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Kent State & May 4 Part II 

A 40-year-old tragedy and the wounds that never heal

Alan Canfora had given the talk dozens, maybe hundreds, of times. He spoke passionately about the events that preceded the Kent State University shootings: the U.S. incursion into Cambodia in April 1970 that galvanized thousands of antiwar demonstrators; Ohio Governor James Rhodes' irresponsible diatribe the day before, when he said campus protesters were "the worst type of people that we harbor in America."

Then there was the nightmarish confrontation itself — the soldiers who retreated to the crest of a hill and then suddenly turned, raised their rifles, and began to shoot unarmed students. Most memorable of all was the sharp explosive jab he felt when a bullet ripped his right wrist, a pain that could not compare to the emotional turmoil he experienced when he saw his friend Jeffrey Miller in an ambulance, lying on his back, his shirt removed, blood caked on his chest, dying of a gaping wound, silenced forever.

Canfora would tell audiences that Miller — as well as Allison Krause, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder, who were also killed in the 13-second melee — can never cry out for truth or justice. He would mention the unspeakable grief their parents experienced each day, and that he felt a moral obligation to speak for these "martyrs," as well as for the other students who were injured near Taylor Hall.

He was accustomed to his talk arousing emotion in audiences. When the tears came, he knew he was touching hearts and this pushed him to press on, with more passion, more conviction. But on this particular day, as he gave the talk to a group of KSU freshmen some 30 years after the May 4 tragedy, he found himself unable to avoid the emotional display of a woman sitting in the back of the room. From the very outset, the woman sat, crying, sobbing uncontrollably. At the end of the class, all the students departed, save her.

She walked to the front of the room. "Alan, I'd like you to know why I'm so emotional," she said and then asked if he had heard of Jim McGee.

Canfora was shocked. He knew the name like the back of the wrist that felt like an exploding firecracker on the early afternoon of May 4. "He was one of the members of Troop G," he replied immediately, thinking to himself that this was the troop that shot and killed four students and injured nine others.

"Well," the young woman said, pausing for a moment so that Canfora could grasp the enormity of what she was about to say, "that's my father."

"I want you to know that we have suffered too," the young woman said. "My family knows that you have suffered, but we want you to know that we have suffered too."

Canfora was speechless. A founding member of the May 4 task force that had sought to bring justice to the victims and their families, the controversial activist who had become a synecdoche for unrelenting opposition to the university's decision in the '70s to build a gym adjoining the site of the shootings, the man who had spontaneously cried out "this is an outrage" and "there is no justice" when a jury exonerated the guardsmen in a 1975 civil trial, Canfora was surprised and deeply touched. "She was looking for empathy, and she found it," he says today. The serendipitous incident "began a process of change in my mind. I started to try to think of it from their perspective and to think that they are haunted with guilt. It had a profound effect on me."

Canfora began to seek out guardsmen, in the hopes of understanding their mindsets and comprehending how they constructed events that had pained him for years. He spoke with them, listened to their perspectives, and even embraced one of the Guards' commanding officers when he bumped into him at a Columbus museum. Canfora's approach is emblematic of the transformation in attitudes and outlooks over the past four decades. Kent State, which for years sought to distance itself from the controversy that surrounds May 4, has embraced the issue as part of its cultural fabric.

With the 40th commemoration of the May 4 tragedy set to begin next week, the school is touting the planned construction of a Visitors Center in Taylor Hall, which overlooks the site of the shootings. The town/gown schism is largely gone, replaced by a cooperative relationship between the city and university, exemplified by KSU President Lester A. Lefton's announcement that the university will invest $250 million in sleek campus facilities, including a conference center and hotel.

Yet lurking beneath the patina of public appearances is a series of layered complexities and unanswered questions. Conflicting narratives abound, offering up numerous perspectives on the tragic weekend of Friday, May 1 to Monday May 4, the legal battles that occurred over the course of the 1970s, ensuing confrontations over the building of a gym adjoining the site of the shootings, and conflicts surrounding the construction of a memorial to the events of May 4 in the 1980s.

To many unconnected with the controversies, the Kent State shootings lie in the recesses of political history, symbolized by John Filo's iconic photograph of a 14-year-old girl, kneeling in horror over the bleeding body of Jeffrey Miller and called to mind when Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Ohio" plays on the radio. To some, the issues have been played out too many times and, in any event, happened so long ago that they are best regarded as fossilized remains, part of the detritus of the political past. But to liberal political activists — both old and young — faculty scholars, historians, and scattered residents of the "tree city" better known as Kent, the issues are as vivid as they were 40 years ago, in some cases poignantly activated when the phrase "May 4" is spoken. In their view, these events are sufficiently important that their history needs to be endlessly retold, so that future generations can draw lessons from the tragedy, appreciate the complex but critical role dissent plays in democracy during wartime, and ensure that the mistakes of May 4 never will be made again.

The events of May 4 catapulted tiny Kent into the international spotlight. The events diffused rapidly around the world, bringing notoriety to KSU. The shootings represent one of the few times in American history when soldiers fired on unarmed students. They galvanized student opposition to the Vietnam War, sparking a national student strike at more than 400 university campuses and causing consternation at Nixon's White House.

"THEY WERE TEARING APART MY HOMETOWN"

In May 1970, Nancy Hansford lived on West Main Street, at the edge of Kent near Stow. Her father started a heating business in the 1940s, and her husband and brother-in-law took it over in the 1960s. "We're pretty well known around town," she says. Hansford is 80, with white hair and agility that belies her age. She speaks with abiding affection for the small-town life that she has cherished over the years, sometimes with a distinctive Ohio twang that recalls characters in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. She remembers the pride her mother experienced when Kent was selected in 1910 as the site of a teachers college that would become Kent State University.

On Friday, May 1, 1970, Hansford was preparing for a church retreat, scheduled for early the next week. She recalls the damage that occurred on Friday night when a crowd of young people, some of whom were protesting the Vietnam War, others drunk and following the group, moved en masse down Water Street. The crowd set a bonfire in the street and blocked traffic for close to an hour; some members of the group broke windows in downtown stores to demonstrate opposition to the political-military establishment. "It was very frightening because it kept going on and they were tearing apart my hometown. And you get very possessive and get that feeling, 'How dare they?' And the 'they,' at that point, you didn't know who it was."

Despite her anger at the young people who had caused damage downtown — and the professors who, she said, egged them on — Hansford found herself on the afternoon of May 4 extending a sympathetic hand to a young couple who had been involved in the weekend's protests and were sitting, numbed and shocked, across the street from her father's house. Her father invited the couple to join them for supper, and Hansford prepared a meal of meat and potatoes. "The young people were quiet," she recalls. "But you could sense that they didn't know what to do. I offered our phone to call their parents. And the young boy said, 'No — my dad called me a couple of days ago and said 'You get in trouble, I'm not comin' down to help you, son, you're on your own.' And that hurt me," says Hansford. Concerned, she put the couple up overnight, letting the young man share a room with her son, a senior in high school. "This is who we are," she says.

Ten years later, Hansford again found herself immersed in feelings about May 4, this time as the mayor of Kent, the dutiful daughter following the Greer family tradition (her father had been mayor in the early '60s). Recognizing that a mayor has to decide in a crisis whether to call in the National Guard, she reasoned that it would be helpful to better understand how the Guard operated. She joined a group invited to the Guard's bivouac in Michigan, only to be greeted suspiciously by the guardsmen who, when they learned she was from Kent, asked her flat-out "Why are you here? Why are you here?"

"Well," Hansford responded, "I'm here because you helped our community once, and if it's necessary we hope that you will come again."

OUTRAGE AND VIOLENCE

The Rootstown Water Service Company is a small brick building surrounded by cherry trees. It is about a mile from Ravenna and an easy drive from Cleveland. The company's president is Ron Snyder, a compact man with wire-rimmed glasses and a grandfatherly smile. In May 1970, he was Captain Ronald Snyder, commander of C Company that dispersed demonstrators near Taylor Hall on Monday, May 4.

When he arrived in Kent on Saturday night, he could see a bright red glow in the sky, flames from the ROTC building that had been set ablaze. On Sunday evening, he says, students threw rocks, pieces of automobiles, wood, and "anything they could get their hands on" at the guardsmen, even running toward the bayonets. Students were outraged that the Guard was on their campus — and some were willing to resort to violence to repel them.

On Monday, Snyder's troops dispersed demonstrators with tear gas. His nickname was Captain Gas. "Put the gas on 'em," he liked to say. "That just takes the fight out of rioters." He was amazed that students would pick up a 40 millimeter grenade and throw it back. "Look at that fool," one of his soldiers, a man from Kentucky, would say.

Sometime before 12:25 p.m., he directed his men to move near Taylor Hall. Suddenly, he heard shots and saw a young man felled by bullets. "It happened right in front of me." After the shootings, which came from the soldiers in Troop G, not Snyder's company, chaos ensued. Snyder radioed Guard officials to let them know there had been casualties and ambulances should be dispatched. He ordered his men to form a circle near some of the students' bodies, fearing retaliation.

When he describes the events of Sunday and Monday, Snyder speaks in military terms, talking about how he had a mission to perform or stating that he took precautions to make sure protesters did not attack his position. He refers to the students as protesters or rioters. "A riot's a riot, no matter how you look at it," he says. When asked why it happens, he prefers to focus on the facts, not to dwell on emotions soldiers may have felt or to speculate about why soldiers shot the students. "This is a military unit," he emphasizes.

The guardsmen who shot students are frequently thought to have been cruel or vindictive, but this misconstrues the complexity of what happened. "Those men weren't put on here to kill people," said a guardsman who spoke anonymously to KSU's oral historians. "They joined the Guard to get out of Vietnam. To be able to maintain their life while they still were in the military. There were people from Ravenna who worked as farmers or who worked in the factories or taught school. No one came on here and said, "'Let's go kill some of those damn college students.'"

Snyder still doesn't know why it happened. If anyone is responsible, he says, it's the politicians who called up the Guard. Once the decision was made, a series of events was set in motion. "We responded to civilians' requests."

THE QUEST FOR TRUTH

I waved Alan Canfora over to my table in the back of the Pufferbelly, the legendary Kent landmark that once served as the main depot for the Atlantic & Great Western Railroad. He was dressed elegantly, with sartorial flair, wearing a dark jacket and pants and a gray tie. His hair had thinned over the decades, but his facial and physical features seemed remarkably similar to those of the young man who unfurled a black anarchist flag on May 4 to protest the Vietnam War and the Guard's presence on campus.

He seems to have lost none of his passion. Canfora speaks with intensity and urgency, never hesitating or evincing doubt. The former member of the Students for Democratic Society is now chairperson of the Barberton Democratic Party, and during his tenure, he says with pride, "No Republicans have been elected in Barberton, so I'm batting a thousand." Forty years ago he was battling the war in Vietnam, engaged in what he calls "a righteous rebellion," a protest against a "criminal war in Southeast Asia, where my friends were dying. As patriotic Americans, we could not stand idly by and allow that to continue. It was absolutely understandable in this circumstance that a few windows in downtown Kent and a rickety old ROTC building became targets, which were inconsequential compared to the government's violence in Southeast Asia at the time." The ends, in his view, seemed to justify the means.

Over the years, Canfora arrived at a new understanding when he obtained what he regards as incontrovertible evidence that individual guardsmen did not decide to shoot students. Instead, he says, a commanding officer issued a verbal command to fire.

This question — why did the Guard fire? — has been a lightning rod for divergent perceptions, a Rorschach on which individuals of different viewpoints have frequently projected their own strident beliefs. It is also an area in which opinions have tended to overshadow factual evidence.

Some have suggested the guardsmen were angry at the students for pelting them with rocks in the aftermath of the burning of the ROTC building on Saturday May 2. Others have speculated that they were tired and frustrated after having to police a truckers' strike near Akron, where some truckers were reportedly shooting at non-strikers' trucks. Another theory — a sniper fired the first shot and the guardsmen fired to retaliate — has no supporting evidence, notes Dr. Jerry M. Lewis, emeritus professor of sociology at KSU, who co-edited three books on the shootings.

Canfora trumpets a relatively new interpretation — one that he advances with the breathless excitement of a scientist poised to share a new discovery. Three years ago he received a digitized copy of a reel-to-reel tape that a student made of the shootings from the windowsill of a dormitory room that overlooked the rally. "When I got that digital CD," he says," I played it, and immediately I heard the order to fire. It was a very emotional moment. I was stunned. I was shocked because I was anticipating hearing the gunfire, and I was thinking of those four students, the fact that when this tape was made during those last seconds before the gunfire, they were still alive. I went back and played it again and again and again, and I heard it every time: Right here, get set, point, fire. When I discovered the proof of the order to fire in that audiotape, that's when I really knew that they were following orders — that it wasn't just a bunch of individual guardsmen filled with hatred that decided to shoot with the phony excuse that their lives were in danger."

Others who have listened to the tape disagree. Dr. Thomas R. Hensley, a KSU emeritus professor of political science who has written extensively on May 4, says, "I heard the tape over and over again, and I couldn't pick it out. Some people say they could hear it; other people didn't. There certainly wasn't any consensus. Even if it was indisputable, I'm sure where that would lead." After the 1979 federal civil settlement, in which the Guard expressed regret and modest payments were awarded to the wounded students and parents of the slain students, he says the parents and wounded students agreed not to press on with further litigation.

The question of why some guardsmen shot — without warning students they had live ammunition — remains a mystery.

You think that after 40 years we would know. You hope it would be like a John Grisham novel — where, just at the right moment, the lawyer or reporter comes up with evidence that convicts the criminals. Canfora clings to such hope. He feels a moral obligation to the victims and says that a mother of one of the slain students plaintively asked him, "Alan, when will we ever know the truth?" He continues the quest. While some view it as quixotic, Canfora persists, hoping the latest evidence will offer answers to mysteries that have eluded us for decades.

"SOMETHING HAD TO BE DONE"

When he learned that four students had been shot at Kent State, Dr. Michael Schwartz was in Bloomington Indiana, sitting near a picturesque fountain on the Indiana University campus. A sociology professor at IU, he had long feared that student activism might end in a violent confrontation with students getting shot. He never dreamed that someday he would be running the university where this transpired. But in July 1977, at the age of 39, Schwartz was appointed interim president of Kent. He served as KSU president from 1982 to 1991. He was president when students protested that the building of a gymnasium annex that adjoined the site of the shootings was constructed in a manner that was insensitive to the memories of those who died. He also shepherded the creation of a memorial to the May 4 event that many praised but — like all things associated with May 4 — is laced with controversy. His perspective showcases the role that political and legal forces have played in the May 4 saga.

Schwartz is 72 now, having retired as president of Cleveland State University. (Full disclosure: As a CSU professor and director of the School of Communication, I knew Schwartz. However, he was no longer president when I interviewed him for this article.) During our talk, Schwartz wore the demeanor of a relaxed elder statesman, as he sipped Franciscan wine in a Bratenahl restaurant overlooking Lake Erie. Although two decades had elapsed since Schwartz led KSU, he remembered the events vividly, offering up details never before published. In the summer of '77, the Carter White House, terrified that student protesters would be killed again, tried unsuccessfully to mediate the conflict over the gymnasium. I asked Schwartz if he was feeling anxious during this period, with police poised to arrest students occupying the area near the gymnasium construction site.

"No," he deadpanned. "I think I was heavily sedated."

"I will tell you," he said, "that it was made very clear to me by the governor [James Rhodes] and others if we didn't go forward and build this thing, we had seen our last capital dollar. [Speaker of the Ohio House] Vern Riffe said to me, 'It's pretty clear you're going to do this.'" With both Riffe and Rhodes, who had famously conveyed his attitude toward student protesters in an incendiary speech on May 3, 1970, pressing the university not to cower in the face of student pressure, university administrators were in a difficult position. Kent had lost considerable enrollment after the shootings, and some worried about its financial survival. But there were also powerful political forces on the other side. Schwartz subsequently received a call from Ohio Senator Howard Metzenbaum, who told him that he should tell the contractor to be a good citizen and not build the gym. The 39-year-old president says that he offered Metzenbaum an equally blunt reply.

"Senator," he said, "I want to explain two or three things to you." He related his earlier conversation with officials in Columbus and added, "You have to understand that the contract to build this gym is between the Ohio Department of Administrative Services and the contractor. Kent State University is a third-party beneficiary. I don't have any standing with the contractor. On top of that, Portage County is a very depressed area, and this is a lot of jobs you're talking about." Metzenbaum hung up, furious, Schwartz says.

As it turned out, 193 students were arrested protesting the gym, but there was no violence. To the frustration of those who felt the gym was an affront to the memory of the slain and injured students, litigation to halt construction failed.

I asked Schwartz to reflect on an issue that still evokes controversy today: the May 4 memorial that was unveiled in 1990. The memorial sits on top of a hillside that overlooks the parking lot where the shootings occurred. Four granite disks planted in the earth lead to the crest of the hill, where four brown slabs rest, as if to suggest the silence that inevitably follows violence. Critics have long charged that the KSU administration significantly reduced the size of the monument. Even today, Krista Napp, a KSU junior who is co-chair of the May 4 Task Force, laments that the memorial is seven percent of its original design. However, KSU professor Carole Barbato is less critical. "The original design would have been so destructive to the hill and the shootings site that it would have destroyed the site," she says. "It is respectful and abstract. You can go there and contemplate."

The memorial has been a vortex of conflicting perceptions and competing narratives. Many active in the May 4 Task Force wanted the memorial to be dedicated to the slain and injured students, but others in the town, including then-Kent mayor Nancy Hansford, maintained that you could not understand the events of May 4 without appreciating the violence that preceded it on May 1-3.

"What people don't realize," notes Schwartz, "is that there were two sides — the one side anti-military, but there was a conservative side to this too, and you would hear people say things like 'the campus was out of control, and something had to be done.' It was a serious town/gown issue." Ultimately, he says, he decided the only way to manage this was to keep the process as neutral as possible and gain consensus. What emerged was a memorial to the events, not to the slain students — a decision that still riles critics today.

Schwartz says it was difficult to raise funds for the memorial. "Even people who thought that having the memorial was a good idea were reluctant to put money into the project. To give you some sense of the memorial's unpopularity in many circles, I seem to recall that a member of the State of Ohio Senate had language inserted into the budget legislation that said that no funds appropriated in that bill could be used for the memorial at Kent State University."

In Schwartz's view, the endless debate about the memorial, as well as persisting controversies about the shootings, are part of what he calls "the great saga" of May 4. "There's a very dramatic aspect to it as the story is told over and over and over again to new generations of students." However, he cautions, "I think that when you develop a great saga, some of the truths are going to be missing." Which truths and who determines their factual basis he leaves to the historians.

Rick Perloff is Director of the School of Communication at Cleveland State University. In May 1970, he reported on the incidents at Kent State University for his college newspaper.

More by Rick Perloff

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