‘I was there’

Meranda Watling

Student, professor reflect on May 4 tragedy

During the panel discussion “I Was There,” professor emeritus of sociology Jerry M. Lewis shared his experience of the events leading up to and on May 4, 1970.

Credit: Andrew popik

Hundreds of people saw and heard the guardsmen fire on May 4, 1970. The days and minutes leading up to and following those 13 seconds left an impression on each of them.

Thirty-five years later, two Kent State faculty members, one a student at the time and one a faculty marshal, remember the day — the moment — that both say changed them forever.

Chris McVay, an instructor in the Pan-African Studies and English departments, was an 18-year-old freshman opposed to the war in Vietnam when May 4 happened.

“Most young people by the late 1960s were against the war, and I was no exception,” she said. “On that monument in Washington there are 59,000 names of Americans who were killed in Vietnam.Everybody knew somebody who died, and then we all knew people who came back never the same.”

McVay had been involved in a few anti-war marches in Washington before May 4.

“I was here for everything, the whole weekend,” McVay said, “partly because it was exciting, and partly because I thought it was important to be there in the body count of the people who were opposed to war. But I was a big chicken. I was trying consciously to stay out of trouble.”

She found herself caught up in the mix all weekend. She was in the crowd as the ROTC building burned down and at the rally on Sunday, too.

“By that time the majority of students on this campus were really pissed. They were pissed that the guardsmen were here, that they were being as nasty as they were or as their officers were telling them to be. A lot of students by (Sunday night) wanted an opportunity to demonstrate their unhappiness with the way this was being handled.”

By noon on Monday a large crowd had gathered, but McVay said the guard “didn’t even give that rally a chance.” She was one of the many students tear-gassed at that point. Someone grabbed her and took her into Prentice Hall, where she washed her eyes.

“It looked like whatever confrontation happened while I was in the bathroom in Prentice was over and done with. It looked to me like there was nothing going on,” she said.

As the guard began to march away, McVay, who was in the corner of the Taylor Hall parking lot near Prentice Hall, started to walk across the lot toward friends on the other side. That was when the guards turned around and fired.

She was in the parking lot about six feet away from Allison Krause when it happened.

“Now, talk about naïve, protected little white girl. I — you look at the film of that, when the shooting started, and it’s like students just scatter. But I just stood there,” McVay said.

“I had no clue what they were doing. It didn’t sound like gunfire to me. But I’m standing there looking at them, and you could see puffs of smoke coming out of their guns, you could hear windows in the cars around me breaking, you could see bullets hitting the ground and puffs of dirt, but it didn’t register. I stood there like, ‘What the fuck are they doing? What is that?’ It sounded like far-away thunder to me. I just didn’t get it.”

After someone behind a car near her shouted at her to get down, she finally ducked for cover.

“I suddenly got very, very scared,” McVay said. “I thought they are going to march through this parking lot and shoot us all. And then the shooting stopped.”

Even when McVay stood up and saw Allison Krause bleeding, she said she still couldn’t believe that the guard had fired real bullets.

She wasn’t the only one who thought that. Jerry Lewis, emeritus professor of sociology, was outspoken about the war. He was on the faculty at Kent State and served as a faculty marshal on campus when May 4 unfolded. Lewis, who knew the bullets were real and had ducked behind a bush beside Prentice Hall when the firing began, said a lot of students thought the guard hadn’t fired real bullets.

He said he started yelling that they were real. Someone urged him to get on the mic, so for 15 or 20 minutes he stood there shouting.

Meanwhile, students had started to form into a crowd and head toward the area where the guard was congregating. Professor Glenn Frank stood between the students and the guard and shouted to the students to leave.

“There’s no doubt that Glenn saved lives that day,” Lewis said.

Thirty-five years later, Lewis said he still remembers that day like it was yesterday.

“When I stand where I was, and I was behind Sandy — I was in the line of fire. I have survivor’s guilt,” Lewis said.

McVay says the same.

“I’m always, always aware of the fact that Allison Krause was about as far away from me as you are now. If one guardsman’s gun had been a little more that way, it would have been me instead of her. And it was so random, the people who died. It was just, you k now, luck of the draw.”

Contact technology reporter Meranda Watling at [email protected].