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Posted on: 05/03/2000

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Wednesday May 03 08:37 PM EDT "30 Years Later, the Pain of Kent State Remains"

30 Years Later, the Pain of Kent State Remains

KENT, Ohio ( -- I was at home watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire not long ago when host Regis Philbin popped the $32,000 question on a contestant: What event inspired the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song "Ohio"?

A $32,000 piece of cake, said I: the Kent State shootings.

I freaked when I saw the purported "right" answer: the Kent State riots.

I was incensed. I wanted to call Regis at home. I wanted to tell him that I hoped he was not suggesting that students were rioting when a group of National Guardsmen fired at unarmed students May 4, 1970, killing four and wounding nine.

If anyone was rioting that day, it was the armed militia who, without provocation or purpose, fired tear gas into a crowd that had gathered that day on a grassy expanse near the front of the Kent State University campus for a peaceful rally.

At least, that's what I saw as I stood not far away, staring down the barrel of an M-1 rifle on what turned out to be my final day at Kent State. What a send-off. I would have preferred something less traumatic, thank you.

21 and enjoying life

I was among several thousand people who had shown up for a rally that brilliant, warm Monday on the commons outside Taylor Hall, the journalism and architecture building where I spent much of my time. I was sports editor of the school newspaper, The Daily Kent Stater, which is in an office on the first floor of Taylor Hall, and my journalism classes were in the building.

I was 21 at the time, enjoying life, and getting ready to graduate in a month and start my first job as a big-time sportswriter. I had nary a worry in the world, at least nothing to speak of. That all changed when 28 Ohio National Guardsmen unleashed a 13-second fusillade maybe a football field away from where I stood that historic day, as American troops, for the first time in the nation's history, turned on -- and killed -- other Americans.

Thirty years later, the images of that day still haunt me like some long-running bad home movie.

A symbolic funeral

The chain of events that culminated in the shootings began the night of April 30 -- a Thursday. I had driven up to suburban Cleveland with my roommates to visit their parents when my attention was drawn to the television in the den. President Richard Nixon was delivering a speech to let the world know that the United States was expanding the war in Vietnam to neighboring Cambodia.

The following day -- Friday, May 1 -- a group of Kent State students protested the escalation of the war by performing a symbolic funeral for the U.S. Constitution on the commons.

Later that night, friends and I watched from the porch of a frat house as police officers brandishing billy clubs chased young people up and down Main Street, catching and clubbing some along the way.

One of the young people caught in the chaos -- a high school student -- came running onto the front porch, blood rushing down his face from a head wound. He said he had been inside a pizza parlor down the street when police rushed in and ordered everyone to leave.

The kid said he told the cops he wasn't going to leave until he finished his pizza. That's when one of the officers cracked his skull open with a club, he told us. We drove him to a hospital several miles away to get stitches.

Governor's speech inflammatory

The next night, while friends and I were out watching some bad biker flick at a local drive-in, a crowd of demonstrators back on campus was burning down the ROTC building, a rickety old military barracks.

I learned of this the next morning -- Sunday, May 3 -- when I awoke to see tanks and armed forces on campus. We had been invaded by the Ohio National Guard. Gov. James Rhodes, I soon learned, had sent in the cavalry at the request of Mayor Leroy Satrom.

The sight of armed forces on a college campus -- normally a refuge from the real world -- was surreal as I walked from my apartment to play pool with some friends at a dormitory. I was lining up the eight ball when someone came up and told me that the governor was in town and had just said at a press conference that the state planned to use any force necessary to keep Kent open, and that he had used terms like 'Nazi brownshirts' and 'communists' in describing some protesters.

I'm not a military strategist or a politician, but the governor, it struck me, had inflamed the situation with his rhetoric and overreacted by sending the National Guard to a campus that, while marked by some unrest that weekend, was not in need of hundreds of heavily armed troops. The battle lines clearly had been drawn.

The cynic within me said then, and says now, that Rhodes was motivated by one thing: votes.

Rhodes was running in two days in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate nomination against Robert Taft Jr., whose father was a U.S. senator and whose grandfather was a president. Running against a Taft in Ohio is like running against a Kennedy in Massachusetts, and Rhodes was trailing in the polls and needed all the help he could get. So he sent in the troops and acted tough with college students in a late push for the law-and-order vote.

Campus became armed camp

The campus became an armed camp Sunday, May 3, and after the governor's press conference, university and Guard officials decided that no rallies or demonstrations -- however peaceful -- would be allowed on campus. The stage was further set for disaster.

That night, I was playing basketball outside a dormitory while a helicopter flew overhead, shining its beacon below as if seeking out Viet Cong troops.

The spotlight from the helicopter later flooded my apartment while I was on the phone with my parents back in Rochester, N.Y., to tell them that all was well, or as well as could be, and not to worry. I told my mother that the next day, I was going to a rally on the commons around noon before taking a journalism test at 2 p.m.

Soldiers pointing M-1 rifles

I slept in until about 10:30 a.m. Monday before I headed out. I caught a ride with a friend, Bob Pickett, to the front of campus around 11:30 a.m. and walked over to the Education Building to meet my girlfriend, Linda, so we could join the rally.

We were walking over to join the crowd of several hundred or so people gathered in front of Taylor Hall when we ran into a roadblock near the ROTC building rubble: a line of soldiers pointing M-1 rifles with bayonets on the end at us.

We stopped and waited for the rally to begin. I'll never forget looking into the eyes of a National Guardsman, a young man about my age who was pointing his gun at me, and thinking how it all could end for me right there with one slip of the trigger finger. I remember comforting myself with the strange thought that at least death would come quickly.

Soon after, a jeep drove onto the commons, and a police officer speaking into a bullhorn ordered the crowd on the hill away from where we were standing to disperse. The students refused, and a few rocks were thrown, including one that hit the jeep.

Before long, soldiers started lobbing tear gas into the crowd, and some students -- in an unusual and probably unprecedented move in the era of Vietnam War protests -- picked up the canisters and threw them back at the National Guard.

More than 60 shots in 13 seconds

What was to be a peaceful rally quickly had become anything but, and I watched as soldiers moved up the hill and forced the students to retreat. Some protesters -- not many -- hurled stones at the Guard.

The tense standoff went on for a bit, until 28 National Guardsmen stopped at the top of the hill outside Taylor Hall and opened fire. Some shot into the air or ground, and others took aim on the unarmed students. More than 60 shots were fired in 13 seconds. Four students -- Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder -- were killed, and nine others were wounded.

One of the bullets ripped a hole in a large, metal sculpture outside Taylor Hall. It's still there, a vivid indication of the damage the bullets did to 13 young bodies and countless psyches.

'They're killing people!'

I don't remember hearing the shots, but I'll never forget the first sign that something horrible had happened: A student, a young woman, ran past me screaming and crying.

I walked into a nearby building and called the professor of the class I was supposed to take a test in later that afternoon. He was up on the hill inside Taylor Hall looking out at the shootings when I called.

I asked him what was going on, and if the test was still on. He started yelling at me to run for my life.

"Get away from here, they're killing people!" he screamed into the phone.

I walked back outside and saw ambulances racing across the lawn. I was in shock. It was all so unreal.

Decided to retreat

Linda and I decided to retreat, and we walked away from where the students had been shot. We rushed back to my apartment and turned on the television and learned that the campus was being shut down. I was terrified and knew I had to escape.

A friend was driving to Columbus, so Linda and I caught a ride with him to her parents' home in Mansfield, about 100 miles away. I tried to call my parents before I left Kent, but I couldn't get through because the lines were all jammed.

I got in touch with my parents when I got to Mansfield and found out that my mother had fainted when she heard that students were shot at Kent State. She figured I must have been in the line of fire. If I hadn't stopped and met Linda and taken that particular route to the rally, I might have well been.

I flew home to Rochester two days later. The next week, my mother and I drove to Kent to clean out my apartment and haul my belongings back to upstate New York. After breakfast, we drove over to a gas station in downtown Kent to rent a trailer. The owner started telling me how the National Guard should have killed more students, that they had it coming.

I was too stunned to say a word, and I just walked away. My usually kind and gentle mother, though, tore into the guy and told him where he could stick his trailer. We put what we could in my mother's car and drove back to Rochester.

Exacerbated political strife

The shootings at Kent -- and the shooting deaths of two students at a predominantly black college, Jackson State in Mississippi, 10 days later -- exacerbated the political strife in the country. Students went on strike and shut down hundreds of college campuses, and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren characterized the mood in the country as the worst since the Civil War.

A month after the Kent shootings, I returned to Ohio with my parents for graduation on Saturday, June 13. That was the first day campus had been open since the shootings. After the graduation ceremony, we drove over to Akron, and my parents helped me find an apartment. I was to begin my first real job that Monday, June 15, as a sportswriter at the Akron Beacon Journal.

I felt terrible conflict. I had worked hard to get to that point, and this was a dream job, but suddenly writing about sports did not strike me as a lofty enough pursuit. I wanted to do something more meaningful -- something to save the world.

For the time being, though, sportswriting would do, and all went well my first week on the job. The next weekend, on Sunday, June 21, my girlfriend drove up to Akron so we could go see a touring production of Fiddler on the Roof.

We were about to walk out the door of my apartment when the phone rang. It was my father. He was crying -- I had never heard my father cry before -- and he was telling me that he'd had to rush my sister, Bonnie, to the hospital the night before for emergency brain surgery. She had a brain tumor, which eventually killed her.

Two traumas linked

Suddenly, I was reeling. I had not even begun to cope with my Kent demon when my sister was diagnosed with a terminal illness. The two traumas are inextricably linked in my mind, and I've never been able to solely deal with Kent on its own. My Kent nightmare is part of one big, ugly, pain-filled package.

I began to realize the depth of my pain about five years ago when I was watching a television interview with Dean Kahler, a student who was shot and paralyzed, and a National Guardsman who had fired at students that day. I'm not one to keep my emotions bottled up, but I began to cry uncontrollably as I watched the two erstwhile adversaries come together on TV.

Soon after, the healing began in earnest when my therapist uttered those magical words: post-traumatic stress disorder. The pain began to make more sense.

Cathartic letter-writing

Last year, as a cathartic exercise, my therapist had me write a "letter" to Kent State and the state of Ohio to explain why I'm still hurting after all these years. I wrote of the pain I felt when I drove to Ohio in 1977 from Virginia, where I had moved, and saw a gym addition being built on part of the area where the Guard and students had tangled May 4, 1970.

It was clear to me that some people in high places thought that putting a gym addition on the site of what some considered hallowed grounds would make the university's darkest day go away. That's the moment I resolved to never again give a penny to the Kent State University.

In my faux letter to Kent, I also wrote of my anger at Rhodes for sending in the troops in a desperate move to win an election, and I wrote how frustrated and pained I am by what I've perceived to be a lack of contrition from the public and elected officials over the years.

I also wrote of my anger that no one has been held accountable for the killings; the only people ever charged were 25 students and protesters who were indicted for crimes, including rioting, several months after the shootings. A few cases resulted in convictions for relatively minor offenses before the prosecutor asked that the vast majority of the cases be thrown out.

The wounded students and the families of the slain students sued the governor and more than two dozen National Guardsmen for more than $46 million. The case was settled out of court in 1979 for $675,000. Rhodes and the other defendants signed a "settlement of regret" and admitted that the May 4 tragedy never should have occurred.

The FBI agreed, reporting that the shootings were "not proper and not in order," and that more tear gas and arrests should have been used to control the approximately 200 demonstrators who were heckling the troops.

The FBI also said there was no hail of rocks thrown before the shootings, and that no National Guardsman had been in mortal danger.

Important step in healing

I have moved on and tried to deal with the pain -- and anger -- as best I can. I try to stay firmly planted in the year 2000 and rarely delve back into 1970, although lately I've been consumed by thoughts of Kent State. I'm making a pilgrimage from my home in New York to Ohio this week for a reunion that some of my journalism school classmates have organized to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the shootings. This will be the first year since 1971 that I will be on campus for the anniversary.

More than 70 old -- I hope not too old -- faces from the journalism school are expected to show up for the reunion. Many of us share the bond that we were seniors on the day of the shootings and see this coming together as an important step in the healing process.

In anticipation of the pilgrimage to Kent, I have been reading a lot of material online about the shootings and their aftermath. The other day I came across a 1980 newspaper interview with one of the National Guardsman, Larry Shafer, who shot and injured a student.

Shafer criticized the Guard leadership and Rhodes for sending the troops to Kent that weekend. He said the local and state police could have handled the disturbances. That's what I thought 30 years ago.

"The Kent State shootings could have been prevented with proper leadership," Shafer told the Akron Beacon Journal on the 10th anniversary of the shootings. "There was never any real need for the National Guard to be in Kent in May 1970."

Rhodes might not agree. The troops and students were pawns in his run for the U.S. Senate, which proved unsuccessful. The day after the shootings, Rhodes barely lost the primary to Taft by roughly 15,000 votes out of more than 900,000 cast.

That may be the only justice in this entire nightmare.

By Richard Zitrin, an national correspondent.

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