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Looking back at May 4 -- Witnesses remember Kent State shootings

Mary Ann Vecchio screams as she kneels by the body of a student lying face down on the campus of Kent State University on May 4, 1970.

AP/Valley Daily News, John Filo

By RENEE BROWN, T-R Staff Writer
May 4,2005

Many people blame the members of the Ohio National Guard for the loss of life on May 4, 1970, at Kent State University.

But Tuscarawas County Clerk of Courts Rockne Clarke and Times-Reporter Editor Dick Farrell – both witnesses to the tragic event – do not.

Four students were killed and nine people were wounded in a 13-second fusillade of bullets aimed at a crowd in the Prentice Hall parking lot. The students who were struck were anywhere from 20 yards to 250 yards away from the Guardsmen.

Campus unrest was heightened nationwide April 30 when President Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia. Two days later, Ohio National Guardsmen were sent to Kent after the university’s Army ROTC building was burned down.

“I blame personal gain on the part of the governor (James Rhodes) for what happened,” said Clarke, now 55 and a Dover resident.

“The governor wanted to become a senator. I believe it was the day before the primary election. He wanted to show that he was strong. I think his decisions were driven by politics at the time rather than rational sense.

“Personally, I’ve never faulted or had problems with the Guard. They were students, they were tired, they didn’t want to be there. They had been pulled off the truckers’ strike where they had been chasing trucks. They were ill-prepared.”

Farrell, now 54 and also of Dover, agreed that decisions were made that probably shouldn’t have been.

“The National Guard made a mistake,” Farrell said. “I don’t blame them – they were kids, we were kids. Were there outside agitators? Probably.

“There were some irresponsible decisions made by those in command – Rhodes, (Ohio National Guard Gen. Sylvester) Del Corso. You can’t let them burn the town down, but. …”

Farrell, then a 19-year-old college freshman, expressed his views to two agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation who interviewed him about a week after the shootings. A buddy had told someone he was a spectator and that led to the two-hour discussion in his Lakewood residence.

“They wanted to know what I thought,” Farrell recalled. “I told them I thought the National Guard made a huge tactical error in trying to break up the rally. Kids get bored after 15 minutes. It would have broken itself up. They kind of agreed with me.”

Farrell, who did not know any of the fallen students, recalls the event with clarity. He had heard about the rally and was watching the protest from behind a fence at the edge of the nearby football practice field when the shots rang out.

“I saw bodies fall to the ground,” he said. “I didn’t know if they had been hit or were diving for cover. When I saw bodies drop, that’s when I ran down the hill.

“I distinctly remember seeing a kid at the bottom of the hill waving a flag saying, ‘They are only shooting blanks.’ I looked at him and said, ‘You’re crazy.’

“Never did I assume they had blanks in those guns. Clearly I knew somebody was hurt at that point. You knew something very terrible had happened.”

Clarke, then 20 and in his junior year, had been on the main Kent campus for just five weeks and was trying to get to his 12:05 math class on front campus. Being a self-described “green, farm kid,” he was unprepared for the events that unfolded before his eyes.

He said he saw the group of protestors forming at the Victory Bell and the line of Guardsmen in gear across the Commons – both blocking his path to class.

“We were under martial law,” Clarke said. “The tear gas and stuff was starting just as I got there. The crowd at the bottom of the hill got shoved back into the group at the top of the hill – those like me who were trying to get to class, those who were observing, whatever. As they started to come back, I started backing up, too.

“I wasn’t sure where I was going. I thought maybe I could get around the other side of Taylor Hall by Prentice Hall and I started to circle that direction. I was in the parking lot at Prentice Hall when the shooting started. I heard the screams.

“I saw Jeffrey Miller – though I didn’t know who he was at the time – get hit. I was not too far away. The next thing I know, I took off running. I climbed a tennis court fence to get out of there.”

Clarke, who also didn’t know any of the victims, said he later learned Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller were participating in the protest.

“What some people don’t realize is that one of the boys killed – William Schroeder – was in ROTC himself,” he said. “Sandra Scheuer was just caught up in the crowd like I was.

“There were outsiders. Unrest was prevalent on all college campuses, but Kent became symbolic because of what happened there – the last place you’d expect it to happen.”

Both men recalled their inability to call home and tell their families they were OK. The telephones on campus went dead a short time after the shootings, and a massive exodus ensued. Like all the other KSU students, Clarke and Farrell completed their spring quarter coursework by mail.

At home, both men said, it was difficult to listen to comments that the Guard should have shot all the Kent students that day. Farrell recalled wearing his KSU jacket and being called a hippie.

“It was a tough time for the country, a terrible time,” Farrell said. “The last (presidential) election kind of reminded me of that time. There was a war going on.

“It didn’t matter if you were conservative or liberal, the war didn’t have much support on campus. I was not so much a peacenik, but with my conservative nature, I thought if we were going to fight a war, then we needed to fight it to win.”

Farrell said he thinks about that day’s events each May 4, but he doesn’t dwell on it. Clarke said each year on the anniversary, shortly after noon, he excuses himself from whatever he is doing and “I do my own reflections.”

“It took a long time to open up and talk about it,” he said. “My opinion has not changed much in the last 35 years. It was a tragedy.”