2 May 2005
The Columbus Dispatch


Shootings at university color witnesses' lives

By Joe Hallett and Alan Johnson
The Columbus Dispatch

Sometimes, Laura Davis returns to the place that changed her life, reliving 13 seconds of gunfire and a hail of more than 60 bullets.

After 35 years, the tears still come.

"This is a hard time of year,'' Davis said. "It's not that I start crying about May 4th any time I talk about it, but you just never know when it's going to hit you.''

It hits again at age 53, when she speaks to the dead.

Davis is married, with two grown sons, and she is associate provost at Kent State University. She sometimes goes to a parking lot on campus and looks to the Pagoda on Blanket Hill, where Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on May 4, 1970.

There, she talks with the four students killed that day.

"I tell them that I haven't forgotten them,'' Davis said, pausing as tears welled in her eyes, "and that I'll try to tell their story and try to get the truth out.''

Somewhere buried in the investigations, hearings and trials, books and memories is the truth about why guardsmen in Troop G turned simultaneously and fired, killing Allison Krause, 19; Jeffrey Miller, 20; Sandra Scheuer, 20; and William Schroeder, 19, and wounding nine other students.

Though no one was convicted or officially blamed, former Gov. James A. Rhodes issued a "statement of regret'' in 1979 and the state paid $650,000 to the victims and their families.

Each year, knowledge of the tragedy -- essentially the beginning of the end for the Vietnam War -- erodes a bit more for a generation that has its own war to fight in Iraq.

But few Kent State students are protesting the Iraq war. The big cause on the front page of a recent Kent Stater was the reported mistreatment of a transgender former employee at Rosie's Diner.

The solemn May 4 Resource Room at the library, while frequently empty, occasionally receives visitors from across the country.

"It is still hard to believe that it could happen here,'' a Seattle man wrote in the guest book.

"Students today have what I call a brochure knowledge of May 4th and the times around it,'' said Jerry M. Lewis, a Kent State sociology professor who witnessed the carnage and co-wrote a book about it.

"The Kent State of the '60s is very foreign to them. They have a very difficult time imagining it,'' said Thomas R. Hensley, Lewis' co-author and a KSU history professor who was working on his doctoral thesis when nearly 1,000 guardsmen marched onto the campus.

The Kent State shootings, in many ways, defined Hensley, Lewis and Davis, carving the course of their lives and careers like a river roaring through a canyon.

They became determined that their own children would learn about and carry forth the May 4th lore. But declining enrollment in their annual May 4th class has made clear to the professors that today's students are ambivalent about that history.

"I grew up enmeshed in the whole culture of May 4th, but other kids weren't much interested in it,'' said Janell Lewis, Jerry's daughter and a 35-year-old Cleveland social worker.

Jesse Clapper, Davis' 25-year-old son and a KSU graduate, has seen his mother cry a few times when May 4th memories surface. Thus, it's a part of him, too.

"Something really wrong happened there and she just happened to witness it,'' Clapper said.

"It was just a tragedy,'' said Paul Hensley, 34, a Lancaster lawyer who was born four months after the shootings and was later a student at Kent State.

"I thought at the time that it was one-sided, that the students were in the right. But now I look at it more objectively. It's impossible for me to have the emotions that my father has.''

To fully appreciate what happened that day requires an understanding of the '60s, which defy description.

"You had to be there,'' professor Hensley said.

A storm of social movements -- the civil-rights and women's-liberation struggles, the sexual revolution and the drug culture -- had gathered. The lightning of the Vietnam War touched off protests and violence on streets and campuses nationwide.

Rhodes, in an inflammatory speech at Kent on May 3, blasted student protesters as "worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and the night riders of the vigilantes.''

He vowed to "employ every force of law that we have'' to quell the rioting, saying, "It's over with in Ohio.''

Kent State swirled into the center of the storm once the Guard was dispatched on a Saturday to end student violence. Davis, an 18-year-old freshman from South Euclid, and Lewis, then 33 and an assistant professor, watched the horrific events unfold on a sunny, warm Monday.

About 3,000 people were gathered on the university commons, including about 500 core demonstrators and 1,000 "cheerleaders'' supporting them. Some of the troops were tired from riot duty and edgy after students hurled epithets and rocks.

As the soldiers displaced students atop Blanket Hill, witnesses said, a contingent of soldiers in Troop G turned in a synchronized motion, lifted their rifles and fired at the crowd in and around the Prentice Hall parking lot. Lewis and Hensley have long suspected that Troop G members planned the shooting as they gathered on a practice football field, a charge the soldiers denied.

The 13-second volley of 61-67 shots, the shock of seeing U.S. troops firing on their own citizens, changed the nation.

Though he didn't witness the shootings, it changed Hensley.

The 25-year-old doctoral candidate had left campus a short time earlier to work at home on his dissertation on United Nations peacekeeping efforts. As he drove away, a string of ambulances sped past him toward campus.

"It probably made me a more committed father than I may have been otherwise. It certainly made me more committed than I ever was to teaching. There was sort of that sense of guilt that maybe I could have done something more.''

Lewis also feels guilty, wondering what he might have done to calm the situation as he stood amid the students, serving as their "lifeguard'' before and after diving behind a car as the bullets whizzed by.

But Lewis, over the years, is also frustrated with his role.

"I've never been allowed to be a victim. I got shot at, and that pisses me off.

"We're supposed to have the emotion trained out of us, but I don't do interviews on May 4th. I'm a guy. I'm 68 years old. I don't want to cry in front of anyone.''

His daughter, Janell, always will keep May 4th alive for her three children, understanding its meaning far beyond her father's experience. It played a role in her own form of political activism -- a commitment to Cleveland's inner-city poor.

"I don't think that the students of today have less activism, but it's expressed in different ways, including the Internet,'' Paul Hensley said.

Most observers agree a single word -- draft -- accounts for the difference between young people's reaction to the war today and the Vietnam War in the '60s.

"During the Vietnam War, if you were a young man, your rear end was on the line,'' professor Hensley said. "Right now, that's not the case. That immediate sense of self-interest just isn't there.''

"You had to make a decision: Get married, go to graduate school, go to Canada, puncture your eardrum,'' Lewis said.

Clapper conceded that the war in Iraq seems distant and less threatening to him and his friends. Still, he feels a '60s-like distrust of government.

"The paranoia is different,'' he said. "There are a lot of electronic devices and tracking devices, and a lot more information out in the world today that gives people different fears about privacy and safety.''

One day recently, Davis said, she walked to the spot near where, almost 35 years earlier, Bill Schroeder, a sophomore from Lorain, lay dying in the grass, his legs propped up, blood staining his orange corduroy pants.

"There was an enormous hawk sitting in a tree that's over the spot,'' Davis said. "Do I think that that was Bill? Not necessarily.''

But she told the hawk: "I remember what happened that day, and that memory will stay alive.''




13 seconds of tragedy

A timeline of events surrounding the May 4, 1970, shootings at Kent State University.

April 30 -- U.S. bombing raids begin in Cambodia, expanding the Vietnam War.

May 1 -- Kent State campus protests boil over to town; 15 businesses suffer minor damage.

May 2 -- Hundreds of student protesters surround the campus ROTC building, and some set the building ablaze.

May 3 -- Gov. James A. Rhodes visits Kent, calls student rioters ''brown shirts,'' promises to use ''every force of law'' to quell the disturbance.

May 4 -- After confrontations with rock-throwing students, National Guardsmen open fire for 13 seconds, killing four, wounding nine. The university shuts down.

May 5 -- More than 400 members of the news media, including many foreign journalists, descend on Kent.

May 15 -- Two students are killed and 12 are wounded by police and highway patrol officers at Jackson State University in Mississippi.

Jan. 4, 1979 -- No one was charged or officially blamed for the shootings, but a ''statement of regret'' was signed by Rhodes and 27 guardsmen. The state paid victims and families $650,000.

Source: Kent State University