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James Russell, 60, was survivor of KSU shootings who shed anonymity

Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Patrick O'Donnell
Plain Dealer Reporter

James Russell, the oldest of the nine students shot and injured during May 4, 1970, demonstrations at Kent State University, became the first of the survivors to die Saturday.

Russell, 60, died at his Deer Island, Ore., home of an apparent heart attack.

Russell, who converted his art training at Kent into a string of civil engineering jobs, had returned several times to the Kent State campus for remembrances of the shootings. Four students were killed when the National Guard opened fire on students protesting the Vietnam War and nine others were wounded.

Russell was shot in the leg and forehead. Friends and family say he had participated in other protests in Kent in the previous few days but had just paused to watch May 4 on the way to turn in an art project.

"We are living proof that we were targets that day," he said at the 2002 campus ceremony. "All of us were targets."

His wife, Nelda, said her husband did not dwell on the shooting but it had a major impact on his life. She said he loved his time at Kent State, often saying, "I had five great years at Kent State but one really bad day."

But he never would have met his wife were it not for the shooting and the legal aftermath. He and another wounded student, Joseph Lewis, met as the students sought help in a civil trial. They became friends, both heading to Oregon, and they introduced each other to the women they would marry.

Lewis introduced them at a gathering at the close of the 1975 trial, and they married a year later, Nelda said.

Oregon, she said, was an escape from the attention of the shootings. For years, she said, he tried to remain as anonymous as possible. But both he and Lewis began talking to history classes at high schools and college about the Vietnam War and their experience.

"That's when they started their personal healing," she said.

Once in Oregon, he took a job with Columbia County drawing and updating road maps. He later took a job with the engineering department of St. Helens, Ore., and later with the city of Beaverton, drawing sewer lines and working on road designs. Though he never earned an engineering degree, he took several classes and learned on the job.

Along the way, he bought a large property in the tiny town of Deer Island, near St. Helens and built his own house. He was a member of the Kiwanis club, a model railroad club and an auto club. He also loved photographing sports, including marathons.

In addition to his wife, he lived with his daughter Rebecca.

Nelda Russell said he had several conversations with his daughter about the shootings, noting that he never would have met his wife, had her as a daughter, had their house or their entire lifestyle if he had never been shot.

"Sometimes, even out of the most awful circumstances you can live through, something good happens," she remembers him saying. "I guess all things considered, that was a pretty good day after all."

Services have not yet been set. Arrangements are by the Haakinson-Groulx funeral home, Rainier, Ore.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

paodonnell@plaind.com, 216-999-4818

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