The Kent State Effect

•  How the May 4th, 1970 events changed my life and shaped my career

• If you’re not part of the solution . .

•  Overcoming shyness with the trial-by-fire method

On a chilly day in early May, 50 years ago, I either got a phone call at my off-campus house – or heard on the radio as I got into my car to drive to the college – that Ohio national guardsmen had opened fire on protesting anti-war students at Kent State University. That campus, a two and a half hour drive east across the northern shores of Lake Erie from Bowling Green State University, was said to be our “sister school,” but, aside from competing in the same athletic conference, there isn’t any evidence I can find today that such a relationship existed.

No matter, the shock of learning that real rifle bullets were aimed – not over their heads as a warning – but directly at college students, killing four of them, galvanized the coterie of anti-war activists, student power advocates and hippies on the Bowling Green campus.

May 5th, 1970

Compared to hotbeds of student protest like Cal Berkley, Columbia, Wisconsin-Madison, et al, BG was sleepy. Docile, even. But as word spread the afternoon of May 4th that most other schools around Ohio were closing down, ending the spring semester early and sending students home, we decided to spread the word that at an all-campus rally the following morning we would press our demand that our administration do the same.

We split up, each of us volunteering to go to a different residence hall to urge students to attend the rally. With the woman by my side in the photo above, I set off at dusk to McDonald Hall. Alarm bells were ringing in my head, though. How the hell was I going to do this? I had always been, up to that point, a fundamentally shy person. I was uncomfortable being the center of attention in a gathering larger than two people. I was a nervous wreck when required to speak in front of a classroom. I was majoring in journalism but would not get involved with the campus radio or TV station. I couldn’t imagine myself talking into a microphone, much less looking into a television lens.

We arrived at the dorm, approached the student working at the front desk and asked her firmly to get on the hall’s public address system and tell all the students to come down to the ground-floor lounge. Immediately. The fact that she quickly did as we requested (which you would think was something for which she’d have to get permission from the R.A. or resident advisor) probably attests to the look in my eyes. If not “wild” it could likely have been termed “intense.”

To my considerable surprise, the lounge filled up rapidly and I proceeded to deliver an impassioned appeal to the students to – no matter where they stood on the Vietnam war – take note that college students were now in danger for their lives on their campuses, and if for no other reason than that, they should come out tomorrow morning and call for BGSU to shut down.

Afterward, I marveled at the fact that while giving my speech, I was utterly unaware of any nervousness, discomfort or self-consciousness. None whatsoever. Reflecting later, I realized that if one cares strongly enough about the message one wishes to impart, shyness is simply no longer a barrier.

I wish I could report the next day’s rally was as rewarding. It began, on the steps of Williams Hall – the “Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner” of the campus – with earnest calls from the most prominent student activists. Calls for the school to shut down. (I passed on a chance to address the crowd of over three thousand students; I hadn’t completely internalized the lesson from the night before.)

The president of the university, William Jerome, walking a tightrope between a desire to keep the campus open and a fear of disturbances or riots, had already made up his mind. Classes would resume as usual that afternoon, he announced. We either had learned of his decision in advance or anticipated it. So, when someone brought a homemade banner to the rally, my partner in radical activism, Charlie Cohn, and I climbed out a window above Jerome and hung the banner.

If you’re not part of the solution . . .

The full sentence, a paraphrasing of a quote attributed to Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, is “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

The banner was a call to the student body, the majority of whom were well-behaved (when not at frat or sorority keggers) dressed-for-success pluggers, to get involved for once. Stick their necks out. Even though the turnout we generated that day included an impressive number of these “straight” classmates, President Jerome got his way. Despite our launch of a partially successful student strike in the ensuing days, BGSU remained open. The BGSU University Libraries’ Digital Gallery website says, “..when President Jerome ensured that BGSU became the only major Ohio institution to remain open in the aftermath of the Kent State shootings, the two [schools] would be united by their significance in a particularly tumultuous period of United States and Ohio history.”

A day later we held a memorial candlelight march that left the campus and wound around the surrounding tiny college town. We were angry – not only about the four dead in Ohio, but by the failure of the university to make unanimous what we felt was the proper response, statewide. I doubt, however, that when people look back on the occasion of this fiftieth anniversary, they will remember, “There was that one school that stayed open.”  

I remember the night of May 4th as the moment I understood I actually had what it took, after all, to put together what turned out to be a long, full career in broadcasting. Even though that path wasn’t apparent to me at that point.


4 thoughts on “The Kent State Effect

  1. Thanks Mark. This takes me back to a time of change and division and hope that mirrors today. I often think of Jackson Brown’s words from The Pretender:

    “I want to know what became of the changes
    We waited for love to bring
    Were they only the fitful dreams
    Of some greater awakening?”

    I think the answer is in that sign you and your friend posted above the university president’s head – and the forgetting of that idea/ideal by so many of our generation as we struggled with “the longing for love and the struggle for the legal tender.”

    Let’s hope this current crisis can get us all back on track.

  2. Thanks for this . As your fellow BGSU student, I clearly remember those events 50 years ago so well. I was a student reporter at WBGU-TV. You and Charlie were clearly campus leaders whether you liked it or not. Thank you for your courage.

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