Submitted by mail, April 7, 1998
An Open Letter to the Students and Faculty of Kent State University -- Past and Present
Dear Students and Faculty:
I visited your campus this past summer on a rainy Sunday morning in late August. It was nearly deserted. I had gone there to see the May 4, 1970 memorial, but I didn't know that's what it was called at the time.
I have been across the country and literally around the world -- never to Ohio though. I had gone to Sandusky to visit my in-laws with my wife and step-son. We rode the Mantis at Cedar Point, bought some coffee mugs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and saw Shamu the whale perform at Sea World of Ohio.
I had seen the sign for Kent State on the highway on the way to Sandusky and my wife agreed to our stopping there on the return trip home. It was out of our way and I don't think she was really all that interested, yet she went along with it. Indifference would probably be the best word to describe the feeling towards this side-trip.
Most people probably don't know there is a memorial on your campus, and if they do, I doubt they would go out of their way to see it like we did.
I was fourteen when the four students were shot to death and others wounded by some Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent. I have always remembered the incident because my only brother was in the Connecticut National Guard and was sent to New Haven, Conn., where a massive rally took place on the Green near Yale. The Black Panthers had vowed to burn New Haven to the ground. My father had died that August past and I worried about my brother getting hurt or killed. New Haven didn't burn, but the ROTC building at Kent did.
Three years later, after the draft had ended and the U.S. had pretty much left South Vietnam to fend for itself, my mother signed papers and I enlisted in the Air Force at seventeen. The closest I came to Vietnam was the Philippines in 1975 when Saigon fell to North Vietnam.
Anyway, I couldn't find the memorial as I drove around the campus that August morning, nor was I prepared for what I found there and the impact it had on me. The brochure I later got at the memorial said it overlooks the commons, but a more accurate description would be that it's behind a building. We walked between a couple of buildings and I would up at the Victory Bell before I saw the monument behind trees up the hill. On the way there I noticed the metal plaque near the base of the hill that said "58,175 daffodils" and I called my wife over. She took a picture. I didn't understand why it was there although I immediately knew what the number represented. I thought of that song, "Where have all the flowers gone" that was popular in the sixties. I think Peter, Paul and Mary sang it. I got a lump in my throat.
My best friend's future brother-in-law was a college student in 1970. He would wear headbands and drive us to blue grass music festivals in his BMW 2002. Not exactly a hippie, but certainly anti-war. Years later, I went to his home and found a deer hanging in his garage and a photocopy of a sign that read, "Don't worry about the dog -- worry about the owner". There was a picture of a handgun under the words.
The memorial itself is O.K. -- I guess. I stood on one of the four marble disks the brochure said represented the four students who had died. I saw my reflection in it as it said I should. My step-son who is fourteen himself now, pointed out the jagged end of the memorial that is supposed to represent conflict in society or something -- he thought it had been damaged.
I thought of my brother who always liked to say that artists and philosophers are people who like to sit on snowbanks eating yogurt while they contemplate life.
So after a while of milling around in the drizzle we got back in the car and continued on our way home. I read more about the memorial and the events of May 4, 1970 from the brochure as my wife drove. I noticed a diagram that showed I had parked my car where Jeffrey Miller had fallen -- it looked like a crime scene sketch.
Months later, after researching the events of that day, I have come to realize that it was, in fact, a crime scene.
The memorial performed its purpose as far as I am concerned. It is inscribed "inquire, learn, reflect". I did just that.
As we left Kent, I was inundated with an immense personal sense of grief and remorse that so many lives were wasted during the time of the war. I felt the same way after visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
Part of my remorse for the Kent State students can best be attributed to my life long feeling that over all these years, like many Americans, that they got what they deserved. They didn't. I am sure it has been difficult for the families that lost their sons and daughters and have had to go on in life without them. I'm sorry. I must also apologize for the uninformed view of the tragedy that I have expoused all those years. And finally, I'm sorry for where I parked my car.
I must admit to you that when I discovered early in my visit that 58,175 daffodils had been planted there, any personal walls of resistance and animosity towards the memorial came tumbling down immediately. I was dumbfounded and confused by such a gesture, for you see, the Veterans who fought and died in Vietnam are my personal heroes and to find them remembered there -- at this memorial -- was unconscionable to me.
I'm not an overly-emotional person, a die hard flag waver or a hard line right-winger. A truly tragic incident -- one which could have been avoided -- took place on your campus and it means something to me. Maybe politicians should be required to tour memorials before they are allowed to take office.
In ending, I'd like to return to Kent and the memorial someday, but I probably won't. That's why this letter to you is so important to me. If someone reads this many years from now, after I'm gone possibly, I hope they are reminded of the terrible toll the Vietnam War took on our country and how important your memorial is.
If I do go though, I'd like to go there in the spring -- that's when my wife says the daffodils are in bloom.
Jeffrey P. Rohan
April 7, 1998