Wisconsin school debates uprooting May 4 memorial

Ben Wolford

New student center threatens trees honoring victims

Four crabapple trees stand at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire commemorating the Kent State students killed May 4, 1970. In 2003, one of them died and a new one was planted in its place (above). The university is considering taking them down to buil

Credit: DKS Editors

When four Kent State students were killed in 1970, a university in Wisconsin planted four trees to commemorate them.

But the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire will likely tear them down soon to build a new student center.

“There’s really no other option unless we start buying up city property, which I don’t see us being able to do,” said Marty Wood, UWEC English professor and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Wood is one of a group of faculty, alumni and staff who are working with university administrators to find a way to keep some sort of Kent State memorial on their campus.

As for selecting the site of the student center, no one has much of a choice. The campus is divided by a river, and it’s cramped by forested areas and a steep rock face.

“The building sites are limited, and this is a substantial building – 5,600 square feet,” said Mike Rindo, communications director for UWEC. “So we’re placing it in the green space that is currently behind the existing student center.”

The building won’t go on top of the four crabapple trees, Rindo said, but they’d be in the construction zone. They have to come down.

When they went up, it was May 8, 1970, four days after Ohio National Guardsmen shot 13 students at Kent State, killing four.

Students at then Wisconsin State University-Eau Claire had been holding peaceful anti-war demonstrations in the week leading up to May 4. When Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder died, Wisconsin students boycotted classes.

“I think anybody who was involved at that time, particularly in the anti-war movement, felt a connection to it,” said Dan Lyksett, of the (Eau Claire, Wisc.) Leader-Telegram, who began at UWEC in the fall of 1970. “The deaths were a national event.”

Students marched to the Federal Building in Eau Claire. They had protests and sit-ins, all peaceful, according to a report from the Leader-Telegram.

After that week of demonstrating, the students wanted to commemorate the Kent State shootings and the week of non-violent protest, so they planted the trees and placed a plaque among them, which read:

“These trees – symbols of life and peace – are planted this day, May 8, 1970, in memory of Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder, students at Kent State University in Ohio who were killed on May 4, 1970.”

“The people who established the memorial thought that trees would be suitable,” Wood said. “Because they picked flowering crabapples and because, in this part of the country, those tend to flower in early May, you could often sit there on May 4 surrounded by four crabapple trees in full blossom.”

But there’s another notable characteristic of flowering crabapples: Their lifespan is about 40 years.

In 2003, one of them died, and UWEC had a rededication ceremony and planted a replacement.

“Since then, though, it’s become obvious that the other three trees are dying,” Wood said.

So Wood and others began considering options to commemorate the Kent State shootings other than trees. They wanted something permanent. Now the university is forcing their hand with plans to build a new student center.

“Our original student center was built in 1959, and it’s had a couple major additions through the years,” Rindo said. “But it’s really reached the end of its useful life in terms of being able to serve the needs of a modern student body.”

So far, UWEC has been working with Wood and others who had been involved to decide what to do with the memorial.

There’s not a consensus yet, but the university and the alumni group seem to agree that trees might not be the best idea.

“I’m not going to be opposed to any kind of re-imagining of the Kent State memorial,” Wood said, “as long as the name ‘Kent State’ and the names of those four students and what their involvement was doesn’t just disappear from our campus.”

Contact news editor Ben Wolford at [email protected].