Kent Stater Editors Reflect on 50 Years Covering May 4 Anniversaries
Kent State University alumni who served as editor of the Daily Kent Stater each faced the challenge of covering the anniversary of May 4, 1970, when Ohio National Guardsmen shot and killed four students and wounded nine others during a Vietnam War protest.
Several former editors of the campus student newspaper, now known as the Kent Stater, shared their thoughts on how the anniversary was perceived and how coverage changed over the course of five decades.
“We felt compelled to put ourselves back in the 1970 Spring Quarter time frame, but also to reflect where our campus culture and pulse were in 1979,” said Christine Plonsky, BS ’79, who was Stater editor that spring.
“The beauty of attending KSU was that the 1970s spirit of activism was present every spring especially, when those who had witnessed or been impacted personally and emotionally by May 4, 1970, would return to campus. We tried to strike a balance of past to present response. However, the pain caused by violence on a Midwest campus never dissipated.”
“It was an incredible day,” she said, recalling how a Stater staffer serving an internship in Cleveland had gotten wind of the fact that the settlement might be coming and alerted the Stater newsroom.
“It was a sobering afternoon and evening,” she said. “How do you to justify `settlement’ of four lives and nine others gravely wounded in an event that changed the course of the country, of our government’s decision domestically during war protests, and ultimately, the U.S. presence in Vietnam?”
Plonsky, who was reared in Tallmadge, Ohio, just outside of Kent, said she grew up with the desire to attend Kent State. “I never would have dreamed that I would have been able to attend journalism classes and work for the heralded Daily Kent Stater in the very building – Taylor Hall – that was central to that historic day,” she said. “Kent State was not just the place where I received a degree. It's a place where I learned about the state of our nation."
When you were Stater editor, how was May 4 remembered by the Kent State community?
A variety of events commemorated May 4 in my day: lectures, a march of students in the vicinity of the May 4 shooting sites, an overnight candlelight vigil in the Prentice Hall parking lot (in 1980 this included some of the parents of the slain students), and finally on noon of May 4, a very large assembly in the Commons, a tolling of the Victory Bell, and speeches for numerous personalities, student group leaders and often by some of the wounded students, including Alan Canfora. May 4, 1981, took place the day after one of the TV networks aired a made-for-TV movie about May 4, so it was a rather emotional day and students were highly interested in the May 4 issue and what happened.
At that time there was no organized memorial. There were events in the old part of campus, and near Taylor Hall. I believe many were student organized. It was a strange ‘in between’ time of trying to preserve the past -- and trying to get past it. I was not greatly involved personally, and I regret that now.
I was editor during the 45th anniversary events. At the time, the same reverence of the events permeated everything on campus in the days leading up to the May 4 as it had in years’ past and now. But there were underlying current events that seeped into the discussions: The riots in Ferguson, Missouri, had happened months before and the tide of Black Lives Matter rose; there were mass shootings in South Carolina, Oregon and San Bernardino, California; and ISIS attacks across Europe. Everything seemed to culminate on May 4 where those current events collided with memories of 1970. It felt like the Kent State shootings had just happened alongside everything else.
I think as a student, my friends and I were always ‘aware of the remembrance, but it wasn't as emphasized as it has been in the last 10 years or so. You knew it was happening, you knew there would be a speaker and sometimes you'd stop and join the crowd during the commemoration, but it didn't feel like it was an accepted part of Kent State's history. Of course, it was an important event to many, but even as a Stater employee, its significance was never quite captured the way it is today.
By 1985, when Tom Jennings, BS ’85, was Stater editor, anniversaries had taken shape into the candlelight march across campus and vigil in the parking lot of Prentice Hall, which still takes place today. Perceptions of May 4, 1970, though, were changing.
Jennings, however, had previously written a Hearst Award-winning editorial in the Stater about the need for the university to permanently memorialize May 4, and he fostered strong coverage of the 15th anniversary as editor.
“When I was editor, we ran a special edition of what the Stater would have done on May 5, 1970. The university was closed following the shootings on May 4, so the Stater staff that year never got to publish an issue,” Jennings said. “We wanted to let students know in 1985 what it was like, as best we could and how student journalists would have covered May 4 if they had the chance. It was our way as student journalists to remind the KSU community of the significance of what happened on May 4 and that the history of that event was still very much a part of Kent.”
Jennings, 58, of Malibu, California, is a writer-producer-director of documentary films, through his Los Angeles-based production company 1895 Films.
Michael Lebowitz, BA ’99, who was Stater editor in the spring of 1999, had a special connection to the shootings, as his mother was a student on campus on May 4, 1970.
“She witnessed the shootings. Not surprisingly, May 4 was traumatic for her. For the rest of her life, she froze up whenever she heard the sound of helicopters as that brought her mind back to campus that day. Even years later, my mother understood that the government needed to be watched and held accountable at all costs,” Lebowitz said.
When you were Stater editor, what did you feel was the student media's responsibility when it came to remembering or commemorating May 4?
May 4 was still very big. Trials of the Kent 25 ended in December 1971 and the petition for federal grand jury was beginning. The civil trial in federal court followed.
I felt it was our responsibility to inform the current generation of students about the events of May 4, accurately and completely, and to put these events in the context of current political events. Our goal was to make students aware of government, more so the abuses of government, and particularly their role and responsibility to be informed citizens in American democracy. We did our best to sort out the political chaff, from both the right and left wings, and give students the truth. It was amazing, even in my day, how little people actually knew of the history and context of May 4, 1970.
As editor of the Stater 17 years after the events of May 4, I felt everyone's perspective needed to be told. One of my objectives was to publish a story that told the May 4 tragedy from the point of view of members the Ohio National Guard who were there. Up until that time, the guard side had hardly been told and never in the pages of the Daily Kent Stater. Staffer Krista Ramsey was able to interview three of the guardsmen, and her story, which appeared on April 30, 1987, captured their emotions, both on May 4 and in the aftermath of the tragedy, and how it impacted their lives.
“I believe it was the best piece of journalism to appear in the Stater during the years I was associated with the newspaper. More than 30 years later, the story is just as powerful as it was when it first appeared. Not everyone was happy we decided to include a story about the guardsmen in our May 4 coverage – almost like we were betraying the students who died and were wounded. But as editor I felt it was a long overdue obligation for the Stater to include the guard’s perspective, and I am as proud today as I was in 1987 that we were able to fulfill that obligation.
At the time I was editor, it was all about covering the event. As I recall, there was not an effort to engage the university community in constructive dialogue or conversations about free speech. It was an event that we dedicated all the Stater's resources to, and then hopefully provided enough coverage to preserve a record of the proceedings for later generations to observe and reflect. We did a special section for the 30th anniversary, and it was at a time when we didn't regularly use color, so it was a huge deal.
Yet the administration that year also had taken steps to remove the word “State” from university branding and logos.
“I felt it was important to shine a light on these efforts,” Lebowitz said. “As such, in the May 4 Stater edition, our front page featured a lengthy, in-depth article describing the administration's efforts to remove the ‘State’ from Kent State. The prime example was how administration officials scrambled to remove ‘State’ from the scoreboard during the school's first NCAA tournament appearance in 1999.”
Lebowitz, 42, of Washington, D.C., is a senior attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice's National Security Division and serves in the U.S. Army Reserve as a Judge Advocate at U.S. Army Cyber Command. He recalled that May 4, 1999, was marked by new protests.
“Back in 1999, we had military action involving Kosovo and periodic bombings in Iraq. The May 4 observances attracted a significant number of people who wished to make their voices heard regarding modern military activity, using the protests from the 1960s and early 1970s as a guide,” Lebowitz said. “I believe the annual observances have morphed from what had been commemorations of the events from May 4, 1970, into using those events as a real-life warning to the current generation about the ramifications of a government run amok, even in the United States.”
Looking back, has your view of May 4 and its annual observances changed? If so, in what ways?
To be honest, outside of attending the day of observances, especially when there were notable speakers, I had little interest in May 4 when I was in school. I was working at the Stater in 1980 when we produced the 10th anniversary edition and I had a hand in that, which was exciting and a learning experience. I've become much more interested in the last 10 years or so. I read several books, which made me more sympathetic to the students' side.
I was in the fifth grade in 1970 and my teacher, Mrs. Murphy, lived in Kent. I remember her coming to school before the shootings and remarking how afraid Kent residents were. I never forgot that. I wish she were still alive. I'd love to talk to her.
In recent years, I've been to the candlelight march and vigil a couple of times and skipped the speeches. Today, I think the guard were justified being in Kent and on campus, given the vandalism. It is tragic that four students were killed, especially since at least two of them were going to class, and the nine wounded did not really present a real threat to the guardsmen.
That said, the events at Kent, and to a lesser extent Jackson State, changed the course of the war. They also changed the way the guard and police deal with protests. I've been to numerous protests in Washington, and police are much more restrained in the face of mockery and taunting. … Police are more tolerant today than the guard was on May 4, 1970. While the deaths of those four students were indeed unnecessary, who is to say they didn't save the lives of protesters years later?”
I think as a student, it's easy to forget the historic significance that May 4 holds for Kent State. The two are inextricably linked, and I wish that as a student, I had taken more time to learn about May 4 outside of making sure all the events were covered for the paper.
“This was happening less than a year after the 9/11 attacks, so people had strong feelings about the war in Afghanistan and a lot of other related issues,” Sharma said. “The Daily Kent Stater staff was prepared to cover potential conflicts responsibly, and we tried to make sure we accurately captured the actions and sentiments of the members of the campus, the surrounding community, and law enforcement involved in everything that was going on that weekend.”
Sharma, 40, who resides outside of Youngstown, Ohio, said over time she has gained a greater appreciation for how much May 4 and the annual observances have shaped the organizational culture of the university.
“The traditions, conflicts and negotiations surrounding May 4 over the years have illustrated a lot about how people try to make meaning from trauma and tragedy. Each year reveals another lesson to be learned from the past and a little more insight about where we find ourselves today. That's important for deciding who we want to be in the future,” she said.
Kent State has a unique legacy, which has given the university a powerful voice in discussions about war and peace, civil liberties and the power structures of society, she observed.
“I hope that students learn about their First Amendment freedoms and exercise them ethically and tenaciously to advocate for themselves and for others,” Sharma said.
Doug Gulasy, BS ’10, was Stater editor in the spring of 2010 and presided over coverage of the 40th anniversary of May 4.
Gulasy, 31, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a digital marketing content writer for UPMC health care system, said he was unsure how students 10 years ago felt about the anniversary.
“It was something of an odd mix, I think. I always felt the May 4 commemoration was significant. But I think many of the students at the time may have shrugged it off because of how long ago it had been,” he said. “The alumni, professors, and community members felt much more of a connection to it.”
The May 4 edition that year nearly didn’t happen, he recalled. Student had put together an edition packed with stories and photos that included interviews with May 4 survivors and perspective pieces on perceptions of May 4. The edition capped off a year of coverage of the university’s centennial and was intended to be a blockbuster.
As the university community approaches the 50th commemoration, what lessons do you feel that today's students should take away from the events of 1970?
We (as a campus and as alumni) are living history, we made history or were touched by it, and lessons were learned to hopefully keep us all from repeating it.
It can/will happen again if we don't resist the intolerance and bigotry that has become so mainstream.
You know you’re standing up for something that is just when someone else is telling you to sit down and be quiet.
As a student journalist, I always felt empowered to make positive change and dig into the stories that the students needed to know, even if they weren't easy to uncover or might ruffle some feathers. I think students should take away that their voices matter and can make a difference, even if there are people who try to silence them.
Students, both in journalism and out, should reflect how things have - and have not - changed since 1970. Issues of free speech still permeate American society. I think, on a practical level, students need to be aware of their surroundings and be prepared to cover events like May 4 if they were to be repeated. Journalism students should be prepared to defend their right to cover events, even in the midst of diminishing deference to members of the media. Students should also learn to slow down and listen to people: Listen to people’s stories, listen to their concerns and ideas, listen to what they value and why. At its core, the events of May 4 were the culmination of a nationwide groundswell and overreaction by the government. It’s happening today with the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, the rise of white nationalism and populism, and push for equal rights for LGBTQ people. Students should recognize that May 4, 1970 could be any day.
Gulasy said his belief in the importance of May 4, is stronger now than when he was a student. “We see reason to protest every day. And I think May 4 teaches us the importance of speaking out for what's right. It may cost us – and it may cost us dearly – but that doesn't change the importance. It only heightens it.”
Plonsky said she still appreciates the fact that Kent State reflected part of American history in such a powerful fashion. “The fact that KSU has continued to observe the day annually with appropriate reflection and solemnity makes me very proud.”
Jennings is grateful that a May 4 memorial was established, and that the tension, anger and sadness of the day seems to have dissipated over time.
“Though students today may look at May 4 as ancient history, I think it's important for those on campus today to remember that something that affected world politics literally happened in the heart of Kent State. The world changed outside Taylor Hall,” Jennings said. “It's not an event that happened somewhere else, or only in history books, it happened in the middle of that beautiful campus, lives were lost, and others were forever altered. I think it's important to remember that historic events can happen anywhere, at any time.”