Bob Woodward’s presence at Kent State University on Saturday signified more than the appearance of a living icon from the Vietnam era of discord and disenchantment.

Departing Kent State President Beverly J. Warren made that clear in her introduction to the journalist best known for his Watergate coverage in a chaotic period of U.S. history.

It was a time in which Ohio National Guardsmen raised their rifles, fired some 70 shots and killed four students protesting the Vietnam War.

But Warren gave more than the traditional encomium for a noted speaker in her introduction at the M.A.C. Center. She alluded to the university’s sometimes random approach to the May 4 tragedy and its recent decision to fully acknowledge the event.

For years, Kent State struggled with how to officially commemorate May 4.

In 1975, the university discontinued its support for commemorations. A May 4 Task Force seized the mantle and kept the memory alive, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the university dedicated its May 4 Memorial.

Another nine years passed before it installed permanent markers in the parking lot spaces where the four slain students fell.

And it wasn’t until this March that the university’s board of trustees resolved to make the commemorations a permanent fixture.

“Going forward, Kent State commits to holding the annual commemoration as a university-level event and the preservation of important traditions that have been established over the years,” the resolution reads. The recommendation was made by Warren.

On Saturday, as a crowd of 5,000 at the university’s M.A.C. Center listened, Warren reiterated that the hedging was done and that May 4 had become part of the fabric of the university.

“This day,” Warren said, “will be about remembrance for us.”

The trustees’ commitment is detailed in the March 6 resolution. Next year, a half-century after the May 4 shootings, Kent State will conduct a yearlong observance of the event Woodward calls a “marker” of 20th century history.

Hours before his speech in the M.A.C. Center, Woodward met with students who had not been born — some whose parents had not been born — before the traumatic day of May 4, 1970.

And in a news conference with reporters and a documentary filmmaker after his session with the students, Woodward discussed the political climate surrounding KSU’s most infamous day. He stressed the ties between the then and now, and the reality that the young students roaming campus were living in a time disturbingly like that in 1970.

“When I got the invitation,” he told reporters, “I thought, ‘Wow, that's one of the markers in 20th century history.’ ”

Nearly 50 years later, the university is fully on board, recognizing the event as a day in its history that can’t be ignored. Trustees approved the rules in March and on Saturday, Warren sanctioned them as Woodward and 5,000 people at the M.A.C. Center looked on.

“We will always remember that we will never forget,” she said.

 

Alan Ashworth can be reached at 330-996-3859 or aashworth@thebeaconjournal.com.