“Thirteen seconds, it’s kind of a lifetime. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but it was a lot. When they fired, we thought they had blanks. We knew they had live ammunition, we never thought that they would use live ammunition. We always thought they used rubber bullets or knee-knockers or blank something. But the second they fired, we hit the ground”
— Denny Benedict, freshman at Kent State in 1970
On May 4, 1970 – 44 years ago last week – a tragedy occurred on the campus of Kent State University as the United States National Guard opened fire on a group students protesting President Richard Nixon’s decision to send troops to Cambodia as an extension of the Vietnam War.
I was always aware, even at a young age of this moment in history, partly because my mother has so much recollection of it as she was an impressionable 16 years old. In fact, she celebrated the first Earth Day celebration at UCLA in 1970 only a month before the shooting, just so you have some context of why I knew this.
When I began working at Northern Illinois in 2011, a member of the Mid-American Conference alongside Kent State, I knew I would have a chance to go to the campus and see where it all took place – not knowing at the time there was a memorial.
This past winter, I saw a majority of the campuses I had never been to traveling with the women’s basketball team. With all the traveling I had done over the years with the Huskies, I had ridden with all of the bus drivers in the NIU Transportation Services, except for one.
I finally met Chuck Clark, a long-time bus driver at NIU, on a trip to Central Michigan in January. We had Chuck a few more times over the season and as a passenger on the front of the bus, I always talked to the driver once in awhile. After talking with him over the course of a few trips, I had learned that Chuck was a Vietnam Veteran.
Two Wednesday’s ago, when the Huskies softball and baseball teams played at UIC in downtown Chicago, I ran into Chuck while getting a cup of coffee as he was coming back from a hot dog stand. We chatted for a few minutes and we talked about where we were headed this weekend.
He said he was chartered to drive softball to Akron and Ohio University, and that baseball was getting an outside bus company for the trip. He promptly reminded me that it was about this time in 1970 when the shooting at Kent State happened and that if he was the driver, he would take us up there to see it.
Nearly three years after I started working at NIU, I made my first trip to Kent last Thursday on May 1, having seen all the other MAC campuses. After we got there, I kept trying to figure out the proximity of the ball park at KSU in relation to the memorial and discovered that it was at least a two-mile hike to Taylor Hall from Schoonover Stadium.
Call it divine intervention or like it is, but there were some issues with the NIU bus last weekend as it was having problems with the exhaust. On Friday morning, it was decided that softball and baseball would swap buses so softball could reach Ohio with no issues, while baseball would get the NIU bus since it was just around town while Chuck could get the bus to a repair shop around town.
After our game on Friday, the first thing he said to me was let me know when you want to see the memorial and we’ll swing by. Our Head Coach Ed Mathey, reminded of the May 4th anniversary occurring this weekend, decided to make a field trip of it, inviting members of the team to go as well on Saturday morning, May 3.
“Out of the goodness of his heart” he said, Chuck didn’t punch in or record hours for the trip as he said “this something that these kids need to see.”
After being dropped off at the parking lot outside of Taylor Hall where it all went down, we waited for Chuck to park the bus so he could give a brief introduction to the time.
While Ed told the seven players, our trainer and myself some of the background of the event and a little more on where Chuck was coming from, we stared at a sign and police tape around the parking lot that read “ATTENTION LOT CLOSED 3PM MAY 2 to 3PM MAY 4” as it is a heavy trafficked area this time of the year.
As Chuck approached, we entered the parking lot and stood at the closest memorial – that of Sandra Scheuer, who was walking from one class to another with William Knox Schroeder and not partaking in the protests that day. Schroeder was also gunned down from the National Guard’s firing.
As we all gazed at the first memorial, a blocked off parking spot in the lot with lamps and cornerstones memorializing the deceased, Chuck talked about his experience in Vietnam era America prior to the shootings, as well as his time in the war.
I was overcome with sadness once I reached the final marker for Jeffrey Miller at the walkway on the other side of the parking lot.
When I saw the headstone in a raised flower bed underneath a tree and surrounded by daffodils, my eyes welled and continued to well throughout the remainder of my walk outside. I was rushed with emotion and I was unsure why. I dropped a note I had written for the four at the headstone and dropped a rock on top of it so the wind would not blow it away.
After briefly looking over the hill, where many of the students rallied by the victory bell on campus and the troops tear gassed them up into the parking lot, I entered the museum in Taylor Hall that chronicled the time and talked about the Kent State campus leading up to the events.
Inside the museum, I saw a short women with a hijab on adorning the pictures on the wall motionless with her daughter, though I could not see her face. After talking with each other for a moment and handing her daughter her cell phone, I could see the women’s welled eyes. She wiped her eyes and posed in front of one of the pictures on the wall, reminiscing with her daughter about the times and pointing things out to her.
We were unable to spend a whole lot of time in the museum as the bus needed to be moved from its spot.
I would highly recommend making the trip to the Kent State campus if any of you are in the Cleveland area to see the memorial. It was a surreal experience and see it during the anniversary with a Vietnam veteran made it that much more of a special experience.