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Dean Kahler: Visitors' Center helps him move past May 4, 1970
Dean Kahler, among the most severely wounded of the 13 Kent State students shot by the National Guard on May 4, 1970, tours the new May 4th Visitors' Center being dedicated this weekend.

Kabir Bhatia
The students hunched over in the top right are attending to then-freshman Dean Kahler, moments after he was shot on May 4, 1970.
Courtesy of Kent State University archives
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The May 4 Visitors’ Center is being dedicated Saturday, 43 years after 4 students were killed and 9 wounded during an anti-war protest in 1970. One of the wounded, Dean Kahler was shot in the spine and remains paralyzed from the waist down. Kahler spoke with WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia about what the new center means to him, to Kent State, and the nation.
Dean Kahler at Kent State's May 4 Visitors' Center

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“There’s a picture of me, leather helmet and leather pads and a football sitting on our family farm.”

Dean Kahler grew up in an average, but politically engaged, household in East Canton. As he grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s, he became increasingly aware of how America worked. And how he felt it didn't work.

“The craziness was happening around us with the Civil Rights movement. The anti-war demonstrations going on. And then there were these ‘crazy’ people called women starting to ask for their rights – wanting equality. Then you throw in the environmental on top of that. So our society was in a state of flux and change.”

Kahler was a conscientious objector, and with a high draft number of 330, he headed to Kent State for his first quarter in the spring of 1970. After five weeks, he was still adjusting to life on Kent State's campus when he decided to attend a political rally.

“Contrary to popular beliefs, not all of us were able to go to anti-war demonstrations. I was a farm boy. It was happening on my campus [and] I wanted to see what was going on. And I was quite disappointed.”

May 4, 1970
“There was a few people with a bull horn talking about the ‘isms’ of the day. Communism, capitalism, socialism, racism, sexism, environmentalism. And I was thinking, ‘What the hell does that have to do with getting us out of the war in Vietnam?’”

Kahler decided to head to the student union for a cup of coffee. But things quickly grew tense and confused.

“I watched the National Guard sort of throw tear gas canisters at the students. I found out later they weren’t actually firing them, just throwing them. They were throwing stones at the students. The students were throwing stones back at them.”

Kahler hit the ground and, when the coast seemed clear, as the guard seemed to retreat, he got up and started walking away.

“I saw them turn, very deliberately, lower their rifles and start shooting. Some were shooting up. Some were shooting down. Some were shooting at us. You talk about a terrifying feeling is bullets hitting the ground around you and all of a sudden you get hit.”

The May 4th Visitors' Center
His story is just one of those interwoven into the May 4th Visitors’ Center, which opened last fall and is formally dedicated this weekend. It’s divided into three sections: one explaining changes in society up to 1970, one describing the day of the protest, and a final section for reflection and commentary on the event that’s defined Kent State.

Kahler has lived in a wheelchair due to his injuries that day, but says he’s personally come to terms with what happened. And he’s glad the Kent State University is recognizing the events as well. 

“In the first maybe 20 or 30 years, the university wanted to sweep it under the rug. And I felt the university was missing a chance. But as I’ve seen the university grow, and I’ve grown along with the university, [it’s taken] incremental steps to recognize what happened here on May 4th.
"This [provides] a forum for what happened to me to be told in a way that people now and in the future can see and understand that this was a seminal event in American history. When you talk about Richard Nixon, you have the ‘ates’: Watergate, real estate and Kent State.”

"Get Well Soon"
That's a far cry from when Kahler woke up in the hospital after the shooting.
“My first piece of mail that I opened was this beautiful Get Well card. And I opened it up and it said, ‘Dear Communist Hippie Radical: I hope by the time you read this, you are dead. And they should have shot more of you.’”

Still political
He still has those letters somewhere in his East Canton home, and says he eventually plans to donate them to the university. In the decades since the shooting, Kahler finished college, became a teacher and remained politically active, even serving in the administration of Ohio Secretary of State Tony Celebrezze. If nothing else, he hopes that spirit of engagement carries through the May 4th Visitors’ Center and the students on campus today.

May 3, 7pm "Student Activism 1970-2013" panel with Bill Ayers (SDS) and David Burstein (author, "Fast Future -- How The Millennials Are Shaping Our World"), plus comments by SDS founder Tom Hayden KSU Student Center, Kiva Auditorium
May 3, 10:30pm "May 4 Voices" premieres... a tele-play based on the "Kent State Shootings Oral History Project”  Western Reserve PBS (WNEO 45.1/WEAO 49.1)
May 3, 10:30pm Candlelight March (begins at Victory Bell, moves to Prentice Hall Parking lot at 11pm at the four locations where students were killed in 1970). Continues all night until noon on May 4. Victory Bell on KSU Commons, moves to Prentice Hall
May 4, Noon-2pm Tom Hayden, Bill Ayers, David Burstein, Russell Miller (brother of KSU martyr Jeff Miller), Joe Lewis (1970 KSU eyewitness & injured casualty), eyewitness Chic Canfora and others  KSU Commons (Student Center Ballroom if raining)
May 4, 4pm Historians' educational panel moderated by Gwen Ifill of PBS’ Washington Week and the PBS NewsHour  Cartwright Lecture Hall
May 4, 7:30pm Film director, screenwriter & producer Oliver Stone will share his thoughts on “History and Memory in Film,” drawing on his films that depict ’60s-era events Cartwright Lecture Hall
May 5, 11am-Noon Meet Cybelle Jones and Carl Rhodes, designers of the May 4 Visitors' Center  Taylor Hall, Rm. 144

(Click image for larger view.)

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