I love that there is a special day now devoted to Star Wars geekery, not that Star Wars needs any help with its popularity or legacy. Still, it is a nice sort of nerd touchstone, a way for those of us who have always been sort of inward with regards to our passions to celebrate what we love and who we are. Conventions cover much of the same ground, even becoming big local and national events, but a day, Star Wars Day, almost feels like a holiday. Unfortunately, for me and I’m sure for many of my age and older, May the fourth isn’t a pithy play on words, reminding me of joy and jedi. It is a reminder of terrible events that occurred in my relative back yard when I was growing up.
In 1970, Kent State University wasn’t anything special. It was just a sixty year old institution, experiencing like so many state schools a huge influx after World War II. Many of the children of those vets were at Kent State in 1970. I might have visited Kent a dozen times, between my sister being an alum and some friends attending school there, and it was nice enough, but nothing particularly noteworthy or impressive, except for one thing: May 4th.
Like so many colleges and universities at the time, Kent was host to it’s own share of protests and demonstrations, especially surrounding the US involvement in Vietnam. In 1970, the promise of the war being ended was a fantasy, and even appeared to be a downright lie when the news arrived that the US had begun an incursion into Cambodia. That was the major reason so many students and young people converged on Kent State in early May, just like many universities all across the United States.
Kent may or may not have been more violent from May 1 until May 3rd, I don’t know if there is anyway to measure that. I heard from faculty and alumni of Ohio University that things were pretty crazy in Athens, Ohio and of course I can’t imagine President Nixon’s April 30th announcement was greeted with passive actions in Berkeley and New York. Unlike those places, places that had been in the national spot light for the better part of a decade regarding protests of one stripe or another, Kent wasn’t anywhere special, just another college town.
Until it wasn’t. May 4th changed all of that. I won’t go into all of the details except for these: four dead, nine wounded. In the middle of nowhere Ohio, protesters were killed and wounded. This wasn’t the kind of thing that happened in bucolic Ohio, hell it didn’t really happen in the United States, or so people liked to believe. For so many people, not just in Ohio, this was the event that brought the war, the protests, hell, the 1960s home. If this kind of thing could happen at Kent, it could happen anywhere.
The immediate aftermath was the closing of hundreds of universities and schools across the country. There wasn’t going to be another incident. Final exams were canceled. Having been in higher education for most of my adult life, an event having the impact to close a school and cancel exams is hard to imagine happening, but it did in May of 1970. Not just in Kent, not just in Ohio, but across the country. It is hard to fathom.
The long term effects? I’m a little more familiar with those. In my high school, at least three teachers were at Kent State when it happened, one was even nearby. One of my seventh grade teachers was also there. I’m sure all around Northeastern Ohio, there were teachers and professors who were at Kent that day. I don’t know if my classmates felt the same, but I always was aware, especially come May, of those who had been at Kent that day.
When I went to college, Ohio University, or better stated Athens Ohio, commemorated May 4th, largely because one of the wounded, Dean Kahler, was an Athens councilman. He would roll up on his wheelchair and share his experience from that day. He would often say that he was lucky not to be Kent State #5. It was easy to think was overdoing it, a bitter man not being able to let go. But I couldn’t, still can’t imagine, how I would deal with becoming a paraplegic. I’ve long since decided that he was doing the best he could and if that meant letting out the bitterness every May 4th, then so be it.
As the years have passed, especially since seeing Mr. Kahler, Kent State isn’t quite in the forefront of what I think when I hear the date, but it’s never too far away. May the fourth be with you. It most certainly is with me.