Constable: 50 years after Kent State shootings, 4 dead, a nation changed
As one of thousands of Kent State University students protesting the Vietnam War and President Richard Nixon's decision to expand the bloody campaign into Cambodia 50 years ago, freshman Dean Kahler had no way to know he was about to be part of a watershed moment for a conflicted nation that would change his life forever. He only knew any suggestion that the Ohio National Guard was there to protect students had vanished.
Fenced in on three sides in the practice football field, with tear gas in the air and some protesters throwing stones, several National Guardsmen huddled up, and then they all marched with their rifles and bayonets through the students and to the top of Blanket Hill.
"When they reached the top of the hill, I saw them turn in unison. I said, 'They're going to shoot!'" remembers Kahler. At nearly 6 feet, 4 inches with red hair, the 20-year-old figured he'd be a conspicuous target running across the parking lot, so he dropped to the ground.
"All of a sudden, I heard bullets hitting the ground around me. Why are they shooting at me?" he remembers thinking right before one of the more than five dozen bullets fired in 13 seconds hit him in the back.
"It felt like a bee sting." Kahler says. But as a Boy Scout who had done serious first-aid training, including treating bullet wounds, Kahler knew.
"My legs got real tight, then they relaxed, just like a frog that had been pithed in zoology class," Kahler says. "I knew I was paralyzed when I was lying on the ground."
A few blocks off campus, students Rob Ross and his girlfriend, Susan Burd, taking advantage of the sunny and pleasant Monday, May 4, 1970, were eating lunch on the porch of his Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity when they were interrupted.
"A girl came running down the street with a blood-drenched bandanna yelling, 'They are killing the students!'" remembers Ross, who later married Burd and lives in Lake Forest. The day before, the couple had been photographed visiting the torched Army Reserve Officer Training Corps building, which had been destroyed after firefighters' hoses were cut. In the background were National Guardsmen holding the same M1 rifles used by their peers in the Vietnam War.
"Almost every week, you heard something shocking, and half was true and half was not, so we didn't know whether to believe her or not," Ross says of the running girl's warning. They went inside to hear the news on the radio.
"Four dead in Ohio" dominated the broadcasts and led Neil Young to write the "Ohio" song performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Jeffrey Miller, a 20-year old sophomore from Long Island, New York, died after being shot in the mouth while standing in an access road leading into the Prentice Hall parking lot. Allison Krause, a 19-year-old freshman honor student from Pittsburgh, died in that parking lot when she was shot in the chest, as did Ohio sophomore Williams Schroeder, 19, who was shot in the back. Walking through that parking lot on her way to a midterm exam, Sandra Scheuer, a 20-year-old junior from Youngstown, Ohio, died when a bullet ripped through her neck.
The shootings and deaths became a pivotal moment for a United States rapidly turning against Nixon and our involvement in the Vietnam War. Nixon had been very critical of anti-war protesters and insisted that the "silent majority" supported him.
In the wake of the shootings, Kent State closed immediately and sent students home until summer, but protests escalated on other campuses. Eleven days after Kent State, two students were killed and 12 were injured after police fired during a protest at Jackson State College in Mississippi.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where protesters had firebombed an ROTC lounge on campus in March, saw an outbreak of protests, violence and arrests. Protesters at Northern Illinois University set vehicles on fire. Students and the Illinois National Guard clashed at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Protesters at the College of DuPage dug symbolic graves for the four killed at Kent State. Many colleges closed, ending the term early.
The Kent State site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010 and a sculpture commemorates the event, as well as markers showing where the four students died. In the raw aftermath of those deaths, the school didn't host ceremonies marking the anniversary of the tragedy, but students would gather about 11 p.m. every May 3 for a candlelight vigil into May 4 at the site where the four students were killed.
"Everybody on campus went. We thought it was our duty," remembers Ginny Wagner, 66, a 1975 Kent State graduate who lives in Lake Zurich and works as vice president and director of marketing for Itasca Bank & Trust Co. Wagner was thinking of going with her college roommate to the 50th-anniversary commemoration until COVID-19 canceled that ceremony. Instead, the programs are running Friday through Monday online at kent.edu/may4kentstate50.
Though she started college a year after the shootings, "we still felt an alliance with the other students and the ones whose lives were snuffed out. It was very moving," Wagner says. So was the presence of Kahler, making his way around campus in his wheelchair.
Wagner recalls her fellow student not as an angry force but as someone who brought understanding to the situation.
"It all boils down to the fact that I almost died. I'm just thankful to be alive," Kahler says today. "I remember lying in the ambulance and looking out the window and wondering if that would be the last time I'd see daylight."
The gunshot shattered three thoracic vertebrae -- numbers 9, 10 and 11 -- in the middle of his back, rendering him paralyzed from the navel down. Doctors broke three ribs to perform surgery and removed a damaged lobe in his left lung. The bullet and fragments still show up on X-rays a half-century later.
Growing up on a farm outside East Canton, Ohio, Kahler attended the Church of the Brethren, the Elgin-based "peace church" that included many of his relatives as pastors. "I was a conscientious objector when I was shot," Kahler says. He had completed his physical and would have been assigned stateside to work at a youth prison or as a hospital aide if he had drawn a lower draft number.
For his 20th birthday on May 1, he had dinner with his mom, Elaine, and his dad, who went by Richard or Dick, and met friends from church for a bonfire. Heading back to campus that Sunday, he and his parents saw police, Guardsmen and helicopters.
Kahler's father, a World War II veteran, told Kahler the National Guardsmen were there to protect the students.
"I remember running back to my dormitory. I got cleaned up and got the tear gas off me," Kahler says. That night, he listened to the band Chicago's silver album. Other students put speakers in dorm windows and blasted music. "It sounded like you were at Woodstock," he remembers, as anticipation for Monday's protest swelled.
That day, "I called all my morning classes and said, 'I won't be coming to class,'" Kahler said. He left his Room 413 in the 10-story Wright Hall to walk to the protest with thousands of others.
Kahler's dad would be forever haunted by a tragic irony.
"I would be shot by the same weapon he carried in World War II," Kahler says, his voice choking at the memory of his father's emotions. "Same weapon he used to protect the world from tyranny. He took that to his grave."
When Kahler started waking up in the hospital after being in an induced coma for five days, he heard the "whooshing, clicking, clacking" of the machines keeping him alive. "My chest tubes would vibrate" when the machine sucked fluid out of his lungs, he says. As soon as he was able to talk, Kahler was visited by an FBI agent.
Instead of asking about the shooting, the agent drilled Kahler about his activities on campus and how he became part of the protest. When Kahler insisted on having a lawyer with him, his parents called friend Harry Schmuck, a legendary defense attorney in Ohio, and that put an end to the FBI's interest in Kahler.
He spent 21 days in Robinson Memorial Hospital, followed by rehab at Highland University Hospital in Cleveland, getting accustomed to life in a wheelchair. He benefitted from "strong family, strong faith, a cadre of friends, and the community support of a small town and Kent State," Kahler says. "You talk about love and compassion shown to me, I was overwhelmed by it many times."
He testified about the National Guards' "deliberate act" before a grand jury that indicted eight Guardsmen.
"I wanted justice, but I didn't feel victimized. I felt lucky to be alive," Kahler says.
The shooters were acquitted after their attorneys argued they were outnumbered and feared for their lives. The state paid settlements to the survivors and wounded. The Report of the President's Commission on Campus Unrest concluded the shootings were "unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable."
Officials tried to steer Kahler to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and other colleges that recently had built handicapped-accessible dorms and classrooms. But Kahler wanted to get his Kent State education.
In 1969, Kent State had started a program to recruit students with disabilities, "and I wanted to be part of that," Kahler says. He returned to school in January 1971 and graduated in 1977.
After college, he did well on the civil service exam and landed a job with the Ohio Industrial Commission's division of safety and hygiene. Driving his modified Dodge Dart Swinger, Kahler traveled southeast Ohio, pulling his wheelchair from the back seat for meetings with officials.
Later, he worked for the secretary of state, leading the effort to make polling places more accessible.
An avid wheelchair basketball player with the Cleveland Comets and a racer, Kahler competed in national tournaments and track meets. About 15 years ago, he had his legs amputated below the knee because of vascular damage.
At age 65, he competed in 60 races, from 5Ks to half-marathons. He's finished two marathons.
"I'm a road runner," says Kahler, who lives about 30 miles south of campus in Canton and turned 70 on Friday.
After selecting Kahler to give Kent State University's commencement speech on Saturday, the school had to cancel those plans due to COVID-19. Kahler would have urged graduates to be a part of our republic and educate themselves about issues and candidates.
"If you're not involved in your democratic process, you're not involved as a true citizen. To avoid tyrants, you need to exercise your right to vote," he says. "After 50 years, a lot of things have changed, and a lot of things have stayed the same. One of the those things is the power of authority."
Another thing that has stayed the same is Kahler's half-century of love and support for Kent State University. As he says, "I really only had one bad day at Kent State University."