Portraits of a Pandemic

My former Palm Beach Post Chief Photographer is going to be disappointed. Every May 4, John J. Lopinot sends me a cryptic two-word message: “Never Forget.” He and I both know what he’s referring to – the killing of four students at Kent State 50 years ago. I haven’t forgotten, but this might be the last post on the topic.

Bear with me. I’ll get around to the point in a bit. With advanced age comes forgiveness for meandering.

2015 The Sky Has Fallen exhibit

Sky Has Fallen exhibit opening 04-17-2015

In the spring of 2015, Curator Jessica and I put together a major photo exhibit on the protest era at Ohio University for the Southeast Ohio History Center. The title of the show came from what has become Ohio University Post legend.

After a night of rioting two weeks after Kent State, the decision was made to close the university. The student newspaper, The Post, was on a hard deadline to get the story in print. Just before it hit the presses, someone said, “We don’t have a weather report for tomorrow.”

Editor Andy Alexander, a darned good journalist then and now, said, “Just write, ‘The sky has fallen.’”

A journey to Kent State

Kent State 08-25-2014

Jessica and I paid a visit to the Kent State May 4 Visitor’s Center to see how they handled the event and to see if there was any way we could collaborate with other Ohio museums for the 50th anniversary.

‘I didn’t want to be eating grass when I died’

Our guide was a fellow in a wheelchair who could glide up the hills of the grounds as fast as I could walk up them.

We were halfway through our tour when I realized the man was Dean Kahler, one of the students who had survived being shot that day. I hadn’t prepared to shoot a video, but I managed to capture his haunting tale. It was one of the most moving interviews I’ve ever done.

“I knew I had been shot because it felt like a bee sting. I knew immediately because my legs got real tight, then they relaxed just like in zoology class when you pith a frog,” he said. He never walked again, but he has turned into a highly competitive wheelchair athlete.

After the shooting stopped, he called out to see if there were any Boy Scouts around who could turn him over. “The only thought that came into my head was if I was turned over, would I bleed more internally than externally? I thought (shrugs shoulders) there’s a 50 / 50 chance that you’re going to die one way or the other. I knew I might die. I had a really good chance of dying, so I wanted to see the sky, the sun, leaves, peoples faces. I didn’t want to be eating grass when I died.”

What are we going to do for the anniversary?

Ohio University Protests

Jessica and I wondered how we were going to mark the 2020 anniversary of the event. What could we do that would add a new dimension to what we had already done?

I suggested reaching out to some Athens county residents and assembling a panel to talk about what they remembered. Not long after that, Jessica became a new mother, and we didn’t talk as often as we once did. I suspect she had barely enough energy to take care of ONE baby.

When the world changed because of COVID-19, I said, “I guess I don’t need to work to get a 50th anniversary show catalog to the printer, do I?”

1970 and 2020

She said she didn’t have any idea when they’d be able to open the museum, but it certainly wouldn’t be by May 4.

Then she said something that gave me pause: “There are a lot of similarities between 1970 and 2020. In both years, the university closed, graduation was cancelled, and the town emptied of students.

How about I come back to Athens?

After thinking about it for a couple days, I tossed out an idea: how about I come back to Athens to shoot a Portrait of the Pandemic? I will have missed the mass evacuation, but I could still document the empty streets, people in masks (or not), signage, anything that will help paint the picture of 2020, much like I had done with the turmoil and teargas of the ’60 and ’70s?

I still have the gas mask

I mean, I still had the gas mask Ed Pieratt shot my photo wearing during the riots. I could dust it off again.

I’m in the middle of reading John M. Barry’s excellent book, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. (He also wrote Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, a book I’ve read three times, and learned something new each time.)

Sign in Jackson, Mo., funeral home

That book has scared the bejeebers out of me because I’m in at least 2-1/2 of the high-risk categories. The more and more I read about governors opening up their states before we are anywhere near sure we are out of the woods, the more uncomfortable I became with the idea of driving 528 miles one-way to photograph people on the street.

When I was trying to justify the idea to some friends, I said that I had spent most of my life running into places other people were running out of. I may have made some bad judgments in retrospect, but I never made them without considering the risks.

It was time to do some serious risk analysis before jumping into this project.

In the end, I told Jessica that I’m not 21 years old anymore. I’ve dodged bullets in my life (literally), but I didn’t think it was prudent for me to risk what’s left of my days. I still have lots of film to scan.

I’m practicing social distancing

I’m trying to limit the number of places I shop, I wear a mask, and try not to have much contact with other people. The latter reason is why the only person I photographed wearing a mask was me at the top of the page.

Here are some images from stores in the Cape Girardeau area (plus some masks a friend left taped to my front door). You can click on any of them, then use your arrow keys to move through the gallery.

Vistors DO come by the house

Phoebe – Deer 05-02-2020

I’m not completely isolated. I parted the curtains to see Phoebe the feral cat and a couple deer visitors the other night. They weren’t wearing masks, but they were observing proper social distancing.

Previous May 4 posts

Here’s a list of stories and photos I’ve posted about the Kent State and protest era over the years. I’m not sure if I’ll be adding to it. Sorry, Lopi.

Another May 4 Memory

Chief photographer John J. Lopinot and I took buyouts from The Palm Beach Post 10 years ago this summer. Cox sold our paper to another Chain on the first of May. I wondered if this would be the first year I wouldn’t get the usual cryptic message from John: “May 4 – Never Forget.”

All is still right with the world. The message, reminding me that on May 4, four students at Kent State were killed by National Guardsmen showed up like always. It’s getting harder and harder for me to find photos of that era that I haven’t published, but here is what happened when Ohio University students occupied the vacant Chubb Library on the Athens campus.

It was a chaotic 24 hours. It started with a rally in Grover Center attended by more than 2,000. John Froines of the Chicago Eight was of the speakers. (Click on the photos to make them larger.)

The ‘liberation’ of Chubb Library

After the rally broke up, some of the students headed to the Main Green to the Chubb Library. A new library had been built, and the building had been standing vacant for about a year. Gail Schnitzer’s story in The Athens Messenger said someone broke the glass on a locked door and shouted, “Now, it’s open. It’s free. It’s yours – let’s go.” Most of the hundred or so people milling around were less convinced that this was a good idea.

Throughout the night, though, many people – some estimated as many as 150 – entered the building. They included students, faculty and staff, even though faculty marshals at the door were warning that this is “illegal – forcible entry”

Froines showed up to speak to the students. He urged them not to shut down the university, but to open it up by repurposing unused spaces like this one.

Freedom University

Some of the students argued that the library should be made into a “free university,” a place to study “relevant issues” and to form a Radical Studies Institute. “Freedom University” was the most popular name, primarily because of its initials.

Discord and debate were the order of the night. Many votes were taken and discarded as the students tried to decide if they would stay or leave, or if they should take the university’s offer of three meeting rooms, an office and a lounge in the Baker Center student union building.

Mellow folk music

Not everybody was into speechifying. This group picked a quiet corner to sing folk songs.

It’s going to be a long night

This pipe smoker must have figured it was going to be a long night, and he was going to be as comfortable as possible.

Waiting for the cops

Athens police officers in riot gear stayed outside, watched by anxious students.

Some of us media types figured that our presence might create a buffer that would discourage students from becoming destructive, and keep the police from over-reacting.

Let the university, not Columbus handle it

Dr. Edward Sanford, a physics professor, one of about five faculty members who remained throughout the night, cautioned the students to let Ohio University officials remain in control, “not the people in Columbus,” a reference to Gov. Rhodes’ calling in the National Guard at Kent State.

‘I’m sick of this, and I’m leaving’

Reporter Schnitzer wrote that a blond-haired student stood up on a table and shouted, “You’re all fools, man! You’re all ego-tripping. Everyone wants to do their own thing. You’re having a civil war right here – I’m sick of this, and I’m leaving.”

There were cheers from some, and “Shut up! Shut up!” from others. He walked out, and little by little, the crowd dwindled.

It was over by 6 a.m.

At 6 a.m., the remaining students were ordered to leave by Robert Guinn, OU director of security. President Claude Sowle said that all present complied with the order. At about 6:10, police officers entered the building. No arrests were made, and no force was necessary.

It wasn’t exactly over

Right after I left the library, I found out that someone had firebombed two buildings on campus that were under construction. Instead of going home and to bed, I had to shoot the damage and make a morning deadline.

So far as I know, the culprits were never identified. Most of the usual suspects were in the library when the fires were set.

The firebombing wasn’t the biggest blaze in Athens that night. It seems that Wife Lila, not too far from being a newlywed, had planned her first big dinner party where all the newspaper types were invited. Everybody who would would have shown up was busy with the night’s news, so she was left with lots of leftovers.

I tried to explain that there were no phones in the library, and that I was afraid to leave because I wasn’t sure I could get back in. That’s why I didn’t warn her that nobody was going to show up.

Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned this. Maybe she’s forgotten it after 48 years.

A look back

Here are some of the earlier stories I’ve done about the era.

Dean Kahler, Shot at Kent State

 

Kent State 08-25-2015I suspect one or two of my readers will grouse again this year, “Why are you bringing up Kent State? It’s ancient history.”

Dean Kahler has a good answer for that: “History will hurt you if you don’t learn about it. It’s important that you learn about it, and it’s important that you don’t forget about it so you don’t repeat it.”

Dean was one of nine students injured by National Guard gunfire on May 4, 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio. He was a first-quarter freshman, a farm boy from near Canton who was a conscientious objector because of his religion. He had read about demonstrations in the newspapers and national news magazines. “As a farm boy, you don’t get a chance to go to protests,” he said, ” because the cows have to be milked.”

Classes were supposed to be held as normal on May 4, so Dean decided to drive onto his campus to see what was going on. He was in the parking lot behind him in this photo, 300 feet away from the closest National Guardsman, when he saw them turn “with their deliberate motion.”

When he saw them turn, “I knew they were shooting.” He dropped to the ground because there was nowhere to run to and no cover for him.

Like when you pith a frog

[Watch the video to hear Dean tell about the shooting in his own words.]
“I knew I had been shot because it felt like a bee sting. I knew immediately because my legs got real tight, then they relaxed just like in zoology class when you pith a frog,” he said. He never walked again, but he has turned into a highly competitive wheelchair athlete.

After the shooting stopped, he called out to see if there were any Boy Scouts around who could turn him over. “The only thought that came into my head was if I was turned over, would I bleed more internally than externally? I thought (shrugs shoulders) there’s a 50 / 50 chance that you’re going to die one way or the other. I knew I might die. I had a really good chance of dying, so I wanted to see the sky, the sun, leaves, peoples faces. I didn’t want to be eating grass when I died.”

Dean and my old publisher

Kenner Bush - Dean Kahler at Sky Has Fallen exhibit opening 04-17-2015I was honored that Dean drove down from the Canton area for the opening of the Athens County Historical Society’s exhibit The Sky Has Fallen that contained scores of my photos. Dean, who was a well-regarded Athens county commissioner for eight years, is talking with Kenner Bush, my old publisher at The Athens Messenger.

Curator Jessica and I met Dean when we went up to the Kent State May 4 Visitors Center to talk about how the historical society’s museum could work with the visitor center on future exhibits about the protest era. I thought he was just a helpful volunteer until it became obvious that he had more than book knowledge about what happened that day.

The man who prevented a massacre

The Center had one of the most powerful videos I’ve ever seen anywhere. When they played the sound of the gunfire, I lost it. That was followed by a clip of professor who probably prevented a massacre. He stood between the guard and the students and begged the students to sit down. When the situation somewhat stabilized, the students took off in different directions “so that someone would be alive to tell the story.”

So, how long am I going to ride this story. Probably every May 4, just like my old chief photographer, John J. Lopinot will send me a message that just says, “Never Forget.”

May 4: Compare and Contrast

2014 Jackson HS Prom pix in Jackson Park 05-03-2014Mother and I were on our way to Wib’s in Jackson for my last BBQ before leaving Missouri. On the way past Jackson’s city park, a flash of glow-in-the-dark green and a small crowd caught our eye. I did a U-turn (causing Mother to gasp uncharacteristically when she thought I turned too quickly in front of an oncoming car) and headed into the park.

We drove around spotting other gaggles of kids in fancy clothes and even a horse-drawn carriage. Pulling up to the Green Gal gaggle, I rolled down the window and asked, “Wedding or prom?”

It was the Jackson High School prom.

The Green Gal Gaggle

2014 Jackson HS Prom pix in Jackson Park 05-03-2014The foursome provided names: Tessa Long and Amanda Matlock are in the front row, left to right, and their dates are Mitchell Graham and Alex Wright.

[Editor’s note: When I asked if was a wedding or a prom and was told “prom,” I joked, “Well, since you are all dressed up anyway, why don’t you go ahead and get married?” I got a call this morning that I must have had that on my mind when I was typing at 2 in the morning, because in the first posting of the story, I called Amanda Matlock “Amanda Wright.” I guess I was determined to marry her off. I have officially annulled her marriage and given her back her maiden name. Another note: the kids were home by 1 a.m. The prom ended at 11 and the stopped at Denny’s on the way home. I guess the younger Jackson generation doesn’t have the stamina that the Cape Central Class of ’65 had: our party lasted all night.]

Color coordination

2014 Jackson HS Prom pix in Jackson Park 05-03-2014Alex’s tie matches Amanda’s dress, but Amanda went him one better with her green socks and shoelaces. This is a gal who looks like she’s ready for some serious dancing.

Our May 4th memories will be different

Meeting on Ohio University Main Green after Kent State shootings 05-05-1970When Tessa, Mitchell, Alex and Amanda wake up on May 4, their memories of that date are going to different than mine. They are going to remember the clothes, dancing, music and fun.

I’m going to remember four Kent State students who were gunned down by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970. Former Palm Beach Post chief photographer John J. Lopinot sends me an email every year: “Never Forget.” I don’t intend to.

Another photographer and I were on our way to Marietta, Ohio, to a surplus store where we were going to pick up riot gear and head up to Kent State. We were about half-way there when a radio news bulletin reported the shootings, although the initial garbled reports had the guardsman as being the ones shot. We elected to get the gear and head back to Athens and Ohio University, because we didn’t know how our campus was going to react.

4,000 gathered on College Green

Meeting on Ohio University Main Green after Kent State shootings 05-05-1970The protest movement up until that point was fairly small and made up of “radical” students. That afternoon and evening, though, as many as 4,000 students, professors, townspeople, preachers and even a congressional candidate crowded onto the College Green to listen to speeches and to figure out what was going to happen next.

The most moving moment was when a young woman who said she was a Kent State student came out of the darkness and grabbed the microphone. She said she and some of her friends had witnessed the shootings and had agreed to fan out to the other state schools to beg the students not to allow a similar bloody confrontation to happen.

“The kids at Kent are running scared,” she was quoted by Tom Price in The Athens Messenger. “Don’t bring that here. Don’t throw rocks here. You don’t know how good it is to be here tonight. Just stay this way, please. Keep cool and stay together, please – male and female – because there have been two girls killed and two guys.”

Ministers call for 24-hour memorial fast

Meeting on Ohio University Main Green after Kent State shootings 05-05-1970After the young woman spoke, Rabbi Joseph Polak called for prayer, and silence fell over the 4,000 persons on the green. Each minister then offered his own short prayer.

“I’m calling you to prayer for your brothers and sisters at Kent,” the Rev. Thomas Niccolls said. “I’m calling you to prayer for your brothers and sisters in Vietnam. I’m calling you to prayer for your brothers and sisters in Cambodia.”

“As we pray for the dead and the dying,” the Rev. Robert Hughes said, “let us pray for the living and for ourselves. We have seen enough dying and enough pain for a lifetime.”

The Rev. Thomas Jackson concluded the prayer

Meeting on Ohio University Main Green after Kent State shootings 05-05-1970“I’ve gotta try one more time. I just want a moratorium for one day on the terms ‘jock’ and ‘Greek’ and ‘hippie’ and all the things we use to punch each other out.”

Praying the students realize what it’s like when people who are shot and killed, the Rev. Thomas Jackson quoted a Kent State student who said he thought the National Guardsmen were firing blanks, “until I saw her head blown open.”

“It’s time to quit blowing open heads,” the Rev. Jackson said. “It’s time to quit splitting up and hating and disgusting each other. Can’t we just once do it? Just one day, that’s all I ask. Please remember that head that was blown open. Do something embarrassing tonight. Like don’t kill each other. Like touch someone. Be a fool.”

A lengthy standing ovation from the demonstrators followed Jackson’s prayer.

OU Closed on May 15

Ohio University Protests May 1970Ohio University managed to stay open until May 15, when it closed after two nights of tear gas and rioting.

Previous posts about the Kent State eraPeace demonstration at Ohio University 02-22-1968