Howard Ruffner, ’71, 2022 Kent State Advocacy Award Recipient
"I saw their faces and I could feel their pain, and I took their pictures so that no one would ever forget what happened at Kent State and the trauma that it caused for our nation."
Howard Ruffner, ’71, was a sophomore broadcast journalism major when he witnessed a watershed moment in American history, the Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970. As a photographer for the yearbook and school newspaper, Howard had no idea how impactful his photos would prove to be. From behind the lens of his camera, he captured the tragic events of the day as they unfolded between demonstrators, students and Ohio National Guardsmen during an anti-Vietnam War protest that turned deadly.
When asked what he most remembered amid the chaos surrounding him, Howard replied, “The terror of being shot at by the National Guard. I vividly remember the woman shouting, ‘Get down, they're shooting real bullets!’”
The images he recorded have given thousands of people the opportunity to see the sequence of events for themselves and better understand what transpired more than 50 years ago in Kent, Ohio. His photo of an injured student being cared for appeared on the cover of Life on May 15, 1970, with the headline “Tragedy at Kent State - Cambodia and Dissent: The Crisis of Presidential Leadership.” His photography on the cover and interior pages of the magazine won a Polk Award.
But for Howard, the photographs were also a way to honor the four students killed and the nine injured that day, and to validate the shared suffering of the other students who bore witness to the shootings.
"I saw their faces and I could feel their pain, and I took their pictures so that no one would ever forget what happened at Kent State and the trauma that it caused for our nation," said Howard.
He has dedicated much of his life to educating others about the shootings through his photography. Howard donated large prints to the May 4 Center on the Kent Campus for permanent display, as well as photographs for the center’s multimedia programs and marker stations in the parking lot and near Taylor Hall. In 2017, he published a photographic memoir of his experience as a photographer and eyewitness to the events of May 1-4, 1970, which included many never before published photographs. This book “Moments of Truth: A Photographer’s Experience of Kent State 1970” serves as a historical resource for those seeking more information about the shootings and the events surrounding them.
In addition to his creative contributions, Howard has also volunteered his time to share the story of May 4 at middle schools, high schools, community colleges, senior centers, veteran organizations and private groups in an attempt to clarify misunderstandings about the fateful day. In 2016, he worked with the Kent State International Relations Department to present to students at Hanoi University in Vietnam. The presentation helped the Vietnamese students see the connections they had with the Kent State students, the shared losses and pain.
The story of May 4, 1970, is inextricably linked with Kent State University. This is also the case for Howard. His efforts to educate others and dispel the falsehoods have also told a story of resilience among students, alumni and the university - from the students who cared for their fallen and injured peers to the faculty who helped disperse the crowd and avoid further bloodshed. By sharing the truth through photos, Howard has been able to help tell the story of a terrible but important day in our university and nation’s history.