Herbert Shapiro, a University of Cincinnati history professor, learned about the planned march while he was out of town. His wife called and told him that Thursday night, April 30, 1970. President Nixon had ordered troops into Cambodia. The Vietnam War had escalated and widened.
On that Friday morning, his wife picked him up at the airport and drove him downtown to Government Square. Students from the University of Cincinnati had marched downtown and were sitting down at the corner of Fifth and Walnut streets, by the federal courthouse, blocking traffic. Shapiro joined them. He sat down.
Police asked them to move. They refused. They were arrested. About 145 of them, all peacefully loaded into police vans and driven to the basement of Cincinnati City Hall, where the police lock-up was located back then.
“We were taken there, fingerprinted and put in cells,” Shapiro (pictured above on the UC campus) says.
Attorneys were contacted, and the protesters were eventually led into Hamilton County Municipal Court for arraignments; most all pleaded no contest. Within hours, Shapiro recalls, all were convicted of refusing to obey police officers’ orders, fined $50 and released.
The late Allen Brown, a well-known local civil liberties lawyer, represented Shapiro. The judge chastised Shapiro for allegedly setting a bad example for his students, then he fined him $50. The professor didn’t have the cash, so Brown opened his wallet and paid the fine.
“That was Friday afternoon,” Shapiro adds. “Then on the 4th (Monday, May 4) Kent State happened, and all hell broke loose.”
A university shut down
Four students were shot and killed on the campus of Kent State University that day. Another nine were wounded by the gunfire in an incident that’s come to represent different meanings to different constituencies: the end of political innocence, a death knell that began with the assassination of President Kennedy seven years earlier and continued with the tumult of 1968.
For some, Kent State meant the beginning of the end of campus protest, which had lasted just five or six years, and even the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War itself.
Kent State finally had demonstrated that no good was coming of the war, especially of its emotional and physical casualties: young people, whether they be conscripted soldiers, college students or even National Guardsmen, many of whom entered the Guard to avoid the draft. Parents took note.
Demonstrations and protests like the one Shapiro attended occurred on college campuses across the nation following President Nixon’s Thursday night address. And whatever course those protests would’ve taken had Kent State not occurred, the reality of dissipation was erased that Monday afternoon, May 4.
Within days, school years at universities and colleges across the nation ended prematurely. Campuses closed, dormitories emptied.
At UC, there was anguish and anger, some intimidation and spurts of bellicosity. But for the most part, there were no trashing, no physical confrontations. There was no violence.
School administrators and student leaders and even student radicals seemed to recognize from the start that physical violence — or the threat of violence — would only precipitate a response. Kent State could re-occur.
Consequently, in the wake of calls for a student strike, all classes were declared voluntary. Students took over portions of two buildings — the Van Wormer Administration Building and Beecher Hall — on Wednesday and Thursday, May 6 and 7.
Because the occupations were peaceful, university officials chose to let the students remain rather than have them arrested.
There was another march downtown on May 5, and close to 6,000 students, faculty and others participated. By all accounts, the march was described as peaceful, quiet and solemn.
Yet, by week’s end, on May 8, UC closed the campus indefinitely. The reason given was that students from other closed schools were spotted on campus mingling with the protesters. Disruption was feared from “outside agitators.”
UC reopened 10 days later, stayed open for one day and closed again for the academic year, about three weeks before its scheduled end.
The university did have a commencement that summer for graduating students, but it remains unclear just how many were able to participate. When UC closed, students went home. Myron Hughes, executive director of the UC Alumni Association, said that while it’s unknown how many attended the ceremony, about 4,900 students were awarded degrees.
The Alumni Association is holding a special anniversary commencement for the Class of 1970 on June 11. Hughes said a survey was sent to class members about eight months ago, and more than 150 have responded.
Gus Perdikakis, who grew up in Camp Washington and attended UC, is a 1970 graduate. Today he runs Gus Perdikakis Associates, a firm specializing in consulting and human resources. He remembers that spring grimly.
“It was a really scary time,” says Perdikakis, who opposed the war but didn’t participate in any of the demonstrations. “There was a lot of anti-war sentiment, and there was the hope that we’ll be backing out of Vietnam. Then the invasion was counter to that. It was too much.”
He’s excited by the prospect of the upcoming special commencement.
“It’s been 40 years to really recognize this class,” Perdikakis said. “I’m so appreciative, honoring this class, and thinking, ‘Hey, some of these kids did not have the opportunity to enjoy graduation after working so hard.’ ”
“The importance of this ceremony is to make sure people understand that UC does care,” Hughes says. “And that 40 years later we don’t want them to forget that we consider them a strong part of our UC family.”
Misinformation, anger filled the air
Four decades later, former students recall that hectic week as a series of snapshots in their memories.
Many don’t remember the details but do recollect the sheer exhaustion of that week, especially those involved in university governance.
They recall a time when good information was lacking and rumors were rampant. There were no cell phones and no social media, of course. Networking consisted of flyers, word-of-mouth, bullhorns.
It’s long gone, but the Student Union bridge connecting Tangeman University Center with the hillside leading to McMicken Hall was the central gathering place for students, the venue for political rallies or students setting up booths to promote campus organizations.
Mark P. Painter — a judge with the United Nations Appeals Tribunal and, for 27 years, a Hamilton County Municipal Court judge and First District Court of Appeals judge here — was just one day from stepping down as UC student body president when he found himself at midnight April 30 on the Student Union bridge, where hundreds of students had gathered to protest the incursion into Cambodia.
“I wasn’t required to be there (as student body president),” Painter says. “I was just seeing what was going on. It was a very strange time. Things were moving fast. Mike Dale (the incoming student body president) was there, too. I remember saying to him, ‘Tag, you’re it, it’s yours.’ I said I kept everything under control until midnight.”
Painter pauses and laughs. “I said, ‘Now it’s your problem.’ Of course, nothing got terribly out of control anyway.”
D. Michael Dale, the incoming student body president who graduated from UC in 1971, is executive director of the Northwest Workers Justice Project in Cornelius, Ore., a nonprofit law firm that represents low-wage workers with employment problems. He’s spent much of his career as a legal services attorney representing migrant farm workers.
“I came into office and there was turmoil,” Dale says. “It was really quite dramatic. It was quite challenging because on the one hand people in the administration were looking to me to be the voice for what all was happening on campus. Yet what was happening was quite literally changing by the minute.”
Dale was torn about the situation, he adds. Not only did he oppose the war and was horrified by what later occurred at Kent State, but he also realized he was a representative of the university.
“There was quite a bit of pressure to lead the protest and quite a bit not to,” he says. “It was sort of a cauldron of ‘What are your values? You better figure that out.’ I had quite a bit of sympathy for the point of the protest. In some ways it was a no-win proposition. When you tried to be helpful, you were attacked. When you tried to establish calm, you were trashed for that, too. You want people to like you, you want people to approve of you.
“I went to a high school in this small farming town up in Michigan. It was beyond my wildest imagination that I’d be in such a situation. It was an intense time. It was a time that made one think deeply about what’s important and what’s not and what your values are.
“One was challenged by whether you would go in and occupy a building. You had to figure that out. I was just a budding college politician. But there was no road map for that sort of thing. But if universities are about learning, it was a pretty good learning experience, actually.”
Dale did participate in and spoke at some of the protests and helped lead the second march downtown following the shootings. But he didn’t get arrested, although his vice president did. As student body president, Dale reasoned, he needed to deal with the university administration and respond to events, which would be difficult if he were behind bars.
“Also, I remember being concerned about maintaining enough credibility with the administration to be able to avoid an overreaction on the university’s part,” Dale says.
John Schneider was a student senator and graduated from UC later that spring. Today he runs his own local company and is a high-profile advocate for mass transit projects like light rail and the proposed streetcar system.
His recollection of the march downtown still is vivid.
Schneider recalls working hard to complete his thesis in economics, required for graduation, and submitting it in late April “so I could goof off the rest of the school year.”
“I didn’t participate in the demonstrations other than to march downtown,” Schneider says. “I didn’t have any sort of global views. But for a lot of students that was kind of a watershed moment — the National Guard firing on students. I think that sort of caused you to grow up in a hurry.”
Schneider notes 1970 wasn’t the first time he had experienced outside events intruding into his quiet life.
“There were race riots in Cincinnati in ’67,” he says. “I remember being on the roof of a fraternity house and looking east toward Avondale and seeing an orange sky, seeing military Jeeps driving around. So there had been this appearance of force in town before. And then this, a national event that focused attention on Ohio. It was a very tiring time. It was shocking that you would close a university.
“It was kind of a crazy time to be in school. There was no period or event like it prior to 1970, and certainly none since.”
Marc Rubin, a local attorney who also served as a student senator in 1970 and unsuccessfully ran for student body president that year (losing to Dale), recalls being at the student radio station on May 4 when the story came across a teletype machine: students shot at Kent State.
“And thinking, ‘Oh, expletive, this is really bad,’ ” Rubin says.
While Rubin was a progressive student opposed to the war, he didn’t always agree with the tactics of demonstrators. Indeed, he hadn’t participated in any demonstrations that spring.
“I had concluded that this was a tactic that, in all probability, was going to end badly,” Rubin says. “And it didn’t advance what my sense of what a university was all about. Universities were places where people argued strenuously about their ideas but that people didn’t take up guns. When you seized a building, the conversation ended and it was an exercise in violence. That the only real responses available at that point to folks who disagreed with you were either violence in return or capitulation. I just didn’t think it was right.”
Additionally, Rubin mentions the sheer exhaustion of that week.
“I also remember trying to figure out what was going on, in the sense that there were lots of rumors, lots of uncertainty,” he says. “As a student senator, I felt I had some responsibility to understand what was happening. There was a lack of clarity; information was really inadequate. I remember being frustrated by that.
“I also remember feelings of intimidation. The folks who were occupying the buildings and driving the process were definitely trying to intimidate folks who were trying to keep the university open.”
Besides the decisions to allow attendance at classes to be voluntary that week, to not forcibly remove the 200 or so students occupying the two buildings and finally to close the university, there were no decisions on various other demands.
UC did not condemn the war in Vietnam, did not abolish the ROTC program and did not change the name of a building under construction at the time — James A. Rhodes Hall — to Peace Hall.
Rhodes was the fiery Ohio governor at the time who had ordered National Guard troops on standby before they were finally sent onto the Kent State campus. He also was finishing up a Republican primary race for U.S. Senate against Robert Taft Jr., a Cincinnati native.
Painter was a volunteer on the Taft campaign that spring and recalls the reaction of Rhodes supporters who assumed Kent State would help him in his Senate quest.
“They were gloating, ‘Well, that seals the election for us,’ ” Painter says. “I said, ‘Well, here’s what you got to look at. Who’s at Kent State? Who were their parents? Middle-class Republican primary voters from suburban Cleveland. That’s who you just shot!’ ”
Rhodes lost to Taft two days after Kent State.
Marc Rubin (left) and John Schneider served in student government at UC in Spring 1970 and struggled with the administration's decision to close the school. "It was a very tiring time ... a crazy time to be in school," Schneider says. "There was no period or event like it prior to 1970, and certainly none since." (Photos by Cameron Knight)
Broadening students’ horizons
Shapiro’s detention on May 1, 1970, was the only time he’s been arrested. The Cambodian incursion felt like a betrayal to many who had believed Nixon would begin winding down the war, an issue he campaigned on two years earlier.
“My objections to the Vietnam War had numerous sources,” Shapiro recently wrote in an e-mail. “The unjustifiable nature of a war, steeped in racism, that sought to deny the Vietnamese the independence to which they were entitled, the atrocities that characterized the war, and the policy of duplicity with which the Johnson administration took this nation to war. As is evident in the current Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the lessons of Vietnam are still to be learned.”
Painter felt closing UC was a wise decision.
“We were, I think, the only public university open in Ohio, everybody else had closed,” Painter says. “So should you stay open as a matter of principle? And if you’re the only game in town, where are all the ‘troublemakers’ gonna go? Right here in River City.”
Schneider agrees: “I think it had to be done. The atmosphere was not conducive for serious education.”
Dale believes the decision was inevitable.
“What I remember is a lot of exhaustion,” he says. “The administrators were exhausted, students were exhausted. It just felt like everyone was just so frayed, people were so tired, it felt to me that the best thing to do was just back away or something really bad was going to happen.”
Forty years later, and the irony, as some note, is that college students for the most part are actually more engaged in civic affairs today. They look beyond their college campuses.
With perhaps some exceptions, while college campuses aren’t “hotbeds” of student radicalism and activism, students seem to be more active in community organizations and events, and when they do, they do it off-campus, whether it’s Habitat for Humanity or relief work in foreign nations.
Their world is less insular, and their horizons stretch farther.
Schneider comments on this trend.
“I wasn’t from Ohio, and I wasn’t even sure where Kent State was,” he says. “We were in our own little world. I never went downtown when I was at UC. Now you’ve got all these UC and Xavier students who are very active. In the ’60s it was all about campus focus.
“After that, students started opening their eyes to what was going on around them.”