John Filo couldn't believe the news when he first heard it on the radio. The ROTC building burned down at Kent State?
That didn't sound right. They must have meant Penn State.
But Kent State it was. "You should have seen it," his roommates told him, when he finally got back to campus Sunday night. "It was terrible."
Three days before, when Richard Nixon told the nation he wanted to end the Vietnam war by sending troops into Cambodia, college campuses across the country erupted in protest. But Kent was an unlikely tinderbox. A small rally called by a group of graduate students was about all it could manage that Friday. They said the invasion proved that the Constitution had been murdered, so they buried it.
But that night, the mood shifted. On North Water Street in downtown Kent, a crowd smashed windows and pelted police cruisers with bottles. Kent Mayor Leroy Satrom declared a state of emergency. The cops shut down the bars, cleared the streets, and established a curfew.
On Saturday, the trouble continued. The ROTC building, an old barracks on the university Commons, was burned down by a group of students. When the fire trucks arrived to put out the blaze, the crowd slashed the hoses and threw rocks at the firefighters. Then there were more clashes downtown. Soon, the Ohio National Guard was on its way.
Filo was a photographer and a journalism major, and it didn't sit well that the most important thing to happen on campus all year had neatly coincided with his sojourn into the hinterlands. And now, Sunday evening, there was nothing going on. The governor had come and gone, the Guard was on campus, and he figured the tension had passed.
"It was about over, and I was beside myself," Filo recalls.
But Monday morning, as he worked in the student photo lab in the journalism building, Taylor Hall, Filo overheard students talking about a noon rally. Something about the war or the National Guard -- nobody seemed sure which was the object of ire.
His weekend had been a wash, but he could at least take pictures of the protesters. "If I could come back with an iconic kind of picture, that's what I was out there to do," Filo says. "I told myself, the photo I'm looking for this afternoon is "Student Protest in America.'"
The search wasn't difficult. As he was closing up the lab for lunch, Filo heard the victory bell ring on the Commons. When he got outside, he was stunned by the size of the crowd. Even though the rally was illegal under the declared state of emergency, a couple thousand people had gathered.
"The Commons was the crossroads of the campus, but I was amazed at how many people were hanging around the periphery -- the tennis courts, the parking lots -- just waiting to see what happened," Filo says. He borrowed a lens from Howard Ruffner, another student photographer he knew.
It didn't take long for the confrontation to start. Just before noon, a Kent State police officer was driven around the Commons in a National Guard jeep, announcing that the rally was illegal and the students had to disperse. The only response was a chorus of "Pigs off campus!" and "We don't want your fucking war!" accompanied by a volley of rocks.
The commander of the Guard, Brigadier General Robert Canterbury, wanted the hurling of both earth and obscenities halted. "To permit an assembly at this point would have been dangerous," Canterbury would later tell a presidential commission.
The Guard lobbed two waves of tear gas at the protesters, but the wind was strong and the salvo futile. It served only to piss off the students even further. This was, they felt, their campus, and now the Guard was telling them to leave. Other measures were needed, so Canterbury ordered two companies from the First Battalion of the 145th Infantry Regiment and one from the Second Squadron of the 107th Armored Cavalry Regiment to fall out.
Two companies moved up Blanket Hill toward the pagoda at the south end of Taylor Hall, while another company moved around the opposite side of the building. Canterbury didn't think it was enough to seize the high ground at the crest of Blanket Hill -- he wanted to push the protesters farther back. So the Guard kept moving, down the other side of Blanket Hill toward a practice football field.
But the field was fenced off on three sides, leaving the Guard nowhere to go but back the way they had come. For 10 minutes, the troops waited as their officers figured out what to do. At one point, a group of Guardsmen formed a skirmish line, with several kneeling and pointing their rifles at the protesters, who were now throwing rocks and the Guard's own tear gas canisters back at them.
That's when Filo saw his picture: one student, Alan Canfora, waving a raised flag, a solitary figure against a backdrop of the Guard, the aliens who had invaded campus, bent down as if they would actually fire live ammunition at these kids, the sons and daughters of middle America.
"I was really happy with that photo," Filo says. "That was salvaging my day."
The Guard started to retreat back up Blanket Hill. Filo followed, but the soldiers were moving at a pretty good clip, and as they reached the crest of the hill to go around Taylor Hall, he lost sight of them. Then, suddenly, they came rushing back . . . and took firing positions.
This is great, a new scare tactic, firing blanks into a crowd.
Through the camera, he saw the sidewalk, a tree, the metal sculpture in front of the building . . . and a Guardsman pointing his rifle.
Oh, okay, you shoot at me, I'll shoot a picture of you.
As he was about to click the shutter, the gun Filo was staring at went off. The metal sculpture erupted into a rust-colored cloud. A chunk of bark came flying off the tree.
Oh, shit, this guy's got live ammunition.
"I look around and I see that I'm the only idiot still standing. As I panned to the left, I saw someone making for the little drainage ditch . . . As I turned on my heel I could see the body of Jeffrey Miller. I just said, "Oh, damn.'"
It's been 30 years since the name of a blue-collar school in the rolling hills of Northeast Ohio became the watchword of student protest in America, three decades since the silent majority sat down with their oatmeal and orange juice one Tuesday morning to find a 14-year-old girl screaming at them from the front page of the paper, kneeling over the lifeless lump of what had once been a kid named Jeffrey Miller.
In the years since, the May 4 events at Kent State University have become a cultural touchstone, replete with its own politics, myths, and rituals. There have been enough arguments, enough mystery and debate (Was there an order to fire? A conspiracy? A cover-up?) to spawn more than a dozen books, two grand jury investigations, two federal civil trials, a presidential commission, college courses, a smattering of songs, novels, plays, paintings, and one made-for-TV movie.
Above all, Kent State remains the Rorschach test of the Vietnam era, a blank slate to project all the promise and regret of the period: the day the Vietnam war came home, the ultimate breakdown of law and order, the end of the '60s, the slide into Watergate.
But what made Kent State the archetypal school shooting wasn't just the bullets and the bodies, the four dead and nine wounded. Campus violence -- student clashes with police and the National Guard -- were hardly new in the spring of 1970. Nor was Kent State the only campus where students died. Ten days later, two more students were killed on the campus of Jackson State in Mississippi. Yet uttering the words "Jackson State" won't cause people, even now, to argue at dinner tables all over the country.
What made the shootings at Kent State into Kent State was the power of the images that were captured and projected around the world, the frozen moments caught, for the most part, by three student photographers -- John Filo, Howard Ruffner, and John Darnell.
All three are on the downward slope of middle age now. One runs a newspaper. One oversees the photo archives for a television network. And one is retired. They are normal and yet not. They've had 30 years to come to terms with their wrinkle in history, the bizarre confluence of time and circumstance that put each in a place to do something that will long outlast them.
"Great art asks you to deal with tough questions," says Jerry M. Lewis, an emeritus professor of sociology at Kent State who, for many years, has taught a class on the events around May 4. "Those photos are great art."
John Darnell Jr. takes out another cigarette, lights it, and tries to describe the silence. That's what he remembers most. Now 51, he is a talkative, excitable man. But he depicts the eerie absence of sound that followed the 13-second barrage of gunfire by the National Guard with practiced deliberation.
"There is no way to describe it," he says. "It was just totally, completely quiet."
Like Filo, Darnell missed the lead-up to Monday's rally. He was home over the weekend, in Boardman, just outside of Youngstown. He would go there every other weekend to write a story for The Boardman News, the weekly community newspaper his father had started more than 20 years earlier.
When Darnell got back to campus on Sunday, his roommate told him the university was under martial law. "We went up and walked around campus. We didn't get five steps before a [Guardsman] literally lifted me up and moved me off campus, physically."
Because of the curfew, it was illegal for students to be out at night. But Darnell had an idea. Not long before, he had snagged a press pass from the mail at his father's office. He went back to his campus flat, found the pass, and changed it to read "Student Photographer, Boardman News," so he could move around campus freely.
When the rally started on Monday, he attached himself to Ike Pappas, a CBS reporter who had come to campus after the ROTC fire Saturday. Pappas had been given complete access to tag along with the Guard, so Darnell figured it was as good a place as any to see the rally.
He followed the Guard as it moved up Blanket Hill and down to the practice football field. By the time the troops doubled back, he had moved up onto the veranda around Taylor Hall. As they marched back toward the Commons, cresting the hill at the corner of Taylor Hall near the pagoda, a group of Guardsmen suddenly turned around. Darnell snapped several photos from behind one of the building's columns, including one of the Guard as they were firing.
"I turned around and there was a pool of blood," he says. "There was a period of silence . . . There was no reason. They murdered those people."
As the students realized what happened, the scene became chaotic. But Darnell's fear of being hurt was quickly displaced by another concern. He knew he had captured something important, and he figured the Guard might try to confiscate his film. Sure enough, one of the soldiers soon approached him and demanded his camera. He handed it over, and the Guardsman pulled out the roll of film inside.
It didn't matter to Darnell. He had already rewound the film with the important pictures on it, taken it out of his camera, and put it in the one place he knew it would be safe: down his pants.
"I had put a blank roll in the camera," he says. "In my ass were two good rolls."
After witnessing the shootings, Darnell made a "commitment to nonviolence, right then and there." But he did not take a commitment to poverty, and he knew that the bounty packed in his tail was a pot of gold. He rushed to Boardman to develop the film, then called Look and Life magazines and told them to make him an offer. Life paid him $8,000 for the key photo. "And it's still selling today," he says.
The picture is still one of the most haunting images taken of the event, and one of the main sources of speculation about whether there was a conspiracy to fire. Pictured are three dozen Ohio National Guardsmen, all with gas masks covering their faces, a half-dozen with their M-1 rifles pointed straight out, taking aim. One of the Guardsmen, the one farthest out front, is crouched down with a pistol -- the posture of supreme concentration.
That photo now sits on the wall of Darnell's office at The Boardman News, which his family still owns and runs. (He writes almost all the stories. His father writes a column, his wife sells the ads, and his 13-year-old son has started to contribute sports photos.) The picture sits just above the Polk Award, one of journalism's most prestigious, which he won for the spread in Life.
The office has the kind of ur-manly decor that looks as if it were scripted by someone in Hollywood: dark wood paneling from floor to ceiling, filing cabinets circa 1950, papers piled everywhere, and on another wall, a collection of wildly dissonant photographic images Darnell has taken over the years. There's a serene shot of a bee pollinating a flower, one of local hero Bernie Kosar, another of a crime scene from a mob hit.
It's the only place Darnell has ever worked, in part, he says, because of what he saw and learned 30 years ago. "Bringing people together is what [a community newspaper is] all about," he says. "That's something I got from Kent."
"We're both stuck in the '60s or the '70s, or whatever you want to call it," says Jerry Ingram, a defense attorney from Boardman who is one of Darnell's best friends. "That's what enables him to run his newspaper -- independent thinking. He doesn't want to work for someone else, he doesn't want to be part of some big conglomerate. He wants to be independent, he wants that freedom of thought."
Boardman is a small town, and The News has always been a small operation, but Darnell has never believed it had to act like one. When he came back to the paper after college, he wanted to make it more sophisticated, take what he had learned and pump the pages full of hard news. After all, once you've been shot at by your own troops, how big a deal is the wrath of a county commissioner?
He started with the old political hands, who told him which skeleton was in whose closet. He did the same thing with the fire department and the police. He went to all the meetings and to the bars where the cops get drunk, waiting for them to spill their guts. He sweet-talked secretaries, and he did people favors. He took notes, and he kept score. Even though he had grown up in Boardman, it took seven years before he felt like he knew the town.
It was an education, one that made him a lock box of Boardman history. It also made him confident, sure in his judgment and perspective. He began publishing a list of everybody who had been arrested in Boardman every week, including their names and addresses. That still causes Darnell no end of trouble, but he wouldn't have it any other way.
"He certainly engenders more than his share of thought-provoking controversy," says Ingram. "He doesn't care who he criticizes."
As far as Darnell is concerned, it's just business, the kind of thinking that's allowed him to survive this long. It's the same reason he doesn't dwell much on the shootings and hasn't been plagued by the guilt that so many others who lived through May 4 have carried with them over the years.
He goes back once a year, he says, "just to remember." But he has never felt guilty about the different fates that were handed out that day. Sandy Scheuer, Bill Schroeder, Allison Krause, and Jeffrey Miller got killed. He got a picture.
"I'm thankful I lived. If people were exposed to that violence, maybe they wouldn't take part in it. That's what it's for. It's what you do your job for."
Howard Ruffner should've been shot. That's the way it looks, anyway.
He had followed the action all weekend: Friday at the rally to bury the Constitution; Saturday out prowling with Bill Armstrong, editor of the student newspaper, The Kent Stater, taking pictures of the torched ROTC building and the street action downtown; Sunday with the governor.
And he was there when the National Guard rolled in. "It was pretty late Saturday night, and Bill and I are walking down the hill toward the city of Kent," recalls Ruffner, now 54. "I guess we were kind of hurrying and, bingo, out of nowhere, two or three National Guardsmen with bayonets on their M-1s stand out from behind a tree and say, "Where are you going?' We were surprised, but we showed them our press passes, and we went on."
He stayed up late that night. There was a rally downtown, fires were started, a couple of kids were hurt from confrontations with the Guard and had to be taken to the hospital. Helicopters were flying overhead.
"For a campus, you felt like you were in a war zone," Ruffner says.
Sunday morning, he was there when Governor James Rhodes, in the heat of a primary election battle for the U.S. Senate, launched into his infamous tirade. Rhodes said the unrest at Kent was caused by radicals, people who were "worse than the brown shirts and the communist element, also the night riders and the vigilantes. They are the worst type of people that we harbor in America."
Monday morning, the Chicago bureau of Life magazine called the Stater offices. They had heard about the weekend of troublemaking at Kent and wanted somebody to shoot Monday's rally. Ruffner was a fixture around campus, taking pictures for the yearbook, The Burr, and The Stater. Just a couple weeks before, in fact, he had been named editor of the 1970-'71 Burr.
Ruffner had learned photography in the Air Force. He wanted to go to college, but the only way he could afford it was through the GI Bill. When he finally got to Kent, in January 1969, he was anxious to make up for lost time. One of his first stops on campus was the offices of The Burr and Stater.
"I thought I had lost four years of my life, being in the service," he says. "I started growing a beard, and I had one of those navy blue Air Force coats . . . It was an obvious effort at trying to fit in."
For a while, his fellow students thought he was an undercover cop.
An assignment for Life was a big deal, and Ruffner was determined not to screw it up. He had two cameras with him, one with a 105 mm lens, the other with a 200 mm lens. He had already gotten credentials to accompany the Guard anywhere he wanted to go. He didn't realize that would include their line of fire.
When the Guard moved against the students, Ruffner followed them up the hill and around Taylor Hall. When they stopped at the football field and began heading back toward the Commons, Ruffner, like many of the students, figured it was over.
He was trudging up the sidewalk when he saw a contingent of Guardsmen that had abruptly turned and was now facing him from the knoll at the corner of Taylor Hall. He raised his camera and took a picture.
Over the next 10 years, as a myriad of investigations tried to establish why the Guard fired, he was repeatedly asked why he took that photo when he did. Had he heard a shot? Was it before a shot was fired?
Ruffner has never been able to say for sure. But it's still one of the most remarkable photos of the shootings. Two Guardsmen, poised to fire, are aiming directly into Ruffner's camera.
That wasn't his best-known picture, though. That distinction would go to a photo Ruffner took of a wounded student being tended to by others, which ended up on the cover of Life. The FBI agents who interviewed him afterward called the $2,000 he made from his pictures "blood money."
The next year, Ruffner, along with Darnell and Filo, won the Polk Award for his photos in Life. His edition of The Burr was a spartan book with very little text and no writing on the outside. The cover, which was made to look like the Stars and Stripes behind a chain-link fence, had a simple black band around the middle.
"We figured that, if you didn't know whose yearbook it was, it didn't matter," Ruffner says.
For a year after college, he tried his hand at commercial photography and found it wasn't for him. Nor was he interested in the scut work of a small newspaper photographer. So he went back to school, studying broadcast management at Ohio University, which landed him in a public relations job at Ohio Bell. He went on to do corporate PR work for AT&T, first in New Jersey and then in Colorado. He took early retirement and moved last year to Arizona, where he's now thinking about going back to work.
Though he's never worked as a professional photographer, Ruffner has no doubts about his skills and dismisses the idea that his success that day was just dumb luck. After all, being in the right place at the right time doesn't make someone a photographer.
"I mean, Zapruder wasn't a filmmaker," says Ruffner. "But I've proven it to myself. I know what kind of photographer I am, and I know what I expect from myself."
And his contribution to the legacy of Kent State seems secure. His photos from that weekend are still the most comprehensive visual record of what happened, how it ever got to the point where United States troops fired on their own.
"I wouldn't have done anything differently," he says. "I always felt the students and the parents were terribly wronged, and somebody needed to make amends for this. If I helped at all to do that, I'm pleased."
They start every spring like birds coming back to nest. After 30 years, it's become a ritual for John Filo. The newspapers, the television shows -- they all want to talk to the photographer who took the photo. The screaming girl over the body. The picture that defines an era.
He doesn't mind anymore. He figures it's part of the deal, to talk about what he saw that day, about the photo that, no matter what he's done or will ever do, will always be his legacy and his signature. "There's a thing you come to realize, that being a survivor of that day, it's my job to talk about it," Filo says.
He knows that the difference between his life and Jeffrey Miller's was just a matter of a few feet.
Now 51, Filo got out of journalism several years ago, after an enviable career working for some of the most prestigious names in the business -- The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Baltimore Sun, The Camden Courier-Post, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated. He was even fired from a couple of them.
How many people have ever won a Pulitzer? Filo won it at 22. He was in Taylor Hall, standing 200 feet from where Miller fell, when the announcement came over the wire. It was almost a year to the day after the shootings.
In those months and first couple years after the shootings, Filo had a hard time just functioning normally. He was haunted by the subject of the photograph, Mary Ann Vecchio, a runaway he had never spoken to, who was continually in trouble, getting arrested for drugs or prostitution.
So he worked. He went to Kansas City with the Associated Press, then to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and ultimately to Camden, New Jersey. Over time, the guilt and shadow lifted, however slowly. Five years ago he finally met Vecchio, and the woman he feared he had trapped in time told him she didn't hate him.
Soon he was through with journalism. "I loved it so much, but then you come to the realization that it will never love you back," he says. "When you come to that realization, you say there's something else to life. And then there is something else to life."
These days Filo works as the manager of photo operations for CBS, overseeing the television network's vast photo archives from a small office that overlooks 52nd Street in Midtown Manhattan. Not surprisingly, there are pictures everywhere, mostly stacked in piles and stuffed into envelopes. There's one of himself with Graham Nash and Steven Stills, taken just days earlier, when Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young played a concert at Madison Square Garden.
And he doesn't mind talking. He has told his story so many times that it's become second nature, a way to keep the anger alive. "What's really important to remember is the fact that it could happen again in an instant, anywhere," he says. "It doesn't take much."
After the shooting stopped that day, Filo's first instinct was to get the hell out. He even started moving, taking a half-dozen bounds before he caught himself. "I was like What the hell are you running for? This is why you're here. This is being a journalist."
He started taking pictures of the body closest to him, whom he would later find out was Jeffrey Miller. He knew the kid had to be dead, there was so much blood. A girl came running into the frame and knelt beside the body -- Vecchio, at that time a 14-year-old runaway from Opa Locka, Florida.
He moved around to get a shot of her straight on, and he knew that was the picture he wanted. "I was near the end of a roll. I was having this argument with myself. You could see her visibly sobbing and things welling up inside of her, and I had this debate: Shoot this picture now? You're almost out of film. All right, shoot one. All right. Hold. Hold . . . And as I got closer, she just let out with a scream, and the thought process ended, and the reaction took over."
He hung around for a couple hours, taking pictures and waiting to see what would happen. Eventually the crowd started to disperse, as students were told that the school had been shut down.
Filo was uncertain of his next move. He had taken some of his photographs to The Akron Beacon Journal a couple of months before, but they never returned his film. He certainly wasn't about to trust them with the most important roll of film he had ever shot. He knew the Associated Press photographer in Cleveland, but he had no idea where the bureau was, and he couldn't find the phone number.
The only thing he could think to do was hightail it to his hometown, Tarentum, just outside of Pittsburgh. He had worked on The Tarentum Valley Daily News during the summers, as a vacation replacement photographer, and he knew they had a wire from which he could send his photos to the AP. So he got in his $400 Volkswagen and drove.
"I didn't even bother to contact anyone," he says. "I didn't want anyone to know. I was paranoid. I didn't want to tell anybody what I had, where I was going, what I was doing. I just got in my car, and I drove . . . And for some bizarre reason, when I crossed into Pennsylvania, I thought it was safe to call, like I had crossed the frontier or something."
The guys at the Tarentum paper were excited to hear from him and a little pissed that he hadn't called sooner. It was early evening by the time he got to their offices. He wanted to make sure everything was working properly, so he first developed a roll without the photos of the screaming girl. After he was satisfied, he processed the roll with the shots of Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller.
Now the only problem was getting on the wire. The Beacon Journal was sending so many pictures that the AP office in New York didn't even respond when he asked for a time slot to transmit his photo. Finally, he got someone on the phone.
"This guy said, "Listen, kid, whoever you are, would you stop interrupting? There was a shooting at Kent State today, and we're moving a lot of pictures from The Akron Beacon Journal . . . so quit interrupting them, dammit."
When he finally got on the wire, Filo thought he had screwed up the transmission, because the line -- normally abuzz with chatter -- went totally silent. But it wasn't because the picture hadn't gone through. After a long moment of silence, one of the AP editors finally spoke.
"Hey, kid, that's a pretty good picture."
Andrew Putz can be reached at email@example.com.
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