Tomorrow is May 4th. It’s the 49th anniversary of the Kent State shootings. I was a student at Kent State back then and this is a chapter from my book: “Doin The Cruise” Memories From a Lifetime in Radio and Rock n Roll about those very crazy times.
CHAPTER – THE KENT STATE SHOOTINGS
At home Jennifer was coming up on two years old, so she was walkin’ and squawkin’ all over the place. Surprisingly, I was balancing everything quite well. I was still going to school at Kent State, but my grades were suffering. I was passing but just barely. Things got so bad in fact that the Dean pulled me in at one point to talk and suggested I take some time off. Given my love affair with authority, I promptly dismissed his suggestion. I just wanted to plow through and get done.
Even though I was pretty much consumed with my own little bubble, the world around us was getting a little crazy. On April 30, 1970, US troops invaded Cambodia, and immediately, protests popped up all over the country. The next day was Friday, May 1, and I had to work until midnight at WGAR. As I was coming home after work there was a roadblock as I got to Kent, and the police were stopping cars and checking IDs. Apparently a bunch of kids went and smashed out some store windows at a protest in town. I wanted to see what was going on, but the cops at the checkpoint steered me out and around. I had no way to learn any more about it than what the police told me; it wasn’t like we had 24 news channels or anything like that. TV was pretty primal. We had the 11pm news and that was it.
We lived on the southeast side of Kent State, pretty far removed the northwest corner of town where everything was happening. On my way to work on Saturday afternoon I drove down to the area to see what happened the night before. There wasn’t any real destruction, although the merchants whose windows were busted would disagree.
Coming home from work however, atround 12:45am or so, there was another roadblock. Just a few hours before I pulled up the protesters had burned down the ROTC building up. Even though it apparently happened before I left work, it hadn’t come over the news wires so I had no clue. Still, the City of Kent was closed. I took me an hour to double back and circle around to get to my apartment complex. When I did get in to town I didn’t go home. I wanted to see what was happening so I went down to campus.
There had to be a thousand people sitting in the intersection of Route 59 & N. Lincoln Street, and another three or four thousand more people around it. Helicopters were overhead; the National Guard had been called in. It looked like a scene out of Apocalypse Now.
I saw all of this from the top of a hill on Hilltop Drive. I had pulled over and gotten out of my car and just stood there for fifteen or twenty minutes taking it all in. There was a handful of people around me, and we were all talking about what was going on and trying to process it all. Again, with no 24-hour news source I wouldn’t know more until the morning.
I had to be up early the next morning as Sundays were my early day at work. Getting out of town was so weird that day. The National Guard was everywhere. There were troop truck carriers and armed soldiers in uniform. This was a big deal! By the time I got to work the situation at Kent State was becoming a national story. Charlie Day was the news director at the station, and Dave Ellsworth was our news guy. Fun fact: Dave ended up in Chicago at WGN, but that’s another story. Charlie knew I lived in Kent, and there was a big rally slated for Sunday night so he asked me to nose around and investigate. Are you kidding me? An assignment? I was thrilled!
Oddly enough, by the time I got home around 4:30pm the police presence was still there but there were no roadblocks coming into town. When I told Lynn what was going on and what I was doing for the station she got nervous about me going down to campus. I didn’t see any harm. After all it’s not like it was a war or anything, just a bunch of kids protesting a war.
I had a WGAR identification card that had our parent company Nationwide Broadcasting’s name on it as well, so I took that and my Kent State student ID with me. By the time I got there the National Guard had already moved in to break things up. They were fully geared up too with guns, gas masks, and the whole nine yards.
I didn’t take the seriousness of what was going on nor did I figure anyone would take me for anything other than what I was, a member of the media coming to watch when all of a sudden – THWACK! A soldier smokes me. He didn’t shoot me but whacked me with the butt of his rifle and knocked my ass to the ground. I identified myself as press, but he didn’t give a shit. He held his rifle ready to whack me again and told me to leave. While I never a big one for authority I didn’t want to get beaten down, so I left.
I hopped in my car and hauled ass home and sure enough Lynn freaked out the minute I walked in the door. She was already scared, and this confirmed her worries. She didn’t want me going back, and I assure you, I wasn’t! I called the station and told Charlie what happened. He recorded the call and then used my report on the air. Everything considered, that was pretty damn exciting! I tuned in and listed to my report on the air thinking how cool is this? Imagine that though, thousands of people are listening for the news of this huge political movement going on right in our little corner of the world, and I’m listening because I want to hear my voice the air.
By Monday morning there were hundreds of armed soldiers, and they were everywhere. This didn’t look like Kent at all; it was like we were living in an occupied territory or something. Lynn had a dentist appointment, so just after noon we put Jennifer in the carseat in the back and left the house. As we were driving a cop and two ambulances went flying past us in the other direction heading towards campus. I had a gut feeling it had to do with what was going on, so I pulled a U turn and followed them.
As I pulled up near the architecture building it was absolute chaos. People were running everywhere. No particular direction, just running. I parked the car in an empty lot and told Lynn to lock the doors and stay in the car. I went around the building and saw a kid getting loaded into an ambulance. I lock eyes with some kid running towards me, and he must have seen the look of confusion on my face because he just started yelling at me “They shot him! They shot him!”
I didn’t even know who shot who; I just knew that someone got shot and we had to get out of there so I ran back to the car. I hauled ass back to the apartment to call Charlie Day. I can’t even imagine what he heard as I was rambling and talking all over the place. I mean, it wasn’t like I had any details or anything. He yells in to the phone to get me to shut up. When I do he tells me I have to get it together so they can use me on the air. So I tell him again, a little more calmly what was happening. Once we got done he told me that Dave Ellsworth is on his way to campus and for me to meet him there.
If you weren’t around at the time of the Kent State shootings you have to realize the magnitude of this event. I mean this was a shot fired not only at a person but into a whole subculture. The Vietnam War was a huge dividing line in the nation, and this brought that war home! Right in our own backyard!
Much to Lynn’s dismay I went back to campus to find Dave. It was a much different scene that it had been just an hour ago. When I left it was bedlam, but when I got back, it was a ghost town. The only people there were the National Guard and some press. There were still some people but not many.
Altogether sixty-seven shots were fired by the National Guardsmen in thirteen seconds, killing four students and wounding nine. As we learned details I found out I knew one of the kids who was killed, Sandy Scheuer. I learned much later she wasn’t even part of the protests. She was walking between classes with a friend when she was shot through the neck with an M-1 rifle from about 130 yards away. The bullet had severed her jugular vein, and she bled out within five or six minutes. She never even had a chance.
By that point the press had descended on the Kent State campus. NBC national was there as were all of the local TV stations. Dave and I were talking to everyone we could find, students and teachers, who were there when the shots were fired. We worked together as a team, but I led the way since I knew the campus. Walking around knowing what just happened and reporting on it was such a surreal moment. Ironically even though I very much felt the rush of the moment, I never felt that I was in danger.
As I truly got my brain around the scope of it all, I got angry. Even when I was talking with Charlie, my emotions started to take over my objectivity, and he had to calm me down again so I could go on the air.
Around 4:30pm or 5pm Dave and I were sitting with some other press people in the campus cafeteria, and I was having a hard time keeping my emotions in check so I just kept talking. Loudly. I couldn’t believe they shot the students. I mean seriously, what the fuck! There were Guardsmen around, but I didn’t care. Dave had to calm me down so we didn’t get kicked out. Had it not been that I had a job to do and had a responsibility to it, I was so angry I might have stirred some shit up myself. But I didn’t. Still, as the hours passed I found myself getting angrier and angrier.
Personally I was against the war but hadn’t been that vocal about it. I don’t know if it was the Guardsman whacking me with his rifle, the shooting of the kids, or the fact that I actually knew one of the girls who was killed. Maybe it was all of those things put together, but that was enough to put me over the top. I mean these were students in a free
society peacefully protesting a war 8,000 miles away. My generation had the balls to stand up and say something against it, and they shot us for it? Those four days really radicalized me into being vocal with my thoughts and opinions about the war. That whole situation pushed me much more to the left in my political stances that I still hold even today. I’m more conservative now than I was then—that seems to come with age—but I’m still more liberal than you might think a guy my age would be.
I’ve seen a lot of things in my career and have been in some crazy situations, but nothing will ever compare to that. Not just the shootings but the whole experience. It wasn’t like we were at Berkley or Columbia where there was a hot bed of dissent. I mean, this was Kent State. We were in Ohio, for God’s sake. To this day it boggles my mind not only how it all unfolded but that I was there.