Gunshots had just rung out on the Kent State campus that warm and sunny May 4, but many students still hovered around the commons. Some tended to the wounded; others wanted to continue the protest in spite of the situation; still others stood close by to grasp the situation. In these days before tweeting and texting, the best way to find out what was going on was to be among the crowd.
Faculty marshals attempted to quell the chaotic scene. Geology professor Glenn Frank shouted warnings to students to leave the commons. Frank, who had been nearby when the National Guard fired its shots, feared the violence would escalate if the crowds didn’t disperse.
“I can still hear the pleading in his voice: ‘Please, please leave!'” recalls Nicholas Phillips, who was a senior at Kent State at the time.
Although they eventually began to stream out of the commons, many students didn’t entertain the thought of leaving campus – until authorities ordered them to do so.
Hours after the incident that left four dead and nine wounded, the Kent State campus was ordered closed, first by the school president and then indefinitely by an order from the Portage County Court of Common Pleas.
At that point, things happened quickly, according to Phillips.
“It was almost like being on a sinking ship – you just had to leave everything there and go,” says Phillips, who was a resident assistant at Stopher Hall, not far from the commons. “Later, they allowed small groups of students to go back and get their personal possessions, but that was long after the incident.”
Phillips remembers campus buses arriving to take students where they needed to go, even as far away as Cleveland and Youngstown.
The campus was eventually cleared, but there was much work to be done. According to the paper “The May 4 Shootings at Kent State University: The Search for Historical Accuracy” by Thomas R. Hensley and Jerry M. Lewis, who was one of the faculty marshals on campus at that time, the faculty had three clear-cut responsibilities during the six weeks the school was closed and into the summer of 1970:
“Beyond helping thousands of students finish their courses, there were 1,900 students as well who needed help with graduation. Talking to students about courses allowed the faculty to do some counseling about the shootings, which helped the faculty as much in healing as it did the students.
“Second, the university faculty was called upon to conduct research about May 4, communicating the results of this research through teaching and traditional writing about the tragedy.
“Third, many saw as one of the faculty’s challenges to develop alternative forms of protest and conflict resolution to help prevent tragedies such as the May 4 shootings.”
Because classes were not allowed to take place on campus, professors devised other ways of completing courses with their students.
“We’d get big brown envelopes in the mail from our professors outlining what needed to be done in order to graduate,” Phillips says. “Most of the work was research and essay-writing. It was all done via correspondence.”
Phillips and some of his fellow classmates would meet at the Glen Morris Apartments across the street from campus to work on their assignments.
“These were the days before computers and printers,” Phillips says.
He chuckles when recalling that he got an A in tennis without ever swinging a racquet.
“Tennis only took place during the second half of the spring quarter,” Phillips says. With classes cancelled, he and other students were instructed to read a book about the sport on their own.
Some faculty members did hold off-campus lectures. Norman Duffy, for example, conducted chemistry sessions in Kent and Cleveland.
The next time the Kent State campus opened was for commencement ceremonies on June 13, 1970.
“It was a somber-type mood. The whole event was dominated by what had happened,” Phillips says.
“It was weird being back. It seemed like an eternity – May 4 to June 13 – but it was only five weeks,” he adds.
While college graduation took place on campus, the cadet commission for ROTC members took place elsewhere due to safety concerns, according to Phillips, who was a member of ROTC at the time.
Looking back, Phillips says he and many other students didn’t quite comprehend all that had happened by the time they had graduated.
“I don’t think we realized the depth and the magnitude of what had taken place,” he says.
Robert I. White, president of Kent State at the time, and some of his faculty had done little else during the six weeks the campus was closed than study the magnitude of the incidents in early May. It was their responsibility to put the situation in perspective and decide how to carry on.
The University Commission to Implement a Commitment to Non-Violence was created on May 21, 1970, and consisted of faculty, students, administrators and a couple of community representatives. They met 30 times between May and September and made 30 sets of recommendations to implement a nonviolent atmosphere on campus. Recommendations that were accepted included a new identification card system and an emergency communications system.
Kent State officially reopened to students for summer classes on June 22, 1970. But the dust had far from settled. Lawsuits were being filed against the state of Ohio and the National Guard. Kent State was fighting its way out of a situation that would muddy its reputation for years.
“It became a stigma, and the school had to work its way out of that,” Phillips says.
For those who graduated, there wasn’t much time to stop and reflect on the incidents of May 4. Phillips went on to attend law school at the University of Akron and then spent four years in Hawaii with the Air Force. He currently heads the litigation department of Phillips, Mille & Costabile Co., LPA. Phillips also has a radio show on WHK in Cleveland, on which he recently interviewed Lewis in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Kent State shootings.
Like many of those who were on the Kent State campus that day, Phillips has had the luxury of time to assess what happened and, perhaps more importantly, why it happened.
“People got the idea that Kent State was some hotbed of political action,” he says, “which it wasn’t.”
He sees the incident as representing a significant and tumultuous time in America’s culture.
“There was a kind of them-against-us pairing off,” Phillips says, referring to members of the early baby boomer generation and local and national leaders. “The establishment demanded control and respect, and so did the students.”
Schools such as Kent State “had no strategy to cope with it,” Phillips says. “I don’t see where colleges are that way anymore.”