Eldon Fender, Oral History
Recorded on November 28, 2007
Interviewed by Craig Simpson
Transcribed by Celia R. Halkovich
Note: This transcript includes geo-references to locations that are discussed in the oral history. Geographical names linked in the transcript will open in a new window or tab that takes you to that location information and map in the Mapping May 4 project. To request a transcript without geo-reference links included, please contact Kent State University Special Collections & Archives.
[Interviewer]: Good morning, the date is November 28, 2007. My name is Craig Simpson and we are conducting an interview today for the May 4 Oral History Project, and could you please state your name?
[Eldon Fender]: Eldon Fender.
[Interviewer]: Where were you born?
[Eldon Fender]: I was born in Border, Texas.
[Interviewer]: What years did you go to KSU?
[Eldon Fender]: 1969 to 1973.
[Interviewer]: What was your major?
[Eldon Fender]: Secondary education.
[Interviewer]: What made you decide to attend Kent State?
[Eldon Fender]: Basically, a need to get away from home, do a little growing up, and Kent State seemed like a far enough away university, it seemed like a fine school. Plus, I wanted to be a teacher. It was recognized at that time as one of the better teaching colleges in the state, so that's why I attended Kent State.
[Interviewer]: How would you describe the university prior to the events of 1970?
[Eldon Fender]: Very interesting. I was in student council my freshman year. The students, by and large, the men that I represented in Manchester Hall, I have to say in all frankness--and I just want to make a statistical observation here--out of ninety men that I represented on my wing, only four of us graduated on time. So therefore my synopsis would be that most of the men, I'd say the majority of them, were trying to staying out of the draft. The Vietnam War of course was hot and heavy--and a lot of partying on weekends, very little studying going on. I could tell you many, many stories of things that I observed that first year that I was here [as] a freshman. But generally speaking, I would have to say [based] on one other visit I made to campus when my daughter was thinking about coming here, the students [today] seem to be a little bit more focused for an education, moreso than they were back in 1969, 1970. I think a lot of the students back then were questioning a lot of things in their lives, especially the war in Vietnam and possibly being drafted if they lost their student deferment. Things were a little different back then. The focus on studies was kind of secondary to more of a social atmosphere.
[Interviewer]: Was the political atmosphere palpable when you got here?
[Eldon Fender]: Not until the shootings of May 2nd in Cambodia. That's when things erupted in downtown Kent, when Nixon invaded Cambodia. Basically, the campus, I think, was apolitical. There were not that many demonstrations. I can tell you quite frankly, the time that I was there Monday morning the day of the shootings, that there was definitely outside agitation in terms of members of SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] on campus speaking and getting people riled up. Having witnessed some demonstrations up by the Music and Speech Building, I saw the sit-down [sit-in?] on Route 59 down in front of the Robin Hood [Robinhood Inn] and so on and so forth. Things picked up dramatically from the time that I started school in September of 1969 until May of 1970.
[Interviewer]: Let's talk about those four days in May, and you can start wherever you'd like with any of those events.
[Eldon Fender]: Sunday morning I was in Cincinnati. This would be May 3rd. I had brought some four or five students I went to high school with back to Cincinnati. I had a car on campus, which most freshman did not have. Read about the ROTC building being burned down Saturday night prior, about how there was a curfew on campus. I had to be back in Kent by six o'clock that evening and I'm sitting in Cincinnati about eleven o'clock in the morning reading the paper about it. And back then speed limits were 55 [miles per hour], so I very quickly had to gather up the students I had taken down there to get everybody back in time for the six o'clock curfew.
One of the most interesting experiences was, frankly, you felt like you made a wrong turn off of [Interstate] 76 going into Kent because of all the armed vehicles, military hardware, military vehicles on campus. You almost felt like you drove onto Fort Knox or something where you have a highly protected federal property or something of that nature. So the atmosphere on the campus certainly was very tense and very different than the way I left it.
[Interviewer]: Did you live on campus?
[Eldon Fender]: Yes, I lived in Manchester Hall. Just to extend a little bit upon what I observed Sunday night after I got back into town: Sunday night was a night that was kind of an interesting evening in terms of the sit-down [sit-in?] on Route 59, which I observed from the DuBois Bookstore. The most interesting thing about this was some of the antics that were going on, which were quite comical when you think back, and how tragic it could have been if something had gone wrong.
The Guard was trying to intimidate the kids off the street. There were probably 500 to 600 students, people that were sitting down in the middle of the road, blocking it, in all four lanes. The National Guard had an armored carrier that they used to transport troops in, and what they would do is rev the engine up at the top of the hill--as you go down into downtown Kent there's like a rise there. This half-track carrier would actually charge like it was trying to scare the students off the road and at the last minute would turn right in front of DuBois Bookstore. And you can imagine if this man had misplaced his foot on the brake or the accelerator, he probably would have plowed right into the people. Later on that evening the Guard had encircled behind the students, and that was kind of a forced way of trying to get them back on campus; they had created a kind of a funneling effect to get people back on campus.
Sunday night, on May 3rd, staying in the dorm was rather interesting and very challenging. It was very, very hot during that time. We did not have air conditioning in the dorms, so all the rooms were open as far as the windows go. The [Ohio] State Highway Patrol had a helicopter flying around with a big spotlight on it. And if they would see any number of students congregating on the ground they would throw tear gas out their doors of their helicopter. But mind you, this tear gas was going all over the place and that was my first experience with tear gas, so much so we had to escape our rooms into the interior hallway to get away from it. It was like a prison atmosphere in terms of how that was all being conducted. So again, just one little thing, one more little episode to escalate into Monday, May 4th. Having been an eyewitness to that I'll stop at that point.
[Interviewer]: What do you remember [about] May 4?
[Eldon Fender]: May 4th, it was chaotic. As a student, I was interested in an education first. I had gone to Bowman Hall to attend a class, a 12:05 history class, and walked into the room and as time would say, the professors were calling into campus saying they didn't want to put up with the nonsense of trying to get through the streets, and the military hardware, mind you, was blocking a lot of the streets into campus, so they would cancel class. Well, consequently I walked into this room--cancelled class. So I turned around and started walking back to my dorm. At this point I could hear the commotion over by Taylor Hall from leaving Bowman Hall. I thought, Well, let's check this out, see what's going on. There's a fence that went behind the gym at that time, this is before it was added on, there was a practice football field that was behind the gym. And I stood in that field and I watched the Taylor Hall hillside.
[Interviewer]: You've drawn a map here, and is this where you are?
[Eldon Fender]: This is a map, and I can put everything in front of you and point out what I observed. I watched Jeffrey Miller exclusively. I was all by myself. Most of the other students were probably about 80 to 90 yards to my right in front. I observed Jeffrey Miller throwing many, many rocks at the Guard. Probably more than ten. Unfortunately, the last rock he threw cost him his life. What I saw happen, I saw the second he got shot. He had basically run up behind the Guard, and they were in a platoon formation which was just near Taylor Hall, and they were kind of grouped together there. And when he threw the last rock, the Guards were retreating down into The Commons area which is where most of the company was bivouacked.
As Jeffrey Miller threw the rock he started to turn, and that's when a shot ran[g] out. I saw him literally stumble into the road of the Pulitzer Prize winning photo of the girl bending over his body--and she was screaming her head off and I couldn't figure out why--but basically I saw him, the second he got shot stumbling into the road and finally falling. At that point I couldn't see him because there was a little bit of a rise in front of me going up to this access road. The interesting thing about this whole observation was that the main firing of the weapons--and at that time one may ask, Well, what was I doing just standing there watching this? I did not know they were using live ammunition. I thought they were blanks or something used to scare the students. The interesting thing is, Jeffrey Miller couldn't have been more than fifteen feet away from the Guard. He took a head shot. I would probably say human nature being what it is, he probably nailed somebody in the back of the head with a rock. And they knew where he was because he'd been throwing many rocks up to that point. And he took a shot [at] very close range. I can tell you, quite frankly, having observed his body sprawled out in the street that an M-1 [rifle] up close can do a lot of damage. And his whole neck was twisted almost 360 degrees and the blood was flowing down the access road.
But what's interesting is, I think human nature being what it is--it was a very hot day, these young men that were in the National Guard, I think somebody just, in my opinion, lost their cool because they probably got hit in the head with a rock or whatever and knew where he [Miller] was when he threw the rock and he got shot immediately after he released the rock. And then he stumbled into the road--the Guard said they were being fired upon, they thought they heard a shot--my conjecture would be perhaps this might have been the shot they heard, because if one of their colleagues in the back of the rank had fired a shot, naturally they would have heard that. The direction of fire went on into a practice football field, the extension of it towards the back and also a parking lot. Whereas where Jeffrey Miller was shot was at a totally different angle. One would conclude that he paid with his life for throwing that rock because all the other firing and shots and the people who were wounded and killed were totally opposite [from] where he was hit on on top of the hill by Taylor Hall.
[Interviewer]: Did you know Jeff Miller prior to that?
[Eldon Fender]: No, I did not know him.
[Interviewer]: But you focused on him precisely because--
[Eldon Fender]: I focused on him because I thought it was kind of--he had a very bright, kind of red or red-orange shirt on. A long sleeved shirt I might add, which when you consider the temperature and everything else, I thought that was kind of strange in itself. This young man was literally picking up rock after rock. He'd throw a rock and look for another one to throw. Basically, that was the action on that hill, was watching him. Now, granted, there were other students off on Taylor Hall itself, around the balcony of Taylor Hall, screaming and stuff, but my focus was strictly on him because of what he was doing. I was in a direct line from him, but some hundred yards back. Luckily for me I was at a safe distance so I wasn't affected by the fire. As I said, I would have possibly been in the field of fire had the fire gone out straight ahead as opposed to going off at an angle. On the map I'm showing here, if you take Metcalf Hall--which I believe is a girl's dorm--is where the shots primarily ran[g] out into that area. If you see where Jeffrey Miller was standing the moment he got shot, it is totally different from the angle of fire where most of the shots were placed.
[Interviewer]: From your position, did you see him hit any of the Guardsmen?
[Eldon Fender]: I have to assume he had to have hit them, either that or he was an awfully poor thrower. When I say he was probably no more than fifteen or twenty feet away, I'm not exaggerating. He would actually get up close to them when he would throw a rock. The intent, in my opinion, based on that observation, was that he was definitely trying to hurt somebody with whatever he was throwing. He made a very conscientious effort to try to find any material on the ground to throw, which in hindsight I kind of wonder how all those rocks got there in the first place. Perhaps other things had happened, maybe the rocks were placed there from other demonstrations, who knows what?
But it was quite a sobering experience seeing someone shot like this. It's just amazing to--it's almost like someone said, I want you to watch this. You're going to see something that you'll always remember the rest of your life. And I certainly have done that.
[Interviewer]: These are copies--actually, I have a couple of photos that John Filo took. Where are you in these photographs?
[Eldon Fender]: This is me right here.
[Interviewer]: How far away were you at this time, approximately?
[Eldon Fender]: Well, this is right after Jeffrey Miller was shot, and this girl was screaming her head off, and at that point is when I realized there had to be something terribly wrong, because I did not realize they used live ammo even though Jeffrey Miller had acted peculiarly coming off that hill and stumbling into this access road. At that point I started walking forward, then the gentleman who took the picture [Filo] caught me over her shoulder. I was walking forward, and I still was not totally able to see him because of this little rise right here. But of course once I got up there, in the picture here you can almost see the blood going down the road, and there was quite a bit of that.
At that point, I decided it was time to go back to my dorm because it was getting a little scary. The other episode that happened after this was also very dramatic, in terms of the students congregating again over by the geology building [McGilvrey Hall]. It could have been a real bloodbath there. Luckily, four professors got everybody to sit down and talk about things, because I think they were about ready to put their lives on the line as well, but that's another story.
[Interviewer]: Backing up just a little bit, what was your reaction when the Guard started firing?
[Eldon Fender]: Again, I sensed no sense of danger, I thought they were blanks. In your wildest dreams, you would never stop to think someone would have a live round in a rifle on a campus. Had things gotten that bad where they felt entitled to have the live ammo? That to me is a big question mark. Again, I'd just like to go back to square one with my comment I feel very strongly about. These Guardsmen by and large were young men just like we were. The circumstances they were placed [into] was at best, awkward. To put a live round, or put a rifle in their hands with live ammo was dangerous, I thought. I still firmly believe Jeffrey Miller nailed somebody with a rock and was shot instantaneously.
[Interviewer]: Where you were standing, you didn't feel the need to duck or anything like that?
[Eldon Fender]: Me, personally, duck?
[Eldon Fender]: No. I felt no threat at all, because I was far enough away that I had a good observation of the hill, but in my wildest dreams, if I thought that these men were going to shoot live ammunition, I probably would have ducked and run, and done something to protect myself. But luckily, I was not in the field of fire, because the field of fire was more off to my right quite a bit.
[Interviewer]: So most of the gunshots were aimed over here, by Metcalf Hall?
[Eldon Fender]: If Jeffrey Miller is standing right next to these Guards[men] when he threw the rock and got shot instantaneously, my feeling is they heard that shot. In the testimony of Kent State, the Guard felt they were being fired upon. And naturally, if you hear an M-1 that close, you probably think you are being shot at. Where all the other students were and the other people were way over here, Jeffrey Miller is over here by himself. The firing went out into where most of the people were. It gives credence to the fact that Jeffrey Miller certainly was on his own doing what he was doing and that was that.
[Interviewer]: What do you remember after all of this?
[Eldon Fender]: Well, afterwards, not too soon after that, there was talk going through the school that there was going to be a big gathering of people over in a field that was over near the geology building, over on the older part of campus. I walked over, I did. There was probably about 3,000 students. You have to imagine the feeling that everybody felt. They'd [the National Guard had] just shot and killed students. And you have a feeling of anger, because you feel like your campus has been invaded. You're being violated. And I'm sure all the students that congregated at that point felt the same way. I have to tell you, it was very very scary. And I wasn't caught up in the emotion--but Professor Myers and Professor [Seymour] Baron, who was a psychology professor, put themselves between the company of Guardsmen that had reformed; and I remember very vividly, they had a jeep with a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on the back and clipped, ready to go.
And Dr. Myers, bless his heart, was able to tell the students, Listen, if you don't think they'll shoot you, look what they've already done. Are you willing to put your life on the line and charge these men? Because the hysteria and the feelings were so brutal, that I think they were going to go after the Guard and just tear them limb from limb by hand. It's hard to believe that, but it's just the way of people--the emotional aspects of the crowd were such, the anger--they were willing to charge these Guardsmen and kill them. They didn't have any weapons themselves, but I have to tell you the Guard was ready to go, they were ready to shoot again. Thankfully, these professors put themselves in the middle and were able to get everybody to sit down and talk about it. Mind you, they got like 3,000 students to sit down en masse and rationalize it: Is it worth putting your life on the line and attack these Guardsman? I think everybody said no, it's not.
It wasn't too soon after that they closed the campus. Luckily for me, I had a car and I was able to leave. As you can well imagine, everybody was scrambling, trying to figure out a way to get home. We were told to leave our possessions and everything behind and basically get out. That in itself was kind of crazy because you couldn't take anything with you, you had the shirt on your back and that was it. So I drove clear back to Cincinnati. I then took open book exams to finish the quarter. Just an experience.
Of course I have to say, quite honestly, that fall, we weren't sure if we had a school to come back to. There was talk that Governor Rhodes was going to shut the campus down and turn it into a state hospital. And when we came back to classes that following fall there were peace marshals on site to make sure everything went smoothly, and thankfully this episode was behind us. Even though, of course, we remember it to this day.
[Interviewer]: Maybe just a little more detail on that, what was the atmosphere like on campus the following year?
[Eldon Fender]: That's a very good question. I would have to say that people were more focused on why they were there. I think it was a reality check, as to why are you going to college: Why are you here, are you here to protest against the Vietnam War or are you here to get an education? It seems like the students were much more serious about things, because it was a very sobering experience to go through what we did and face the reality, the possibility, of the campus being closed. And I think we started to re-evaluate--at least I felt very strongly about my education, but as I said there were a lot of people who felt differently. But I think the partying atmosphere of the campus subdued itself quite a bit and I think there was a refocus amongst most of the students of why we were here. I think they were making a conscientious effort to make sure we stayed open. I think everybody knew that if anything erupted again, that was going to be the end.
Back in those days you had Governor Rhodes, who was very right wing, a law and order candidate, and the country was really split right down the middle. I've often thought about a thesis of a generational war, much like a civil war, where you have fathers that fought in World War II and you have students that weren't agreeing with the Vietnam War, and [it] was almost heresy, and unpatriotic, to question the motives of why we were in Vietnam. My dad was an ex-Marine; I felt if nothing else I owed it to him to get an education. I wasn't there to really cause trouble. I think, luckily, the refocusing of why we were there, and the possibility the campus could be closed if things got out of hand again, weighed on everybody's mind. And thankfully, we got through that time and were able to get better and better.
[Interviewer]: What do you think the consequences of the shootings were?
[Eldon Fender]: I think, just from a history point of view, I think it pointed out the deep rifts that we had as a country as a whole. I felt very strongly about this, and I've had many years to think about it, almost forty years to think about it. The country came as close to a civil war between generations as you'd probably ever want to see. Because you had old versus young, you had fathers against sons, you had generation against generation. You can call it what you want. But Kent State came to a boiling point of the feelings on both sides. You would hear older people say, They got what they deserved. Younger people said, Why are we fighting an unjustified war, why should we put our lives on the line for something we don't believe in? We had fathers and older men who fought in World War II where that would have been considered unpatriotic to not serve your country in a time of need. If it wasn't for the United States, we probably would have lost World War II.
That's strictly historical, but the shootings themselves--I think we have to find better ways of communicating. In my humble opinion, I think the National Guard was not trained to handle the crowd control. I saw some things that were just downright silly. For example, by the Music and Speech Building there was a demonstration late Sunday afternoon. The Guard had hidden themselves over a little hill--over by President White's house, just to give a reference point--and were hiding with their bellies down on the ground. And the students started going across the parking lot in front of the Music and Speech Building, and all of a sudden they jumped up and charged like it was a cavalry charge out of Custer's Last Stand, screaming and yelling and stuff, with these bayonets on their rifles. It was a scary sight. To me that doesn't show control--just running crazily into people. And there were some bayonet wounds during the course of Sunday night and that afternoon, and that's been documented. There was no crowd control.
I feel very strongly--I'm just going to put a few editorials in here if I may--if the Highway Patrol had been left in charge, this thing would have never happened, and I'll tell you why. If you have feelings about the Vietnam War, what's the worst thing the government could have done but bring men in uniform onto your campus? Now they have a way to vent their anger against someone directly representing the military. The Highway Patrol had much more hours of training. I was not here Saturday night the ROTC building got [burned] down--and I realize that was federal property, therefore justifying the federal troops or National Guard coming on campus. You also had men who had been in a truckers' strike, which in itself was very tense. Pulling them off of guard duty in most cases with no sleep at all and pulling them into a campus that was at best hostile. So I question a lot of that, but I think after the Kent State shootings we as a country have got to find a better way of handling this. Thank God we haven't had any more demonstrations of that magnitude, but we have to communicate better.
[Interviewer]: Are there any other thoughts you'd like to share?
[Eldon Fender]: No, that's it.
[Interviewer]: Okay Mr. Fender, thank you very much for speaking with us.
[Eldon Fender]: You're welcome, and I hope you find this very interesting.
[Interviewer]: I do.
[Interview continues outdoors near Taylor Hall.]
[Interviewer]: We're actually at the site of the shooting outside of Taylor Hall. Eldon, do you want to describe the scene?
[Eldon Fender]: We're standing in front of Taylor Hall. At this time, I'm looking towards the older part of campus. At this juncture, is where the National Guard more or less formed a square and Jeffrey Miller was probably closest to here, throwing rocks at the Guard.
[Interviewer]: Up on the hill--
[Eldon Fender]: Right here.
[Interviewer]: --where we are, is what you're saying.
[Eldon Fender]: And this is as close as he was. Let's say that tree, which is probably twenty to twenty-five feet from us, is where the Guard was. And they had turned around and were going back into The Commons area to join the rest of their company. He had thrown a rock, a shot ran[g] out, he staggered and fell into the road, at about maybe a 25-degree angle from where I'm standing, looking the other way, and fell into the access road. I'm standing straight out here like this in a practice football field behind the old gym before they added on.
[Interviewer]: [points at marker] They had actually marked his body falling right there I think, though.
[Eldon Fender]: That's too far down. [pauses] But you know what, that is right. Maybe I need to move down.
[Interviewer]: Let's go back down a bit.
[Eldon Fender]: Where she was screaming over his body--
[Interviewer]: Mary Ann Vecchio.
[Eldon Fender]: Yes, exactly. [inaudible]--walked up here, that's where the picture was taken. About that area there, you can see that little rise there. That's why I couldn't see his body down there. I could see her screaming though. But, yeah. Think about the distance he went, where he fell.
[Interviewer]: The Guard, they were kind of right here I see from the photos, as they were about to turn Taylor Hall.
[Eldon Fender]: That's how far he stumbled. He stumbled down over this hill behind us and then fell into that road.
[Interviewer]: So he didn't just drop immediately, is what you're saying.
[Eldon Fender]: No. Absolutely not. He threw the rock, was shot the minute he threw it, the second he threw it, and he stumbled probably a good fifty feet at least into that road and fell.
[Interviewer]: Thank you.
[Eldon Fender]: You're welcome. ×