A university changed

Rachel Abbey

How the Kent State shootings affected students, faculty and community

The Students for a Democratic Society march past the ROTC building protesting the war in Vietnam in the spring of 1969.

Credit: Andrew popik

On May 4, 1970, Jerry M. Lewis was a young faculty member at Kent State University. A rally was going on outside, protesting the war in Vietnam and the recent invasion of Cambodia. Protest activities had gone on throughout the weekend, beginning May 1.

The politically active professor had helped begin an organization known as the Faculty Marshals shortly before to help diffuse tensions and protect students during times of potential controversy and conflict, like the day’s rally.

A student stopped by Lowry Hall, where Lewis was, and asked if he wanted to accompany her to the rally. Serving as a Faculty Marshal that day, he agreed and the two joined the crowd gathered by Taylor Hall.

A jeep filled with National Guardsmen drove by, warning the crowd to disperse. Before Lewis had a chance to move, the guardsmen advanced across the field, throwing tear gas into the crowd. Students picked up the canisters with bandannas, throwing them back. It was like a tennis match, Lewis said.

The crowd began to move. Near a clump of trees located where Centennial Court now exists, Lewis turned his attention to helping a student who had been tear gassed.

“I remember thinking, ‘At least no one got stuck, (bayoneted)’” Lewis said.

Moments later, the guardsmen opened fire. Lewis hit the ground and waited for the shots to stop.

“‘Those were blanks, weren’t they?’” Lewis said he heard a nearby student ask.

Lewis simply pointed to Sandy Scheuer’s body lying nearby and began convincing students to leave.

The shootings left four students dead and nine wounded.

Lewis recalled this story from his office at Kent State nearly 35 years after the fatal shootings. Memorabilia fills the room, with countless newspapers from May 5 piled on the bookshelves to framed comics commemorating the shootings side by side on the walls next to personal pictures.


The entire atmosphere of Kent State changed after that fateful day. The university closed, and students had to finish the semester by correspondence courses, Bill Ingham said. Ingham, a history teacher at Lakewood High School, was a student at Kent State during May 1970.

The following summer semester brought a sense of grief, anger and shock, Lewis said. Most students were seeing each other and sharing their stories for the first time since May. They had not had the chance to mourn, since the campus had closed within three hours that day. There was a sense of shock among the college population.

“These things don’t happen on college campuses,” Lewis said.

The night of the shootings, Ingham remembers watching Cleveland’s Channel 5 news broadcast and hearing the anchor tearfully call the shootings murder.

While Lewis said college students across the United States rallied behind Kent State in a nationwide student strike, public opinion was still greatly divided. Both Lewis and Ingham said they remember hearing people, even parents and teachers, who said the students deserved to be shot.

Community members were polarized after the shootings, said Chas Madonio, owner of Brimfield Insurance Agency. Madonio has been a Kent resident since before the shootings.

Everyone was divided with sympathy for the students or for the guardsman, Madonio said, much like today’s conservative-liberal split.

Ingham said the conservative backlash against Kent State made it more difficult for graduates of the university to find employment or to gain acceptance into a graduate school.

This notoriety was not unnoticed by the media. Lewis said the university could not do anything without the news media showing up, especially for student protests, which continued at a lesser level.

Even today he thinks Kent State attracts a lot of media attention for its political past.

“We’re probably the safest university in the world,” Lewis said. “If we had a major protest, we’d have to worry about tripping over television wires.”

Kent State also became much more cautious the summer after the shootings. Members of the FBI patrolled campus, keeping students from gathering. Ingham said if a student so much as stopped and lingered while crossing campus, he or she would be approached and asked to keep moving.

“Administration did the best thing,” emeritus sociology professor Thomas Lough said. “They did nothing.”

The university did not express support for or against either side, Lough said.

The city of Kent was also affected, Madonio said. A curfew was placed on the city, affecting everyone, not just students or minors.

“Almost overnight, Kent went from a very alive, bustling city to almost a ghost town,” Madonio said.


Lewis began teaching as a sociology professor for Kent State in 1966, and the political climate was hot then, he said. Anti-war activism was especially popular among students from ’67 through ’69, when Richard M. Nixon was elected president. During the height of tensions, around two or three protests were held each month, ranging from teach-ins with night-long speakers to mass rallies, he said.

One of the most politically active groups Lewis noted was the Students for Democratic Society.

Ingham said the political climate was filled with protests about the war in Vietnam and civil rights.

Lough said student protests were common at the time.

“We had protests every Monday by the Student Union,” he said.

One night in the winter of 1970, Ingham said he was out with friends and they returned to Dunbar Hall where a crowd had gathered around an SDS debate. Ingham said he and his friends asked questions without receiving solutions, so his interest in the group waned.

“I didn’t spend a lot of time getting fired up,” he said.

However, plenty of other students and faculty did.

Lough taught sociology at Kent State in 1970 and feels that the shootings were part of a conspiracy to silence student protests; he has written extensive papers on the subject. He was one of the Kent 25, the 25 students and faculty members indicted by a grand jury for criminal charges in early May 1970.

“Those were the days I didn’t flunk any male students,” Lough said. “I could be killing them.”

Lough was alluding to the fears of the draft rampant during the ’70s. Many of the protests concerned that particular topic. The protests in early May were in response to the invasion of Cambodia. Lough said the government used the announcement of the invasion hoping to spark student protests in order to put them down and stop the movement.

What happened in Kent State was supposed to happen at Yale University, Lough said, but the chief of police turned away the National Guard. Ohio Gov. James Rhodes’ support of Nixon and the strong SDS following made Kent State an attractive alternate location, he said.

Ingham said he remembers hearing about the National Guard being called in Saturday night.

“Something just hit me,” he said. “I just had this feeling something was going to happen, but I didn’t expect four kids to get killed.”


The city seems to have moved on, Madonio said, but it was a long process. While some people still have hard feelings, the shootings tend to come up in conversation only in early May.

“It will still spark a debate now and then,” Madonio said.

Other communities are still directly affected. To this day, the shootings at Kent State are studied by college administrators, Lewis said. By studying the past mistakes, they hope to avoid future possibilities.

However, without a draft, students seem much less likely to produce large-scale protests, Lewis said. That was an important issue in the ’60s and ’70s. The threat of being drafted, combined with the war in Vietnam’s length and rampant experimentation among many students with drugs and sex, led to an increased interest in political issues.

Student activism has decreased nationally, Lough said, not just at Kent State.

As an educator and a sociologist, what he called a student of society, it is important to study what happened both to see where the university comes from and where it is headed, Lewis said. The shootings changed the way much of the nation viewed the war in Vietnam, not to mention the cultural implications it had.

“What Kent State did for a lot of Americans is bring the war home,” Lewis said during a tour.

He often gives tours of the major sites from the activities and tragedies on May 4, 1970. He said it’s one of the things he can do for those four slain students. Describing the scene, Lewis places the students in his mind, picturing how far they were from the guardsmen’s guns.

“Don’t you think you’d be safe?” he asked.

Of the 71 guardsman, only 29 fired weapons, Lewis said, and about half of those shot into the air or ground.

“Just imagine what would have happened if they had all fired,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here.”

Contact academics reporter Rachel Abbey at [email protected].