- PORTAGE PATHWAYS: May 4: A doubly historic day for KSU
Sun May 4 2008 4:50 PM
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PORTAGE PATHWAYS: May 4: A doubly historic day for KSU

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By Roger J. Di Paolo

Record-Courier Editor

Today is a red-letter day of sorts for Kent State University.

The events of May 4, 1970, earned Kent a place in American history when four students were killed and nine others were wounded by Ohio National Guardsmen during a campus anti-war rally.

But May 4 also is the anniversary of another event that could have changed the course of history for Kent State.

Seventy-five years ago today, on May 4, 1933, a delegation of Ohio legislators toured the campus on a mission that, had it succeeded, could have spelled the end of higher education in Kent.

The committee, headed by State Rep. William Foss, was looking for a possible location for a state insane asylum. And, for awhile at least, it looked like Kent might be the perfect place for it.

The possibility of converting one of Ohio's four "normal schools" -- the teachers' colleges of Kent State, Bowling Green, Ohio U and Miami -- into an asylum had been recommended by the Ohio House Finance Committee.

Ohio's mental institutions needed to expand and, according to the committee, transforming one of the normal schools into an insane asylum was a possible solution because the Depression era had glutted the market for teachers.

The proposal was made public in late April 1933, and the Kent community's response was swift and predictable.

Kent State President James O. Engleman said it would be "plainly impossible" to set up an insane asylum on the 1,400-student campus. Kent's campus buildings and equipment represented an investment of about $2 million, he said, and it would take "many thousands of dollars" to convert the facilities.

Closing Kent State also would deprive Northeastern Ohio, the richest and most populous quarter of the state, of a teachers' college, he added, and people in the region would not consent to the abandonment of the campus.

While the Kent community "at first was inclined to take the matter lightly," the Evening Record reported, the proposal appeared to become more ominous "as more dispatches (from Columbus) continued to emphasize the possibility of the loss of Kent State."

State Rep. J.A. Jones of Ravenna, a member of the House Finance Committee, said he was "unalterably opposed" to the plan, but he told the Evening Record that it "was seriously received and was receiving serious consideration."

President Engleman took the matter seriously, too. He believed that if any normal school was closed it would be either Kent or Bowling Green, the newest of the four colleges.

It was announced that a delegation of legislators headed by Rep. Foss would tour the four schools "to determine which college can most readily be converted into a hospital." Kent's turn would come on May 4.

After deciding which college "should be abandoned for educational purposes," Foss said, the panel would "make every effort ... to prevent any appropriation from being made for its continued operation as a normal school or college."

"We're not bluffing," he added ominously. "Our plan, we believe, is feasible."

Kent civic leaders, led by Chamber of Commerce president W.W. Reed, rallied forces to save Kent State.

On May 1, three days before the Columbus visitors were set to arrive on the campus, 1,200 students, faculty and community members turned out to protest the plan.

Among the speakers was Martin L. Davey, the former Kent mayor and congressman, who denounced the measure and earned cheers when he said, "I might be tempted to run for governor to kill the damn thing." (Davey had lost a bid for governor in 1928 and did, indeed, win the state's top job in 1934.)

The students were asked to write letters urging state legislators to kill the plan. "Don't call the legislators cuckoo," Dean of Men Raymond Manchester admonished the students, "You be tactful."

The assembly concluded with Davey asking for a demonstration of Kent State spirit. A yell was raised, the Evening Record reported, "that should have been heard in Bowling Green" -- which was where the Foss committee was that day.

The effort to save Kent State gained broad support. Kent City Council unanimously approved $450 to help the chamber lead the fight (a major sacrifice for the financially hard-pressed city). The chamber committee picked up the backing of the Kent Eagles, Elks and Woman's Club. Even the Kent Girl Scouts passed a resolution of support for Kent State.

The Evening Record editorialized against the insane asylum, terming the plan "foolhardy," and adding, "If they must change one of the schools, why not Athens?" The Akron Times Press termed the plan an "imbecile suggestion."

Thursday, May 4, dawned and the Foss committee made its visit.

Rep. Foss' assessment didn't seem to bode well for Kent State. The Kent campus, he said, had "the finest, most modern buildings and, therefore, is most easily adaptable to welfare work."

Within days, however, the tide apparently turned and attention seemed to shift to converting Bowling Green. By May 9, the Kent State Board of Trustees called a halt to the protest campaign, expressing confidence in "the wisdom and judgment of Governor (George) White and the legislature."

White had opposed the plan from its inception because he thought it was too costly. And, without the governor's approval -- and the approval of the House and Senate -- the measure had no chance of succeeding.

The governor said as much in a telegram to Kent State trustee David Ladd Rockwell, which said that Foss' statements didn't reflect the judgment of the state's leadership. "See no reason to get excited about the matter," White advised.

Within days, support for the plan collapsed. None of the normal schools was sacrificed. Kent State had survived a tempest -- Gov. White's advice notwithstanding -- that had created plenty of excitement.

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