As a high school student and budding photojournalist years ago, Mike Venso first took an interest in what occurred at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, through the lens of another photographer: John Filo. Filo was a student at Kent State when he captured the Pulitzer Prize-winning image of Mary Ann Vecchio grieving Jeffrey Miller, one of the four students killed by Ohio National Guard troops during a campus protest 50 years ago Monday.
Venso, who would later meet Filo, eventually left photojournalism and entered the museum field, where he now works as the Missouri Historical Society’s military and firearms curator. His interest in the Kent State shootings and related Vietnam War-era protests at colleges and universities across the country, including Washington University in St. Louis, has stayed with him.
Most recently he’s been doing research toward a planned exhibition at the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum in downtown St. Louis. It will provide an in-depth and locally focused look at the Vietnam War era and will go on display in fall 2022.
As part of that effort, Venso has been digging into Washington University’s archival materials from 1970, when student protests peppered the spring semester. In the midst of marches, strikes and other anti-war demonstrations, two ROTC buildings at Wash U burned to the ground.
On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Venso joined host Sarah Fenske to reflect on this pivotal moment in American history. Joining the conversation was Howard Mechanic, one of seven people who faced charges in the wake of what occurred at Wash U.
In addition to describing in detail the events of 50 years ago, Venso noted that various demonstrations at Wash U, the University of Missouri-St. Louis and other educational institutions throughout the region and the U.S. had been going on for quite some time.
As early as 1964, when the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution expanded President Lyndon Johnson’s military powers in Vietnam, students near and far were organizing and rising up in opposition to the war.
But the deaths at Kent State did further ignite an already chaotic time, including at Wash U, where protesters gathered near a campus ROTC building and broke out some windows. Eventually, a fire started.
Mechanic, who called into St. Louis on the Air to share his story, was a Wash U student at the time, and his life was completely changed by the events that night. He told Fenske that while he was charged with throwing a firecracker, it’s not quite as simple as some may think.
“There’s some misunderstanding that there’s a firecracker that was causing the fire; actually, there’s a photo of somebody holding a piece of paper lighting it with a cigarette lighter,” Mechanic said. “There were several people in the building. I was not charged with that, with burning the building; I was charged with throwing a firecracker, and there was never anything, any testimony whatsoever, saying a firecracker caused the fire.”
Mechanic was convicted twice, at both county and federal levels, over the firecracker, even though another student later came forward saying Mechanic didn’t even throw it.
He served a six-month sentence early on, during which he said a guard at the St. Louis County jail told him he “wanted to put a bullet” in Mechanic’s head. He was also sentenced to five years for the federal charge, and as Mechanic explained on the show, he didn’t think he could face that “after the treatment [he] got in the county.”
“I decided to live under another name, which I did for 28 years after that,” Mechanic said.
The talk show team also heard from a number of other listeners who shared their recollections from this period, including Mike Moll, who was a 20-year-old student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in 1970.
“A professor walked into our classroom,” Moll recalled via email, “and said that several students were shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State University. ... All of us at UMSL had seen some students protesting the Vietnam War on campus. However, for the majority of us UMSL students life was school, study, work, sleep, repeat.
“Of course, I [also] remember the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK,” Moll’s email continued. “I remember the Challenger Disaster and September 11. But, May 4, 1970, I’m sure left a major impression on me and other college students across the country, who had been deferred from the draft because of our attending college. My lottery number was 195. By the time I graduated from UMSL the Vietnam War was slowly coming to an end.”
Retired St. Louis Public Radio reporter Dale Singer wrote: “I was a student at Wash U at the time. I remember four crosses set up in the Quad, then some of them were replaced by Jewish stars the next day. I went to class, good boy that I was, but some fellow students heckled me.”
Listener Rachel Webb wrote on the St. Louis on the Air Facebook group page: “I wasn't alive yet, but I seriously considered attending Kent State in the 1990s. I have vivid memories of visiting the campus and it was interesting how the university was memorializing the tragedy while also trying to move forward and to make itself known as something more than a place where people were killed.”
Paul Kilpatrick, who was a college student in western Pennsylvania at the time, wrote to St. Louis on the Air calling the Kent State shootings “electrifying.”
They took place “only 50 miles away, and several [of our] faculty were also grad students there,” Kilpatrick said. “The iconic picture [by John Filo] of the girl kneeling by the dead body shot by the National Guard captured students’ feelings everywhere: Disbelief, horror, fear. [My school] Geneva College was not nearly as conservative as it was even a few years later ... and the response was overwhelming. I organized a ‘black arm band’ response, and well over half the student body participated.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
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