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Thin Ice: UW-Eau Claire's new memorial to ensure Kent State tragedy is understood

UW-Eau Claire’s new memorial to ensure Kent State tragedy is understood

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    President Leonard Haas addresses a rally of an estimated 3,500 UW-Eau Claire students and faculty on May 6, 1970, a turnout of about 45 percent of the entire student body. The students were protesting the killing of four Kent State University students by Ohio National Guardsmen two days before. The Eau Claire students voted to strike and two days later created the Kent State memorial on campus.

    Photo by Bill Edgar

Come Monday, May 4, at 11:24 a.m., exactly 45 years to the very minute since National Guard troops opened fire on anti-war protesters and other students on the Kent State University campus — killing four, wounding nine — a memorial commemorating the events that followed on the Wisconsin State University-Eau Claire campus will be unveiled on the mall of the modern UW-Eau Claire campus.

This is not the return of the old Kent State Memorial, comprising four crab apple trees and a plaque dedicating those trees to the four students killed in the shootings. That campus memorial, created in the wake of a May 6, 1970, campus protest attended by an estimated 3,500 Eau Claire students — 45 percent of the student body — vanished when the new student center was constructed, what was left of the trees removed, the plaque now permanently stored away in the university's archives.

This new memorial will attempt to explain to new generations of faculty and students what the events of those dark days of May 1970 meant to an older generation of faculty and students.

• • •

The university always intended to replace the old Kent State Memorial, intentions apparently hobbled for half a decade by institutional inertia. But the events planned for the coming unveiling and the memorial itself reflect a commitment to do it right. And it's an interesting harmony of separate events.

First came the discovery of a recording of the speeches from the May 6 campus rally. Greg Kocken, UW-Eau Claire's head of special collections and archives, said journalism faculty member Alice Ridge held up a cassette tape recorder during the rally and preserved the speeches.

“Surprisingly, we were able to transcribe the speeches from that old 1970 cassette tape,” Kocken said. “I coordinate the Chancellor's Centennial History Lecture Series, so we scheduled a lecture that would feature segments of the tape for May 4. It seemed appropriate.”

Ridge, now professor emerita of communication and journalism, will be one of the speakers at the lecture.

Then came word the plans for a new Kent State Memorial had finally emerged. Mike Rindo, assistant chancellor for facilities and university relations, said the completion of a campus master plan for signage, memorials, monuments, etc., allowed for the creation of the new memorial design. When other contingencies came together — availability of speakers, access to new crab apple trees, the ability of the maintenance crews to construct the memorial, etc. — it was decided to combine the history lecture event with the memorial unveiling.

“The 45th anniversary is an important event,” Rindo said. “It took a lot of people working together to make it happen.”

• • •

In those early days of May 1970 following the shootings, fires burned and buildings were occupied on campuses across the country. An article published in 1998 by The Ohio Council for the Social Studies Review noted: “The shootings have certainly come to symbolize the deep political and social divisions that so sharply divided the country during the Vietnam War era.”

Anger and frustration existed in May 1970 on the WSU-Eau Claire campus, and witnesses testify those emotions were evident at the May 6 campus rally. A note attached to a photo of the rally on display in the new Davies Center quotes a black student: “For the first time, the fear blacks have had for the last 10 to 20 years has finally reached Eau Claire.”

But history shows a channeling of that outrage, led by student and university leaders. Students were debating whether to call a strike. In addressing the large May 6 rally crowd, then President Leonard Haas said:

“The dignity and the preciousness of human life lead me, personally, to deplore any actions in our nation that lead to an unnecessary loss of that life.

“In the event that by the examination of your own conscience, you dictate to yourself that you can best express your position on the development of the war, or on the tragic events to be found on other campuses, you have the choice open to you to boycott your classes.”

No fires burned on the Eau Claire campus. Protesting students voted to strike, but also allowed classes to be held for those who wanted to attend. A few days later the original Kent State Memorial trees were planted.

That old memorial — four crab apple trees and a plaque — represented a watershed time to the generation who lived it. It appears the new memorial — four crab apple trees and a plaque — both honors those memories and explains how and why they came to be.

As a member of a generation whose thoughts and acts apparently now need historical context, I'm good with that.

Lyksett can be reached at 715-830-5926 or

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