Couple recall horrors, lasting impact of 1970 Kent State shootings

The May 4, 1970 Memorial at Kent State University.


By DAVE SUTOR | The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa. | Published: May 4, 2020

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — On the morning of Monday, May 4, 1970, David Lester was a soon-to-graduate college senior who was usually focused on “making sure my beer was in my belly and I had fun,” as he jokingly said when reminiscing about his days at Kent State University.

His fiancée, Linda Opfermann (now Lester), was a self-described “fairly conservative preppy kind of student.”

But their perspectives on life soon violently changed.

Shortly after noon, Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on a group of protestors on the Kent State campus, sending approximately 61 to 67 shots into the crowd. Four students – Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer – were killed. Nine others – Joseph Lewis, John Cleary, Thomas Grace, Alan Canfora, Dean Kahler, Douglas Wrentmore, James Russell, Robert Stamps and Donald MacKenzie – were injured.

The 13-second burst of gunfire – the culmination of four days of riots and tension between the Guard and protestors – changed Kent State, the anti-Vietnam War movement and the already deep generational divide in the United States.

Linda was eating lunch when the shooting happened. David was walking around campus.

“One of my fraternity brothers, who I knew was a criminology guy, major – what I didn’t know until afterward they had already recruited him and he was working with the police after the stuff going on over the weekend to try to find the outside agitators, so he had some inside information,” David said, recalling a memory from 50 years ago. “He sees me and he says, ‘Where you headed?’ I said, ‘Over to the rally.’ He said, ‘Don’t. I heard there’s going to be problems.’

“And the bus came, so I hopped on the bus. And, as I’m riding around campus on the bus, the five minutes or so it would take, the sirens started to go off. And by the time I got off the bus and went to the steps of a hall, the sirens are going off, and I see this guy I knew from class, out of breath.

“I’m going, ‘What is going on?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘I was at the rally. They started shooting. I started running. Somebody beside me dropped. I don’t know. I’m getting out of here.’ ”

Word about the shootings quickly spread around the college.

“I would say within minutes – 5 to 10 minutes – you just heard,” Linda said.

Although neither saw the incident, both were transformed by being students at Kent State when it occurred.

“I called myself slightly left of middle back then,” David said. “Let me put it this way, the Friday night going into this weekend, I’ll call that May 1, I was slightly left of middle. Come Monday night, I was way left.

“If there was a revolution, I was going to join it. If we were going to take down the country over these people killing students, I was on the side of the students in a revolution. Now, I never did anything about it. But I’m just saying my mentality had that kind of a shift.”

The shootings made Linda “realize something was not right in our government and I needed to become more involved.”

And, like with many young Americans at the time, Linda’s beliefs put her at odds even with some members of her own family.

“My uncle came and said something about ‘All those kids should have been shot’ or something, ‘deserved to be shot.’ ‘If they were doing some protesting, they deserved to be shot,’ ”

Linda said. “Well, my mother just went off on him and chased him out of the house. That was her brother. I’m not sure they spoke much after that.”

‘I was just a target’

President Richard Nixon announced on April 30 that the United States had escalated the Vietnam War with the Cambodian Incursion.

About 500 individuals responded the following day – Friday, May 1 – by demonstrating at Kent State, an event that included the burying of the Constitution, symbolizing its murder. Riots occurred around midnight. Kent Mayor LeRoy Satrom declared a state of emergency and sought help from Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes. Bars closed early, exacerbating the situation among students who were out for the night.

The Army Reserve Officer Training Corps building was burned down on Saturday.

Demonstrations occurred on Sunday, with rocks and bottles being thrown and tear gas being fired on multiple occasions. On the same day, Rhodes said the occurrences at Kent were “probably the most vicious form of campus-oriented violence yet perpetrated by dissident groups” and described the individuals involved as “worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”

Finally, on May 4, about 2,000 demonstrators gathered for a banned rally to protest the war and the Guard’s presence on campus.

Uncertainty still remains as to why the shooting started. But more than 20 Guardsmen fired their weapons.

James Russell, one of David’s Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity brothers, was shot.

“He was the only one of the injured or killed students that was not wounded with a military-style bullet,” David said.

“He got shot with pellets. You have to go look at diagrams, but where the shooters were and where most everybody else that got injured or killed was in a certain I’ll call it a band pattern. And Jim Russell was completely – I won’t go 180 degrees – but almost away. All of the other students that got shot and wounded were with the military-style bullets. Jim had these pellets.”

He was struck by shotgun pellets in the right thigh and right forehead at a distance of about 375 feet. Twenty-five years after the shooting, Russell described the Guardsman who hit him by saying: “He was on a turkey shoot. I was just a target. He saw me running away and he just wanted to bag a student,” in a quote that was used in a 2007 article in The Oregonian, a newspaper in Portland, Oregon.

Russell was passing through the area and not actually participating in the protest.

‘Positive change’

Today, Linda and David live in Jackson Township and are developing Nathan’s Divide, a planned nature center by the reservoirs in Ebensburg. The goal is to create a spot where people can experience the educational, health and wellness, and spiritual benefits of being in nature.

“I think we’ve both been more involved in environmental things, trying to make more positive change in what’s going on,” Linda said.

It is the latest endeavor in their lives involving nature.

After college, they embraced a back-to-the-land philosophy, raising animals and growing organic gardens. “I think after this shooting and after this incident, Linda and I both decided to be more self-reliant,” David said.

Both trace that interest in the environment and helping others to their time at Kent State and the day of the shootings.

Linda was involved in the education of deaf children for years.

David was a biologist with a self-described passion for the environment – who left the region, but soon came back home to be with Linda, his wife of almost 50 years now.

“I wouldn’t be who I am today if Kent wouldn’t have interrupted my trajectory, what I thought my pattern would have been coming out of living here,” David said. “I had that attitude that said, ‘When I escape here it will be a one-way street. I don’t intend to ever live here.’ It took living other places for a few years to realize the benefits of being here in this area. That fell kind of in with the back-to-the-land and the self-sufficiency.”

Linda said: “A lot of who I am has to do with what happened at Kent. I just feel I’m more aware of what’s going on. And I try to be a positive influence with people around me.”

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This graphic shows how Kent State University students and the Ohio National Guard interacted on May 4, 1970.

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