The Story of Kent State, 100 Years On: Observations from Allen F. Richardson, a 1973 Kent State Alumnus

In 1975, noted journalist Nora Sayre wrote in Ms. magazine that Kent State was like Brigadoon, the mythical Scottish village that only materializes for a day, and then vanishes from the world’s imagination. In the original legend, Brigadoon did not come back for 100 years, except for the miracle of young love. In Sayre’s view, Kent State only reappeared on May 4 of each year.

Some 35 years later, both versions have a bearing on the Kent State story.

Once the 40th anniversary of the May 4, 1970, shootings is over and the attendant media glare dims, Kent State is once again fading from the world’s spotlight. One is tempted to say that, as in past years — whatever the intention — the university simply settled back into its own familiar, low-key Midwestern rhythms. Others, taking a more harsh view, would assert that like Brigadoon, it would dissolve into the mists of unfulfilled dreams.

But today, folks at Kent State want that dynamic to change, and some are pretty busy making sure it does.

Perhaps the change has taken so long because of Kent State’s tortured journey to find a fitting way to bear witness and honor the dead from May 4. But even those alumni who survived the 13-second fusillade know that within that historical context, and perhaps because of it, there is more to the Kent State story that the world should hear.

After all, who more than we value our Kent State education? Who more than we continue to live and teach the lessons of it, both from within and beyond the classroom — and now from the finally sanctified ground of our own particular battlefield.

It’s not a stretch to assert that the more than 100,000 who have graduated since 1970, and today’s student body of more than 38,000, along with a faculty and staff of almost 6,000, might agree that the world at large could be told more about the merits of Kent State as an institution of higher learning and as an economic engine for the region it serves.

Besides marking the 40th anniversary of one of America’s darkest days, this year also has the university contemplating how best to leverage a unique milestone in its history. Kent State turned 100 years young in 2010. As the school looks toward its next century, it does so with a well-earned confidence in its growing academic excellence, its vast economic impact on the region and a new and dynamic synergy with the city of Kent.

Foremost among those with the ability to tell that story is the relatively new president of Kent State, Lester A. Lefton. One minute, this feisty, bespectacled doctor of experimental psychology can quote myriad statistics to back up his version of Kent State’s unfolding saga, and the next minute post excitedly on Twitter about the recent launch of the iPad.

Lefton can also sing the complete lyrics to just about any Broadway show tune one can conjure up — presumably Brigadoon included — if asked.

At Lefton’s inauguration in 2007, he typically set the bar at an almost dizzying height: “I stand here today because I believe so strongly that it’s within our grasp to become ... a world-class university. With our resolve to work together — and to put excellence into action every day — I know that we can invent a future that is significant and celebrated.”

Those are bold words. But when one considers that Lefton, as the senior vice-president for academic affairs and provost at Tulane University, helped revive that institution after the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, they hardly ring hollow. And, in case there is still doubt, Lefton’s former boss, Scott C. Cowen, the president of Tulane, often jokes that his former charge “closely identifies with Tony Soprano (and) you might want to keep this in mind if you’re ever inclined to disagree with him.”

Lefton doesn’t mince words, even when making comparisons between Kent State and more traditionally glamorous schools. “Harvard certainly doesn’t have any trouble realizing that they are a quality institution,” he says. “Berkeley celebrates its repute. I think Kent State needs to do some of the same. Part of my job is to help promote this institution and move it to the next level.”

Lefton, a native of Boston, is also deft enough to signal he’s adapted to his new surroundings in Northeast Ohio, while proclaiming his message that Kent State is already a first-tier school in several respects. “They’re already saying that about our architectural college, our journalism school and our fashion school,” he adds. “I want them to say that about our other programs as well. Our organizing theme is what I call the ‘excellence agenda.’ We have to be excellent in everything we do. Excellence always wins the day. No one will ever say that LeBron is too good.”

The LeBron in question is, of course, LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, last year’s league MVP.

But in order to make his story stick, Lefton and the Board of Trustees also had to sort out the often ambiguous and, through the years, sometimes even hostile relationship with its 1960s generation and the town fathers in Kent.

The recent dedication of a new Visitors Center and a battlefield-like walking tour to tell the story of May 4, 1970 — and the lessons about free speech and the democratic model it can convey to today’s generation — went a long way toward the first goal. Getting the physical site of the shootings added to the National Register of Historic Places only further underscored the effort. That put Kent State on a par with such iconic American places as Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Gettysburg and the Edmund Winston Pettus Bridge, a landmark on the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trial.  

Patrick Mullin, ’71, chairman of the Board of Trustees and a Kent State graduate, was fully supportive of both initiatives. “May 4 is part of our legacy,” he says, while reflecting on that day. He was inside a classroom when the shots rang out. In the chaotic aftermath, he twice had loaded guns pointed at him as he searched for a working telephone to call his mother back in Philadelphia, and tell her he was all right.

Mullin thinks it’s ironic that the 40th anniversary falls in the midst of Kent State’s Centennial year, and perhaps somehow appropriate. “I think Kent Sate played a very significant role in American history,” he says. “It was instrumental in terms of people opening their minds … and wanting to hear the other part of the story. I think it caused people to realize they needed to be involved; they needed to change things.”

Today, Mullin adds, he doesn’t see that same engagement, and to some extent laments its absence. However, in looking forward, he’s optimistic about Kent State’s future role as an academic center of excellence, and in its economic efforts to engage the city and the region. “It will be interesting to see what the next 100 years will bring for this university and the nation,” he says, hinting that the narrative of one might again well impact the other.

That second part of Kent State’s evolving story centers on the long and sometimes acrimonious history with the town. President Lefton’s goal of turning that around now seems like money in the bank, literally. A concerted and coordinated effort by town leaders and the university to push for the revitalization of downtown Kent, and to link the university with the city and the wider region in general, bore fruit recently with the award of a $20 million grant from the federal government.

The development is both a recognition of Kent State’s growing economic impact on Northeast Ohio — to the tune of $1.9 billion annually — and the fulfillment of a dream first visualized 100 years ago. In 1910, local businessmen and politicians convinced state officials — over a leisurely dinner of fresh, local bluegill — to pick Kent for the site of a new teachers college, to be located on fallow farmland west of downtown — the acreage courtesy of a local visionary named William S. Kent. (The school was named for him, not the town.) Another version of the story, no doubt apocryphal, has it that some homemade wine or hard cider was also involved, leaving the delegates of other notable communities — such as Ravenna — to cool their heels, waiting for hours in frustration.

“It takes audacious people to make things happen, and 100 years ago, there were people in Kent who dared to dream audacious things,” says Roger J. Di Paolo, ’77, editor of The Record-Courier, Portage County’s largest newspaper. Di Paolo was the featured speaker at the recent spring Bowman Breakfast — a long-standing, town-gown tradition. Di Paolo, who was born in Kent and has worked at the newspaper since the 1970s, pointed out that 100 years ago, when the town leaders campaigned for Kent as the site of the state’s proposed normal school, Kent was a small village with muddy roads and no sewer system.

But the stakes were huge, since one of Kent’s largest employers had just suffered a devastating fire, and landing the prize of Kent Normal College was the town’s best hope for future viability. As the first buildings rose on what was then known as “Normal Hill,” what eventually became Kent State University was viewed by the city as a shining beacon of hope.

Now the original vision of Kent State as a vital, integrated and finally cherished part of the community in which it resides seems to have come full circle. In early March, Rep. Tim Ryan (Dem.-17th Dist., Ohio) made the formal announcement that the $20 million grant was secured, and the money would be used to fund what seems appropriately named as the Kent Central Gateway project.

But it was a long time coming, and for a variety of reasons. One or more versions of the plan had been on the drawing board for almost two decades, City Manager Dave Ruller says, adding that it was the synergy with Kent State, the local business community, and state and federal political leaders finally coming together that made the project happen.

“We (the city) couldn’t do this ourselves,” he concedes, though in the end, the plan was persuasive enough to get Washington to pry open their money vault. “Our goal was to make it too hard for them (the powers that be) to say no,” he adds with a smile.

In fact, the Kent project won the largest chunk of federal money awarded to Ohio by the U.S. government this year. Originally, over $550 million was requested by various groups in the state, but only $50 million was awarded overall in Ohio, with Kent’s $20 million the single largest slice of the pie.    

Left unsaid in the glow over securing this second big prize of the last 100 years, was any lingering bitterness from 1970. “Kent and Kent State grew up together, and Kent State helped transform Kent into a city,” Di Paolo says. “But May 4 changed all that. Metaphorically and physically, Kent and Kent State turned their backs on each other. Now, Kent State is reaching out and putting its first footprint into downtown Kent.”

Eventually, Kent State may also put some of its own money into the city — most likely for a stake in a planned hotel and conference center — but that’s still under discussion.

“I have never seen such enthusiasm and promise in my lifetime here,” Di Paolo added. “People in Kent are daring to dream gain, and (part of that is attributable to) Lefton, who is decisive, and has a good working relationship with Ruller. But Lefton also doesn’t hesitant to say that Kent State is one of the big dogs in town too.”

Kent State’s Vice President for Finance and Administration Gregg S. Floyd, agrees: “The partnership is real and it is deep. Lefton, Ruller and Congressman Ryan all have the vision, have created the opportunity and are more than willing to put shovels in the ground to make it happen.”

For the past several years, officials from the university, acting together with the city and PARTA (Portage Area Regional Transportation Authority) had lobbied to realize this new version of the Kent dream. “This is a transformative event in the life of this community,” said Lefton on the day the grant was announced, “and a crucial event in bridging the city and the university. Our goal is to make Kent the Ann Arbor of Portage County, a place where students and parents will flock to shop and stay, so they can visit this great university and lovely town.”

In years to come, if the project reaches fulfillment, downtown Kent will indeed be transformed “to something you won’t even recognize,” adds Bryan Smith, director of planning for PARTA. Besides the multimodal transportation facility — a large terminal that will act as the transfer point for cars, buses, bikes and pedestrians to connect with areas as far away as Akron and Cleveland — Kent will eventually boast that new hotel, conference center and a vast amount of additional retail space.

Lefton sees that as only helping the university as well. For instance, he points out that the newly reconfigured journalism school, now housed in renovated Franklin Hall, could stage a national conference, given the added hotel rooms and space for meetings. That, in turn, can only help but create opportunity and publicity for the program, and eventually draw more of the best students and faculty to Kent State.

Ruller also sees the project as helping both Kent State and the town. “It gives the school the opportunity to have a university city feel to it, and that will help attract the best and brightest students and faculty.” For the city, he sees the project as a “leading economic engine” that will create jobs, commercial activity and serve as a breeding ground for new business opportunity, or what he calls a “habitat for entrepreneurs.”

Estimates of the economic impact are impressive, totaling $105 million in public and private development, an immediate boon of 266 construction jobs, the creation of 703 long-term jobs, and $5.8 million in annual tax revenue. The developers, politicians and university officials also think the project will create a lasting “halo effect,” which would benefit two of Kent State’s affiliated businesses, Kent Displays and AlphaMicron Inc., and lead to other student- involved downtown companies, such as those now occupying Acorn Alley.

Acorn Alley was the brainchild of local businessman Ron Burbick, who splits his time between Ohio and Florida. After years of talk about the dreary state of downtown, Burbick finally decided to do something about it, and with his own money. Putting $6.5 million on the table, he oversaw a project that transformed an alley and two buildings at the top of East Main Street into a complex that houses small retail shops and businesses, modeled roughly on the English Mews.  Many of those businesses are run by Kent State graduates, employ Kent State students who learn on the job and/or cater to student customers.

Among the shops in Acorn Alley is the Dancing Beta, Kent’s first and only sushi shop, run by a Kent native. Nearby is the Arctic Squirrel, an ice cream place; Rehab Vintage; the Pita Pit; the Main St. Snack Shoppe; Flasher’s Cleaners; and Jason’s Barber Shop.

Rehab Vintage, a used clothing store, is popular with student shoppers. Two other businesses are student-run and part of Kent’s Phoenix Project. The Main St. Snack Shoppe, which specializes in Ohio food products, operates in conjunction with the university’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Business Innovation. The Tannery, a full-service integrated marketing communications company, employs Kent State students from the College of Communication and Information.   

A few miles east of downtown — but still inherently linked to both the city and university, and certainly part of the “halo effect” — are two Kent State affiliated businesses, located in the new Centennial Research Park. Ironically, the 41,000-square-foot “park” is a former bus terminal that now houses spin offs of Kent State’s world-renown Liquid Crystal Institute®, which gave birth to the flat panel display industry.

AlphaMicron Inc. was the first high-tech company to open in the park, occupying 30,000 square feet and now employing 40 people. Founded in 1997 by a former professor from the Liquid Crystal Institute, the company designs and manufactures high-tech military and consumer products, and develops technologies that are applied to ski goggles, motorcycle visors, auto-dimming mirrors, flight deck goggles and luxury eye wear.

“When we were considering a move (to Centennial Research Park),” says AlphaMicron CEO Dr. Bahman Taheri, “we wanted to take our company to the next level.” Taheri explains that meant finding expanding space, but also staying in Kent, where the company could still interact with colleagues at the university. The company is a leading employer of Kent State graduates, and one of its products won a Popular Science “Best of What’s New” award in 2004.  

Another tenant of Centennial Research Park is Kent Displays Inc., a world leader in the research, development and manufacture of liquid crystal displays for electronic skin writing tablets, smartcards and eReaders. It’s newly launched LCD Writing Tablet, dubbed the Boggie Board, is now selling on and acts as a sort of paperless, electronic White Board. The company’s co-founder was an early Kent State Liquid Crystal Institute director.

Back in the downtown area, the talk these days is about one of the Gateway project’s unique features: a planned “Esplanade,” or pedestrian walkway that will connect the campus with downtown. “We wanted to create a seamless sensibility,” explains Ruller, so that the quarter mile between the downtown and the center of the university finally “all feels like one Kent.”

Board of Trustee member and former U.S. Rep. Dennis E. Eckart also thinks the Esplanade is a good idea, especially as a way of “embracing the city of Kent.” But he also saw a certain irony in it. “In 1970, there was a real tension between the city, the county and the university,” he said, and yet in the near future, the planned Esplanade will more or less follow the route the Guardsmen took from their first assembly point in downtown Kent, to their entry onto the campus.

When students use the Esplanade, Eckart explains, they will be following that same “marching path.” New students will come, and be welcomed into the heart of the city of Kent, he adds, then proceed “to get their first books, their first T-shirts and their first class assignments.”

If the hotel and conference center become a reality, the front door of any lobby would likely open within a few yards of the entrance to the Esplanade, figuratively putting Kent State on the city’s doorstep — or the other way around, depending on one’s viewpoint.

“What a dramatic turnaround for a city and a school that 40 years ago had seemingly turned their backs on each other,” Eckart adds.

Now it’s hard to imagine anyone doing such a thing, especially considering Kent State’s growing economic muscle. The university is now the 15th-largest employer in Northeast Ohio, a region once synonymous with steel, rubber, ship building and auto manufacturing. In 1970, Cleveland was the 10th-largest city in the country, and only a few generations removed from the days of men such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Mark Hanna, the titans who shaped the nation’s economy and populated its power structure.

Count Kent State among the modern faces of economic power and influence. “Kent State is an enormous resource to Northeast Ohio” says Lefton, adding that the school’s $500 million annual budget has a vast spin-off effect on the area. “Our ability to cooperate, collaborate and coordinate with local businesses, and to spawn new businesses and entrepreneurship, (plus) the businesses we set up in our Centennial Research Park, which acts as an accelerator, have a huge economic impact (on the region).”

Perhaps it goes without saying that the return on Ohio’s investment in Kent State University is substantial, but Lefton can’t help point it out anyway: “For every dollar the state invests in Kent State, it sees a return of about $1.80. We are the best investment you will ever see.”  

With such newfound power and pride, it’s hardly surprising that Kent State also has plans for a major transformation of its Kent Campus and myriad similar projects for the Regional Campuses. Such efforts, however, require boatloads of money. The university has settled on a unique idea to obtain those funds.

Kent State hopes to float a $200 million dollar bond for the main complex. Combined with other sources of revenue, the money would be used to repair, renovate and upgrade existing buildings, while reusing and repurposing others — and perhaps build more from scratch. The attempt would both freshen up the Kent Campus infrastructure and give it a new face in the future.

The man in charge of the money pot is Floyd. An affable, former Hoosier, he has to help find ways to squeeze those funds out of a tight economy, then properly allocate and distribute the goodies. In doing so, he also wants to follow Lefton’s agenda to make the environment at Kent State stimulating to both the mind and the soul, while hopefully attracting more of the best and brightest.

“Our plan is connected to the concept of centers of excellence,” says Floyd, “and as such, we hope it has an impact on academic priorities. We want our students to notice the changes, both qualitatively and aesthetically. Making the learning environment more attractive makes learning and study more effective as well.”

Floyd cites the new College of Public Health as one example: “At the moment, the school doesn’t have a building, but we want to create new space in Lowry Hall. It’s a way of repurposing what we do have to a new use.”

At the same time, some older, but still useful buildings, have been saved from the wrecking ball, and will be renovated in order to consolidate departments that are now scattered in various places around the campus.
With so much going on, the natural question arises as to whether Kent State also wants to expand beyond its borders, and/or make a run at being the biggest university in Ohio. When asked about that, Lefton turns the question around. “One of the questions research university presidents are always asked is do you want to get bigger?” he says. “That’s really not our goal. We want to focus on excellence, and the great thing about excellence is that it breeds more excellence … and then you tend to recruit great faculty and scholars.”

Kent State already has its abundance of superstar faculty and alumni, plus a host of new programs with high nationwide rankings. For instance:

  • Kent State is Northeast Ohio’s leading public research institution, and is ranked among the top 77 in the country by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. That research has led to 109 active patents, and helped rank the school as fifth among universities in the U.S. and Canada in patents issued per million dollars of research expenditures. Kent State is also ranked fifth by the Milken Institute among schools in the U.S. and Canada in the number of start-up companies formed per million in research expenditures.
  • The fashion design program is ranked among the top schools in the county, with affiliated studios in New York City and Florence, Italy.
  • The Kent State University Museum has one of the world’s finest collections of high fashion garments and is now hosting the world premiere of performance items worn by the late Katharine Hepburn.
  • The School of Journalism and Mass Communication is one of the top 20 programs in the U.S., featuring a convergent newsroom with a newspaper, website, magazine and TV and radio station.
  • WKSU-FM serves 22 Ohio counties and won more than 41 awards in 2009.
  • A new air traffic control simulation lab includes mock-ups of two air traffic control towers with 240-degree views and 20 computer terminals.
  • Kent State is expanding its global presence, while also recruiting more international students to its campus. The university offers study-abroad programs in China, England, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Northern Ireland and Switzerland. It also has collaborative agreements with universities in the Middle East and Asia.
  • The new College of Public Health is one of only two such schools in Ohio, and the first to offer a B.S. degree in the field. The college also plans to offer graduate degrees in the near future.
  • Kent State was named a “Designated Training Facility” by the National Institute of Health’s National Biosafety and Biocontainment Training Program, becoming only the second such facility in the country to earn that distinction.
  • Dr. C. Owen Lovejoy, a Kent faculty member for 40 years, recently made world headlines as a prominent member of the scientific team that spent 15 years reconstructing “Ardi,” the partial skeleton of a female who lived 4.4 million years ago.
  • Kent State graduate Alice Ripley,’86, won the 2009 Tony Award; fellow alumnus John Moauro,’07, is a star of the Tony Award-winning show Hair.
  • Former 1970s era Kent football player Nick Saban, ’73, ’75 M.Ed., coached the University of Alabama to this year’s national championship. Three former Golden Flashes are perennial All-Pro players in the NFL, and another starred in this year’s Super Bowl. Thurman Munson, Steve Stone, ’70, and Gene Michaels,’67, all played baseball for Kent State. Ben Curtis, ’03, played golf at Kent, and won the British Open as a member of the PGA Tour. Gerald Tinker, ’72, ran track at Kent and won an Olympic gold medal.
  • Other notable alumni include Drew Carey, David Sedaris, Arsenio Hall, Joe Walsh,  Chrissie Hynde, Tom Batiuk,’69, Chuck Ayers, ’71,  John Filo , ’72,  Carol Costello, ’04,  and Dick Goddard, ’60. Kent’s overall alumni family reside in all 50 states and 104 countries abroad.

Recent additions to the faculty and staff have given Lefton his own unique team at Kent State. Among his cabinet and the various deans — who number 30 in all — only two predate Lefton’s short reign. Among the dazzling recruits he singles out are Mark James, the founding dean of the new College of Public Health. James, a leading scholar and academic at Tulane, Lefton’s former stomping ground, served there in the Department of Tropical Medicine and is an inaugural member of the ASPH/Pfizer Public Health Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

“He’s an example of what is happening right now at Kent State,” Lefton says. “We are excellent, but we’re getting even better. And every time we get a little bit better, we get a little bit better still. It’s like being on a roll, and people want to go where the action is.”  

Another Lefton addition is Lauren Rich Fine, a practitioner in residence at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Fine sits on the boards and committees of numerous Cleveland-based organizations, ranging from a leading public relations firm and foundation, to the art museum and film society. “When you attract someone like (her),” Lefton says, “you then attract other distinguished journalists and analysts to help our students understand the new world of journalism and broadcast media.”     

Board of Trustee member Eckart agrees, but also sees other draws inherent to the Kent State story. “People who come here are forced to reconcile with the dissonance (from May 4),” he asserts. “We find our School of Journalism and Mass Communication is among the most sought after in the Midwest, inspired by the (struggle for the) right of a free press, and that our Department of Political Science draws (students) who say this is where the protest came together and I’m motivated, whether Republican or Democrat, to find out more about politics.”

Eckart thinks that’s a lure for both new department heads and young students, not necessarily just because of what happened at Kent State, but because those events provide a unique learning experience. “We are using our past to build a better bridge into the future,” he adds.

Di Paolo sees that bridge from the past to the future in Kent State’s story as well. At the Bowman Breakfast, he said, “This is a plea for the audacity to realize that Kent, and Kent State, are a lot more than ‘the place where they shot the students.’ That’s it’s a place where young people from all over the world come to receive a top-notch education in everything from aeronautics and fashion and business to journalism and nursing. It’s a place that realizes that diversity is a blessing, not a curse, and that the vibrant sprit of youth enriches a community.”

He continued: “This is (also) a plea for the audacity to accept the fact that history occurred on this campus and in this community, just as it did more recently in Columbine and Oklahoma City, at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And, while no sane person would invite tragedy to occur, we need to realize that we do not celebrate tragedy when we respectfully acknowledge it.”

POSTED: Thursday, April 22, 2010 - 12:00am
UPDATED: Monday, April 20, 2015 - 4:27pm