Kent State shootings: Paralyzed survivor Dean Kahler harbors no anger

Kent State shootings: Paralyzed survivor Dean Kahler harbors no anger

By Craig Webb, Akron Beacon Journal
May 3, 2020

Kent State University student Dean Kahler, who was paralyzed from the waist down by a National Guardsman’s bullet on May 4, leads a candlelight procession in September 1970. NEED CREDIT |

No anger.

No regrets.

No looking back.

This is certainly not the life Dean Kahler expected when he was a freshman at Kent State some 50 years ago.

He walked onto the campus full of hopes and dreams.

He left some years later, degree in hand in a wheelchair and with a new path in life.

Kahler grew up in rural Stark County.

Life on the family farm and high school, he admits now, shielded him from the polarizing politics engulfing many of the youth in the country at the time.

That’s not to say he was not aware of the fights over the war in Vietnam.

Dean Kahler, who was one of the nine students wounded by National Guardsmen on the Kent State campus May 4, participates in a commemoration ceremony before leading a candlelight procession on September 28, 1970. Don Roese | Akron Beacon Journal

Kahler said politics were as common as potatoes at the family dinner table.

He grew up in a “mixed” household.

Mom was a Republican.

Dad was a Democrat.

Kahler said free thinking was encouraged in the household, and a well-reasoned exchange of ideas was expected.

“You had to bring something to the table,” he said. “You had to be ready to talk.”

Looking back at this – along with that fateful day at Kent State – led him to become the person he is today.

But back then, he had a single, much different, life goal in mind.

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He dreamed of being a teacher and a football or baseball coach.

Instead of heading straight off to college after high school, Kahler said he wanted to forge his own path and pay his way onto campus.

He spent a year toiling away in a steel plant in Canton to earn the money needed to pursue his dream of a college education at Kent State.

The busyness of life as a first-quarter freshman and making ends meet, Kahler said, was one of the reasons he was so intrigued by the turmoil that embroiled the campus that spring.

He ended up amid the sea of protesters and students and Ohio National Guardsmen on May 4, 1970, because he had just finished lunch and was headed to class.

He had a 1:10 p.m. Intro to Health class on the other side of the massive gathering.

He stopped and watched as the crowd of protesters and spectators surrounded the men with guns that stood guard between him and his classroom, when the unthinkable moment and flashpoint in U.S. history unfolded before his eyes.

Shots rang out.

The 20-year-old became a name in history books when he was struck by a guardsman’s bullet that damaged his spine and left him paralyzed from the waist down. Four students died. Kahler was one of nine wounded.

Dean Kahler, who was shot in the back and paralyzed by National Guardsmen at Kent State on May 4, 1970, speaks at a press conference following the $675,000 settlement of a civil lawsuit. Jan. 4, 1979. In the background at left is Roseanne “Chic” Canfora, who was a witness to the shootings and whose brother, Alan, was one of the nine students injured that day. Ott Gangl | Akron Beacon Journal

He returned to campus in the fall and graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 1977.

He was a teacher for 15 years and worked with the Ohio Industrial Commission, the Ohio Attorney General and the Ohio Secretary of State.

He also became a politician and was a two-term Athens County commissioner.

After his retirement, Kahler, who turned 70 on Friday, moved back to Northeast Ohio and now lives in Plain Township.

He moved back home to help care for his parents, who have both since passed away.

Sadly, Kahler ended up needing help himself, as a fall three years ago led to complications and other ailments that left him pretty much bedridden for much of that time.

He is on the mend, but still has a wound in his lower back that refuses to heal.

In spite of all this, Kahler had still planned to travel to the campus to participate in the 50th anniversary events of the shooting.

He was also scheduled to be the speaker for the One University Commencement ceremony on May 9 before the coronavirus canceled all those events.

Kahler said he’s not angry about the way things turned out, but 50 years is a long time to reflect on that day.

Dean Kahler recalls the May 4, 1970 shootings from the spot where he was shot and paralyzed as he talks about that day’s events on the campus of Kent State University Monday, April 26, 2010 in Kent, Ohio. Karen Schiely | Akron Beacon Journal

“I’ve spent 50 years in a wheelchair,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

He holds no anger toward the place where his life changed in an instant.

Kahler is a frequent visitor to the campus to talk about the events of May 4 and regularly participates in the annual ceremony marking the moment shots rang out.

He had planned to tell this year’s class of graduates the importance of forgiveness, being good citizens and having a giving heart.

In the height of the pandemic, Kahler even made a public plea recently for colleges and universities to donate any masks and gloves they had in storage to doctors and nurses on the frontlines.

“I tell people I only had one bad day at Kent State,” he said. “I’m alive. I’m alive.”

Reporter Craig Webb can be reached at