strubbe, 49, a supervisor at the Summit County Department of Adult Probation. ‘But I think he should have provided some kind of explanation.‘

The Strubbe tape was analyzed almost immediately, investigated by the FBI and used in court cases brought by the families of the students. In an out-of-court settlement reached in 1979, the state paid $675,000.

The tape was returned to Strubbe, and it has sat mute in a safe deposit box.

Strubbe's 90-minute audio diary includes music, conversation, background noise of roommate comings and goings and one of the first news reports that confirmed the shooting deaths.

Before the climactic sounds of gunfire, shouts, laughter and the clanging of the Victory Bell ring out like the music of any college campus on any spring day.

Within moments, a voice pinched through a bullhorn signals impending tension.

‘Leave this area immediately,‘ the voice orders students from the outdoor Commons area. ‘Please. For your own safety. . . . Leave.‘

Cheers, whoops and whistles answer the bullhorn, then a young man laughingly details, ‘Kids are throwing tear gas back at those cops. Holy sh`.‘

TENSION ESCALATES

Soon there are more cheers as the chant ‘Pigs off campus!‘ sounds in sing-song rhythm. Then bravado in a woman's voice: ‘We need gas masks. This is revolution.‘

Later, among the last intelligible comments is the oddly deadpan commentary: ‘There they come. They're marching toward the crowd, with their rifles . . . ‘

Strubbe was in that crowd between Johnson and Taylor halls, a shocked face among 1,500 to 2,000 protesters, curious onlookers and students heading to and from class when about 28 guardsmen fired at 12:24 p.m.

As his tape rolled in the window, Strubbe helped form a human chain around the wounded on the ground below.

Strubbe, who six months earlier had played taps at funerals of soldiers killed in Vietnam, said he didn't consider himself excessively political, and as a student didn't feel the risk of the situation unfolding around him on the hill.

‘I never looked at the situation as being so serious that military people with loaded weapons would actually aim and fire. I had no sense of danger . . . ‘

Last fall, Strubbe listened to the tape as the father of two college-age children.

Though he has decided to make the recording public, as a parent he hasn't settled on how. A deal with a screenwriter of an independent film wasn't pursued; neither was a call from the Smithsonian.

An adviser to Strubbe has recommended offering the tape to a television news magazine.

‘It would be difficult for me if something like that happened to one of my kids - to know that I was listening to one of the shots that killed my child,‘ Strubbe said. ‘I certainly don't want to do something to cause any more grief or harm to some people that have already been through enough. I'm not sure if I want to, you know, profit from something like that.‘

Strubbe is entitled to profit from the historical and financial value of his account of the shootings, according to Alan Canfora, a Barberton resident who was one of nine wounded on May 4.

‘Most people don't know that 12.53 seconds was recorded,‘ Canfora said. ‘I would like to see this tape ultimately have some educational value. Whether it's used in the film or just put on the Internet, I hope students will be able to hear the sound.

‘Mr. Strubbe had the foresight to leave that recorder on his ledge and now he has something of unique historical value. I think it's his right to do what he wants to with it.‘