Healing after a tragedy

Bryan Wroten

On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guard troops fired on a crowd of demonstrators and bystanders on the campus of Kent State University. Four Kent State students were killed and nine injured. For Dean Kahler, a twenty-year old Kent State undergraduate in 1970,

Credit: DKS Editors

Editor’s note: This narrative focuses on what happened to Dean Kahler before and after he was shot on May 4, 1970 and his healing process. Of the nine wounded students, Kahler arguably lost the most, but he doesn’t see his life as a loss.

May 4, 1970

Dean Kahler woke up that sunny Monday morning and decided not to go to his 7:45 a.m. class. He saw Ohio National Guard searching people and decided he didn’t want to deal with that hassle. He called his professors to let them know he wouldn’t be attending class.

“Be safe,” they told him. “Don’t get too close.”

He left his dorm at 11:30 to go to the Commons, where the noon protest would be. A crowd of about 1,000 people was already there. The Ohio National Guard stood on the north end of the Commons; protesters had massed at the bottom of the hill near the Victory Bell and spectators ringed the field along the sidewalks. Kahler walked the hillside with all the trees, looking for people he knew.

The Guard commander rode out halfway across the field in a jeep. They were gathered illegally, he told them with a bullhorn. They must disperse.

The crowd yelled back.

“One, two, three, four – we don’t want your fucking war!”

“Pigs off campus!”

The commander literally read them the riot act – the text of the law. Students threw rocks at his jeep but didn’t really come close. The troops put on their gas masks and helmets and launched tear gas canisters. Most students scattered. Some picked up the canisters and threw them back.

The tear gas forced Kahler to walk away from the crowd, moving around Taylor Hall near the pagoda. Pulling a wet handkerchief he kept in a plastic bag to clean the tear gas from his face, he walked over to Midway Drive to the gravel parking lot where the Centennial residence halls are now.

Kahler couldn’t understand why the National Guard didn’t wait a little longer before taking action. Kent State was a commuter college at the time. It was lunchtime, so almost anyone with free time was there, even just to watch. Had the troops waited, most spectators would have left for their classes after 1 p.m.

Standing in the parking lot, Kahler saw the troops come over the hill by the pagoda and march down toward the practice football field (near where the gym annex is today). He picked up a handful of gravel to throw at the guards, but he only ended up hitting a few students in front of him. They turned to give him the finger.

Then a group of the guardsmen aimed their guns at students, including Kahler. He jumped behind a pile of gravel. He saw some troops huddle together before marching back toward the pagoda on the hill. Kahler stood up and followed them.

On their way back to the top of the hill, the troops parted a crowd of students – something Kahler was sure would lead to violence. But nothing happened. The guardsmen kept walking.

By this time the guardsmen neared the pagoda, and Kahler had crossed the practice football field. He stood near the incline leading up to the parking lot by Prentice and Taylor halls. Then a section of the guardsmen stopped and turned in unison.

“Oh, my God, they’re going to shoot,” he thought. Kahler hit the ground.

The guardsmen fired.

He knew the rounds were live. He could hear the bullets hit the ground around him. He felt what seemed like a bee sting in his back. His legs tightened and then relaxed.

A bullet struck him in his back below his left shoulder blade.

“Oh, my God, they shot me,” he thought. “I hope they don’t shoot me again.”

Silence followed. Then people began to scream. He let a student who had Boy Scout training roll him onto his back. He was surprised by the shock and terror in the eyes of the students gathering around him.

The 15 or 20 minutes it took for the ambulance to arrive seemed like an eternity. As the medics carried him away, some students gave him peace signs; he responded with a thumbs-up.

At the hospital

Kahler tried to keep calm on the ride to Robinson Memorial. He had some First Aid training when he was in the Boy Scouts, and he knew that when people “freak out,” they raise their blood pressure. That only makes matters worse.

At the hospital, the medical staff was rushing around the waiting room to prepare for the other victims.

“Get blood types on all these people,” a doctor yelled.

Kahler handed his driver’s license, insurance card and blood type information to a passing nurse. Her eyes lit up.v

While he lay in the waiting room, a minister from his congregation, the Church of the Brethren, found him. Kahler’s mother had learned about her son through a member of Black United Students who called her before the phone lines were cut. She had called the minister. They prayed together.

At that moment, Kahler began to heal.

The doctors operated on him that afternoon. He needed a chest cutter, a stomach and lower tract expert and a neurosurgeon. They had to crack three ribs and move organs to search for bullet fragments.

He started waking up from the anesthesia three days later after a drug-induced coma.

The day after he woke, Kahler asked the doctor what his life would be like. The doctor gave him two scenarios.v

First, he could sit around feeling sorry about for himself, end up on alcohol and drugs, not do anything for himself and die a miserable death at a young age.

Or he could finish his education, enjoy life, be a part of society and live to a ripe old age.v

“There’s nothing physically wrong with you other than you can’t walk,” the doctor told him.v

That same day, a nurse came into his room.

“There’s an FBI agent who’d like to speak with you,” she said.

Kahler knew to ask for a lawyer. Despite the agent’s several attempts to interview Kahler, he left without his questions answered. Kahler told his mother about the encounter, and she set out to find the agent and to perform her motherly duty of yelling at him. Kahler spoke to the agent a few days later after his lawyer arrived.

The doctors sent him to Highland View Hospital for rehab, where he spent his first three months there horizontal, being turned every four hours to prevent bedsores. But that made his broken ribs hurt.

The doctors started taking him off morphine and other pain medication.

Kahler did nothing but shiver, sweat, freeze and hallucinate for a month. He prayed his way through.

Once his withdrawal had run its course, Kahler, the 6-foot-3 former high school athlete who grew up working on the family farm, had a tough time keeping still. After his first three months in rehab, the doctors had him start to sit up. It took about four or five days to fully sit up.

Once he began using his wheelchair in the hospital, the doctors let him out of their sight. He was rolling up and down the hallway when he came across an elevator. He got in, pressed “1” and spent a few hours in the snack shop. The doctors searched the hospital. When they found him, they scolded him. He didn’t care; he’d had a good time.

Moving on

Family, friends, neighbors and students came to see him in the hospital. People sent him flowers. He received countless letters.

He remembers the first:

“Dear Communist Radical Hippy,

By the time you read this, I hope you are dead.”

There was no name and no return address.

But most of the letters were consoling and supportive.

His friends visited him, called him and wrote him while he was in the hospital. He’s still friends with most of them now, even though he doesn’t see them regularly.

Kahler decided to return to Kent State in January of 1971 – against the advice of the Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation. Officials there wanted him to go to a school in San Diego designed for people in wheelchairs, saying it would be easier for him to get around because it didn’t snow. He stuck with Kent State; he couldn’t leave his friends and community behind.

Delayed by recovery and court cases, he graduated in 1978 with a teaching degree. After everything that happened to him, he’s not bitter or angry.

“I don’t look at all of that negative stuff as difficult to deal with,” he said. “To me, my life is not that issue. I don’t let the distractions delay my personal life.”

Contact editor Bryan Wroten at [email protected].

Life now

Kahler is a full-time substitute teacher for the East Canton school system. He lives in the house he grew up in, taking care of his parents.

He had moved to southern Ohio after the court cases to take a break from everything, working for the Industrial Bureau of Workers Compensation Group for a year and a half. He later worked for the Ohio Secretary of State and was a county commissioner in Athens County for eight years.

Now that he’s moved back to his hometown, he’s thinking of taking up photography, going back to a field that’s always interested him. He may take classes at Kent State after he retires.