KSU lives, learns after May 4, 1970

Melissa Dilley

Students, faculty and community members lit candles and walked the campus last night in remembrance of the events of May 4, 1970. The silent vigil walk began at the Victory Bell and ended at the sites of the deaths of the four students. Someone will be st

Credit: DKS Editors

When four students were shot and nine were wounded by the National Guard on May 4, 1970, most students were shocked and in a daze. Although five weeks were left in the spring quarter, class was the furthest thing from many students’ minds.

The university was ordered to shut down and all students were evacuated onto buses traveling to all major cities as far as Pennsylvania. It seemed, at the time, a possibility that those students would never return to Kent State again.

No trespassing

Dates and times to clean out dormitories were set and a letter was sent to students telling them to keep library books until further notice and that paychecks would be mailed to those who worked on campus.

Students who needed information on anything else were told to call a number at the bottom of the letter for updates about the campus.

Students weren’t pleased when they dialed the number to find an automated recording telling them the campus was closed until further notice.

The letters began piling into a P.O. Box address in Ravenna. Most letters were from students who wrote about their disappointment in leadership of both the university and in the country. Most said they wanted to come back to Kent State.

Professor Emeritus Tom Hensley said students just wanted to know what was going on.

“There was an overwhelming response,” he said. “Students wanted credit – they paid the money, and grade-wise, for better or worst, it was going to be the easiest semester they ever had.”

A week after the shootings, professors were allowed back on campus between 8 am. and 5 p.m. and the following week, graduate assistants were permitted on campus.

Students were allowed on campus as well, but they had to leave immediately after clearing out their dormitories.

Solitary Grieving

After the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, students and parents met at the campus to hold a candlelight vigil mourning the students killed earlier that day.

Kent State students had a very different experience when students were shot on May 4, 1970.

Professor Carole Barbato, then a junior, said instead of coming together, students were more divided than ever.

“We were yanked out of college to go off and kind of heal ourselves,” she said. “We were going to places where no one knew what you were going through except other Kent State students.”

At the time, officials thought it would be best for everyone to be away from Kent and let tensions die down, but professor Laura Davis, a freshman at the time, said being apart only made the situation worse “I was desperate to get back to Kent State,” she said. “It was the worst thing psychologically, and in a healing way, they could have done for the students.”

Because students had no outlet for grieving, professors took it upon themselves to help the students any way they could.

Professors wrote letters to their students asking them to write back and express how they were feeling. Some professors even took the time to handwrite an apology on each of the copies for not being more personal.

Professor Emeritus Jerry M. Lewis said after May 4, most professors began focusing more on their students, instead of spending time on studies.

“Everyone was always concerned about their research, but after May 4, I think we realized we should stop and smell the roses a little bit more,” he said. “I did continue my research, but it was focused on May 4, and I made the extra effort to be supportive of my students and really reach out.”

Hensley, who wasn’t on campus at the time of the shootings, said thinking about what he could have done more that day has affected his teaching ever since.

“I can’t help but think I could have done something differently,” he said.

Getting together

On May 9, Louis K. Harris, then the vice president and provost, sent a letter addressed to the deans of all departments letting them know they should try to organize classes outside of the university.

This meant professors would have to contact students and hope they could make arrangements.

Today, contacting 200 students can be achieved by the click of a mouse, but in 1970, each letter had to be typed, folded and stuffed into an envelope addressed by hand.

Lewis said although the administration may have provided phone numbers, faculty provided the atmosphere and the opportunity for students to continue learning.

“The faculty was set on saving the university, and a lot of people were betting we couldn’t do it,” he said. “We were determined to maintain academic integrity.”

Lewis said not only were the professors ensuring students received credit for the spring quarter, students set to graduate in June were a top priority.

In a letter written May 11, 1970 by professor Bruce Harkness to the faculty, he wrote:

“Dennis Carey, a grad student working in my office, has received between 1,500 and 2,000 letters and phone calls from students pledging support for KSU and stating a desire to resume study in a peaceful academic atmosphere.”

With the university closed, professors began holding classes in living rooms, back yards and churches in an effort to finish the quarter successfully.

Letters to students from 10 professors, including Lewis, can be found in the university’s archives. The letters informed the students when they could get together to finish final classes.

Lewis finished his collective behavior class at the Newman Center Parish on campus.

Barbato said she remembers giving speeches in her Introduction to Human Communications class at a professor’s house in Twin Lakes.

She said having classes with fellow students helped her to heal.

“I really appreciated the fact that when they did hold classes at their homes you could see and talk to your fellow classmates about what happened,” Barbato said.

Other professors didn’t hold lectures, but instead went the extra mile, literally.

Glenn Frank, then a geology professor, traveled to his students.

In the manuscripts of “Anatomy of a Tragedy” a book he was writing before his death in 1993, he wrote that he had 287 students and he traveled to where 90 percent of them could be located within a 50-mile radius.

Frank traveled to nearby Brecksville, Dayton and Toledo, but also went as far as Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey and New York.

Lewis said he believes it’s because of the tenacity of the professors and students who were determined to continue their education.

“If I were to write the headline of this story, it would say ‘Faculty and students saved Kent State University,'” he said.

Contact student politics reporter Melissa Dilley at [email protected].