Keeping the Flame Alive: Local Couple Reflects on Decades of Organizing, Supporting May 4 Walk and Vigil

For decades, Michael and Kendra Pacifico have put their hearts and souls into making the annual May 4 Candlelight Walk and Vigil a special remembrance of the four students killed and nine injured during the Kent State University shootings in 1970, as well as participating in organizing the annual commemoration events from May 1-4.

As key supporters and organizers of the vigil along with the May 4 Task Force student organization, the Pacificos have prepared the site before the vigil, purchased votive candles and holders for participants and maintained the four stained glass candle holders that are displayed prominently during the commemoration to represent the four students killed in the shootings. In addition, for many years Kendra and Mike opened their Kent home annually to serve as a place where May 4 Task Force members and others could prepare the banners for the May 4 gathering, as well as help make the annual May 4 buttons.

The couple see the walk and vigil as a time when people can put their politics aside to honor those who died and were wounded on May 4, 1970.

“The candlelight march and vigil are a tradition that allows people to participate in remembrance in a manner that is different from the political aspect and contentious struggles that can dominate the commemoration,” said Michael Pacifico, BA, Biology '74. “It is more reflective, personal and spiritual. Many people who eschew the politics or who can't make the May 4 Commemoration will often choose this form of remembrance.”

For the first time in two years, the Kent State University Commemoration of May 4, 1970, and the Candlelight Walk and Vigil that precedes it on May 3, will be in-person. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 and 2021 commemorations of May 4, 1970, including the vigils, were virtual events.

The May 4 50th Commemoration was a special program that included a virtual vigil and featured a variety of special online videos, exhibits and learning resources. The Pacificos were supposed to transition the vigil in 2020 to successors who would take over the event's staging, but the shift was delayed until this year.

 “I feel like it’s time to pass it on to the next set of people,” Kendra Pacifico said. “We’ll be around for advice. It will be nice to just visit at the commemoration. It’s like a family reunion for the older students who were here and have been working with all these issues over the years.”

Each year since 1971, students, faculty and others gather at 11 p.m. on May 3 to take part in the candlelight procession around the perimeter of campus. Following the walk, a vigil begins with people positioned in the spots where the four students were killed. The vigil continues until 12:24 p.m. on May 4, the time of the confrontation between the students and the Ohio National Guard. The candlelight walk and vigil were established by Emeritus Professor Jerry M. Lewis with the help of students.

Michael Pacifico, 70, has experienced the commemorations since 1971, having begun classes at Kent State in fall 1970. A native of Pearl River, N.Y., Michael was a graduating high school senior when the Kent State shootings occurred. The most disruptive thing that he had ever done in his hometown was walk out of class in protest of the Vietnam War.

“I thought ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be in the center of the revolution.’ As it turned out that’s how it was,” he said. “Kent was like the center of the universe when it came to politics, as far as anti-war stuff. The whole focus was on Kent State.” 

On the first anniversary of the shootings, Michael burned his draft card.

An introvert, Michael soon found that the best way to meet people was through the “anti-war movement and political activism. In the late 1970s, Michael got involved with a group called the Revolutionary Student Brigade (RSB), which was part of the May 4 Coalition during the “Tent City/Gym Annex” protests where he slept outside for 62 days during the demonstrations.

Meanwhile, Kendra, 60, was 8 years old, living in Charlotte, N.C., when the Kent State shootings occurred. She later attended University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as a theater major and graduated in 1983 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theater arts. Kendra first visited Kent State in 1983 during a theater tour her senior year in college. 

The tour presented the theater production "Kent State: A Requiem," which summarized the political, legal and personal events that led to the May 4 shootings and their aftermath, with Kendra playing the role of Allison Krause, one of the four students killed by the Ohio National Guard. 

That year, Kendra attended her first May 4 vigil.

During her visits to Kent State, Kendra met the late Alan Canfora, one of the Kent State students wounded in the shootings, who was photographed waving a black flag on May 4, 1970, before armed soldiers. Kendra moved to Kent in 1986, the same year Canfora introduced her to Michael, and she and Michael continued to see each other at political events, eventually becoming a couple. They’ve been married 25 years.

As the Pacificos reflect on all the years they supported and organized the vigil and they prepare to pass the baton to whomever will succeed them, the couple hope they will be remembered not just as organizers of the vigils, but as anti-war and political activists.

“I was on the Kent Campus working with political groups and Kendra was working with the May 4 Task Force,” Michael said. “We were both very active. After I stopped working with political groups, I dedicated most of my efforts to the May 4 Task Force. We were involved in political activism around May 4.”

POSTED: Thursday, April 28, 2022 11:29 AM
UPDATED: Friday, December 09, 2022 05:38 PM
April McClellan-Copeland