New Kent State Exhibit Rekindles Memories Of Campus Shootings

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Marcella Hartzler and Jimmy Riggs were in the crowd near Taylor Hall on May 4, and found the new Visitors Center too emotional to tour completely in one day.(Photo: Carl Carlson/WKSU)
Marcella Hartzler and Jimmy Riggs were in the crowd near Taylor Hall on May 4, and found the new Visitors Center too emotional to tour completely in one day.(Photo: Carl Carlson/WKSU)

Kent State’s more than $1 million memorial for students shot and killed a generation ago opened Monday after a weekend preview of the permanent multimedia exhibit that both honors, and tries to make sense of, a cultural watershed.

Dennis Gunther graduated from Kent State University three years before Ohio National guardsmen open fired on protestors, killing four and wounding nine others.

But he was living in town when Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder died, and he lives with that legacy.

“I can’t go anywhere without saying I graduated from Kent State. And the first thing they want to talk about is the shootings,” Gunther says.

Today Gunther lives in Toledo. He came back for this weekend’s Kent State homecoming, and to reflect at the new May 4 Visitors’ Center. He feels some empathy for the guardsmen and the students protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War with the invasion of Cambodia.

“I think the guys that did this, didn’t want to do what happened. But it was just a very unfortunate thing and I don’t really know that you could say who’s to blame.”

His former classmate, Dick Hoyne, lived in Stow at the time and didn’t know what to think.

“Back then you joined the National Guard to get out of the service. They had no training, whatsoever. They were young and stressed out,” Hoyne says.

Taylor Hall is next to the field where the guardsmen fired. Its exhibit features three parts: social context, the shootings themselves, and reaction.

The social context section includes three period TV sets running a loop of pop culture and news footage: everything from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Smothers Brothers to Kate Smith’s “God Bless America.” On the walls are magazines, album covers and photographs that tell the stories of the Cold War, music and sports of the 1960s.

Thomas Grace is a history professor in Buffalo, but in 1970 he was one of the nine students wounded. He’s writing a book about the roots of Kent’s student political organizations throughout the 1960s.

“It’s often felt that the only place where these kind of activities were occurring was on the campuses that had more academic prestige than Kent. But that was not the case. Kent can seem to be home, in retrospect, to the long 60s every bit as much as a place like Berkeley or Columbia, even if it never achieved that level of notoriety, ” Grace says.

Grace says civil rights protests in the City of Kent by students starting in 1960 planted the seed that blossomed into campus anti-war protests by the end of the decade.

Two of his close friends, Jimmy Riggs and Marcella Hartzler, came to the preview from Wooster.

“We were here that day. We were running from the shots,” Hartzler says.

“We were here through all four days of demonstrations. The whole country was divided. There was a lot of polarization and alienation and the big generation gap,” Riggs says.

Hartzler says “I felt like I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Riggs says “We felt patriotic.”

“We as students did not do anything wrong,” Hartzler adds. “And if students today wouldn’t rise for such an occasion, I’d be shocked.”

The students in 1970 were protesting a war. Hilary Crisan, a journalism major who toured the Visitors’ Center with her father, hopes her fellow students might apply that spirit today.

“I feel like a lot of people that I’ve spoken to, at least, feel very differently about our government than what’s going on. But they’re not being vocal about it. So I think that they need to start being vocal, and I hope that this inspires them, and I’m glad that this is up,” Crisan says.

The second gallery is mostly a billboard-sized video screen running a documentary about the 13 seconds that helped change public consciousness of the war. It’s a somber room, which gives way to a corridor filled with the aftermath of the event.

English professor Judy Davis is director of the Visitors Center and says the third gallery will continue to grow.

“People can actually become part of writing the history of May 4 by stopping at one of two response stations and answering one of several questions about May 4,” Davis says.

“And their words will be displayed on a monitor for people to read over the ages. So that’s really a part of the recording of the history of May 4 and the impact that it’s had.”

Alan Canfora was shot in the wrist on May 4, 1970, and has remained a critic of what happened that day, and the investigations that followed.

As with most of the people who were there then and returned over the weekend, he says the galleries serve an important purpose well.

“I think the purpose of a visitor’s center is to create a historical context so people can understand what happened; the basic facts. So I think if any member of the public came through here, it would be a very emotional and educational experience.”

After the shootings, President Nixon appointed a commission that said some protests leading up to the shootings – including the burning of the ROTC building—were criminal and dangerous. But it also called the training, weapons and actions of the National Guard – quote – “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”

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