Stories filled the air yesterday in Kent. They echoed over the grassy commons and Blanket Hill. They bounced off the walls of the Kiva. They got lost in the day’s steady breeze. They were all about the same thing— the events at Kent State on May 4, 1970.
Marcia Manwaring became a storyteller. Sitting alone under the pagoda outside Taylor Hall in a state of reflection, she narrated a coming-of-age tale.
“Anybody with grey hair was here that day, “ she said with a giggle.
That day was the day four Kent State students were shot dead while nine more were wounded by a volley of bullets. Subsequently, those students became martyrs of an era, a place in time marred by political and civil revolt.
“I was standing in that parking lot,” she said, pointing to the lot next to Prentice Hall. “Everybody was going to class. I was walking through the lot to get back to my dorm. I thought somebody would make an announcement about what was going on, so I hung around.”
Manwaring waited in that lot until she heard a little voice in her head telling her to “leave this place.”
“I had a few friends who lived in Prentice,” she said. “So I walked over to the door. As soon as I opened it, the shots went off.”
She said she lost her innocence that day, transforming from a naïve, obedient college student to a woman who didn’t trust authority ever again.
“I was just a girl who wanted to go to college,” she said. “But I became reactionary that day. “
Mike Nold, a fifth year fine arts major at Kent State, doesn’t have an experience like Manwaring’s, but he has a story, too.
This year was the first time Nold attended the events of May 4. He sat in the grass of Blanket Hill, aviator sunglasses shielding his eyes. When he spoke about what he saw happening around him, he took a few extra seconds to compose his thoughts, making sure they came out just right.
“It’s kind of upbeat and joyous,” he said. “It’s more like a celebration.”
He said he found his spot on the hill by walking behind two men who were talking about being on campus May 4, 1970 and listening to their conversation.
“That got my attention,” he said. “To hear the one guy’s testimony, sparked interest in this event for me.”
Tuesday morning in the Kiva, an audience of 100 listened to stories.
Chuck Ayers, Bob Carpenter, John Filo, Jan Leach and Mike Roberts sat on the Kiva’s stage and recounted their individual experiences of Kent State that day in history.
Ayers talked about roaming the campus with a camera on May 4, snapping photos of what he saw: guardsman taking to their knees and aiming rifles, students getting tear gassed, the exchange of stone throwing between the students and the National Guardsman.
Filo, who shot the Pulitzer-prize winning photo of Mary Vecchio, witnessed something different that day.
Fearing his rolls of film would be confiscated if he hung out in Kent, he said he got into his car after shooting pictures and started driving towards Ravenna.
“I saw the National Guard hanging from the telephone poles,” he said. “And I saw the wires being cut and hitting the ground.”
The entire crowd gasped when he revealed this information. Then silence filled the room.
“I just kept driving, all the way home to Pennsylvania,” he said. “I needed to be somewhere where I could trust my surroundings.”
Cher Neufer also became a storyteller Tuesday. She remembered being a student at the University of Akron and hearing about what happened at Kent State.
“I couldn’t believe it at first,” she said. “Then I flipped out. That was a moment when I hated the government.”
Neufer’s story led to a Socratic ending. She paralleled her college experiences protesting to what she perceives nowadays.
“Being a 60-year-old person, I talk with my friends about when we were students,” she said. “There were student protests and activism, but where is it now? It’s not as public. Are we more afraid of our government now?”
Then there is the story of the pacifist, Dean Baldino. He’s just a guy who lives in Stow, who never came to Kent for anything, except Tuesday, just to check it out, just because he said he saw some stuff in the local papers about what was going on.
“I don’t know if there is anything to be learned from these events,” he said. “It’s water under the bridge, man. Let’s remember it and go on our way.”
That’s the thing. An event like this is rooted in testimony, storytelling, recollection and revisionist narratives from the people who lived through or experienced in some way the calamity of that weekend in May 1970.
The stories are different — some serene, some impassioned, some still angry, some contemplative and reflective. But they all work to create an oral history, a collective memory. It’s like a puzzle, where the central image is created by the carefully crafted jigsaw pieces — the people’s stories.
Contact public affairs reporter Darren D’Altorio