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It is hard to believe that it has been forty years (as of Tuesday) since the Ohio National Guard fired on and killed four students at Kent State University. Back in the spring of 1970 I was a senior at Kent State University preparing to graduate in June. I was doing my student teaching off campus that spring and actually living at home since the school was a local high school, but I would come to Kent for a class meeting on Monday evenings. On the day of the shootings I was teaching a 10th grade biology class. However i was on campus the previous weekend.
When I came to the campus on Friday evening, it was the first warm weekend of the spring and my brother (who was a sophmore there) said to me that the "(excrement) was going to hit the fan". The previous night, President Nixon announced an expansion of the Vietnam war into Cambodia after it had seemed that the war was actually winding down. That Friday afternoon there was a protest on campus where an efigy of Nixon was burned along with an American flag. As protests went back then, it was no big deal, but there was a lot of anger among the young people at the president's action.
That Friday night there was some serious vandalism in the downtown bar area. Storefronts were smashed in and some stores were actually looted. Police were called in to break up the mob and disperse the crowd. Because of the demonstration earlier in the day, people in the city believed that the vandalism downtown that evening was related to the demonstration and anti war protests, but in reaality is was that a bunch of out of town bikers had hit the Kent bars and the bikers (along with many intoxicated students) went on a rampage when one of their favorite spots was closed because the place was too rowdy.
I wasn't participating or nor did I witness any of the goings on that Friday evening. My real purpose for coming to Kent that weekend was that I had a girlfriend there and that evening I was "making out" with her in my old off campus apartment.
On Saturday the weather cooled a bit with some rain, but the tension was still evident. Because of the viandalism in the downtown area on Friday night, the city had placed a 600 PM curfew on the city. No one was permitted outside after 600 PM and the downtown bars would be closed that night. The curfew did not apply to the campus. So myself (along with all other students living off campus) spent the day on campus. That weekend was also the weekend that the Army ROTC had scheduled their annual spring manuvers and they had loaded a lot of live ammunition in the ROTC building for the exercise.
There were rumors all over the campus that Saturday that the mayor of Kent had asked for the National Guard to be sent in because of the vandalism downtown on Friday night, but no such order had been given. There were also rumors floating all over the campus that anti war demonstrators would attempt to protest that Saturday night and would try to burn the ROTC building. One question I have been asking for forty years is if I (who wasn't even on campus that spring) had heard that an attempt would be made on Saturday night to burn the ROTC building, did the local police know of it too? The campus police station was a stone's throw from the ROTC building then.
So the stage was set. Here were thousands of young college kids on a spring Saturday night with nothing to do since the downtown bars were closed and they couldn't go off campus. I spent the night crashed in my brother's dorm room. I was upset because I had to break off my date with my girlfriend because she couldn't come into Kent (she lived in nearby Stow with her family).
Among the people on campus that night were some determined anti war protestors, many who were not students and there only to stir up trouble. Some were members of the radical anti war groups of the day. It was easy for them to stir up trouble that night since there were thouands of bored college students on a warm spring Saturday night. They organized a mob to go burn the ROTC buiding.
I saw that mob that night. I was not part of the mob, but it was a loosly organized mob that could have been easily dispersed by police with not much effort. Despite the talk all day about the attempt to burn the ROTC building, the building was ungaurded when the mob got there after circling the campus dorm areas rounding up participants. I saw it from atop "blanket hill" (the hill near the archectiture building).
The ROTC building was an old wooden barracks built during the second world war to house soldiers being trained at Kent State for the war. It was scheduled to be torn down that summer (actually burned in a controlled burn) to make way for a new art classroom building (that now stands on the site). The building was a firetrap even without the live ammunition temporarily stored there that weekend. All it took was to thrown some railroad flares inside the building to set it ablaze. When the fire hit the live ammunition, even though I was standing from a safe distance watching it from the hill, I could hear bullets flying by. That led to rumors that people were being fired upon. It dodn't take long for the building to burn to the ground.
The Ohio National Guard was called in that night and the campus was shut down. The National Guard units brought in had been on duty all during the previous week because of a trucker's strike. Striking truckers were on bridges over the freeways dropping rocks and boulders on trucks on the road. Earlier the governor called the National Guard in to secure the bridges over the freeways; especially the Ohio Turnpike (which is part of I - 80) and along the major east west highway between New York and Chicago and not far from Kent. The guard unit brought into Kent was a tired and overworked unit where many did not know the payout of the campus.
Sunday was a bright sunny day. The town and campus were back open and many families had come there to take their sons and daughters home because of the trouble over the weekend. The governor of Ohio had arrived in Kent and held a news conference. The officials of the university had drafted an order that would close the campus for a week, allow the students to go home and things to cool down.
I would also mention that the following Tuesday was a primary election and the governor, James Rhodes, was running in a highly contested republican primary for the U.S. senate that was being vacated by the incumbent democrat. Rhodes was running on a "law and order" platform to appeal to the "silent majority" who didn't approve of the anti war demonstrators and he needed to do well in the nirtheastern section of Ohio in order to win. His primary opponent was Robert Taft Jr, the son of the former senator and grandson of the president.
At the press conference (where a good friend was there representing the local television station) the governor physically tore up the order from the university authorities to close the campus for a week. He stated that the campus, being a state university was state property and he was governor of Ohio and the untimate authority. He said that closing the campus would give the (he actually used the word) "terrorists" a victory. In a televised part of the news conference, the governor called those who had burned the ROTC building the previous night "the worst kind of people in the country today", that "they are worst then the brownshirts". Since the National Guard was still patrolling the campus, the governor was asked if the campus was under martial law.The governor said that everything would go on as normal. Then someone asked if a rally and protest scheduled on Monday at noon on the commons was legal, the governor's reply was "are you deaf? everything goes on as normal". With that the governor set the stage for what unfolded on Monday May 4.
The campus and town was literally under a military siege that evening. The curfew was moved up to 500 PM and all roads leading in and out of Kent were sealed. Gas stations were ordered closed at 500 PM and no one could get into Kent or on campus or out of the city after 500 PM since the national guard was blocking the major roads in and out. I left the campus that afternoon and used a back road to avoid the blockade.
The way the Kent State campus is laid out, it anyone wanted to hold a rally or attract attention, noon on the commons was the best place. Classes were changing and students were moving from classroom buildings to the dorms and back. The student union was right off the commons area and that was a popular lunch spot for many students from off campus. The dorm cafeterias were open for lunch at that time. The commons area at noon was a busy place and many estimated that roughly half the student body at any one time would be near there at that time of day during the week.
I won't delve into what happened that Monday since i was not there that day. That has been well documented already from many sources. My brother and my old roommate (who was at the Sunday news conference with a local television station) were in the line of fire when the shots were fired. Of the four students killed that day, two were actually on their way to class and one of them was an honor student on an Army ROTC scholarship. I did not know any of the students killed or wounded that day. One of my old geology professors, Glenn Frank was instrumental in calming down the situation after the shootings.
The campus was ordered closed and cleared out by 600 PM that evening. All students in dormitories were ordered to leave immediately. Many had to scrounge around for transportation out. Many could only pack what they could fit into one suitcase. My brother came home with some out of state friends from his dorm crammed into a VW beetle.
I heard about the incident when I was called into the principal's office at the high school where i was student teaching. I was told that my class that evening was cancelled and that I could leave right away if I wanted to and that I could take off the next day if i wanted. But i chose to stay until the end of the school day and i went back the next day as normal.
It was a very tense week as it was unsure whether or not I would graduate in June. Rumors were flying all over that the university would be shut down permanently and turned into a mental institution. Since the university was closed indefinitely, no one had any idea of how to finish the spring classes or if the graduation would happen at all.
The day after the shootings was the primary election and it was the first time i was eligible to vote since I had just turned 21 years old that previous fall. In that election I registered as a republican so I could vote against the governor in the primary. My parents were also registered republicans and the events changed their minds and they both voted for Taft in that primary. Governor Rhodes lost that primary and many credit the events at Kent State for his defeat.
Although the university was to remain closed the remainder of the spring term, I was unaffected by that since I was student teaching off campus. The Monday evening class I had was turned into individual calls by phone from the professor supervising us along with visits whle we were teaching. They decided to open the campus in June for the graduation ceremony and I did graduate as expected.
This Tuesday on the anniversary of the shootings, I have been invited to campus for a special alumni tour and meeting for the class of 1970. I plan on attending that and will bring my camera. Perhaps later this week I will post some pictures of the area now.
On May 19 this year, Kent State University will "officially" celebrate its centennial. It was chartered by the state of Ohio on May 19 1910.
Thanks Golfinsailor for the upclose review. A lot of things culminated at that time, but I never could and never will understand the shootings of students at Kent. Along with the assassinations of public figures, it was most disturbing. You quoted a word that I'm not familiar with:"brownshirts" . Who/what is that? It appears that the actions of the Mayor exacerbated an already bad situation into an unforgettable nightmare.