Eyewitnesses recount what they saw May 4
Alan Canfora woke on the morning of May 4, 1970 after a difficult sleep. Helicopters had passed over campus all night, dropping canisters of tear gas. Martial Law was in place after a weekend of unrest in Kent, and students protesting the United States’ invasion of Cambodia had resulted in the summoning of the Ohio National Guard.
Alan ate a ham sandwich for breakfast, then made two flags to bring to a scheduled noon rally on campus. He tied black fabric to two ends of a broken broom handle and used spray paint to write “Kent” on one flag. He ran out of paint before he could spray anything on the second. Then he left his Summit Street apartment and walked to campus.
Anyone who recalls May 4 remembers the weather that day. It was warm, it was sunny, it would have been the perfect spring day had that tension not hovered above campus.
Summit Street was lined with guardsmen at regular intervals, and they took notice of Alan.
“It was probably the lonliest walk I ever took in my life,” he said. “I felt like I was walking a gauntlet of National Guardsmen. It was a very surreal atmosphere. The trees were blooming and birds were chirping, and the guardsmen were giving me the evil eye and shouting curses in my direction.”
At one point, a guard noticed the flags Alan carried.
“Hey, boy, what’s that you’re carrying there?” he asked.
“Just a couple of protest flags,” Alan responded.
“Well, today, we’re going to make you eat those flags,” the guardsman said.
Alan dismissed the threat despite feeling uneasy about attending the rally.
“In retrospect, it was kind of an indication they were going to do us harm that day,” he said.
Ellis Berns walked Summit Street to campus that day from his apartment on another cross street. On his way, he noticed his friend Sandy Scheuer, who lived in a house along Summit. She was sitting on the house’s large front porch when Berns stopped to talk to her.
“I said, ‘Maybe I’ll see you later’ and she said, ‘Yeah.’ I think she had classes that day. She was not a political person at all in that respect,” Berns said. “I felt more strongly about it and more passionate about it.”
Berns headed to the Victory Bell, where students had already gathered to hear charged speeches from students.
Alan’s sister, Chic Canfora, woke up Monday morning in her Lake Hall dorm. She and her friend Jimmy looked out her fourth-story window to the Commons.
“The view out that window was of an armed military camp,” she said. “It was a very ominous site to see small tanks, army jeeps, military jeeps. There were about 150 pup tents lining the stadium and all of these soldiers standing guard marching up and down the street. It was a very frightening sight.”
Chic and Jimmy headed to the Victory Bell for the rally and met Alan on the way.
Monday morning was a sad one for John Filo even before the shootings. The photo illustration major had been gone for the weekend and missed out on the action of the days leading up to May 4. His friends had scored formal and informal deals with Life, Time and Newsweek magazines to submit photos they’d taken of the downtown riots for publication, and Filo was jealous.
“It was sickening to me,” Filo said. He returned to campus Monday without press credentials and little prospect of taking comparable photos of anything.
“I had two good professors who at different times that morning asked, ‘Why the long face?’” he said. “’Why don’t you go out at lunch and take a student protest photo?’”
So Filo gathered his gear, left the Daily Kent Stater newsroom in Taylor Hall and walked out onto the Commons. He borrowed a zoom lens from a friend, Howard Ruffner, a broadcast news major, who was shooting for Life Magazine that day.
When the crowd of 2,000 students had gathered on Blanket Hill, the waiting guardsmen took action. Officer Harold Rice of the campus police force mounted a jeep and through a bull horn told students to disperse.
“They read the riot act, and we just started laughing,” Chic said. “It was comical because students were chanting; there was nothing that could be construed as a riot, nothing was out of control.”
Students chanted “Pigs off campus” and “Hell no, we won’t go.”
“One student threw a little rock at the side of the jeep, and it made a little noise and bounced off,” Chic said. “The jeep rode back, and they advanced on us again.”
This time the guard marched on foot toward students and hurled more tear gas canisters into the crowds. Some students grabbed the canisters and threw them back.
“There was a barrage of tear gas this time,” Chic said. “It was much bigger than the night before.”
The gas was effective in moving students. They ran up Blanket Hill around the front and back of Taylor Hall as the guard marched toward them.
“That’s when things started getting really ugly,” George Casale remembers. He too was a student at the time, double majoring in 20th Century Comparative English and fine arts. “The amount of tear gas and yelling, the bull horn and the general speaking. Students were chanting and pumping fists back at them, and there was this hideous smell in the air and such confusion.”
“It almost felt like a game at the time,” Berns said. “It was them against the students with one person throwing tear gas back.”
The guard was at the top of the hill with a chain-link fence behind them and the crowd of students in front. Taylor Hall lined their left-hand side.
“At this point, it was kind of a stalemate,” Alan said. “(The guardsmen and students) were 300 feet apart. Some threw stones at each other, but it was more of a gesture than anything.”
“Suddenly the tear gas stopped and students started chanting, ‘They’re out of gas, they’re out of gas.’ It was sort of a celebratory moment, and students really started to laugh again,” Chic said. “Students really started to believe that we’d won.”
They hadn’t. The guard knelt and waited, aiming rifles at students who boldly closed the gap between them. Alan, flag in hand, was one of them.
“They started walking toward (the guard) on the 25-yard line when Filo snapped that picture, and you can see them on their knees,” Chic said.
Filo’s photo was taken from behind Alan, who held a flag high in his right hand. The guard continued to aim.
“That’s when I went up to my brother and I said, ‘Alan, they are aiming right at you. This is getting really shaky. Come back to the parking lot,’” Chic said. “Just as I said that to him, the men who were kneeling got in a little huddle, and then they moved to their left to go back up the hill toward the pagoda.”
But rather than follow his sister, Alan followed the guard to get a better look at what they were doing.
“We all watched what we thought was a retreat,” Chic said. “Students started clapping. They’re leaving, they’re going, we’ve won.”
John Cleary, a freshman architecture major at the time, was taking photos with a friend’s camera. He stood near a door to Taylor Hall, snapping pictures of the guardsmen at the top of the hill. He lingered to take a final photo as they made what seemed to be a retreat. It wasn’t.
“Instead, they just fired,” Casale said.
Twenty-eight of the 76 guards walking away toward the pagoda turned 135 degrees and shot.
“I was hit in the chest,” Cleary said. “It felt like someone had hit me with a sledge hammer.”
The firing lasted 13 seconds, and 13 students standing 60 to 750 feet away were hit.
“I jumped behind a tree,” Alan said. “A bullet passed through my wrist just as I reached the safety of the tree.”
Berns was with Scheuer when the gunfire started. He had found her moments before while she was headed for class, and the two decided to leave what was becoming an increasingly volatile scene. They were walking through the Taylor Hall parking lot with their backs to the building when Berns heard the popping of gunshots.
“I had my arm around her as the shooting started. She was on my right side,” Berns said. “I just grabbed her and felt like we needed to find some cover, so we headed toward a car. I remember diving to the ground with her at my side and trying to cover her from what this was.”
“Nobody knew that was going to happen when they shot. This was quizzical, unfathomable,” Casale said. “There’s that kind of slow motion shift that you do when you’re in trauma like a car accident and a second becomes a minute, and that’s what happened. I don’t know how long it happened in real time. It probably took three seconds for people to realize others were injured. They were falling down to their knees. I was unable to stand up. I thought I was going to pass out when I realized what happened.”
When the firing stopped, students stood up and got out from behind cars. The guard marched back down the hill. Berns called out to Scheuer, who lay next to him in the parking lot. She didn’t answer.
“I realized she had been hit. I tried to do something to help revive her,” Berns said. “She was bleeding from her neck from an artery on the left side of her neck where she had been hit. It was an eternity until she got help, then she was whisked away by an ambulance.”
“Three feet behind me was Bill Schroeder,” Chic said. “He was already on his back and his eyes were open. He had blood on his shoulder and his neck and his eyes were blue and they were reflecting off of the blue sky, and he appeared dead to me. I looked to my left, and I saw them carrying a young woman to the yard in Prentice Hall. It was Sandy, who I knew but didn’t recognize because she was so gray. I didn’t even know it was her until I saw her name on television later.”
“The body of Jeffrey Miller was lying in the drive with no one around him,” Filo said. “I went near it. I didn’t have to get very close to know that person was dead. There was just an incredible amount of blood flowing and sort of coagulating on the warm asphalt. That person was dead.”
And that’s when Filo captured the Pulitzer-prize winning photo as 14-year-old runaway Mary Ann Vecchio approached Miller’s body.
“She was the first one,” Filo said. “She came running up like she was going to help, and when she came to the realization that there was nothing she could do, she let out this scream of frustration and sorrow.”
Filo shot the photo at the height of Vecchio’s anguish right before his roll of film ran out, and he was forced to take a moment to replace it.
Chic was relieved to see that Miller’s body was not that of her brother’s when she approached it, but when their mutual friend saw the pooling blood, he became hysterical. Tom Miller dipped Alan’s flags into Jeffrey Miller’s blood and flung it on the people nearby
“He was so distraught. He said the blood of this was on everyone’s hands,” Chic said.
“He was crying and grief stricken after seeing two of his closest friends hit with bullets,” she added.
“I saw Jeffrey Miller down below me, saw the pool of blood starting to run out down the asphalt road,” Casale said. “Further away was Allison Krause.”
Cleary, who had been shot, wouldn’t have noticed Ruffner as he snapped photos of passers-by stopping to help as he lay bleeding in the grass.
“I don’t remember too much after that,” Cleary said. “I awoke to find myself in the hospital.”
Ruffner took Cleary’s photo and several others as students reacted to the shootings immediately afterward.
“People were screaming, people were crying, people were in dismay at what had happened,” Ruffner said. “I was asked by several students to stop taking pictures, but I had to keep taking pictures.”
David Dyer, a political science major at the time, was hitchhiking home to vote in a local election when he heard the first reports of what had happened on campus.
“I heard it on the radio that four guardsmen had been shot and killed,” he said. “The truth of the matter was four students had been killed.”
Larry Pasquale, a freshman marketing major at the time, had been in his dorm all day and hadn’t heard about what took place in the noon rally until his roommate came back from the Commons.
“He had some blood on him. He had held one of the people who was shot,” Pasquale said. “He helped one of the wounded people, and he was pretty hysterical. I didn’t know people were actually killed.”
The wounded were taken to Robinson Memorial Hospital where the staff bustled about in a flurry of activity.
“The doctors and nurses were overwhelmed,” Alan remembered.
Chic waited with her parents outside the hospital. They weren’t allowed in to check on her brother and didn’t know the extent of his injuries. A friend had driven him to the hospital immediately after the shootings stopped.
“My father worked at Goodyear and a fellow worker heard there had been shootings,” Chic said. “He stormed in my mother’s house and said, ‘Alan’s been shot, I don’t know about Chic.’”
Eventually, Alan was released. He walked out of the hospital to find his parents and sister waiting.
“When my mother saw him, every single part of her body shook with relief and grief,” Chic said. “When he came walking out, just walking — she literally went limp. People had to hold her. She collapsed in his arms.
“I will never forget seeing my mother trembling,” Chic said. “Everything was summed up in that collapse.”
Contact enterprise reporter
Kristine Gill at email@example.com.