As a college freshman in 1968, there was still an air of formality involved in classrooms and organizations. We dressed up for class, wearing skirts and pantsuits. I remember wearing my graduation dress to freshman orientation the previous summer and my parents were dressed in church attire… heels and hose, suit and a tie.
By May of 1970 when I was a sophomore, changes had taken place. The Hippie look was now part of even the Midwest conservative college scene. Bell bottom trousers and jeans, tie dye, and lots of fringe and leather. Most of us had long hair and we had now reached the point where the guys hair was just as long as the girls.
Those of us who were students in May 1970, at Bowling Green State University, remembered vividly the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy… we were just junior high and high school students when that horror began.
As I walked across campus on May 4, I remember it being sunny and warm, with the promise of summer break approaching. As I approached the Student Union I was surprised to hear shouting and chanting and as I read the flyers that were being handed out describing briefly what had happened, it brought all those terrible feelings back again. Following a weekend of disruption and demonstrations about the Vietnam War and other issues, students had been shot and killed by National Guardsmen at a demonstration at Kent State University…. just a couple of hours away from our campus.
By the time I got back to my dorm, everyone was talking about it, many were crying, many were also packing their bags to head home. I felt afraid, shocked. It was unbelievable to think this had happened. I kept thinking about my fiance who was a member of the Army Reserve. How could this happen?
Later that afternoon an assembly on the lawn of campus in front of Williams Hall began and student speakers were ready to organize our own type of protest to what was happening. Like magic, microphones were set up on the steps and students began to gather.
Classes were forgotten. Everything was forgotten except the tragedy that had just happened and we waited eagerly for more news. Each floor in our dorm had only one TV in the common room near the pay phones and there was not continuous coverage like there is today. We waited for the evening news. We listened to radio to find out anything we could.
Parents were desperately trying to call in and find out if everything was ok at BGSU. There were rumors that there were demonstrations at all campuses and one rumor was that BGSU students had formed a human chain to block the traffic on Interstate 75 which ran east of campus. My parents said they were coming to get me, but I said no. I wanted to stay and be a part of campus at that moment. It seemed like where I should be.
Just hours after hearing the news, a group of students briefly occupied the BGSU Administration Building on the west end of campus, demanding that classes be cancelled and demanding to talk to Dr William Jerome, President of BGSU. He agreed to speak at Williams Hall where a meeting was planned. Eventually classes were cancelled and a memorial service was planned for the students who were killed.
Later that week a candlelight march was held. We walked from campus to the downtown area in eery silence as others lined the streets and watched. When classes resumed, there was much discussion about the incident.
Campuses changed after that. Its hard to explain. We realized how vulnerable we were. We realized that having a voice could be dangerous. We were the generation who would be in charge in a few years. The simple, fun-loving, carefree days of youth were quickly disappearing. Sometimes I look back and think of all the violence and disruption that was part of my world growing up. Each generation has a fair amount of that. My parents’ generation dealt with the Great Depression and WWII and all the baggage that came with it. I think of college students today learning to live with a pandemic, having their lives disrupted at a time in their life where everything should be exciting and challenging, and just plain fun.
Its important to remember the tragedies that have been a part of our history. We should have learned from them. We seldom have control of them. And we can’t forget the ones that didn’t get to grow up with the rest of us, the soldiers, the victims of violence, and four students lost that May.