A chance meeting, and how the campus shootings at Kent State University inspired a lifetime of social activism.
by Ken Garfield
We were a couple of long-haired college kids who bumped into each other one snowy November night in 1971 in the Akron airport. I had just landed in a blizzard and needed a ride to Kent, Ohio. Tom Grace had just flown in from a weekend away and was headed back to Kent State University. He was the first person I asked for help. He said yes. I sat in the back of his car packed with friends for the ride to his rental house, where he gave me shelter from the cold.
What are the odds? I was a college freshman who had traveled to Ohio to study the killing of four students during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State on May 4, 1970. Tom was one of the nine students wounded that spring afternoon. Fifty years later, America marks that moment in history, at least those of us who still honor its significance. And 50 years later, two old college students revisit that providential encounter in the airport, those 13 seconds of gunfire, and how it shaped his life and mine.
Tom is 70. I turned 67 on May 3. It seems like a lifetime ago. And yet just a moment ago.
Tom and I have kept up through the years — Christmas cards, the occasional email, a telephone interview for a story I wrote a decade ago. I bought his book: Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties offers a scholarly look at the shooting in the context of student activism. Tom wanted to make the book about more than just him. His editors had to twist his arm to write about how the bullet entered his left heel and exited his foot. If he stands in one place too long now, the foot still goes stiff. If anyone asks, he says it’s from an old injury. There is no particular snapshot of the day that flashes to Tom’s mind, no single, inescapable memory. Maybe that’s how he was able to find a path free of bitterness.
As the 50th anniversary of May 4 approached, we talked by phone for nearly two hours. I could hear the strain in his voice. He can go a year without someone interviewing him about Kent State. But for this anniversary, he’s talked with, among others, a filmmaker, a college newspaper reporter and a writer for the American Association of Retired Persons magazine.
The son of a social worker, Tom’s dreams had always extended beyond himself. He went to Kent State to study history. He loved family visits to Civil War battlefields and hoped to work for the U.S. National Park Service. Then came Vietnam. That afternoon at Kent State, Tom, a sophomore, was among the many students who gathered to protest the war and the presence of National Guardsmen on their campus. He was 200 feet from the guardsmen, running away from them, when he was shot. Other students were simply walking across campus when gunfire erupted at 12:24 p.m. Such horror, and idiocy. Tom shared an ambulance with Sandra Scheuer, an honors student in speech therapy who had been walking between classes. She died from an M-1 bullet that severed her jugular vein.
Tom went home to Syracuse, N.Y., to heal. He returned to Kent, and in 1972 earned a bachelor’s in political science and history with a minor in English. In a diverse and rewarding career, he’s been a social worker, union representative, author and college history professor. He earned a Ph.D. in history and has been a leader in keeping the memory of May 4 alive. Some concrete good came from the shooting: The following year, for example, the 26th Amendment was passed, giving 18-year-olds the right to vote. Many historians believe Kent State forced President Nixon to withdraw U.S. troops more quickly from Cambodia.
Formally retired, Tom still teaches history at SUNY Erie near his home in suburban Buffalo, N.Y. Taking a bullet, Tom says, reinforced his commitment to social activism. It helped give him a voice that resonated beyond what he ever could have imagined. It taught him that ordinary people are often the ones who make history. It reminded him to count his blessings and, like me, to put family first. When he became a father of two children, Alison and T.J., he thought of the four sets of Kent State parents who lost their children. Now with an infant grandson, Nathan, Tom’s heart has grown even more tender for others who know loss.
Fifty years later, Tom is content, but in an I-must-do-something-meaningful-with-my-life sort of way.
I am content as well, but restlessly, like Tom, for there are stories I want to tell, sorrows I want to help us learn from.
My parents raised me to care about the world beyond my own. Before Kent State, I was already protesting the Vietnam War. Kent State stoked the fire inside me. I dropped out of college to work for George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972. I went to Washington and volunteered for a congressman who served on the Judiciary Committee that impeached Richard Nixon. I returned to college and wrote my senior thesis on Kent State. Woodward and Bernstein drew me to journalism. Newspapers drew me to writing about loss and legacy. Talking to people about the meaning of their lives stirred me to think about what my life means. What good did you do with the time you were given? What good did I do?
These moments of mortality, of introspection, bubble to the surface each May, taking me back to Kent State and that encounter with Tom. For many of us, it and several other college-campus shootings signaled the end of an age of innocence. Think of the violence, darkness and division that enshroud us now. Maybe May 4, 1970, was a springboard. What was it Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young sang about four dead in Ohio? “We’re finally on our own …”
But, I will leave that to the historians.
I just wanted to recount the story of that snowy night nearly 50 years ago in the Akron airport, when I bumped into another child of Kent State, and how each of our journeys took us down similar roads. SP
Freelance writer/editor Ken Garfield is a frequent contributor to SouthPark magazine. Reach him at email@example.com.
Photograph top courtesy Kent State University News Service May 4 photographs. Kent State University Libraries. Special Collections and Archives.