School rebuilds after national-scale event

Bill Armstrong had a talented staff working for him as Daily Kent Stater editor in May of 1970.

“We had three future Pulitzer Prize winners working for us on that staff,” he said. One of those students, John Filo, would capture the photo of a runaway girl screaming over the body of a fallen student. It was a photo that defined the event and the decade.

The Stater only printed issues Tuesday through Friday then. It was on Thursday, April 30, that U.S.

President Richard Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia. Students protested Friday, wreaking havoc that night in downtown Kent and prompting the governor to announce a state of emergency.

The National Guard was called in, the ROTC building had burned to the ground and guardsmen used bayonets and tear gas on students Sunday.

Armstrong and his staff considered producing a special edition of the paper that Monday warning students not to attend a previously scheduled rally at noon on May 4, but decided against it.

“I often wonder with some guilt, if we could have prevented something,” Armstrong said. “The little pang is there.”

They could have. Or it might have done nothing.

“We’ll never know the answer to that,” Armstrong said. His staff never reported on the events. When the campus was shut down hours after the shootings, students were sent home. The bulk of Armstrong’s staff left and he didn’t have enough press passes from the National Guardsmen for his writers to stay and produce a paper.

In the meantime, students would have learned of the events through word of mouth or incomplete news reports.

Larry Pasquale was a freshman marketing major in 1970. He had been studying in his dorm when the shootings took place, but was too far away to hear gun shots. He first learned what happened from his roommate.

“Monday, I was in my dorm around midday, and one of my roommates came in and had some blood on him,” Pasquale said. “He had held one of the people who was shot. He helped one of the wounded people. He was pretty hysterical. I didn’t know people were actually killed.”

Dale Barber, a graduate student pursuing his master’s in education and administration, heard word of the shootings on the radio on his way back from job interviews in Michigan. He’d been reading Detroit newspapers as the events of the weekend unfolded, but was not prepared to find the campus had been shut down.

“I stopped at a road block south of campus, and a patrolman walked up to my car with a shotgun,” Barber said. “I drove a police blue car with Michigan’s license plates, which were tan with white letters and I had a suit on. I told him where I was going. He said, ‘Put your four-way flashers on and drive like you know what you’re doing.’ I found myself near campus looking up a guardsmen’s barrel. He said, ‘Sir, the campus is closed.’ And I said ‘OK.’”

Phillip Shriver, author of “The Years of Youth: Kent State University 1910-1960,” was president of Miami University at the time.

“In a matter of hours after the shootings, there were Greeks marching on campus in protest,” he said. “There were signs calling for a strike and to close the university. There were seven fires on campus that night, one under the auditorium stage, which had a wooden interior and a brick exterior. They put it out before the building burned down. “

Students went home for the remaining two weeks of the semester at Kent State; Miami closed for 10 days. It was the first in a string of college closings across the nation. Students were protesting at hundreds of other campuses, and colleges closed up for the semester fearing a repeat. Nearly 800 colleges closed that spring.

Sandy Halem, president of the Kent Historical Society, had been in town for only nine months when the shootings took place. She said it rocked the community whose residents feared similar attacks from rowdy students and outsiders now attracted to campus.

“The whole 1960s were disruptive to this community,” Halem said. “There were huge numbers of students at Kent State now, and they didn’t look, act, sound, speak like people in the 1950s. That was quite different and the community (of Kent) was still the same community.”

Conflicting news reports exacerbated those fears. Armstrong said the Record-Courier printed a front-page story that said two guardsmen and two students were killed. Readers were receiving incomplete reports from news outlets everywhere in the first few days after the shootings.

Alan Canfora was a student on campus that year. He was shot through his right wrist by a guardsman, making him one of the 12 KSU students wounded that day.

“The National Guard, Gov. Rhodes and Nixon vigorously blamed the victims,” Canfora said. “That caused the American people to be confused. They’d heard that students were about to overrun the guard. Many people were confused at first. It took quite a long time to convince people those were falsehoods and there were investigations that began to dispel those myths.”

Faculty at Kent State met soon after the shootings to decide how they would finish coursework and earn grades.

Laura Davis was a freshman English major at the time. She received a packet in the mail with instructions for her final assignments.

“As far as I can recall, it went remarkably smoothly,” she said. “I don’t remember having any questions about what I was supposed to be doing.”

But those were just some logistics. The bigger issue for the university was to restore a sense of safety for students and to repair its reputation.

“May 4 gave us a reputation of a place where the guns were fired and students were killed,” said William Hildebrand, author of “A Most Noble Enterprise: The Story of Kent State University 1910-2010.” “That’s a tremendous blow to the reputation of the school and any institution. There was at least a decade of campus turmoil until 1980 with protests and legal disputes afterward.”

Kent State President Robert White was faced with the damage from May 4. He was president from 1963-71.

“There’s no doubt that he was extremely dismayed by what happened on campus. It tore him up,” Hildebrand said. “And it increased his tendency to keep the campus closed up and to itself. That had a suffocating effect, I think.”

It would be Brage Golding who would take over and rebuild after White left.

The school finished the semester and looked to the next. Enrollment would decline in the fall as the massacre began to become synonymous with the school’s name.

“Students came back in big numbers,” Hildebrand said. “But there was a failure to draw a freshman class and that was associated with the effect of the shootings.”

Students were also affected.

“Students felt profoundly displaced,” Hildebrand said. “Many of them felt estranged from their parents. Did they lose faith? Some of them undoubtedly did, but most of them didn’t.”

When Barber applied for a doctorate program at Michigan State University, he was turned down.

“The woman at the admissions office literally threw the packet of papers in her hands at me,” Barber said. “She said, ‘We don’t need people like you here.’ To this day, I can’t stand Michigan State.”

Barber’s father finally took down a KSU bumper sticker on his truck to avoid the bottle throwing and harassment he’d experienced that first summer.

But Barber said he was impressed by how quickly Kent State reacted.

“The university pulled together like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. When he returned to campus that spring to finish up some things as a graduate assistant, security was still tight, but orderly.

“Having that happen my freshman year was a little traumatic,” Pasquale said. “Sophomore year, I just kind of forgot about it pretty quickly.”

The world has not. And that may be a good thing. Davis took over teaching a course about May 4 at the university for the past 10 years. She said students take the class each semester hoping to educate themselves on what has become an integral part of their school’s history and of American history.

“This story is still relevant to the experience of people who live in a democracy today,” Davis said. “And relevant to what the role of dissent is in a democratic society especially during a time of war.”

Contact enterprise reporter

Kristine Gill at kgill2@kent.edu.

On June 14, 1970, 1,200 students graduated from Kent State during a spring ceremony. At least four students were not among those gathered to congratulate friends. Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer were victims of an infamous event for Kent State.

Each year on May 4, students gather for a silent vigil to honor those killed and wounded. They light small candles in paper cups near the Liberty Bell then walk single file in a loop around campus. The only sound is that of shoes against gravel or pavement under foot. The only reason to stop walking is to relight a friend’s candle.

The group gathers in the Prentice parking lot at the end of the walk. Prayers are said and participants look over those parking spaces that have been blocked off for the four students who were killed. Short pillars lit from inside outline each space in the memorial, blocking them from cars. They emit a soft glow in the darkened lot that is enough, when combined with the candles, to illuminate the somber faces of those gathered to remember four students.

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