Kent alumnus wounded in Arizona shooting 40 years after witnessing May 4

Julie Sickel

Kent State alumnus Randy Gardner, 60, knows a thing or two about tragic coincidences. Gardner was a student at Kent State during the May 4 shootings. Now, 40 years later, he is a survivor to yet another massacre, this time in Tucson, Arizona.

On January 7, the night before the shootings, Gardner got an automated phone call informing him about Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ community appearance on Saturday. A therapist and mental health professional, Gardner decided to go see Giffords to thank her for supporting health care reform.

“It was something I was interested in going to because the Republicans had been talking heavily about reversing healthcare and trying to repeal that,” Gardner said. “She had voted for (health care) and I wanted to tell her to stand strong, that people were benefiting from it.”

Gardner said he had to mail a few things at the post office, so he went to the one near where Giffords was speaking.

“I looked and said, ‘if it’s not very crowded I’ll go over and say hello to her, tell her I appreciate her vote on (health care) and tell her not to take any steps back on this, that we need to stand strong. If anything we need to expand it.’ So that’s what I did,” Gardner said. “I stopped by and saw that there was hardly anybody there.”

After Giffords arrived, Gardner waited in a line of “maybe eight people” to speak with her. While in line, he spoke with Phyllis Schneck, 79, who was later killed by the shooter.

“I got involved with this 79-year-old woman who was there to talk to (Giffords) and say hello and maybe even give (Giffords) a couple pieces of her mind. You know everyone has one issue they wanted to say,” he said. “And she was Republican, but she had voted for (Giffords.) So I got talking with her, kind of debating issues and everything like that and, you know, that was that.”

When Jared Loughner, the man charged in the shootings, began firing, Gardner ducked for cover and ran through the parking lot where he retreated into a Walgreens.

Before escaping, Gardner had been shot through the right foot. He went to the hospital where he was released the next day.

The Arizona massacre was the second time Gardner had been in a deadly situation and escaped with his life.

On May 4, 1970, just before the Ohio National Guard fired shots, Gardner, then a freshman, stood in the Prentice parking lot, feet away from where Jeffrey Miller fell. He was facing Blanket Hill only a mere “150 feet or so” away from the National Guard when they began shooting.

“People just started moving once the popping (sounds) started,” Gardner said. “I started running and I just kept running. I could hear the bullets hitting the ground and hitting the rocks and whizzing past me. I heard some guy yell ‘Hit the dirt!’ and I dropped to the ground and a couple seconds later the shooting stopped.”

After the shootings, Gardner went to New York, where he stayed with friends and audited college classes. He later returned to Kent for a brief period before moving to Portland, Oregon and then Tucson in 2005.

In 1988, Gardner stopped in Kent while traveling across the country. He said he simply wanted to see the town and visit the campus where he went to school. Gardner’s trip brought back fond memories of college, but it also triggered sadness.

“It was a mixed feeling going back. There was a sadness because of what transpired there, but there were also a lot of good times (at Kent).”

Gardner is now semiretired after having devoted 35 years to the mental health profession. He expressed concern over the country’s current mental health system and the availability of firearms.

“In the end, I think we might’ve been able to help (Loughner). But you never know that. There’s always going to be these types of people, these lone wolves or whatever you want to call them, that will slip through the cracks,” Gardner said. “In a society where guns are so easily available, I mean, he stopped off at Walmart to get some ammo and with a 22 cent bullet he was able to do a lot of damage. He just did that on a Saturday morning, like it was no big deal. I mean it’s like buying ice cream.

(But) it’s something the country needs to look at.”

Contact Julie Sickel at [email protected].