Anniversary of Kent State shootings brings back solemn memories

By Jean Rodgers
Indianapolis Star
Posted: May 10, 2008

I was a young mother with a son in kindergarten, not an activist. I was studying at Kent State University to earn a degree at the School of Library and Information Science.

The weekend began with a personal annoyance: My bicycle had been stolen. So my son and I walked all over campus looking, but did not find it. When I went to the campus police, they expressed great indifference. Perhaps they had other things on their minds.

That night my sister, a newspaper editor in Elwood, telephoned. "Jean. Look out your window. Do you see smoke? The students at Kent just set fire to the ROTC building." She had read the news over the wire service.

Yes, we could see smoke.

City officials decided to ask Gov. James Rhodes to call in the National Guard. The men did not have far to come. They had been on duty because of a truckers' strike, necessary because snipers would attack trucks from highway overpasses. The men, most hardly more than boys, were already tense and tired and armed with M-1 military rifles.

The next evening, May 3, an anti-Vietnam War demonstration took place. Rocks were thrown, tear gas sprayed and arrests made.

There was to be a rally at noon Monday. A few minutes past that hour, the campus grasped that something had happened. Building officials were told to lock the doors to keep traffic on campus to a minimum. I was locked in the library for more than two hours. When they finally let us go, I walked home carefully, continually looking over my shoulders. The usually busy paths were now empty. There was an eerie silence.

I arrived at Silver Oaks apartments to find that my son was OK, safely with the young woman downstairs who baby-sat him after school each day. We heard on the radio that four students had been killed, including a J. Miller. At the time, my last name was Miller.

My son and I pushed the couch in front of the picture window because I had also heard that snipers were shooting from rooftops. This turned out to be just a rumor although we found out later that a stray bullet had pierced a window in another building at the apartment complex.

The city and campus shut down. On Tuesday, we could look out our windows to see college students carrying bags to the edge of campus where their parents could pick them up. The town had been virtually blockaded "to keep out troublemakers and outside instigators," officials later explained.

All classes had to be finished off campus. Mine met at professors' homes. It was a long, sad month.

I learned what had happened from the newspapers and the historians. Four students had been killed, and nine wounded. Some had been demonstrators; others bystanders. The rally was part anti-war, part anti-local authority, the students resenting a military presence on campus.

Many demonstrators thought the Guard carried unloaded weapons. The demonstrators, armed with rocks, advanced on the Guard with obscene words and gestures. The soldiers backed up until many reached a fence, where they felt trapped and threatened. Someone panicked and began firing. There was never an order to fire.

The shooting lasted 13 seconds. Within the hour, faculty marshals persuaded students to leave the area. Official reports concluded that the action was unnecessary, unwarranted and inexcusable.

A year later, a memorial service was held. Jesse Jackson spoke and tried to get the audience to clap rhythmically. We did not. We were a somber group, remembering a tragic day on an American campus.

Jean Rodgers lives in Westfield. She was media director at Western High School, near Kokomo, Ind., until retirement.