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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State University in Ohio. On a spring day in 1970, National Guard troops killed four students during a protest against the Vietnam War.

(Soundbite of song, "Ohio")

Mr. NEIL YOUNG (Singer): (Singing) Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we're finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio.

INSKEEP: This is a song written in response to the shootings, by Neil Young, who saw a black-and-white photograph on the cover of Life Magazine showing one of the people who'd been shot. Even at the height of the Vietnam War protests, nobody imagined that troops would fire on unarmed college students.

Noah Adams, very familiar to NPR listeners, visited the Kent State campus last week, where they're getting set to mark the anniversary.

NOAH ADAMS: Out in the world, when people talk about this event, they call it Kent State. On the university campus and in the small town of Kent, 35 miles south of Cleveland, they call it May 4th.

Professor JERRY LEWIS (Former Sociology Teacher, Kent State University): I saw the smoke come out of the weapons, and light is faster than sound, and so I knew immediately those were not firing blanks. And so it was almost instinctive to dive for cover.

ADAMS: Emeritus professor Jerry Lewis. In 1970, he was 33, teaching sociology at Kent and often, at tense times, served as a faculty marshal. He'd had some Army training, was worried about bayonet attacks and butt strokes with the M-1 rifles. Lewis hadn't thought about live fire.

Prof. LEWIS: When I take people out here, I like to show them this. This is a bullet hole in the steel sculpture. I like to point out, this is what an M-1 bullet, .30-caliber bullet does to steel.

ADAMS: It's a perfectly round hole.

Prof. LEWIS: Yeah, that's right. And the artist, to his credit, has refused to fix this. So ironically, the Guard created their own memorial.

ADAMS: Here is the actual sound of the shots that day, from the archives of member station WKSU. It's a partial recording. The firing lasted 13 seconds.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

(Soundbite of gunfire)

ADAMS: Jeffrey Glenn Miller was killed and Allison Krause, William Knox Schroeder and Sandra Lee Scheuer. More than 60 shots came from 28 Guardsmen. Some fired into the ground. Some fired high on purpose.

This took place at an anti-war rally on the Kent commons. The Guard command wanted the students to go away. Tear gas was fired, the canisters flung back. Rocks were thrown. The students were screaming insults, giving the finger.

Then a group of Guardsmen moved in formation to the top of a small hill. Some of them turned in unison, aimed and fired. They could have just kept going over the hill. Most of the students were in a parking lot downhill, more than 100 yards away.

And for pProfessor Jerry Lewis, after 40 years, that is still the question: Why did the Guard start shooting?

Prof. LEWIS: Obviously, if you turn together in close quarters with bayonets, there must be some coordination. What I've always interpreted it as that they planned to fire, but fire high - because they were angry, they didn't want -they were poorly led. They were - their tear gas masks didn't work properly. And - but many people have used the turning together - and there were lots of eyewitnesses to that - as that there was a rough agreement to do that, or that there was an order. But I haven't seen any evidence yet that there was an order.

Unidentified Man #1: Somebody call up an ambulance. We need an ambulance up here. There's people dying down here. Get an ambulance up here.

(Soundbite of sirens)

ADAMS: For the students, the issue that day became soldiers on their campus.

The noontime rally had been scheduled to protest President Nixon's plan to extend the Vietnam War into Cambodia. That news came the previous Thursday. On Friday night, there was trouble, spilling out of the downtown bars. And by Saturday night, when the campus ROTC building was set on fire, the National Guard was already on its way.

Unidentified Woman: Chief Miller wants another unit up on campus. The kids have cut the hoses to the fire trucks, and they are setting fire to the buildings. The National Guard is on the interstate. They're coming off interstate now. They're on their way in, up 43.

ADAMS: Ohio's governor, James Rhodes, a Republican running a law-and-order campaign for the U.S. Senate, was in Kent Sunday morning. He was critical of radicals traveling the country, causing trouble.

Governor JAMES RHODES (Former Republican Governor, Ohio): They're worse than the brownshirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes. They're the worst type of people that we harbor in America. And I want to say this: They're not going to take over a campus.

Mr. DEAN KAHLER: Well, the first card that I opened up in the intensive care unit was a very nice-looking card. It was a get well card, but the note inside said: Dear communist hippie radical, I hope by the time you read this, you are dead.

ADAMS: Dean Kahler, in 1970, was a Kent freshman from a farm family. He wanted to be a coach. He was against the war but on that day, mostly he was curious about the Guard, about his rights.

When Kahler heard the shots, he laid on the ground. Then he was hit in the back, paralyzed, now 40 years in a wheelchair.

Dean Kahler did graduate and became a teacher, and often it would come time to speak of May 4th. He would say to his high school students: Go home and ask your parents about Kent State. Many of the reactions were positive, supportive. Sometimes, as a youngster would tell Kahler, it was a bad idea.

Mr. KAHLER: They told me not to talk to you about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KAHLER: I said, well, you know, I'm teaching American history, so we're going to touch on it. If you need to be removed from my room and go to another teacher to talk about it, go see the principal and the guidance counselor immediately.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #2: This is TV-2 News.

ADAMS: With the 40th anniversary coming up, the Kent student television station had stories to cover all over campus.

Ms. HEATHER VACLAV (Kent State Student): My name is Heather VacLav, V as in Victor, A-C, capital L, A-V. I am a news producer, as well as a news reporter and news anchor.

Mr. ERIC SNITIL (Kent State Student): Hello. My name is Eric Snitil. I'm from the Cleveland area, and I'm the chief meteorologist here at TV-2.

ADAMS: For both these students, the events of May 4th meant not much when it came to choosing a school. They were impressed with Kent State's academic reputation.

Mr. SNITIL: I came here for the program, broadcast meteorology - or broadcast journalism, rather, as it's one of the best in the country.

Ms. VACLAV: The university's really kind of turned it around and shed a light and creating a memorial, and people are more enthusiastic. You have people coming back. It kind of, I don't know, it's Kent State's claim to fame. You know, while the cause that originally happened back, you know, the original May 4th was very sad and tragic, I think now, looking back at it, the university's kind of just taken something that was negative and tried to turn it into something positive.

ADAMS: At Kent State tonight, there's a candlelight march around the campus, and then a silent vigil honoring the four who were slain, the nine who were wounded 40 years ago, on the 4th of May.

For NPR News, this is Noah Adams.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And you can see a famous photo of the shooting, at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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