Dean Kahler’s 'One Bad Day' Fuels a Lifetime of Purpose

Dean Kahler, ’77, one of the nine wounded in the May 4, 1970, shootings, wasn’t supposed to be at Kent State that day.

The 20-year-old farm boy from outside Canton, Ohio, was slated to begin classes during the fall quarter that year, but after being unexpectedly laid off, he contacted the admissions office to see if he could start his studies at the end of March for the spring quarter. He wanted to be a high school teacher and a football and baseball coach, and with Kent State’s excellent reputation as a university for educators, Dean thought it would be the best place for him.

NOTE: The video above contains sensitive audio and imagery from the May 4, 1970, shootings that may not be appropriate for all audiences. For a full description of Dean’s experience that day and his life after college, please read the complete profile below.

The Protest

The protest

Having been on campus for only five weeks, Dean hadn’t made many friends just yet. When he heard about the anti-war protest planned for Monday, his curiosity was piqued. He’d never been to one and wanted to see what it was all about. So, he and some fellow students residing in Wright Hall decided to go. Soon after they arrived, National Guardsmen and campus security told the students they were illegally gathered and they needed to disperse.

“It didn’t make a lot of sense,” Dean explained. “We all thought we had the right to assemble on our own campus and to redress our grievances with our government. If I could lend my voice to the disagreement with the policy of invading Cambodia, I would do that.”

The order to disperse was issued again, and Dean recalled hearing authorities read the Ohio Riot Act to the group gathered on the commons near Taylor Hall. But the students remained, and the atmosphere intensified further as the guardsmen prepared to disperse the crowd.

“I saw them putting bayonets on their rifles. I saw them taking their helmets off, putting gas masks on and then putting their helmets and gloves back on. The next thing you know, these tear gas canisters come flying through the air.” 

Dean went up the hill by the pagoda near Taylor Hall. He wiped the tear gas from his face with a washcloth he had in his pocket. He saw the guardsmen huddle and start back up the hill. It seemed like the clash was over. Thinking he would head to the student union to grab a coffee before his next class, Dean followed behind. He was near the bottom of Blanket Hill, near a parking lot and by what was then the practice football field when he saw the guardsmen turn and lower their rifles.

“I said, ‘Oh my God, they’re gonna start shooting.’ I jumped on the ground, and I could hear the rifle reports. Bullets started landing around me, and I thought ‘They’re shooting at me!’ All of a sudden, I got hit. There were still bullets hitting the ground. I could hear them right next to my head.”

And then it stopped. The bullets, the shouting, the chaos - everything stopped for a moment. Then the silence was shattered by screams and shouting as students saw others bleeding and injured, as they realized 13 of their classmates and friends weren’t getting back up.

One of the officers from Black United Students (BUS) came to Dean’s side to check on him. He asked for his parents’ phone number, which Dean gave him, and then went to Prentice Hall to call and let them know what happened. He didn’t want them to have to hear about their son on the news. 

The Recovery

Ambulance on Campus

Because of the seriousness of his injuries, Dean was put into an induced coma. Three vertebrae were shattered in his back, along with broken ribs and a damaged diaphragm. Slowly, he began to regain consciousness nearly a week later. Dean’s first recollections are of the clicking, buzzing and whirring of the pumps, fans and blowers from the machines surrounding him. As doctors started to decrease the morphine drip, Dean began to feel again and realized the extent and pain of his injuries.

His doctors explained that there was no damage to his organs - in fact, Dean remembered them saying they had never seen such a strong heart. He had, however, sustained a serious spinal cord injury and would remain in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

“They told me that I was a spinal cord injured person, but I could live a full life. I could do lots of things, finish my education, get a job, work and all that kind of stuff.” 

About three weeks later, Dean went to a hospital in Cleveland to begin his rehab. Due to his spinal injuries and the swelling in that area, he had to have very specific care. For three months, a team of six caregivers would roll Dean over from front to back and left to right every four hours as the swelling decreased and the vertebrae fused back together.

He remained completely horizontal during that time. When he was finally able to sit up, he passed out from the change in blood pressure. At first, he was only allowed to sit up for an hour a day as his body acclimated, but after several days of this routine, the monotony of his hospital stay became too much for the 20-year-old. Dean snuck away in his wheelchair, found an elevator and made his way to a garden area outside.

“They were looking for me everywhere,” he recounted. “Then finally somebody came out and said, ‘What are you doing out here?’ and I just said, ‘Smelling the roses.’ They shooed me back inside and scolded me for sneaking out, but I still had a big grin on my face.”

The Return


Dean returned to the Kent Campus for a visit while still in the hospital, but he thought it seemed like an “armed camp” with state troopers on the tops of buildings and patrolling the campus. He began classes again that winter and tried to focus on the future, though the events of May 4 were never far from his mind.

With the wheelchair, Dean was one of the most easily recognized of the wounded students, but that visibility sometimes brought unwelcome attention, with individuals spouting hateful comments directed at him and even the occasional hate letter in the mail.

Still he pressed on and tried to make the most of his college experience. He participated in a committee to assess the accessibility of buildings on campus - most of which were not easily accessed by someone in a wheelchair at the time.

“One of my friends needed to film accessible and inaccessible places on campus as part of a class project,” said Dean. “So we went all over campus. He would film me going in and out, or I’d film him going in and out of buildings, going up steps, and I would be looking up thinking ‘Oh boy, I wish I could get in there too’ - you know, with that forlorn look.”

He used his natural positivity and humor as he adjusted to his new normal. Back then, the university had vans and station wagons to transport disabled students around campus. With his athletic background, which he kept up through wheelchair basketball at the time, Dean thought he could outpace the vehicles and the cumbersome process. He would often roll himself to class and be waiting for the others when the vans pulled up.

In 1977, Dean graduated with a Bachelor of Science from the College of Education, Health and Human Services. Through all the obstacles and challenges, he had accomplished his goal. He was ecstatic, doing a celebratory wheelie down the ramp during commencement.

The Work

The work - Kahler with a friend

After graduating, Dean took a civil service position with the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation Division of Safety & Hygiene as a safety inspector in Southeast Ohio, analyzing the conditions of workplaces and starting the process of making Ohio wheelchair accessible. Many of his recommendations were simple, common-sense adjustments or additions and, by implementing them, businesses would not only be safer, but they could also expand their capacity to hire and serve those with disabilities.

Dean never abandoned his interest in politics, and when he was approached by then Ohio Secretary of State Anthony J. Celebrezze Jr. to improve accessibility at polling locations throughout Ohio, he eagerly accepted. Dean continued to work for Celebrezze when he became Attorney General, switching his focus to interacting with lawyers and the judicial system. In 1984, Dean was elected as Athens County commissioner in Southern Ohio. He took office in 1985 and served two terms, a total of eight years. 


The Apology

demand sign at protest

Dean’s recovery was an arduous process made more painful by the university and country’s reluctance to discuss or even acknowledge the May 4 shootings. But, as time went on and leadership at Kent State University changed, administrators started to see the value in addressing the tragedy and honoring those killed and injured that day. More than 10 years later, when Michael Schwartz became president of Kent State University, the perspective truly began to shift.

“I think Michael Schwartz was one of the first ones to say ‘let’s treat it like a piece of history,” said Dean. “He opened the door - or at least he knocked, he unlocked the door - and then the succeeding presidents just kept opening it.” 

In 1990, Richard “Dick” Celeste, who was governor of Ohio at the time, attended the May 4, 1970, commemoration and issued an apology. The injured and the families of those killed had waited 20 years for the state to acknowledge their part in the shootings. For Dean, it was a touching moment. 


The Lessons

Vigil May 4

Rather than hampering Dean’s political beliefs, the May 4 shootings firmly solidified them. He still encourages people to be engaged citizens, to find their own place in the political discussion, whether that is through participation on a school board or serving as a county commissioner.   

“It’s important that, as people who live in a democracy, we keep the tradition of bringing the faults and wayward ways of our elected officials into the light and ask them to change or work with them to change,” Dean said. “If not, we need to expound upon the founding of this country, as one that was formed out of a protest. It’s one of the avenues that we have as a democracy.”

“I think it’s important that we continue to honor the four dead who were killed and to remember the abuse of power that happened here.”

The impact of what happened at Kent State on May 4, 1970, sent shock waves throughout the nation and the world. It’s a moment in time indicative of the polarized political climate. Remembering those killed and recognizing the wounded is critical not only to honor their lives but also to allow for growth and further discussion.

“Our current university president, Todd Diacon, does a great job of making sure that it’s remembered as a piece of history, and it’s a place to learn, reflect and inquire,” said Dean. “I feel at home again when I’m here, finally.”

When people ask him how he can maintain his relationship with the university, the place where he was shot, Dean simply replies that he had “one bad day” at Kent State. Though he still carries the bullet that shattered his spine 54 years ago, he also carries an unwavering faith in the possibility of a better, brighter tomorrow.

“I’m thankful to be alive. I’m thankful I have the talents that God has given me, and I try to use those every day,” said Dean. “I don’t know any different. To me, life is waking up and doing something that’s good for the country, the world. It’s the way I was built.” 

POSTED: Thursday, April 25, 2024 11:45 AM
Updated: Wednesday, May 1, 2024 01:01 PM
Bethany Sava, '12