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May 4, 2005

Four dead in Ohio: More than a memory

By Mark Baker
The Register-Guard

It ended four young lives, put an ugly stamp on a pivotal time in American history and gave Neil Young a rock 'n' roll anthem "Four dead in O-hi-o." It identified one generation, mortified another and magnified the issues between them.

The tragedy at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, also gave Daniel Miller a film idea. Miller, now a University of Oregon assistant journalism professor, sat with fellow Kent State students in a police bus and listened from about 200 yards away as the fatal shots were fired.

The 55-year-old Miller is back in Kent, Ohio, today on the anniversary of the shootings, winding up four days of commemorations that include the showing of his new documentary, "Fire in the Heartland: A History of Dissent at Kent State University 1960-1980."

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Dan Miller

Daniel Miller hugs Kent State grad Julie Heim after a Sunday screening of Miller's film about the killing of four students by National Guardsmen at the Ohio campus.

Photo: Phil Masturzo / Akron Beacon Journal

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An initial screening of the 80-minute film Sunday on the Kent State campus received a standing ovation from a crowd of about 200. It will be shown again today.

Miller is still polishing the documentary after 10 years of work, but its true beginning was somewhere in his subconscious that awful day when he was just 20, desperate to understand what happened when Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on students protesting the war in Vietnam, killing four and wounding 11 more. The four students killed were Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder and Sandy Scheuer.

For Daniel Miller and others, this was not some random, spur-of-the-moment tragedy, but the culmination of a decade of "activities challenging authority" in a small, conservative Ohio town. Locally, there were issues of discrimination and equal housing, and a rising and increasingly vocal black student population. And there were the war and civil rights protests in college towns all over America.

"One of the points of my story is that few people know that between 1960 and 1965, there were major protests here at Kent," Miller said via cell phone on the Kent State campus Tuesday. "Another reason that I think my film is gaining attention is that no one looked at what happened at Kent after," said Miller, referring to the subsequent findings that the National Guard was at fault in the shootings and the yearlong grand jury process that dropped all charges against student protesters.

In the days before rubber bullets, "putting live ammunition in their guns was the worst decision," said Miller, who left Kent in the fall of 1970 to be closer to his mother on the Oregon Coast, ultimately graduating from the UO and earning his masters and Ph.D in Eugene.

Those who were there that day - Kent State students, faculty members, townspeople and others - have gathered in Kent every year to commemorate the event, said Miller, who was there in 2000 for the 30th anniversary.

Miller hopes his film will provide a broader historical context for today's college students, such as the ones he often finds in his UO classrooms who discover that the 1960s were more than just drugs and hippies and psychedelic colors. "The '60s weren't Austin Powers," Miller said. "So I hope it can provide a broad history that can conceptualize what was going on then."

Robin Marks-Fife of Eugene, a 1970 graduate of Kent State and a longtime friend who has known Miller since their college days, is one of 18 people interviewed in the film. She thinks Miller's documentary is "a statement of history and a really important document."

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Kent State shooting

Mary Ann Vecchio gestures and screams as she kneels by the body of Jeffrey Miller on May 4, 1970, at Kent State University.

Photo: John Filo / The Associated Press, 1970

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Now a social worker at Looking Glass in Eugene, Marks-Fife was driving back to Kent from nearby Akron on May 4, 1970, when she heard an erroneous radio report that a student had shot a policeman. That was just the beginning of a chaotic day she'll never forget.

Kent was under martial law after the shootings. Residents couldn't leave town. They couldn't get into town. Marks-Fife managed to sneak past police and get back to her house, a couple of blocks from campus, which had become a kind of headquarters for students, faculty and demonstrators reeling from the unthinkable. Upon entering, she found 15-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio asleep on her couch. Vecchio would be pictured the next day in newspapers around the world, with her arms open, her hands upturned and gesturing "Why?" as she knelt over Jeffrey Miller.

"It was like being in a war zone," said Marks-Fife, who was unable to attend this week's commemoration in Kent. "There were tanks on the street and I had to crawl on my stomach through campus to avoid the (police) spotlights" to get back home.

Marks-Fife, like Miller and Carolyn Knox, another UO professor and Kent State graduate student in 1970, were all members of the campus group Students for a Democratic Society at Kent State. And like Miller, both Marks-Fife and Knox had been arrested for civil disobedience during sit-ins.

"This is a transformative experience," said Knox, a research associate and instructor in the UO's College of Education, also speaking by phone from Kent this week. "I'm looking at the front of the campus and I feel a recognition of change. I come to remember. But one of the things that's still hard about this place is that the administration doesn't really embrace it," said Knox, who was 2,000 miles away on a getaway on the California coast when the shootings occurred.

Those who still live and work at Kent State aren't always thrilled when the masses come back to remember something so horrible, but the lesson of Miller's film and what happened that day is a simple one, Knox said: "Young people have such an important voice in the culture. They need to be listened to."

Campuses across the nation shut down after Kent State, including the UO, where President Robert D. Clark canceled classes for two days. Students continued to protest after the tragedy, just as they had been doing in the weeks, months and years leading up to May 4, 1970. In Eugene on April 22, National Guard troops sprayed tear gas on students staging a sit-in in front of Johnson Hall.

That the Guardsmen were in Eugene was the result of a miscommunication between Clark and Gov. Tom McCall, said Suzanne Clark, Robert Clark's daughter and a professor of literature in the UO's English department, who is working on a biography of her father. Tentatively titled "Robert D. Clark: A Rhetorical Presidency," it addresses his response to campus unrest at the UO in the 1960s.

Clark and McCall worked carefully together not to escalate problems and to use a minimum of force at the UO, said Suzanne Clark, who has worked closely with Miller in recent years as their projects overlapped in several areas. Robert Clark, who still lives in Eugene at age 95, was known for listening to students who felt ignored, his daughter said.

"Unlike in Eugene and with Clark, Kent State President Robert White essentially conceded control of campus to state forces and would not talk to students," Miller said. "Had (Clark) been president of Kent State, I believe there would have been no shootings."