For many of us, the May 4, 1970 shootings at Kent State University is a historical tragedy that played out in the news. For 73-year-old Ned Vederman of Pepper Pike, it is far more than a story; it is a memory filled with sadness, regret, frustration and even anger. As a graduating senior, he was in the center of what happened that day, watching people die, and losing a dear friend. Speaking to him by phone, he still gets choked up at times. These are his words.
“The drama started Friday night when kids went to downtown Kent and basically went nuts, breaking windows and staging huge protests against the Vietnam War. Like any major campus across the country there were a lot of serious protests. On orders from the Gov. [James Rhodes], our campus was put on curfew. I recall the protests continued on Saturday where they burned down the ROTC building and that’s when the National Guard was called in. Even though the campus was basically shut down, there were still protests going on throughout the weekend with kids getting arrested.
Monday was a beautiful, cool and clear day. Kids were going to classes and there were protests again. The National Guard was there and it felt a little like you were playing tag with them. They would throw tear gas at the protestors and you would dodge out of the way to avoid it. That is quite an experience – like somebody tossing knives into your eyes. You can’t breathe, can’t see, very painful. I had been against the war for years. You’re a young kid and believe the war is wrong so you want to show up. I was never involved in the violent stuff and believed in the right to peaceful protest. This was different.
The guard was maneuvering around campus covering a lot of ground. The main unit was centered on the field that ran up to the architectural building. Kids were pushing up against the guard, screaming in protest. Those that got too close would be arrested.
My friend and I were positioned in a parking lot right by a dormitory. We watched as the guard marched up to the top of the hill, saw them turn and suddenly started to fire. The shots were going off and all I could hear was my father’s voice in my head shouting ‘Duck!’ I immediately pushed my friend down onto a car. He said, ‘It’s okay, they are only using blanks.’ I didn’t know what to think. For about ten or eleven seconds there was constant gun fire. And then it stopped.
When I got up, I immediately started to see the bodies on the ground and a lot of blood. There was so much blood on the ground. I saw Jeffrey Miller and William Schroeder die. So many others injured. One kid was shot in the back and was crippled. We grabbed another kid who had been shot in the foot into the dormitory. Then the ambulances came. Helicopters were flying overhead announcing the campus is closed and you need to evacuate. We were all in shock and no one was leaving. You could still smell the gun powder.
A large group of us sat down together and then teachers came out with bullhorns, pleading in tears for us to leave They said, ‘You have to leave. The guard has told us they will fire again. They will kill you if you don’t go home.’ I believed it. I lost a good friend that day; Sandy Scheuer, who wasn’t even part of the protest. She was just on her way to class. Sandy was great. I ate lunch with her every day at the Union. She had a fantastic sense of humor. What would her life had been if she had lived? I went to her funeral in Youngstown and that was it for me. I never went back, never went to graduation.
I don’t talk about this very much. It was very traumatic. If you have been in combat then you may have a frame of reference but for days on end I would hear a loud noise and duck.
I still have fond memories of Kent. It was a great school. I was part of a great fraternity and made great friends. But going through something like this has definitely lent itself to a degree of paranoia. They [the Ohio National Guard] were clearly marching up the hill to look down on the protestors. Their turning and firing into a crowd was murder. I am still angry. For those of us who were there, we will never forgive and never forget.”