Alan Canfora was an angry antiwar activist, whose childhood friend had just been killed in Vietnam. Dean Kahler, an Ohio farm boy, paused on his way to class to see what the antiwar demonstrations were all about.
Their lives would be forever linked 40 years ago today when Ohio National Guardsmen, sent to restore order after days of demonstrations on the Kent State University campus, fired upon thousands of students who had ignored calls to disperse. When it was over, Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder were dead, and nine were wounded. A 14-year-old runaway knelt over Miller’s body and screamed, an image captured in a now iconic photo by a student journalist.
The most militant of the wounded, Canfora was the least injured, while Kahler’s curiosity led to paralysis from the waist down. No guardsmen were convicted of the shootings, but Ohio eventually paid $600,000 to the victims and their families.
Today, they will gather on the campus to commemorate the tragedy. A bell will ring 13 times—once for each of the dead and wounded—at 12:24 p.m., the moment the guardsmen fired.
Shot in the back, Kahler remembers knowing almost instantly that he would never walk again as he lay on the ground, unable to move his legs. Because of his first-aid training as a Boy Scout and a zoology class he was taking that quarter, he knew all too well what happens when a spinal cord is damaged.
Athletic and fit, he sailed through rehabilitation and returned to Kent after missing just one quarter. After graduation, he worked for several state agencies, served as a county commissioner in Athens County, Ohio, and became a social studies teacher, often discussing the shootings with his students. Kahler, a man whose speech is frequently punctuated by laughter, shows no bitterness.
“I’m happy to be alive. I was happy to be alive then. I’m happy to be alive now,” Kahler said. “I had the four basic things that you really need to have for a good life. I had a good family, I had a good faith, I had a good cadre of friends, and … a really good support system from my communities,” on campus and in his hometown of East Canton, Ohio.
Now 60 and divorced, he has no children, and recently retired to care for his ailing father.
Canfora, who sustained a wrist wound, is the most ardent keeper of the Kent State shooting flame. Since 1989, he has been the director of the Kent May 4 Center, which raises awareness of the tragedy, and has lectured on student activism at more than 200 campuses.
Exactly why the guardsmen fired on the students remains a mystery, but based on a recording of the shootings that Canfora unearthed recently from a Yale University archive, he is now convinced the guardsmen were given an order to fire.
“Right before the gunfire, I was shocked, I was absolutely stunned, to hear what sounded like a militaristic verbal command: ‘Right here, get set, point, fire,’ ” he said, about hearing the recording.
Although he has called for the investigation to be reopened, he rejects the notion that any guardsmen should be prosecuted at this late date, saying he’s only seeking healing and the truth.
Now 61, he plans to be married for the first time this summer to a Russian graduate student whom he recently met at Kent State. He says he is less angry these days.
“Unfortunately, I was an angry young man, very frustrated by the lack of justice,” he said. “But, as I’ve gotten older, quite honestly I think I’ve mellowed considerably.”
All of the wounded stay in contact, and most plan to be present at today’s ceremonies. Here’s where some of the other notable Kent State figures are now:
- John Cleary—A freshman at the time of the shootings, he was taking pictures of the protest when he was shot in the chest. Now 59, married and the father of two, he is an architect in Pittsburgh. He plans to be at the commemoration. “To me, it’s always kind of a healing process to go back to Kent State,” he said.
- John Filo—Filo took the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Mary Ann Vecchio, the 14-year-old runaway. He and Vecchio reunited for the first time in 1995 at a Kent State commemoration at Emerson College in Boston. Filo had avoided Vecchio for 25 years, afraid to talk to her because he believed he’d ruined her life. Now 62, he is the director of photo operations at CBS and lives in New Jersey. He is married with two children.
- Thomas Grace—Alan Canfora’s roommate, he was also an ardent antiwar activist. Bullets took off part of his left foot and he walks with a limp. After a career as a social worker and a union organizer, he got his doctorate in history in 2003, and began the second career he had always wished for, as a historian and teacher. His book on student activism at Kent State will be published this year. Now 60, he lives in upstate New York with his wife and two children.
- Joseph Lewis—Wounded in the abdomen and legs, Lewis for years could not talk about the shootings without bursting into tears. The most important lesson he has learned, he said, is that the media can be manipulated to paint student protesters as communists or dissenters as criminals. Now 58, he has worked in the Scappoose, Ore., public works department for 30 years, is married and the father and stepfather of seven children and grandfather to eight, with another expected soon.
- Donald Scott MacKenzie—A junior at the time of the shootings, he was shot in the neck. Now 62, he is a professor of art and computer graphic design at Dakota State University.
- James Rhodes—Ohio governor in 1970, he sent the guardsmen to restore order on the campus. He died in 2001 at the age of 91. “It was a terrible thing,” he said on the 30th anniversary of the shootings. “But no one plans a train wreck, either. It just happened. And life goes on.”
- Sanford Jay Rosen—The ACLU attorney who won a $600,000 settlement for the victims from the state of Ohio said they were his most memorable clients, and the trial and settlement the most intensely moving experience of his career. Now 72, he is a partner in a San Francisco law firm.
- James Russell—Shot in the forehead and thigh as he walked across campus to turn in a final project, Russell died three years ago at 60. Canfora and Grace attended his funeral. He was a civil engineer in Oregon, where he had fled to avoid attention in the aftermath of the shootings. Nelda Pelosi, his widow, said Russell remembered his years at Kent State fondly, and always said he only had one really bad day there.
- Robert Stamps—An outspoken critic of the shootings, Stamps—who was wounded in the buttock—died two years ago in Florida at 58. The author of three nonfiction books, he was also a songwriter, teacher and counselor at various times in his life. Several of the wounded attended his memorial service on the Kent State campus.
- Mary Ann Vecchio—The 14-year-old runaway captured in Filo’s photo now lives in north Florida. She has said she had years of “rocky times” before marrying plumbing contractor Joe Gillum in the late 1970s. She has attended several commemorations, and is scheduled to speak today.
- Douglas Wrentmore—Wounded in the knee, Wrentmore, 60, has worked as a social worker and chiropractor. Married, he lives in southern Ohio, where he works as a stockbroker.
Kitty Bennett is a news researcher and writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.