By Thomas Wills
I am a 1983 graduate of Kent State University. I walked up Blanket Hill to Taylor Hall nearly every day for two years, past a metal sculpture with a hole through it.
It, too, was in the path of a National Guard bullet.
Of course I knew about May 4, 1970. And I’d looked at the hole in the Don Drumm sculpture. But I never went to any of the memorial observances. I thought it was time for Kent State and Ohio to get past the past.
I’m not at all minimizing the tragedy of “four dead in Ohio.” It was just not my decade.
Last week, however, I did pay attention.
I learned how things unraveled in the face of frustration and misunderstanding. I learned that I failed to grasp essential American history in my zeal to learn journalism inside Taylor Hall.
What happened 40 years ago, as well as my recognition of it now, were both unforeseen.
The Vindicator, in preparing for stories in advance of the anniversary, obtained a transcription record, which is a very slow-spinning (16 2/3 rpm) two-sided vinyl disc. It’s from the 1971 Chestnut Burr, the KSU yearbook. Our managing editor asked if I would use some vintage equipment in my home studio to transfer the analog audio to digital.
I was on vacation last week and wasn’t too enthused about exhuming the tragedy, but I promised to deliver a CD to the newsroom in time for Sunday’s paper.
This soundtrack to tragedy remains incredible. I had never heard it before.
Side One contains news broadcasts leading up to the shooting. It starts with fire and breaking glass in downtown Kent; then more fire and an ROTC building falling in on campus. Tear gas lobbed near tennis courts. National Guardsmen are on hand to assist civil authorities and campus police.
You can’t really tell who is talking: university people, local authorities, a fire chief, Gov. Jim Rhodes.
“At the present time I think that Vietnam would be a pleasure.”
“The hopes of all on campus have been placed in jeopardy.”
“This now is the problem of the state of Ohio.”
“We’re gonna use every part of ... law enforcement to drive ’em out of Kent.”
Rhodes: “They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America. I think that we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America.”
“They can expect us to return fire.”
“Use any force as necessary.”
Tear gas: “Oh my goodness that stuff’s horrible ... We’re standing in the wind.”
Side Two is audio only of the tragedy:
“One, two, three, four, we don’t want your [expletive] war.”
An order is given to “leave this area immediately ... for your own safety.”
A bell rings. More “One, two, three, four ...”
A rumble. Gunshots. Like thunder.
More of them. Longer in duration than I’d expected to hear. Sixty-seven rounds, 13 seconds.
“Get an ambulance up here. ... There’s people dying down here.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life – and I’ve been in the Army.”
“They dropped down ... and they just started firing.”
Someone says, “They’re dead. They have been shot. They are dead.”
“All of a sudden, the cops went trigger happy and shot the kids.”
“We don’t have any guns – they do, OK?”
“They’ve got live ammo, I wouldn’t have believed that.”
“Sit down please, just sit down.”
“The man in the brown suit is in charge of the whole thing. You should get a statement from him.”
“We’ve had bloodshed. It’s a terrible thing that happened here today. This campus will never forget it.”
It is insane. That truth holds regardless of your personal opinion of the events leading to May 4, 1970, at Kent State University.
It is also forever sad. The shootings killed four students and wounded nine.
Listen for yourself on
Vindy.com, where you’ll find excerpts intermingled with images both new and 40 years old.
You will be unnerved. Those screaming and shouting voices are young people. Terrified, for the most part.
That’s why it’s real for me now.
I regret that it took me 27 years to do my homework.
Tom Wills is a regional editor for The Vindicator.