Embracing the past

Dedication ceremony officially recognizes May 4 memorial location as part of the National Register of Historic Places

Oscar Ritchie Hall looks out to the east over the Commons and Blanket Hill. Today, there is a portable stage and tents for speakers and commemorative acts.

There are no demonstrations, no guardsmen and no gun smoke. A Frisbee, rather than tear gas canisters and hollow-point bullets, sails across the green.

Forty years ago the scene was much different.

The May 4 site was recognized by the National Register of Historic Places of the U.S. Department of the Interior yesterday through a ceremony attended by members of university administration and local legislation.

The addition to the national register came as the result of a 160-page proposal written by professors Laura Davis, Carole Barbato and Mark Seeman.

President Lester Lefton joined members of the Ohio Legislature and the Ohio Historic Preservation Office as a guest speaker.

“Years later, the university has decided to embrace May 4, respect the past, recognize what happened and try to put it in historical context,” Lefton said while crossing the Commons to a site on the new May 4 Historic Site Walking Tour.

The area stretching from what is now Oscar Ritchie Hall over Blanket Hill and beyond Taylor Hall to the Gym Annex was officially added to the historic register on Feb. 23, but plans for a ceremony were held off until a date closer to May 4.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony took place to mark the opening of the walking tour, a series of seven recently installed signs that highlight historical information,

context, photographs and maps regarding the May 4 incident.

The tour also features an audio guide narrated by Julian Bond, former chairman of the NAACP as well as a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the organization responsible for several sit-ins and freedom rides during the Civil Rights Movement.

Some speakers, including Ohio Sen. Tom Sawyer and Franco Ruffini, deputy state historic preservation officer, both fought back tears as they spoke. Ruffini requested a moment of silence and asked that people remember with “somber reverence.”

Some in attendance were appreciative to see the acknowledgement on the part of the country and university, but were vocal about 40 years being too many to have let passed.

Neal Kielar, a former student and member of the May 4 Task Force who was involved in a series of demonstrations protesting the location of the Gym Annex, came from Minneapolis to participate in and observe the commemorative activities. He returned to Kent unaware of the recent addition to the national register.

“I have mixed feelings about it,” Kielar said. “Forty years later doesn’t feel that satisfying to me. But the fact that they’re doing it, it’s some solace.

“It’s probably more politically palatable for them to do it now. They are looking at this now through the lens of history instead of immediate considerations, so it’s easier for them to do the right thing.”

Some of the reluctance on behalf of the university may be because of a desire to not only associate Kent State with May 4, 1970.

“May 4 doesn’t define Kent State,” Lefton said. “Rather, May 4 was the day in which the war in Vietnam changed because of the events that happened at Kent State. That’s an important distinction.”

Kent mayor Jerry Fiala also attended the ceremony and said actions such as these were beneficial to closing a divide between the university and the city that resulted from May 4.

“I’m a townie,” Fiala said. “I’ve lived here all my life. I lived here when it happened, and it was shocking to the community as a whole, not only the university but the town itself.

“What’s happened has made us stronger. There’s a saying, ‘Every cloud has a silver lining.’ It was dark in the 70s, but now the silver lining is coming out.”

For Florence Schroeder, the silver lining of May 4 came to her at the age of 90.

Her son, William “Bill” Schroeder, was one of the four students killed in the shooting 40 years ago.

“To me, it’s a closure for the entire event…” Schroeder said about the May 4 site being recognized on the national register.

Though she attended memorial and commemoration services every year for the first 25 years and sporadically since then, Schroeder said this might be the last time she comes.

Outside, under a clear blue sky, facing the field where her son was shot, Schroeder looked on as administrative officials gathered behind intertwined ribbons of Kent State blue and gold.

After taking scissors to the ribbons roping off one side of the field, Lefton walked over to Schroeder and placed the first pieces of them in her hands.

Family members and many of those wounded on May 4 lingered to talk to each other and snap photographs as some individuals wandered off to begin the tour.

Between pictures, Joseph Lewis, who was wounded in the shootings, explained why this event is still relevant after 40 years.

“First of all, so it never happens again anywhere,” Lewis said. “Secondly, in respect for the four students who were killed.”

Ruffini, who was a junior at Kent State, remembered the day with clarity.

He said he debated going to his anthropology class because of the protests happening that day. Finally, he decided to go.

After walking into the room, his professor counted heads and dismissed the entire class claiming that they were “an illegal assembly,” which fliers in dorm rooms earlier that day had defined as four or more students gathered together.

The importance of May 4 for some individuals lies in the impact it had on the entire nation.

“May 4, 1970 was an American tragedy and a challenge to the American

consciousness,” said Ohio House Rep. Kathleen Chandler (D-Kent), who attended yesterday’s dedication.

Ruffini, who said he took personal satisfaction in signing the proposal to add Kent State to the national register, tried to hold his composure as he explained why this addition was “a long time overdue.”

Though many would agree with Ruffini about how long it has taken to secure this recognition for the site, most locations aren’t even considered until 50 years have passed. Ruffin said Kent State is only one of three nationally recognized historic locations.

To Ruffini, the students who were killed that day played an important role in shaping the lives of Americans and the history of the nation.

“Their personal destinies intersected with our nation’s collective destiny and changed us forever,” Ruffini said.

Contact public affairs reporter Nick Baker at [email protected] and

honors and international affairs reporter Bethany English

at [email protected].