John Flynn’s father called him May 4, 1970, he made his message clear: Stay away from Kent.
When John Flynn’s father called him May 4, 1970, he made his message clear: Stay away from Kent.
“He called me and told me students had been shot,” said Flynn, then a student at Mount Union College about 35 miles away in Alliance. “He told me, ‘I don’t want you coming home.’”
But as a curious college student, Flynn didn’t heed his father’s warning. He and a friend navigated side streets into Kent until they reached his father’s gas station — the only one open in Kent, which was servicing National Guard and law enforcement vehicles.
Flynn hopped out of his car to fill the tank, but a sheriff’s deputy came up to him and put a gun to his head.
“Yesterday, we came to dance,” the sheriff’s deputy told him. “Today, we came to kill.”
Flynn’s father burst out of the station and pointed his finger at his son, reiterating his warning from the day before: “I told you not to come home.”
That was all it took for Flynn to follow his father’s advice this time.
“I was scared to death looking down the barrel of a gun, and I said ‘I’m out of here,’” said Flynn, now an attorney in Kent. “I got in my car and immediately drove back to Mount Union College. My only thought was, ‘I’m a student, and they’re shooting students.’”
Five days earlier, the atmosphere in Kent was relatively normal for a Friday afternoon.
But that was before destruction in downtown Kent. Before the National Guard’s presence in Kent. Before the ROTC building on campus burned down. Before student protests on Main Street.
Before the 13 seconds of gunfire that left four students dead, nine wounded and a country asking “Why?”
Afternoon — Friday, May 1
Jean Jacobs, wife of family practice Dr. John C. Jacobs in Kent, remembers driving through town to pick up her children, Steve and Jan, from middle school.
“It was very quiet and not much traffic,” she said. In other words, it was a typical Friday afternoon. She had no premonition of the events that would unfold over the next four days — events that would change the history of Kent, a nondescript Midwest college town at the time.
The mood, however, was far from idyllic. The day before, President Richard Nixon had announced the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. The announcement fueled more discontent about the Vietnam War, especially among college students.
Cass Mayfield, owner of McKay Bricker Framing in Kent, commuted to Kent State from Cuyahoga Falls in 1970 and faced scorn from older adults for being a college student.
“There was a lot of hostility on both sides and a lot of friction,” said Mayfield, then a freshman art major. “It was very tense.”
And Kent wasn’t an exception.
Ohio State officials, with the authorization of Gov. James Rhodes, called the National Guard to campus the day before, April 30, to restore order after a destructive daytime demonstration, according to a timeline in the June 1970 edition of the Ohio State University Monthly magazine.
A few Ohio State students came up to Kent for a Friday afternoon rally on campus, former student Dennis Dyer recalls. They talked about the November 1969 march in Washington, D.C. called the Moratorium protesting the Vietnam War.
Still, it was a relatively calm rally. But Dyer heard rumors of an anti-war demonstration downtown that night.
Night — Friday, May 1
Dyer and his girlfriend decided to check out any action downtown, so they left Tri-Towers and took a bus downtown. They headed into a bar just before 10 p.m. and had a few drinks.
By 11 p.m., Dyer, his girlfriend and friends went outside on the nice spring night and watched as kids on motorcycles ripped up and down the street doing wheelies and showing off for the crowd.
“At this point, it was really a mix of hippies, partiers and anyone who happened to come on by,” said Dyer, who now lives in Ashland and works as counselor at a small agency.
Students started chanting anti-war messages. The crowd booed a passing police car, and Dyer said the chanting got louder. People set several small fires on North Water Street, which eventually became blocked by the crowd.
“Not everyone was really that political,” Dyer said. “Some were. Some weren’t.”
Someone called for the group to march to campus, so they marched to the intersection of Main and Water streets, where the police met them in a formed line.
At this point, Dyer said some of the students — but not all — began throwing bricks at storefront windows. Not liking the looks of the situation, Dyer cut up an alley and walked back to campus.
By the night’s end, 47 windows were smashed downtown, according to James Michener’s historical account “Kent State: What Happened and Why.”
That night, former student Craig Morgan received a call from Jerry Lewis, professor of sociology, asking for his help. Morgan, then a junior and senator for the Undergraduate Student Senate, had avoided the downtown disturbances because he was in the basement of a Presbyterian church making campaign posters for his bid to become director of the student government.
“He told me, ‘Did you hear what happened downtown?’” Morgan recalled. “He expressed concern that there was the potential for explosive demonstrations over the week.”
Lewis wanted Morgan’s help as a student peace marshal — a term that originated in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement for people who had the confidence to stand among the protesters and diffuse any violence.
Day — Saturday, May 2
The next day started peaceful again, as Morgan remembers. “I can’t recall much significance happening until that night,” he said.
But Jean Jacobs, who was born and raised in Kent, didn’t want to take any chances. She and her children stayed in as her husband, the town’s family physician, went to his office.
“It was disturbing. It was our town,” she said. “I hated to see the town destroyed — the riots and the fire.”
Forty years later, Jacobs still vividly remembers those turbulent days in 1970 and wonders whether the outcome could have been different had the weekend events not turned destructive.
“I was upset that (students) were doing what they were doing, but I really feel like people have a right to express themselves,” she said. “But it didn’t have to be in a destructive way. I wish they would have behaved themselves.”
Night — Saturday, May 2
The university sponsored special dances Saturday night in an attempt to quell any more disturbances. But students gathered in the commons to protest the war anyway.
A crowd demonstrating near the Victory Bell turned its attention to the ROTC building, a two-story wooden structure resembling World War II army barracks. For students, the ROTC building was an outward symbol of the Vietnam War on campus, a training ground for new soldiers.
Dyer and his girlfriend joined the protests and watched as people flung rocks across the field and advanced on the ROTC building. Jeffrey Miller, who was killed May 4, stood next to them at one point, looking nervous. Dyer tried to calm him: “I said ‘Don’t worry, Jeff. As long as we stick together, we’ll be all right.’”
But students had ignored a prominent Black United Students leader’s pleas for peace. If the crowd didn’t listen to him, Morgan knew his efforts as a student peace marshal weren’t going to succeed either. After several failed attempts, one flare thrown finally set the ROTC building ablaze.
“I can remember standing there looking out into the dark and watching those flames come out,” he said. “The ROTC building was engulfed.”
Acting as a faculty peace marshal, professor Jerry Lewis convinced students to leave the Commons. Most students went downtown, but a few students stayed and formed a bucket brigade from Prentice Hall — dousing a fire that had been set to an archery equipment shed and tree.
“We ended up saving the tree,” Lewis said. After walking students back to their residence halls, he went home.
Meanwhile, Kent Mayor Leroy Satrom requested National Guard troops. By the end of the night, sheriff’s deputies, state highway patrolmen, police and guardsmen had assembled on campus.
Morning — Sunday, May 3
Ohio Gov. James Rhodes visited Kent Sunday morning, and in a press conference vowed to use all law enforcement available to stymie what he called “Ohio’s problem” — campus demonstrations.
“…These people just move from one campus to another and terrorize a community. They’re worse than the brownshirts and the communist element and also the night riders and vigilantes.
“They’re the worst type of people we harbor in America. And I want to say that they’re not going to take over a campus. And the campus now is going to be part of the county and the state of Ohio.
“There’s no sanctuary for these people that burn buildings down of private citizens of businesses in the community, then run into a sanctuary. It’s over with in Ohio.”
Night — Sunday, May 3
By night, former student Bill Arthrell, who was later indicted along with Morgan on misdemeanor riot charges stemming from the May 4 protests, joined students protesting the military presence on campus. Helicopters circled campus overhead. Military jeeps manned every corner. And students had to show their IDs to pass certain points on campus.
More than a thousand people gathered by the arch on front campus and blockaded the corner of Lincoln and Main streets. They sang John Lennon’s Vietnam War-era anthem “Give Peace a Chance.”
“All we are saying is give peace a chance … All we are saying is give peace a chance…”
Soon, a student protester using a state patrolman’s megaphone told the crowd that if it stopped blocking traffic, Mayor Satrom and Kent State President Robert White would talk to everyone.
But as people drifted back on campus, Arthrell said the National Guard advanced on the crowd with their bayonets, drawing blood from a few. As students ran in panic, Arthrell approached a state patrolman and said, “The guards are betraying us!”
The patrolmen pointed at his billy club — a signal for Arthrell to run as fast as he could back to his Tri-Towers dorm room.
All the ingredients for a tragedy were in place. Anger and frustration on both sides. An unwillingness to back down. And beautiful spring weather suitable for more demonstrations.
By the next afternoon, Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Bill Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer lay dead on the ground.
Contact enterprise reporter Jackie Valley at [email protected]