About one-third of the way through his family’s cross-country move from New Jersey to Los Angeles in 1976, Russell Miller stopped at Kent State’s May 4 memorial site with his wife Marlene and his 3-year-old son Jeff.
They stood together in the parking lot, where the shootings occurred six years prior, and stared up at the sky. Afterward Russell snapped a photo of his son Jeff beside the memorial for the four students killed by Ohio National Guardsmen while protesting the Vietnam War on May 4, 1970: Allison Krause, Sandra Scheuer, William Schroeder and Jeff’s uncle, Jeffrey Miller.
“Kent was just an abstract place for me that day in 1976,” Russell said. “I had never been there before. It was my first visit to a place that had transformed my family’s life. At three, Jeff was totally clueless about the moment. Marlene and I were in tears.”
From the time Russell and Jeffrey were children until Russell left for college, the two brothers were inseparable.
“We were a family that did a lot of things together,” Russell said. “Until I went off to college we did a ton of things together and we were close for every minute of that first 15, 16 years. It was a good thing.”
Jeffrey eventually followed his older brother all the way from Long Island to Michigan State University after he graduated high school. He even became a brother in Russell’s fraternity. Once Russell graduated college and moved back to New York, the pair started to grow apart.
While Russell returned home, Jeffrey started visiting friends at Kent State and quickly became immersed in the anti-war movement.
“The Vietnam War changed everything,” Russell said. “He got totally wrapped up in that. Unfortunately, we were not together enough. We would talk on the phone and he was so passionate about (the war). I was never overly concerned I was going to get pulled in and drafted and sent to Vietnam. Jeff, on the other hand, even though he wasn't yet eligible for it, he was very passionate about it.”
In January of 1970, Jeffrey transferred to Kent State to be closer to the heart of the anti-war movement.
Russell said when he looks back on the months leading up to May 4, he can’t believe things escalated as fast as they did. During that time, Russell was working in New Jersey and was cut off from his brother while he focused on his own issues. He’d known Jeffrey had moved from East Lansing to Kent, but he said he had no idea how out of control things were getting on Kent’s campus.
“You could fast forward right through the week of the shootings and I was a little oblivious to how crazy it was getting,” Russell said. “I wasn't in the middle of any of that stuff. I was as surprised as the next guy when all of the craziness happened and totally unprepared for it.”
On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a group of Kent State students protesting on campus, killing Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder, and wounding nine others.
After Jeffrey’s death, Russell said he watched Kent State slowly transition from distancing itself from the shootings to now, nearly 50 years later, embracing them.
Kent State recently started honoring May 4 by curating exhibits at the May 4 Visitors Center for each of the four students killed.
The idea for the exhibits originated out of a survey given to a class that showed less than one-fourth of the surveyed students knew the names of the students killed on May 4.
“They asked students to name the four students killed here on May 4, 1970,” said Lori Boes, assistant director of the May 4 Visitors Center. “Less than 25 percent of the student population could name the four students. Mindy (Farmer, director of the May 4 Visitors Center) and I took that as a call to action. We brainstormed about ways to make the students relatable to our current students and came up with the idea to do an exhibition about the lives of the four students.”
The first May 4 victim exhibit opened in February 2018 and was called “Sandy’s Scrapbook,” honoring Sandra Scheuer’s life. Since then, Farmer and Boes have worked with all four victims’ families to curate four unique exhibits full of different personal touches and mementos from the students’ lives that tell their life stories.
The final exhibit, called “Our Brother Jeff,” opened last month and honors Russell’s brother Jeffrey. Boes and Farmer worked especially close with Russell and his family to curate his younger brother’s exhibit because at the time of May 4, Jeffrey had only been a student at Kent State for one semester.
“We had very little from his time here at Kent,” Boes said. “We were able to get his student record from the registrar, which shows what classes he was taking at the time and what classes he had registered for the following quarter. We also had a picture from his roommate Steve Drucker while he was a Kent State student.”
In addition to family-owned vinyl albums, photographs and Jeffrey's personal writings, Jeffrey’s exhibit includes excerpts from Jeffrey and Russell’s mother’s autobiography that she wrote before she passed away.
Since Jeffrey’s death, Russell said he’s always wondered how his brother would’ve grown up. When he attended the exhibit opening, Russell was blown away by the detail.
“It was like, take your breath away stuff,” he said. “I knew that Jeff was a disc jockey at Michigan State. I don't think he was a disc jockey at Kent. But she (Lori Boes) did a whole panel all about that and she basically laid that out, and it was kind of cool. His nickname was ‘Short Mort,’ because he was like 5 foot, 5 inches tall or so. And there it is, ‘Short Mort’ on the wall at Kent State. So in a sense, it's like Jeff is still around, so it's kind of cool.”
When current Kent State students attend the exhibit and think of his little brother, Russell said he wants them to think further than the famous, Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Jeffrey taken on May 4.
“What I hope they can see for Jeff is that he’s more than just that one picture that everybody remembers,” he said. “It's so easy to stereotype and then to just oversimplify things. It's nice to know that people can see who Jeff really was by looking at the full (exhibit).”
Contact Abigail Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.