Twenty Contentious Years Haven't Ended the Pain Inflicted by the Tragic Shootings at Kent State

updated 04/30/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/30/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The tear gas lingers only in the memory of those who saw the horrors on Blanket Hill, and the vitriol of a divisive war has been muted by time. But Elaine Holstein, 68, vividly remembers the afternoon of May 4, 1970, when the "war at home" claimed her son as a casualty. Driving home from her job as a high school secretary in Plainview, N.Y., she heard on the radio that student demonstrators had been killed in a confrontation with National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio. She rushed to phone her younger son, Jeffrey Miller, a 20-year-old psychology major at Kent. "I thought I'd better tell him to get the hell out of there until things calmed down," she recalls. After many rings, a young man answered. "I asked for Jeff. He was silent, then said, 'He's dead.' Everytime I remember it, I feel the pain all over again."

Anger, grief and bitter tears will surely come flooding back next week on the 20th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State, which left four students dead and nine wounded—and which, more than any other event of that tumultuous era, came to symbolize America's deep divisions over the Vietnam War. As the university prepares to dedicate a controversial new memorial, those whose lives were irrevocably changed—the relatives of the slain, the victims who survived, the guardsmen who fired the fateful shots—are still coping with the tragedy. Says Henry Halem, 52, a professor of art at Kent who joined the protests: "We are all feeling the aftershocks."

"A child's death is impossible to describe," says Holstein, sifting through her memories as she sits in the living room of her modest apartment in Queens, N.Y. Jeffrey, who developed his antiwar fervor while still in high school in Plainview, had called on May 4 to reassure her that despite the widespread campus riots, he was all right. "He said he was going to a rally and might get arrested, but wouldn't get his head broken," Holstein recalls. His words proved tragically ironic. At 12:24 that afternoon, as he stood among the 2,000 protestors gathered below a line of advancing guardsmen atop Blanket Hill, Jeffrey was felled in a 13-second barrage of rifle fire; a 30-caliber bullet had shattered his skull. Killed with him were Allison Krause, 19, Sandra Lee Scheuer, 20, and William Schroeder, 19. Neither Holstein nor Bernard Miller, whom she had divorced the previous summer, were notified by university officials that their son was dead. "I kept thinking there had to be some mistake," she says, "then the media started arriving at the house. I remember saying, 'I can't survive this.' "

In the years that followed, she had to cope with more than her grief. Though she received hundreds of condolence cards, she was also besieged with obscene phone calls and hate mail—some smeared with feces—saying she had gotten what she deserved for raising her son as a liberal. Then there was the grueling trek through a maze of court proceedings. After eight guardsmen were cleared by an Ohio grand jury a month after the shootings, Holstein and the parents of the other slain students won the U.S. Justice Department's help in securing federal indictments for assaulting the students—but those too were dismissed in 1974 on a legal technicality. And after a 1975 civil court decision accepting the guardsmen's self-defense claim was overturned on appeal, the battle was finally settled out of court in 1979, when Holstein and the other bereaved parents each received a meager $15,000 from the state of Ohio—with no admission of wrongdoing.

As time passed, Holstein, who has been married to assistant high school principal Arthur Holstein since 1971, gradually pulled her life together. In the late '70s, she went back to college, earned a master's degree in 1981 and was a psychiatric social worker until her retirement six years ago. "I told myself at the 10th anniversary to stop talking about it constantly," she says, but her bitterness hasn't gone away. "I blame a lot of people, including the National Guard, but not as much as I blame the atmosphere at that time, Nixon and the Governor." As she goes through a wooden chest in the corner of the living room, carefully handling the letters, court documents and newspaper clippings about Kent State, she imagines that a 40-year-old Jeff would still have been a person of strong principle. "There is never a day," she says, "that I don't think about him."

Leon "Buck" Smith also has papers and mementos from Kent State, his in a dusty box in the attic of his Beach City, Ohio, home. He was a part-time policeman and trucker who was summoned for guard duty that May—and, at just 23, scarcely older than the demonstrators who were pounding his unit with rocks and bottles. "I thought, 'You don't have to be in Vietnam to be in a war,' " he says. "I was afraid." As he was walking backward up Blanket Hill, his vision and hearing restricted by his bulky helmet and gas mask, gunfire erupted. Smith fired too, he says, but only once into the air to scare a student who was about to throw a rock at him. "To this day," he says, "I know I didn't hit anyone."

Despite his protestations, Smith was indicted for firing in the direction of the protestors, and for the next 10 years the ensuing investigations and civil trial took a severe toll on Smith, his wife, Evelyn, now 43, and even their daughters, Kathy, now 23, and Laura, 18. Unable to work regularly during the 15-week trial, Buck had to sell his 18-wheel rig; the family pressures put a strain on young Kathy, who woke screaming at night and vomited frequently at school. A year before the settlement papers were signed, he quit his police job, fearing it might one day require him to fire his gun in self-defense. Eventually he managed to save enough money to buy a new truck but even now is still haunted by his memories. Reflecting on the lesson of Kent State, Smith is philosophical. "There was no right and no wrong," he says softly. "Everybody lost."

For the students and university officials who helped plan the May 4 monument, there is hope that some good can come of the tragedy. Located on a wooded grove near the hill where the shootings occurred, the memorial includes four massive stone blocks symbolizing the deaths and a granite terrace bearing the inscription INQUIRE, LEARN. REFLECT. "It's a reminder of what happened, and we need that," says Dean Kahler, 40, an Athens County commissioner who was shot in the back at Kent State and paralyzed from the waist down. But like the events it commemorates, the monument has been heatedly debated. The Ohio American Legion called it a memorial to terrorism. Others say the university mounted a halfhearted fund-raising campaign, resulting in a memorial too small to do justice to the dead. Says Alan Canfora, 41, who was shot in the wrist and watched as Jeffrey Miller lay dying: "It even omits the names of the slain students. Instead of allowing May 4, 1990, to be a day of healing, the university still attracts controversy with its lack of sensitivity."

Elaine Holstein, who will not attend the dedication, hopes that it will mark the end of her bitter association with Kent State and bring about a peace that has so far eluded her. "Sometimes I think Jeffrey's death made no difference," she says. "Other times, I think it may have brought the war to an end sooner. After all this time, I just don't know."

—Charles E. Cohen, Jane Briggs-Bunting in Queens, Sandra Gurvis at Kent State

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