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Kent State Beyond the Shootings: Journey of the Wounded Healer
Good morning. It is such a pleasure to be with you today in this beautiful, idyllic environment. This is my first time at Chautauqua, and I feel I have been transported to a magical place. It’s really great to see so many people interact with such respect for each other, even when we differ. And don’t you know, we need that more today than ever before.
I am deeply honored to have this opportunity to share my reflections on this week’s theme: “The Forgotten: History and Memory in the 21stCentury.”
It is also my deep pleasure to say thank you to the many Kent State alums, who are in the audience today. You warm my heart. You make me feel so proud. We have very special guests among us, including Tom Grace, John Cleary, Chic Canfora, Laura Davis and Mark Seaman. So, it is wonderful to be here to share the Kent State story in true Chautauqua spirit.
Meet Dean Kahler
The first thing I want to do is tell you about a friend of Kent State University named Dean Kahler. Dean is a senior citizen. Warm, funny. He laughs a lot. He has lived a life of consequence, and in Dean, you see no trace of bitterness. He radiates peace. In May 1970, Dean was a Kent State freshman. A six-foot-three, 190-pound athletic farm boy from East Canton, Ohio.
He was curious to see his first rally against the Vietnam War. To many on campus, the events leading up to May 4th did not seem like a major protest. Demonstrations broke out nationwide starting on May 1st, in reaction to the sudden American invasion of Cambodia. Other colleges and universities had bigger shows of dissent with more media coverage.
Kent State had two predominantly peaceful rallies. But there was vandalism in the city of Kent, and on May 2nd, the campus ROTC building was set on fire. Ohio Governor James Rhodes mobilized 850 members of the Ohio National Guard. The Governor was running for Senate that year, and the primary election was set for Tuesday, May 5. He vowed to restore law and order to Kent State, in his words, “by any means necessary."
Now tanks and armed members of the National Guard were rolling through the city of Kent and onto university grounds. This was new. This was disturbing.
Monday, May 4, 1970
Still, on Monday morning, May 4th, the core group of protesters numbered only around 500. There was tension. Rocks were thrown. Tear gas canisters were fired, picked up by protesters and thrown back. There was angry shouting.
Around noon, it was time to change classes, and more students came to the Commons. Perhaps 1,500 more. Some were curious to see what was happening. Many were merely passing by or going to lunch. Dean Kahler would remember thinking: I expected a bigger protest.
At 12:24 p.m., shots were fired.
Four students were killed. Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Lee Scheuer, and William Schroeder.
Dean was 300 feet from the National Guard – the full length of a football field. When he heard the rifle fire, Dean hit the ground. Lying prone, he was shot in the lower back. He was among nine wounded. Tom Grace fell nearby, hit in the foot. Alan Canfora went down, shot in the wrist. John Cleary, shot in the chest, and five more.
Faculty marshals pleaded with students to leave the Commons, and with the Guardsmen to cease fire. Without their intervention, it might have been worse.
Now, as a Boy Scout, Dean had learned first aid, and as a Kent State freshman, he was taking zoology. He knew a thing or two about spinal cord injuries. As he lay there, Dean knew he had walked his last steps.
How did that strapping freshman athlete—body damaged and life disrupted by a random bullet and a grievous wound—become the serene and peaceful man in our midst in 2018? I will come back to Dean's journey in a moment. In many ways, it mirrors the journey of Kent State University itself.
The Challenge of the Wound
Like the students we lost, Kent State suffered a terrible, indelible wound. Since 1970, we have seen every emotion on the spectrum, from rage and despair to perhaps unaccountable serenity.
Frankly, we have not always honored all those honest reactions. We have seen the impulse to erase history, to move on. We have seen the high price of remaining chained forever to one terrible minute. But now, we approach the 50th commemoration of the shootings in 2020. My community is setting out to seize the day, so to speak, to remember May 4, but also to move forward.
Kent State is the reluctant custodian of an indelible mark on the American landscape. The Commons at Kent State, and the Prentice Hall parking lot, are in that awful pantheon along with Dealey Plaza and the Lorraine Motel. Watts and Selma. And Jackson State, where two student protesters were killed just 11 days after the Kent State shootings.
We live with our wound. The question we ask today is: What do we do with it?
In prior times, we saw it mainly as the atrocity it was. A horror. Today, a new generation asks: Can our wound also be, somehow—a gift? What might the experience of May 4 equip us to accomplish?
We are not the first to contemplate the duality of wounds.
The Persian poet Rumi wrote about pain and sorrow. He said, "The wound is the place where the light enters you."
And the modern essayist Robert Bly tells us: “Wherever the wound appears in our psyches... that is precisely the place for which we will give our major gift to the community."
Any great university, of course, wants to deliver major gifts. Since I assumed the presidency of Kent State in 2014, I have thought deeply about this. I have devoted much of the power of my office to the stewardship of May 4, 1970 for this new century. It is a moment in history, yes, but it is also a call to action.
Today, I will share my thoughts about how the university I lead can use its history as a healing force. For ourselves and the world, we are called to assume the role of the wounded healer.
The presentations at Chautauqua this week remind us that we must all engage in the hard work of remembering.
Where Were You?
One way to begin is by considering our own individual relationships with history. When we gather to do that, to trade stories, we tend to start with one question. Where were you? For the Pearl Harbor bulletin? When JFK was killed? When Apollo 11 landed on the moon?
We have in our history a few seismic events … events recalled vividly by everyone alive at the time. We always ask: Where were you?
The trouble is, as time passes, there are fewer who can answer. Our incoming class of 2022 cannot answer the “Where were you?” question for 9/11. The attacks were 18 years ago next month. Most of our freshmen were not yet born.
Many of you in this room may remember where you were on May 4, 1970, but not all. The average American is 37 years old. The Kent State shootings occurred 48 years ago. So remembrance is vital.
I know where Iwas on May 4, 1970. I was a senior in college in North Carolina. I was keenly aware of Vietnam protests nationwide. I had an older brother destined for a low draft number. The night of the Kent State shootings we had a curfew on our campus. There was tension, anxiety and fear. I thought about those Kent State students, and realized, “That could have been me.”
A deep sadness washed over me about where we were going as a country. We had torn ourselves apart over Vietnam; lost Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King; had a divisive election in '68; invaded Cambodia, which ignited the May 1970 protests; and now this.
What happened at Kent State on May 4 sparked national outrage. Fresh protests shut down hundreds of campuses coast to coast. Public opinion turned against the invasion of Cambodia. Nixon staffer H.R. Haldeman would later say Kent State marked the beginning of the end not only of the Vietnam War, but of the Nixon presidency.
Kent State would stay closed for six weeks and has grappled with the shootings ever since. I could not have foreseen fate leading me to the presidency of Kent State University or that the upcoming 50th anniversary of the shootings would take place during my tenure.
This anniversary is more than a chance for a retrospective. It is an exceptional, maybe final, opportunity to connect original witnesses to a new generation. Think about it. On the 75thanniversary in 2045, there may be few remaining for whom May 4th, 1970 was a personal experience. I may have no more important mission as leader of Kent State University than getting this right.
To me, remembering is only partof the challenge. As the date recedes into history, as the event grows less vivid in our communal memory, we have to do more than ask: Where were you? We risk allowing May 4 to become one more dusty, abstract date in history, and we are determined to avoid that.
We have to keep it relevant. Make it mean more.Put our wound to work. So the task we have set for ourselves is to not only remember, but reflect, and renew.
Let's talk about the hard work of remembering.
All people and institutions have episodes in their past they might prefer to forget. For many years after 1970, that was how Kent State coped with its wound.
At first, of course, the community rallied to deal with the political, emotional, and logistical crises.
As I mentioned, the campus closed for six weeks after the shootings. The faculty stepped up in extraordinary fashion—holding classes in their homes, and at local libraries, to ensure the senior class could graduate, on time, in June.
Over the next few years, university leadership continued to struggle with the impact of the tragedy. The wound remained raw. The university was hurting on many sides, including financially. May 4 had become too difficult.
In early 1975, President Glenn Olds said it was time to end official commemorations. Perhaps everybody would forget May 4, but no one forgot—especially not the artists.
Only a few weeks after the shootings, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young released the powerful protest song, "Ohio." The refrain cut through America all that summer, and for years to come: “This summer I hear the drumming. Four dead in Ohio.”
That was us they sang about.
The shootings produced art in even more direct ways. In the crowd on the Commons on May 4 was a Kent State student named Chrissie Hynde. She dropped out soon after, moved to England, and founded the Pretenders. Hynde became one of the strongest rock-and-roll voices of her generation.
Also in the crowd was 20-year-old Mark Mothersbaugh. He soon formed the band Devo with his friends Jerry Casale and Bob Lewis, who were also there that tragic day.
Mark, Jerry, and Bob said Devo was their reaction to Kent State.
Jerry said, "We challenged illegitimate authority."
Devo had a string of Top 40 hits, pioneered music videos, and influenced countless other bands committed to social commentary. Jerry and Mark had 40-year creative careers. Mark is not only still working today as a musician, composer, author, and artist. He remains a friend of Kent State.
More music came. More writing, more books, more gestures of remembrance, more voices.
In 1975, when Kent State announced the end of official remembering, a self-organized group of students, alumni, citizens of Kent, and other activists formed the May 4 Task Force. They took over the job of remembering, of commemoration.
And then, in 1977, there was another effort to consign May 4 to the past. The university announced it would build an annex to its athletics facilities on the site where our students fell. Activists occupied the space with a Tent City. There were nearly 200 arrests. Strong opposition continued for almost two years, and actually continues to this day. It taught an important lesson in the power of proactive remembering.
Then, in the 1990s, official attitudes began to change. A courageous and forward-looking Kent State president, Carol Cartwright, finally opened the door to official acknowledgement. Under President Cartwright, a small but meaningful step was taken.
The four students killed—Allison, Sandy, Bill, and Jeff—fell in or near the Prentice Hall parking lot. Until the year 2000, you could park your car on the very spots where they lost their lives. Under President Cartwright, those spaces finally received the recognition lacking for so long. They are now marked off with illuminated pillars.
If President Cartwright cracked the door to official remembrance, her successor, Lester Lefton, opened it wide. In 2013, Kent State opened a visitor's center on the ground floor of Taylor Hall, the epicenter of the shootings. Dr. Lefton and his team worked hard to tell the story with down-the-middle objectivity. You can tour the exhibits, watch a powerful film – and then step outside into what was, on May 4, 1970, the line of fire.
President Cartwright made it all right to remember. President Lefton made it all right to memorialize. Today, I work to honor all the people affected and all their views and emotions, across the spectrum.
If Presidents Cartwright and Lefton flung the door open, my role is to turn the lights up and invite everyone across the threshold.
Here is one way we continue to keep that promise today. Every year, on the evening of May 3, we hold a candlelight vigil. Hundreds of marchers, their small flames bobbing in the dark, retrace the protesters' steps around campus. We end at midnight in the Prentice Hall parking lot. Our candles are set around the spaces where our students fell, and caring people keep silent watch until noon on May 4. Some marchers are alumni. A few wear the same clothes they wore on that fateful day. Some are students. Some, residents of Kent. And some of us are university officials. But few words are spoken, few introductions made. In the flickering darkness—in the weight of the moment—we all look the same. Together, we invest in remembering.
Much more has changed in the past four years. On May 4th this spring, we commemorated the designation of the 22 acres where the protests and shootings occurred as a National Historic Landmark. The Interior Department granted us that status after years of lobbying in Washington, thanks to the tenacity of members of our community like Laura Davis, Carol Barbato, Mark Seaman, Jerry Lewis and many others.
Dividends of Remembering
All this is the story of an institution facing up to the hard work of remembering. I think this hard work pays two dividends. Two insights I want to share.
First: remembering, however fiercely and conscientiously done, does not resolve all questions, nor calm all critics. Whatever you think you know about the Kent State shootings is likely incomplete. Nearly fifty years later, we still lack one authoritative narrative for the shootings. There are thousands of unique perspectives and voices, and they often conflict. We acknowledge all the shades of gray that color the narrative.
Some protestors were aggressive, shouting obscenities or throwing tear gas back at the National Guard. But our dead and wounded were not, by and large, subversive radicals. They were students first and foremost, exercising their First Amendment right to assemble and protest.
Sandy Scheuer was not even protesting. She was killed walking to her next class.
Bill Schroeder, an Eagle Scout and an ROTC student, was also killed on his way to class.
The National Guardsmen were not all eager to engage; many later professed, themselves, to be against the war in Vietnam.
We still do not know for sure who gave the order to open fire, or why those rifles had live ammunition.
And not everyone mourned our losses. Not all citizens; not all law enforcement.
During the shootings Laura Davis, at the time a freshman student, took shelter in a nearby building. When the campus closed she returned home, where Laura's father told her, “They should have shot them all.”
Laura replied, “Don’t you know that one of those people would have been me?”
Laura's father was far from alone. In the aftermath, a Portage County Ohio grand jury was convened. A special prosecutor, Seabury Ford, told them the Guardsmen “should have shot all the troublemakers.”
It is a messy narrative. But as conscientious stewards of the story, we cannot aspire to neat resolution. Because it is inconclusive, some of this remembering hurts, even now. Which brings me to my second insight: this wound has not healed.
I talk with victims and their families. Many continue to feel searing pain, and so does the university—a university that could not keep its students safe, and out of harm's way.
What I wish for them is healing, closure peace. I know we do not have the power to bestow it, but my presidency does have the power to honor their perspectives and acknowledge their loss.
So if we are to truly move forward together, there is limited solace, and limited power, in remembering. We must find another way. Travel another path. You will recall I talked about remembering, reflecting, and renewal. I believe we must embrace all three for Kent State to tread the ground between memorializing and forward motion.
When we reflect, we consider what the Kent State experience can mean for the current moment in American life.
One way to view the shootings is as a terrible product of missed signals and failed communication. That doubles as a fair description of the environment we find ourselves in today, where our leaders talk past each other. Our rhetoric is top-volume and polarized. Outrage is normal. Insults and mockery blow away civility and compromise.
As we learn to live with the wound of May 4, 1970, we at Kent State strive for different values. Values that Chautauqua in particular may recognize and appreciate.
The most tangible, institutional reflection of that goal is Kent State’s School of Peace and Conflict Studies. My university has learned much, in costly ways, about conflict management and resolution.
As a culture, we pay a high price today for practicing angry politics. If all we do is hunker down in bunkers alongside like-minded people, attacking the opposition, our divisions only grow.
So we reflect on what May 4 teaches us, and these are the lessons we try to pass on about the world at large.
We understand that dehumanizing others, particularly political foes or any cohort "not like us," is a slippery slope that can lead to tragedy. After all, it is easier to hate from a distance.
We have learned that violence never provides an answer. Violence never de-escalates tension. We have also learned how to be more thoughtful about managing crises that carry potential for violence – how to back away from the brink. Civility is the best foundation for human interaction.
The School of Peace and Conflict Studies bears in mind the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world: it's nonviolence or non-existence."
Kent State has another way to reflect on May 4 that is perhaps a little less tangible—but just as important and effective. We are a community that defends our First Amendment right to self-expression but also encourages people to share their voices respectfully. We attract students who want to find their purpose and use their voice to make a life of meaning.
We at Kent State feel called to play the role of convener—to broker conversations that are more civil, braver, and more productive. We are called to challenge conversations and practices, in or out of politics, that have a dehumanizing effect. We oppose rhetorical violence. But it is possible to do that without suppressing or demonizing opposing points of view.
In April of this year, just a few days before the shooting anniversary, there was an on-campus demonstration in support of Ohio’s open-carry gun laws. Second Amendment defenders came to campus with handguns in holsters and rifles slung casually across their backs. Given our history—our wound—you might predict tension, confrontation, raised voices. If so, you would be off base. The Kent State convening spirit was on full display that day.
There were bright and respectful students on both sides of the open-carry issue. For hours, they engaged the outside demonstrators. They listened as hard as they talked. Opposing points of view drove meaningful conversation.
The spirit of the discourse was perhaps not so different from what is done right here at Chautauqua.
On the grassy plaza at the center of campus, they shared space with other students playing games or drinking their Starbucks. The demonstrators stuck around until twilight. They told us afterwards they felt respected and appreciated. Perhaps they also felt surprised; it may not have been the reception they were expecting. Against many peoples' expectations, there was no rancor. No raised voices. That is the power of convening. That is reflecting on May 4 as well as remembering.
David Hassler is a Kent State professor and author who directs our Wick Poetry Center, which has a storefront here at Chautauqua. And David is here with us this morning. Some of David's poetry is inspired by the shootings. He tells us that clear voices are the best mechanism for real change, and he has helped give voice to feelings we have had trouble articulating.
Echoing the ancient poet Rumi, and Robert Bly, David Hassler says when we speak through the wound of May 4, in all its complex pain, we acquire unique power.
Face the wound, urges David. Understand it. Remember: one hallmark of trauma is silence. Victims of abuse can silence themselves.
But we have the capacity to heal each other, not only with strong voices, but through the quality of our listening.
Kent State has progressed from trying to forget the shootings to owning that horrific moment—and honoring the whole spectrum of emotions they inspire.
We can make art out of it, as David and others have done. In the Wick Poetry Center up on Bestor Plaza, you can visit the Traveling Stanzas interactive exhibit—and create poetry in response to each Chautauqua theme of the week.
You can share your poem on the spot—either digitally, through videos, or on postcards printed right there. As part of your reflection this morning, I would love for you to visit the Traveling Stanzas exhibit and share your thoughts.
We can make a healing force of the shootings in our history. We find power in the archetype of the wounded healer. And for an institution to function as a wounded healer is a great thing. A great gift to our community and the world.
After remembering and reflection comes renewal, but how do you get there?
Alan Canfora, shot in the wrist, had his lowest moment, not on that day, but years later—when he saw the justice system he grew up trusting would ultimately render little justice for him. Alan himself was charged with second-degree rioting. For years, he did not register to vote. But over time, Alan was coaxed back into the political process by others, including his dad and Arthur Krauss, the father of Alison Krauss, killed that day.
Today, Alan believes again. He looks at today's landscape, frayed and full of lost faith, and reminded me, "The system works if we make it work."
After all this time and all his pain, Alan believes again. Remembrance, reflection—renewal.
For any individual, or any institution that suffers a terrible loss, a philosophical question comes around, sooner or later. When the worst, most debilitating grief finally subsides, the question becomes: What will you do with this? You still have a life to live, changed though it may be. How will you make your trauma part of a productive life?
May 4, 2020 gives us a unique opportunity for renewal. A unique vantage point for looking backward and forward simultaneously. We hope the date will be an opportunity for renewal and not just on the Kent State campus. We are developing mobile museum installations to send across the country, for this is a moment for all to embrace. We will distribute teaching materials for middle and high schools. At Kent State itself, we are planning a teaching workshop, and a forum for diverse perspectives. No one, and no one's pain, will be forgotten. And we will bestow our Voices of Change awards on some exceptional people who affect positive and peaceful change in our world. Which is, after all, our ultimate aim.
If you have history with Kent State, I want to invite you back. If you do not have history with us, I think your affiliation with Chautauqua matters. Your commitment to civil discourse, exploring all sides of an issue in peaceful ways, aligns beautifully with Kent State’s values and goals. I think you, more than many people, may also appreciate our journey. You, too, are invited to come see how we honor the past and how we are building for the future.
So there is a good deal of renewal under way. Tom Grace, the student who almost lost his foot after the shooting, felt awkward and a bit resentful about being known mainly for getting shot.
"That,” he says, “is not an accomplishment."
But he is more at peace now. Tom's path to renewal comes with a focus on other achievements, in arenas beyond politics. He says he'd rather be known as a great teacher and scholar than a Kent State gunshot victim. But he knows he will always be the product of his experience. As will we all.
And finally, there is the story of Dean Kahler, friend of Kent State. The strapping freshman farm boy we left lying on the ground with a bullet in his lower back. Dean did not walk again. He had to get used to a wheelchair. His life plans changed. Yet he woke up in the hospital feeling grateful. He was thankful to be alive and to have a chance at a future.
Dean had some right to be consumed with anger. But as he says, "Hatred has a way of changing the dynamic. Of making things go in the wrong direction."
Dean went in a different direction. Even his rehabilitation—the challenge of exercising and staying in shape without working legs—was, he insists, a fun challenge. Dean finished his degree and pursued a life in politics. He was elected to public office, but made his biggest mark pushing for wheelchair-accessible public spaces across Ohio. When he went to a county courthouse and couldn't find a way inside, he called the officials he came to see to join him outside on the lawn. His advocacy led to accessibility ramps, which meant access to social services and voting places and many daily rituals most of us take for granted.
Today, Dean is retired, but people still come up and want to shake his hand. Dean told me, "In this country, with a little bit of effort, a little bit of work, you, too, can do something about the political environment."
Dean Kahler is a man renewed. That is the kind of energy, the kind of future, we aim to have for Kent State University itself.
We want noble, inspiring, productive things to arise at Kent State thanks to the wound of May 4, 1970.
The Wounded Healer
Yes, the country today suffers from broken politics and vast challenges, but we also have hope. In many ways, today's young people are even more likely than the Vietnam protest generation to fight for worthy causes, demand corporate responsibility, and seek change. At Kent State, we have young people who have joined the May 4thTask Force. And obviously, they weren’t even born in 1970. In some cases, not even their parents were born, but they’ve stepped up to this role.
Around the country, today's young activists are speaking their truth with confidence. In a time that cries out for engagement and change, they are unwilling to remain silent. They exercise their First Amendment rights. They are not out to shut down the American political process. They are out to register more young voters.
Alan Canfora admires that about the Parkland generation. He says he wishes his generation had done what these kids are doing in 2018. Alan said, "We gave up trying to make the system work for us. We didn't stay involved, and we should have."
What is happening today is inspiring. The youth revolution we anticipated in the 1960s may actually be happening now. Kent State will be there—calling on both the voices in our midst, and more powerful voices around the globe, to rise up and drive change.
Kent State itself intends to lead. That is our destiny: To emerge as the wounded healer. To use the wound at our core to help create a brighter future for the world.
Let me close with a question embedded in a poem that forms a challenge for us all. Especially those of us concerned, as we are today, with "the Forgotten"—being stewards of history, memories, stories.
The Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Oliverhas a poem called “The Summer Day,” in which she asks this beautiful question:
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
Kent State will not merely remember May 4, 1970, in an endless loop that never satisfies, the wound rubbed raw over and over again. We choose to remember, reflect, and renew.
We will remember vividly, but not live in the past; we will honor the emotions that forever resound around us, but be consumed no more by anger or grief; and we will raise our voices—using the lessons of 50 years to convene people, heal conflict, and create a more inclusive, more peaceful future.
If we do that, we and Kent State are transformed. That, then, is our plan for making our history forever meaningful, and to make the most of our “wild and precious lives.”
Having spent time here at Chautauqua this week, I see you share these values. You are perhaps uniquely attuned to what we seek to do at Kent State. Our 48-year journey goes on. I invite you to join us.