Vearl Mathis Harrington, Personal Narrative and CommentarySubmitted via email, April 22, 2000
I was 20 and a junior at Kent State on May 4, 1970. I am now 50 and a mature woman...but some things have never left me from that horrible couple of months. My spirit was broken for a long time after May 4, and it took me a long time to get my faith in mankind back. It wasn't until I got out into the working world as a teacher, that I felt like I could make a difference. The commitment to public service, and activism for peaceful change is one of the positive changes that May 4 had on my life. Instead of being part of the problem, I became part of the solution.
It's hard to relate to the late 60's today, because the mood of the country was so different. We were just happy-go-lucky kids from the suburbs, who didn't have a care in the world when we came to Kent in 1967. Then, terrible tragedies started happening that turned our world upside down. Martin Luther King was assasinated, Bobby Kennedy was killed, the blacks were rioting in the cities, political unrest was brewing. It seemed like the world was going mad. This went on for 2 years, and the tragedy at Kent was the climax of this hateful climate in the country.
Vietnam was an issue, but not the major part of anybody's day at Kent. Just something you saw on the news every night for years. There was nothing you could do about it, so you didn't worry about it. I never knew anyone who went to Vietnam, until some of the returning vets started attending Kent. I became friends with a few, but they rarely talked about it either. Kent was just not a political campus, like Berkeley or Columbia. My gut feeling about some of the protesters (a small group) on campus was they just didn't think there was enough action at Kent, and were "Columbia Wannabes". I respect anyone who is a true believer in a cause, but I don't respect people who cause trouble to get personal attention.
I observed a lot that went on in the days that preceded the shootings, mostly because it was too frightening to stay in your room and not know what was happening. I lived off campus, in a girl's rooming house called the "Brown House". It was just across the street from the campus, towards town. When they started rioting in downtown Kent, my friends and I went to see what was going on. I was not a participant in the destruction, as my father would have kicked my butt and pulled me out of school. I just wasn't raised to destroy things senselessly. But being a History major, I wanted to take it all in. This kid who was breaking store windows with rocks came by me and said "We're liberating the streets!" I said to him "What if that was your father's store that they're destroying? What did he do to deserve it?" He just looked at me and said "We're liberating the streets!", obviously caught up in the euphoria of destruction and not much into common sense. I was very skeptical of motives after him.
Shortly thereafter, the police started chasing all of us back towards campus, and I found out what it was like to run and hide from the police for 3 blocks!
The next night, Saturday, the National Guard started arriving. They put a curfew on the campus, and helicoptors were flying overhead with searchlights hitting the ground. It was surreal.. They burned the ROTC building down that night, and I sat on the porch of the "Brown House", and watched tanks and army trucks roll by until the wee hours. It was too hard to sleep with all the noise and trauma.
Sunday, was a calm and circus-like day, with the presence of the National Guard on campus. There was a tank on the corner by my house, and we went over and flirted with the soldiers, who were our age. We went and looked at the remains of the ROTC building, which was a charred mess. We thought that was the end of the rioting and mayhem...
Monday, May 4, seemed pretty uneventful at first. No one thought there would be trouble with so many guardsmen on campus. I went to work in the cafeteria at Allyn Hall, down the hill from the architecture building. Lunch time came and very few kids showed up, as they were either in class or up at the commons to see a demonstration. I was looking out the windows as I cleaned tables, and the campus radio station was talking about the confrontation. It was about the time that I saw an ambulance going up the hill that they told about the shootings. Within the hour, they closed the cafeteria and told us to go home immediately. I was scared to death, because I had to walk across campus to get home, and I didn't know what was going to happen. I'll never forget walking by a Guardsman with his rifle tilted up towards me, and a bleak, scared look on his face. We were both speechless and terrified.
I stayed away from the commons, as I feared I would be arrested or shot. As I got near the edge of the campus, I counted at least 100 police cars in a parking lot. It was definately a police state at Kent!
I called my mother to tell her what happened, and that I was going to the airport to catch a plane for NJ. At first she was skeptical and thought that I just wanted to get home and see my fiancee. I told her to turn on the TV, and all I heard her say was "Oh My God". The campus was shut down indefinitely by then, so I just packed a suitcase and my books and got a ride to the city limits. The police weren't letting anyone into town. I saw an acquaintance who couldn't get back into Kent, and told him I would pay him to drive me to the airport.
The response I got back in New Jersey was frightening. I came from a very conservative, Nixon-loving town. My dad had no use for "hippies", and didn't know how to react to all of this. It wasn't until my neighbor said to us "They should have shot them all", that he got mad and took a stand. He then realized that I could have very well been shot walking to work, as some of the victims were. But this was an opinion I heard a lot, so I didn't talk much about being at Kent State to anyone.
The hardest thing to accomplish was finishing up the quarter's courses. We were only half way through the quarter, so we had to do the work or take an incomplete. I really give the faculty an A+ for caring enough to make it work for everyone. I was getting married in August, and didn't want to get behind in graduating. I was an History major, and really into courses that required extensive research. The material was not to be found in the local library. I had to go into New York City, and go to the libraries at NYU, Columbia, and the city library to do research for my papers. I worked twice as hard as I would have if I'd been at Kent, so it was no vacation. I also ran into a peace march, the AFL Against the War or something. I watched for a while, and then it brought my emotions to the surface. All the anger and rage that had been caused by this stupid war came upon me, and I cried. Then I joined the march, something I would never have done 3 months earlier.
I never went back to Kent until July to get my belongings. I got married, and returned to campus in September with my husband. He tried to get a job in the area, but was turned down as soon as they found out his wife was a Kent State student. The shootings attracted a lot of wierdos to the campus, and I remember being so paranoid that someone was going to set a bomb off while I was in class. I think we were all really shellshocked, and angry that our beloved school was in a shambles. There weren't any counselors to talk to like they have today, you just kept it all inside. I remember one of my education teachers asked me what was wrong with me, because he saw a change in me. I just felt hopeless and disillusioned that whole year. I just wanted to escape... I came up with the brilliant idea of joining the Peace Corps, and went through interviews. But my husband didn't want to go, so we were eventually turned down.
When I went to my 10 year high school reunion, I noticed that so many people seemed to have escaped to a peaceful place to live. Every body lived by a mountain or ocean in remote parts of the U.S, just escaping the violent 60's. We moved to the Jersey Shore in 1973, where there was peace and a slow life like we had in Ohio. I made it my goal to make the world a better place, by volunteering for worthwhile organizations that get things done through political action and good works, not violence.
I have always tried to make a difference, by volunteering for worthwhile organizations that get things done through political action or good works, not violence.
I always felt that Kent was a tragedy that should have never happened, that neither side could be blamed. In today's world of riot control, it just wouldn't have happened. It just shows that violent confrontation + poor communication = tragedy. I found out what it was like to be hated, just for being there on campus. Years of defending myself and Kent, made me, the non-political girl from NJ, take a stand on things in the world. It was a different world then, when children's opinions didn't count in the adult world. But when the children got cut down in cold blood, it gave the United States a wake up call.
That was the good that came out of it all. After Kent, the adults started demanding an end to the madness, and things started happening. The war was de-escalated, Nixon resigned, Vietnam fell. The horror was over...