For now it is now virtually in art alone that suffering can still find its own voice without immediately being betrayed by it. [1]
—Theodor Adorno


The day after President Nixon’s announcement of an imminent US invasion of Cambodia, a group of Kent State University history graduate students—calling themselves World Historians Opposed to Racism and Exploitation (WHORE)—convened an anti-war rally on the Commons, a central area of the campus often used for outdoor meetings. As it was a Friday, students packed the local bars later that evening. The mood was one of resentment at the escalation of the war in the face of the President’s earlier indications of pending disengagement. As the night of drinking wore on, some of the students poured out into street, where they ignited a bonfire. In response, Kent’s mayor ordered an early closing time for the bars, a decision that resulted in further swelling of the crowd. An unknown number of drunken students smashed several dozen shop and car windows before being herded back onto campus. The next evening, unidentified individuals—later determined to have been mostly non-students—burned down the campus’ wooden ROTC building. It was at this point that the Ohio National Guard was called in.

Sunday, May 3, 1970, proved to be a day of high tensions between the National Guard and the students, many of whom were apathetic towards the war but felt put upon by the continued presence of armed troops on their campus. The institution of a confusing curfew policy and a seemingly total breakdown of authority on campus put students in the mood to march. A demonstration was planned for noon on Monday. In comparison with the activities of the past weekend, Monday’s gathering began in relative calm. Nevertheless, the Guardsmen ordered the students to disperse and—irritated with their noncompliance—tear-gassed the crowd before advancing upon them. The troops were met with return volleys of empty tear gas canisters whose contents had harmlessly dissipated in the afternoon breeze. The Guardsmen continued to push the students back.

The confrontation continued this way for twenty minutes, until the troops were ordered to regroup at the top of a grassy knoll popularly known as Blanket Hill. (The nickname referred to the amorous, moonlit intentions of the knoll’s typically unarmed occupants.) The Guardsmen’s reversal necessitated turning their backs to the students, some of whom began throwing rocks and other debris. At the top of hill and for reasons that remain unclear to this day, several of the Guardsmen turned and fired their weapons on the students, killing four and wounding nine. [2]

The public outcry at the events of May 4 in which Allison Krause, Sandy Schreuer, Jeffery Miller and William Schroeder—himself a ROTC student—lost their lives was international, immediate, and divided. Opinion was spilt between those devastated by the loss of four students and those angered that in a time of war, Americans would side with rowdy students against young men in uniform. In the United States, Neil Young composed the hit song, “Ohio,” which attempted to capture both the grief of American youth and their frustration with President Nixon, whose tepid response to news of the shootings alienated many. As the song’s haunting refrain put it:

_Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio…_

In Moscow, the poet Evgeny Yevtushenko composed a poem dedicated to Allison Krause, which appeared in the Communist Party organ Pravda later that spring. Titled “Tsvety i puli” or “Flowers and Bullets,” the poem begins, “Tot, kto lyubit tsvety,/ Tot, estestvenno, pulyam ne nravitsya…” (Those who love flowers are, naturally, unloved by bullets.) At the other end of the spectrum, numerous letters to the local newspapers defended the National Guard and blamed the students for their misfortune. [3] The university, shattered by its loss, made efforts to comfort its surviving students through the end of the academic term. It proved far more resistant, however, to formally commemorating the tragedy with a monument.


In 1977, with no formal memorial yet erected worth the name, the Kent State administration announced its intention to commence construction of a gym annex long planed for a site adjacent to that of the shootings. The decision sparked protests from groups across the country, not least from Kent State students. Numerous makeshift protest organizations arrived at the campus, including the YOUTH INTERNATIONAL PARTY, which distributed fliers promising to “spell the name of the fucked-up state of (ohio) in a fucked up way (OHIGHO). [sic]” Their activities including pieing Governor James Rhodes—the man who had authorized the calling-up of the Guard—in addition to leaders of conservative pro-administration groups like Citizens Concerned with Preservation of Law and Order in Portage County. [4]

Tragically, the frustration felt by Americans of all ages and political leanings was most vocally and visibly expressed by the fringes of the left. Protestors constructed a tent community at the proposed building site during the summer of 1977 and delayed, but failed to prevent, the gym’s construction through court actions. [5] Students and other interested parties formed the May 4th Coalition to fight for more fitting recognition of the tragedy, but such actions only inspired more vitriol from Ohioans unaffiliated with the university. While the pile of preserved letters from Ohioans to the university and to the press in 1977 contain many ungrammatical, chicken scratched rants against Jews, communists, and assorted other third-party minorities, even the statements typed neatly on professional letterhead were largely unequivocal in their opposition to the protestors. Kenneth S. Hoard, a local contractor, complained:

“Every person taking part in tearing down the fencing around the site of the new gymnasium should have been arrested and severely punished. Reasoning for the action was and is stupid. The shooting of the rabble-rousers a couple of years back was the best thing that ever happened…We just cannot afford to permit these radicals, who contribute nothing, to burn and pillage at will. In fact we cannot afford to lock them up and care for them in jails with ice cream and colored television. These creatures should be eliminated without fanfare.” [6]

Kenneth Foote, professor of geography at University of Colorado at Boulder, has described how “[s]hame can be a powerful motive to obliterate reminders of tragedy and violence,” but that the “element of denial that lies at the heart of obliteration can block this process of bereavement.” [7] Kent State’s ham-handed effort to write the shooting—and its controversial meaning—out of history with a gym annex succeeded only in reopening old wounds. When students and parents held a vigil that May, one victim’s mother attended, telling a reporter, “I’m sorry we weren’t here before…We didn’t know this still mattered here.” [8] Meanwhile, the local B’nai B’rith Hillel group placed a small metal plaque at Kent State in 1971. This was replaced in 1975 with a modest gravestone memorial sponsored by the faculty, but not, tellingly, the administration. [9]

Though no official memorial appeared at Kent State until 1990, to argue that the university was categorically unsympathetic to the desire to commemorate the shootings would be unfair. The problem lay not in the intentions of the administration, but rather in their inability to conceptualize what kind of memorial they, their students, their neighbors, and posterity could live with. While, on one level, the student body and, on another, the nation saw themselves as part of an aggrieved constituency of the tragedy, Kent State, as a public institution, also felt bound to an intermediate and far less sympathetic echelon, that of the Ohio taxpayer. While the New York Times complained in an October 1977 editorial—“[t]he proposal by the university’s president, Bradge Golding, to honor all the parties involved in the tragic confrontation, including the National Guard, was remarkably insensitive,” and that “[t]o honor the killers would be to insult the victims”—this was not a sentiment necessarily shared by the families of the Ohio National Guard. [10] Neither did it help matters that the courts had, in the meantime, cleared the Guardsmen of criminal guilt in the shooting. Yet, were the May 4th Coalition’s claim that “you [Kent State] want to build a gym and cover up your wrongdoing,” entirely correct, it would be hard to explain the events of the following year. [11]


In January 1978, Peter Putnam, of the Mildred Andrews Foundation, contacted the university.12 He wished to issue the internationally known sculptor George Segal a $100,000 commission for a commemorative statute to be presented to Kent State. The university accepted. [13]

On February 23, having agreed to consider the commission, Segal received a $10,000 check—the first installment for materials and ten percent of the total—from Putnam with instructions to cash it if he agreed to accept the terms outlined in the accompanying letter. Segal would be obliged to “visit the Kent State Campus to consult on the project, as well as prepare preliminary drawings and photo-collages on the basis of which the university will make its final decision [on accepting or rejecting the gift].” Further, Putnam wrote, “In the very unlikely event that they decide not to go ahead with the piece, you will deliver all preliminary drawings, photo-collages, and any other relevant work on the project done by you to the Museum at Kent State College.” Segal found the proposed amount to be adequate, but balked at the suggestion that he should have to surrender any of his work to an institution that would so little value it. [14] On March 10, he called Putnam to express his concerns. Putnam agreed to a revision of the contract and put it in writing that same day:

“[T]his is to agree to a modification of our earlier contract, allowing you to keep all drawings, photocollages, etc., related to your proposal to Kent State University, if the University rejects your proposal…. In the unlikely event of a rejection of our proposal by Kent State, the Mildred Andrews fund retains the right to go ahead with the commissioning for itself, on the same basis as in the contract sent to you, with the sculpture to be delivered, along with photocollages, drawings, and photos of work in progress, to such a place in the U.S.A., as the Mildred Andrews Fund may designate. I hope it does not come to that, but if the trustees find your conception offensive, we’ll just put it somewhere else.” [15]

Originally Putnam had included Professor Stuart Schar, Director of the Kent State School of Art, as the sole copied recipient of the second letter, but on Segal’s copy, held by the Rare Books Collection of Princeton, Schar’s name is crossed out. Either Segal crossed it out himself or Putnam did, deciding to contact Schar separately, as two days later Putnam advised Segal:

“Please keep the modification in our contract confidential, between the two of us. Hopefully, it will never be relevant. Stuart Schar feels that to bring it up now would create an unnecessary sour or at least ambiguous note. Kent State does not have a copy or know about it, but they (i.e. Schar) are in agreement that we will do just what it provides if Kent rejects your proposal.” [16]

Though perhaps the university administration should have been wise enough to deduce that Segal would find a way to protect both his commission and his artistic integrity, it is clear from the documents that Bradge Golding, the president of the university, had no knowledge of the deal tacitly agreed to by the faculty member. In retrospect, Schar’s obvious lack of confidence in the president and trustees proved quite reasonable.

In early March, Segal flew to Ohio to meet with school officials and to view the prospective site for his sculpture. He had been briefed in a letter from Schar that a recent polling of students had found that eighty-six percent favored “a general theme to commemorate activities which provide ‘peace and brotherhood with a commitment to cooperation for a better future,’” for any future commemorative events and that thirteen percent desired a theme “‘expressing need for social change focusing on social injustice.’” [17] Upon arriving at the campus—where he remained for less than a day—Segal shared his plan for the statue with Schar and Golding: a dramatic scene from the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Segal left the meeting confident of their enthusiastic support and “full cooperation,” though of course his commission was no longer dependent upon their eventual acceptance of the final proposal. [18] Putnam agreed that things were “off to a good start.” [19]

As promised in the January contract, on May 31 Segal sent Golding a large black and white drawing of his concept along with photographs of the work in progress. He asked that these be submitted to the “committee for acceptance or rejection of the conception by the University.” [20] The sketch depicted an older, bearded figure standing above a kneeling, shirtless younger man with bound hands. The bearded man held a knife. “The students struck me as genuinely idealistic in their demonstrations against the spreading of the war into Cambodia,” Segal wrote to President Golding, “yet so single-minded they disregarded law, democratic process, and wittingly or unwittingly, fanned the fears of those in charge.” Segal saw the events of May 4, 1970, through a generational, rather than a political, prism:

“The older people had…equated patriotism with obedience, were convinced of a Communist and Anarchist threat to our political structure, and a sexual threat to our religious morality. The fevered encounter between the students and the National Guardsmen reminded me strongly of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son…because God had ordered him to, i.e. he believed in an invisible, difficult abstraction.”

Far from providing an image of “peace and brotherhood” or a call for “cooperation for a better future,” Segal offered to, in his own words, drain “the puss from the sore.” [21] Segal’s aim was to give voice to the sufferings of the students, but at the same time show the complexity of the tragedy’s dramatic tension. “The only fact we can agree on,” Segal wrote, “is that parents still have the power to either kill or nurture their young. The issues are difficult and contradictory.” [22] Fairly or not, Segal saw in the Kent State affair the whole history of Western civilization’s grappling with devotion, violence, and fear.

A month later on June 28, Golding and his chief assistant, Dr. Robert McCoy, drafted a letter to Segal outlining their committee’s concerns not with the artistic merit of the piece, but rather with the political fallout of “viewers see[ing] your Isaac as a ‘student-victim’ and your Abraham as a ‘National Guardsman-assassin.’” [23] While recognizing that Kent State’s falling enrollment was linked to the university’s “failure to recognize and to cope with the significance of the May 4th experience,” Golding was concerned that “the gift of a major work of art, executed by the nation’s leading sculptor… [should be] part of the solution, not a new problem.” [24] In short, Kent State wanted a quick solution to the charges of insensitivity that had dogged its officials since 1970, alleged insensitivity not diminished by the repeated placement of the word victims in quotation marks throughout Golding’s draft. The pair decided not to send the letter for fear of appearing to pressure Segal’s artistic autonomy. But McCoy, dispatched to visit Segal later that month, gave the artist a copy of the draft anyway. [25] It read, in part:

Is there a way to reduce the possibilities for negative interpretation and still retain the idea that ‘parents still have the power to either kill or nurture their young?’… If you were to select the next moment in the story where both Abraham and Isaac were looking aside to the where the ram was miraculously caught in the thicket, would you be able to express what you believe to be appropriate? Several ideas seem possible with respect to the idea of substitution. The purpose of education is to dis- place thoughtless actions with reasonable solutions. The ostensible purpose of the national demonstrations by the ‘doves’ in the late sixties was to try to substitute their point of view for that of the ‘hawks.’… It would be possible for some to see Abraham as the United States, Isaac as Vietnam, and the ram as the Kent State four, with peace as the outcome… That’s our raison d’etre: to substitute knowledge for ignorance. And isn’t it also a function of art, to make thought and feeling visible? … The shift in focus to the substitute would perhaps give us the sense of resolution most of us are seeking at Kent State. [26]

Golding clearly wished Segal to radically alter his concept in order to create a fully transparent—i.e. uncontroversial—memorial, and it would appear that he also believed that his own suggestion would equally serve the purposes of art. The letter even proposed dropping the Abraham and Isaac theme altogether in favor of “a vigorous male of 18 or 19, with a powerful bare torso,” standing with his rifle across his chest as he is dissuaded from violence by a “female contemporary… [either] nude or semi-nude.” [27] Segal reportedly laughed out loud at the suggestion and asked McCoy if he was behind the second suggestion, which he was. [28] This second concept was apparently inspired by a recent incident at an anti-war protest in Washington, DC, though it may also have reflected the populist desire to see “the boys who lost their lives in Vietnam, not the law-breakers,” commemorated. [29]

President Golding continued to labor under the delusion that he had some authority over the progress of the commission, though in reality, Segal received his checks regularly and on schedule from the Foundation. [30] Neither Segal nor Putnam believed that Kent State would actually refuse a free gift of a $100,000 statue, even if it dragged its heels in determining how it would justify the acquisition to a skeptical local public. [31] From the beginning, however, both were prepared to donate the statue elsewhere.

On July 27, McCoy wrote to Segal and telephoned Putnam. In the letter he indicated that though he was writing before the final authorization of the project, he had been instructed to inform the artist “…that we have accepted your theme,” provided that a permanent plaque be installed with Genesis 22 (the Abraham and Isaac story) inscribed to contextualize the piece. McCoy explained the committee’s delay in terms of its obligations to diverse constituencies. “It is simply not possible,” McCoy wrote, “in the summertime to carry through all of the processes that we know from experience are important in maintaining good communicative
rapport with our many publics.” [32] Segal was amenable to the suggestion of a plaque and put the wheels in motion for one to be cast. Before the month was out, however, the opinion of the committee at Kent State had soured.

On August 23, the committee flatly rejected the Abraham and Isaac concept and a week later issued a statement announcing their view that it was “inappropriate to commemorate the deaths of four persons and the wounding of nine, on the University campus, with a statue which appears to represent an act of violence about to be committed.” [33] The press release indicated that McCoy had met with Segal earlier that year to convey the university’s reservations, but did not mention McCoy’s subsequent communiqués of July 27 in which approval was unofficially assured. More importantly, the university did not elaborate on why the concept was deemed “inappropriate.” The administration’s decision was widely, though by no means universally, condemned by students and alumni, local and national editorial boards, and members of the Art Department at Kent State as a sign of cowardice, arrogance, parochialism or some combination thereof. [34]

It did not help matters that, in the course of the negative publicity engendered by the refusal of a valuable gift and the failure yet again to commemorate the dead, the university attempted to put the blame on Segal for inadequate consultation during the planning process. In response to these charges, Segal—in a letter to Kent State students which was later published in the Kent Daily Starter—mentioned that while that summer the president had indicated his preference for “a nude young girl using her feminine charms to deflect a young soldier from using his gun,” he, as an artist, was interested in “full, open examination of the painful issue with moral and human issues added to the legal and political ones.” [35]

On the same day that Kent State refused the sculpture, Peter Bunnell, the outgoing director of the Princeton Art Museum, wrote to Putnam assuring him that “I will discuss with [my replacement Fred Licht] all the pending projects of the Putnam Collection.” [36] The Putnam family correspondence file maintained by the Princeton Art Museum contains no references to Segal during the summer of 1978, but that Bunnell should refer to “the pending projects of the Putnam Collection,” on the same day that Abraham and Isaac was refused raises important questions: When, perhaps informally, was the idea suggested that Princeton might serve as an alternate home for Abraham and Isaac? Who proposed it? And why? Why, for instance, did it not go to a public organization or to another college in Ohio, where its impact would be more immediate? These are questions that demand further inquiry.

What is certain is that Kent State lost an opportunity for cost-free commemoration and in so doing succeeded once again in alienating many of its students and faculty. The administration had hoped that the imprimatur
of an artist like Segal would lend credibility to an inoffensive design that would, by sublimating the tragedy of May 4, 1970, into a vague portrait of Vietnam-era social tensions, appease the right “publics” without irritating others. Segal, however, refused to obscure, rather than explore, the uncomfortable relationship of violence to power or the meaning of the campus’ loss.

It would be another twelve and a half years before Kent State would finally dedicate a permanent monument in 1990. In an attempt to avoid a second Segal-like incident, a design competition for the memorial was held in 1985-1986 and was won by a team comprised of the Michigan-based designer Ian Taberner and the New York-based Michael Fahey. The first prize was $20,000. The competition rules stipulated that contestants had to be American citizens, a stipulation which Taberner, a Canadian, failed to notice. Upon being striped of the prize, Taberner sued the university for $2 million, claiming a civil rights violation. The university, under pressure from Kent State survivors, paid out $15,000 settlement and went ahead with the runner-up design despite opposition from the Ohio Fraternity of Police, the Ohio Unit of the American Legion, and at least one state senator—a Vietnam veteran. [37]

Serious budget constraints and a failure to raise adequate funds prompted a serious scaling down of the proposed memorial project, with a spending cap of $100,000 imposed by the Board of Trustees. A report in the Stater that the incumbent university president Michael Schwartz had announced the dedication by means of a $49,000 ad campaign in Ohio newspapers prompted that paper’s editorial board to conclude that the administration had “placed the importance of public relations for the dedication on almost the same level as the memorial itself.” [38] The memorial has been criticized by commentators for its vagueness and illegibility as a tribute to the memory of the victims. [39]

For a work of art born into such controversy and so unfailingly misunderstood, it is perhaps fitting that it should now stand in the shadow of our chapel, neglected and inscrutable to all but the handful who squint at its plaque. For some, it is a Kierkegaardian ornament to the campus’ spiritual corner. To many more, it is just “the blow job statue,” a compliment to the enormous phallus outside the E-quad and the “Living Swastika” which graces the lawn in front of Prospect House. In its obscurity, it continues to raise the question for all who would consider it of whether art can or should address functional social needs. Is the horror of memory better overcome by questions or by answers? And why did four students die on May 4, 1970?

[1] Theodor Adorno, “Commitment,” in Ernst Bloch et al., Aesthetics and Politics (London, 1980), 188-9.
[2] For the most level-handed account of the events of May 1—4, 1970 at Kent State see: The Report of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, William Scranton Chair, US GPO, 1970, 233-411.
[3] See full contents of: George Segal Papers; Box 39 and Folder 2; Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. Hereafter GSP
[4] GSP; 39:2.
[5] Kenneth E. Foote, Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy, (Austin,TX: University of Texas Press-Austin, 1997), 174, 179-80.
[6] Kenneth S. Hoard, A letter to “Pres. Carter, Gov. Rhodes, all Congressmen, and Cleve. Plaindealer,” in GSP; 39:2.
[7] Foote, 174, 179-80.
[8] AP, “Vigil Recalls 4 Slain at Kent State,” New York Times, May 5, 1977, A.16.
[9] Foote, 316-7.
[10] New York Times, “Remembering Kent State,” 2 October 1977, E16.
[11] Quotation in an application to register the central portion of Kent State’s campus as a National Historical Place, in GSP; 38, 5; pg. 34-5 of the report.
[12] Peter Putnam (’48, *60) was the enigmatic donor behind the John B. Putnam, Jr., Memorial Collection, which he established in memory of his brother who died in World War II. Many of Princeton’s most prominent outdoor sculptures (including works by Naum Gabo, Pablo Picasso, and others) belong to the Putnam Collection. For a profile of Peter Putnam, see his 1991 obituary in the Princeton Alumni Weekly: Ann Waldron, “Brilliant Enigma,” PAW, May 15, 1991, 22-26.
[13] Letter from Peter Putnam (P.P) to Bradge Golding (B.G., President of KSU), Jan. 5, 1978, GSP; 38:4.
[14] Letter from P.P. to George Segal (G.S.), February 23, 1978, GSP; 38:5.
[15] P.P. to G.S., March 10, 1978, Ibid.
[16] P.P. to G.S., March 12, 1978, Ibid.
[17] Stuart Schar (S.S) to G.S., March 10, 1978, Ibid.
[18] G.S. to P.P., April 12, 1978, Ibid.
[19] P.P. to G.S., April 23, 1978, Ibid.
[20] G.S. to B.G., May 31, 1978, Ibid.
[21] G.S. to Sue Berkey and Robert Crise, October 20, 1978, GSP; 38;6.
[22] G.S. to B.G., May 31, 1978, GSP; 38,5.
[23] Draft Letter from B.G. to G.S., June 28, 1978, Ibid.
[24] Ibid.
[25] See Draft, Letter B.G. to G.S., June 30, 1798 and Letter from Robert McCoy (RM) to G.S. November 13, 1978 in GSP; 38, 4-6.
[26] Draft.
[27] Draft.
[28] R.M. to G.S. November 13, 1798. GSP; 38, 6.
[29] “We are sick and tired of the harassment citizens of Kent and Revenna have to put up with every May 4th. If we have to have a memorial lets [sic] have one for the boys who lost their lives in Vietnam, not the law-breakers.” Letter from Lottie and Elmer Welling to G.S. March 10, 1978, GSP; 38,2.
[30] See letters from National City Bank throughout the summer of 1978, GSP; 38;5.
[31] GSP; 38; 5.
[32] Ibid.
[33] See R.M. to G.S. 23 and 28 August, as well as the school’s press release of August 28, 1978. GSP; 38;6.
[34] Examples of the outcry are too numerous (and similar) to merit a comprehensive bibliography, but see GSP; 38,2 and 38,7 for press clippings, and in particular Segal’s correspondence with Kent State students, faculty and locals throughout the fall of 1978 in GSP; 38,6.
[35] G.S. to Sue Berkey and Robert Crise, October 20, 1978, GSP; 38,6.
[36] A letter from Peter Bunnell to Peter Putnam, Putnam family correspondence file, Princeton Art Museum.
[37] See the Kent State Library’s May 4 Memorial Chronology, .
[38] Daily Kent Starter, 11 April 1990, 2.
[39] See especially: Mark W. Graham, “Memorializing May 4, 1970 at Kent State University: Reflections on Collective Memory, Public Art and Religious Criticism.,” in Literature and Theology 2006, Vol. 20, No. 4, 424-437.

[NB: This article was first printed in this newspaper on April 22, 2010.]

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