Remembering Kent State and powerful lessons of past

Every year at this time, as cheerful yellow daffodils bloom in yards and on hillsides, I can't help thinking about one particularly bright sunny day in May 1970, when 28 Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on students at Kent State University.

As a result of the guardsmen's 13-second volley of gunfire, four of my fellow students were killed. Nine more were wounded.

The guardsmen's violent actions blotted the sun from my mental sky that day. They also caused me — and many people like me — to realize with a sudden, mind-numbing jolt that our world would never be the same again.

Each April, the campus hillside near where the killings took place is covered with thousands of vibrant yellow blooms. These flowers pay tribute to the 58,175 U.S. soldiers who died in the Vietnam War.

But by the time May 4 rolls around, the blossoms have faded, leaving the hillside suddenly drab.

I used to wish the daffodils would still be in full bloom when the somber crowds come back to Kent State to commemorate May 4. The colorful flower stalks are so beautiful and bright.

Now, however, I think the withered flowers are a fitting symbol of what happened at my alma mater on that dreadful day. And I am grateful that although the daffodils on that famous hillside fade and die each year, the story of what happened there does not. Year after year, people come back to remember.

This year, as I recall those events, what stands out to me the most is the fact that three of the four students who died were Jewish. Knowing that, I can't help but wonder why young Jewish students were so tragically well-represented among the dead at the noon anti-war rally at Kent State on May 4, 1970.

Only two of the three Jewish students, Allison Krause and Jeffrey Glenn Miller, were involved in student protests against the Vietnam War at Kent State that spring. The third, Sandra Lee Scheuer, was not politically active. She focused on doing good in a different way — by becoming a speech therapist so she could help others.

Their deaths leave me with many unanswered questions. Were these three students either involved in the protest rally or on their way to class that day, despite the danger, because of the influence of their Jewish upbringing?

Were their actions shaped by Judaism's commitment to social justice? Did the concept of tikkun olam move them to take action where they lived and attended classes?

Were they struggling to find their own way of obeying the mitzvot regarding love, brotherhood, the poor and the unfortunate? Did the lessons of courage they learned from the Holocaust cause them to take a brave stand against a controversial war?

Each year on May 4, people travel to the Kent State campus from close at hand and from far away. They come to remember Krause, Miller, Scheuer and William Knox Schroeder. They also come to take a stand against injustice.

They participate in commemorative events that, probably unbeknown to them, have a distinctly Jewish flavor. The silent candlelight walk and vigil on May 3 remind me of the candles lit to commemorate Yom HaShoah and the contemplative silence the Talmud recommends for dealing with loss and mourning.

Speakers, poems, prayers and singing are a part of May 4 commemorations. They are a part of Yom HaShoah as well.

The university's victory bell that rang out at the anti-war rally in 1970 tolls 15 times at 12:24 p.m. on May 4 to memorialize the student victims of 1970. Just a few days earlier, on Yom HaShoah, a siren is sounded at 10 a.m. in Israel to honor those lost in the Holocaust. On both occasions, mourners stop and stand in silence.

"Inquire. Learn. Reflect." Those are the words carved into the plaza threshold of the May 4 Memorial dedicated at Kent State in 1990. It is good advice, advice that helps to honor the students, both Jew and non-Jew, who died that day.

But I would suggest that we add another directive. And because of the history of the Jewish people, it is one that could easily supercede all the rest: "Remember.''

For it is only by remembering that we can learn the lessons of the past, which are among life's most powerful.