Kent State shootings: Jeffrey Miller despised violence. He died protesting a war

Kent State shootings: Jeffrey Miller despised violence. He died protesting a war

By Paula Schleis for the Beacon Journal
May 4, 2020

Ohio National Guardsmen span the top of Blanket Hill as they head back toward the Commons at Kent State University, May 4, 1970. Moments before, the guardsmen had opened fire on demonstrators and bystanders, killing four students and wounding nine. Courtesy of Kent State University Libraries | Special Collections and Archives


Editor’s note: This seven-part series relives the days leading up to the May 4, 1970, shootings at Kent State University, through the lives of some of those most affected. Today, the events of Monday, May 4, 1970, and the life of sophomore Jeffrey Miller.

Jeff Miller woke Monday morning, slipped on a red cowboy shirt, denim bell bottoms, boots and a brown headband to hold his long hair in place. A rally was scheduled for noon at the Kent State University Commons. He intended to be there.

He’d been tear-gassed by Ohio National Guardsmen twice in the last two nights. It frightened him, but he was undeterred.

Jeff abhorred violence, at times even criticizing anti-war demonstrators who went too far.

But he needed to express his deep opposition to the war in Vietnam. The least he could do, he told a friend, was to be another body at rallies, marches and sit-ins. His weapons were his voice, his defiance and, on occasion, his middle finger.

Jeffrey Miller

At 10 a.m., the sophomore psychology major called his mom, Elaine. It was the second time in as many days that he felt compelled to reassure her he was OK. She took his call from her secretary’s desk at John F. Kennedy High School in Plainview, New York.

He’d been to a couple of demonstrations, he told her, and was on his way to a third.

“Sometimes if you feel something strongly enough, you have to take a stand,” he explained.

She’d heard it before, repeated her general motherly concern, but said she understood.

Jeff tried to rally the roommates with whom he shared an off-campus apartment. They shared his views, but mumbled disinterest.

And so at 11:45 a.m., Jeff stepped out alone into a pleasant spring day, where a brilliant sun had helped the mercury climb above 70 degrees. He began his walk to the sweeping green lawn known as the Commons.

It was May 4, 1970, a date that was mere minutes away from etching itself into American history.

Jeff wasn’t quite the same person in 1970 that he had been a couple of years earlier.

He was the youngest of two brothers – three years behind Russ – and born to a Jewish family in the Bronx, New York. His parents, Bernard and Elaine, moved the family to a safer, white-shingled house on Long Island because, as his dad put it, kids who grew up in the Bronx often went “sour.”

Jeff loved sports, collected baseball cards and rooted for the New York Mets. He was a better spectator than a player. Too small for most sports, he was usually the last to be chosen for a schoolyard game. But he knew how to take a ribbing, and he was well-liked for his good nature.

In 1968, he followed his big brother to Michigan State University and even joined his fraternity, Phi Kappa Tau. He studied architecture, played it straight, and dressed in buttoned-down shirts and slacks.

A crowd of students, some carrying their books gathers near the charred remains of the ROTC building on the Kent State campus. At the top left is Taylor Hall, where, around noon on the building’s far side, National Guardsmen clashed with protesters and opened fire. Don Roese | Akron Beacon Journal

But Jeff always felt different from those around him, occupied by deeper thoughts than most of his college classmates.

He hated poverty, intolerance and prejudice. His parents liked telling the story of how, when he was just 7 years old, they got a call from an editor at Ebony magazine congratulating them on having such a fine son. Turns out, young Jeff had read something that triggered his interest in civil rights, and he called the magazine to learn more about the plight of blacks.

The last couple of years, Jeff had aimed his social consciousness at the Vietnam War. He talked about it a lot. He told friends he could never hurt a fellow human being, and that if he were drafted, he’d have no choice but to move to Canada.

His frat brothers began calling him the “house radical” and their resident “hippie.” His looks evolved to fit the role. His hair grew longer, and he started wearing bell bottoms and a buckskin jacket.

Jeff missed most of his fraternity’s activities. It seemed as if their primary reasons for existing were hosting parties, drinking alcohol and trying to get laid. It seemed silly to be serenading sorority girls beneath their window while boys they’d gone to school with were dying in a Southeast Asian jungle.

Protesters and bystanders at the edge of the Commons below Taylor Hall gesture and yell at the Ohio National Guardsmen across the field. At left, wearing a headband, is Jeffrey Miller; Mary Ann Vecchio is looking to the left wearing a black t-shirt and dark pants, partially behind the young man flipping the bird. Courtesy of Kent State University Libraries | Special Collections and Archives

The summer of 1969 was a pivotal one for Jeff.

His parents divorced despite his repeated efforts to heal their divide. It devastated him.

He took a job driving a New York City cab and loved meeting the colorful parade of humanity that briefly marched through his life. It also brought him closer to the suffering of those in the inner city.

In August, Jeff joined 400,000 other young people at music festival Woodstock. He walked miles to get there, carrying a knapsack and a blanket, then spent part of his time there volunteering in the medical tent.

Three days of peace and love under the sun, three nights of sleeping on the grass under the stars. He told his parents it was a spiritual experience.

When he went back to Michigan State in the fall, he quit the fraternity, and changed his major to psychology. Architecture now seemed like a career devoted to building monuments to money. His goal, he said, was “to be the best human being I can.”

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After the winter break, with his brother now graduated, there was nothing to hold him in Michigan. He wanted a fresh start.

He picked Kent State University, and moved into an off-campus house on Summit Street with six other young men, some from the old neighborhood back on Long Island.

In March, he met a girl named Nancy. They shared a love for rock ‘n’ roll and dreams for peace, and had been going strong for two months. They were on a date Friday night, far from the riot that shattered the window of every North Water Street business in downtown Kent.

For Jeff, Kent State had been a pretty uneventful experience up to that point, but if the campus was ready to be part of a movement, he wanted to play his part.

As Jeff headed for the rally on the Commons, he passed a girl he knew.

“Hey, Jeff, you gonna be out there today playing war games?” she asked.

“You bet I am,” he told her.

But he wasn’t looking for trouble. He stopped to talk to another friend.

“God, I hope everything’s going to stay cool,” he said.

When Jeff reached the rally point, more than 1,500 of his fellow students had beat him there. Many of them had just been released from their late-morning classes.

A student throws back a tear gas canister below Taylor Hall on the Kent State campus on May 4, 1970. Protesters clashed with Ohio National Guard units that were sent to campus to quell unrest. Don Roese | Akron Beacon Journal

Perhaps a third of those gathered considered themselves protesters. The rest were there to cheer, or watch, or merely pass by on their way to the next class.

Also present was the National Guard, nerves on edge after two nights of confrontation.

Earlier in the day, Gov. James Rhodes told city and school authorities that he intended to declare martial law and ban assemblies on the KSU campus. But he hadn’t followed through with getting a court order.

After a morning of confusing and contradictory meetings, Gen. Robert Canterbury took matters into his own hands. He put out the word that the noon rally was illegal, but most students weren’t in a position to receive the news.

When the crowd size continued to grow, he called for a Guard jeep to be driven to the front of the rally and had it announced through a bullhorn.

Students answered the order to disperse with jeers and stones.

Canterbury shared with his commanders his plans for breaking up the gathering. If at any time students charged them, he told troop leaders, they had permission to open fire.

Capt. Ron Snyder, commander of Company C of the 145th Infantry, hoped it wouldn’t come to that. He walked down the line of his men, checking every gun to make sure the safeties were on. He didn’t want any accidents.

At 11:59 a.m., Gen. Canterbury gave the order: “Prepare to move out and disperse this mob.” At his command, 116 men, armed with tear gas and loaded M-1 rifles affixed with bayonets, formed a skirmish line.

The guardsmen marched across the Commons and up Blanket Hill, lobbing tear gas at the fleeing students. Retreating students picked up the gas canisters and tossed them back.

Capt. Snyder’s company broke off from the main group, his orders to fill the space between Taylor and Prentice halls.

Meanwhile, the larger group of some 70 guardsmen continued marching to the crest of Blanket Hill, rounding Taylor Hall and moving down the hill on the opposite side. There, they faced off with a small group of protesters screaming at them from the Prentice parking lot.

Boxes of shotgun ammunition are stacked on top of an Army jeep as Ohio National Guardsmen load shotguns at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, as they prepare to again confront student protesters on campus. At the same time, faculty marshals were pleading with the crowd to disperse following the deaths of four students earlier that afternoon. Bill Hunter | Akron Beacon Journal

Jeff Miller was among them, yelling “pig” and obscenities and using the only weapon he had – two fists in the air with stiffened middle fingers.

For 10 minutes, guardsmen and students exchanged volleys of tear gas and stones. With more than 50 yards between the two groups, most efforts fell short of their targets.

But Troop G felt threatened enough to drop to their knees and take aim at those in the parking lot. Gen. Canterbury called them off, sending the line back up to the top of Blanket Hill.

Protesters in the parking lot and spectators watching the scene from the veranda of Taylor Hall cheered, believing the moment had passed.

But at the top of the hill, a dozen guardsmen with Troop G suddenly pivoted simultaneously.

At 12:24 p.m., they lifted their rifles, took aim, and this time, they fired.

William Knox Schroeder, a sophomore psychology major from Lorain and ROTC member, had paused between classes to watch the scuffle. When the soldiers aimed their weapons, he turned to run.

An Ohio National Guardsmen throws a tear gas canister toward protesters at Kent State. Don Roese | Akron Beacon Journal

A bullet found him in the back. He was 382 feet from the guardsman who shot him.

Sandra Lee Scheuer, a junior speech and hearing therapy student from Boardman, was on her way to her 1:10 p.m. class. A young man she’d been helping with a speech impediment walked with her, handing her a rag so she could wipe eyes that were tearing from the haze of tear gas.

When the popping of guns sounded, he pulled Sandy behind a car. And when the gunfire ended, he tugged at her with a “Let’s go!” But Sandy didn’t move.

She died from a bullet to the neck, 390 feet from the guardsman who shot her.

Allison B. Krause, a Cleveland-born freshman in the Honors College who wanted to teach art to children with disabilities, attended the rally as a protester with a handful of pebbles in her pocket.

As bullets whizzed past them, she and her boyfriend, Barry Levine, ducked behind a car in the Prentice parking lot.

“Barry, I’m hit,” Allison said. She died from a bullet to the chest, 343 feet from the guardsman who shot her.

Jeffrey Glenn Miller, the sophomore psychology major from Long Island who assured his mother she needn’t worry about him, had cheered as the guardsmen made their climb up Blanket Hill.

When the fusilade began, a friend standing next to Jeff assumed the rounds were blanks, and turned to Jeff to tell him so. But Jeff was face down on the ground. He’d been dropped by a bullet that entered his mouth and shattered the base of his skull. He was 265 feet from the guardsman who shot him.

An ambulance drives away up the hill next to Taylor Hall as a small group of onlookers watches. Courtesy of Kent State University Libraries | Special Collections and Archives

Thirteen seconds.

That’s all it took to fire 67 bullets, the gunfire ending after Major Harry Jones beat his troops over their helmets with his swagger stick, pleading with them to stop.

The bullets found 13 marks, all full-time students. Four died. Nine were wounded, one of them permanently paralyzed.

Stunned students and faculty emerged from behind the parked cars, trees and sculptures they had been using for protection.

A 14-year-old runaway from Florida who had traveled to the campus ran to Jeff and fell to her knees. Mary Ann Vecchio raised her face and screamed in anguish.

“They shot him! They shot him!” she repeated as photography student John Filo raised his camera and captured her terror on film.

From his post tucked between Taylor and Prentice halls, Capt. Snyder didn’t know where the shooting was coming from. The sound deceptively bounced off the campus buildings.

But the outcome was obvious as he watched bodies fall. He took a small squad of men and ventured forward, past the lifeless form of Sandy Scheuer, then stopping at the prone body of Jeff Miller, whose blood now formed a river of red all the way to the parking lot curb.

Snyder radioed guard headquarters to ask for ambulances, reporting two dead students within his view.

The body of Jeffrey Miller lies on the edge of the Prentice Hall parking lot at Kent State University. Courtesy of Kent State University Libraries Special Collections Archives | Chuck Ayers

Then he led his men away as shouts of “Murderers!” joined the chorus of screams, wailing and the approaching sirens.

Faculty advisers fanned out among students whose momentary daze was turning to anger. They begged them to leave and not to incite the guardsmen further. Many dispersed at their request.

At 12:30 p.m., the phone rang at City Hall. Mayor LeRoy Satrom, who had asked the governor to send the National Guard, was informed of the shooting.

He called Kent City Schools and asked that students be dismissed immediately, offering police escorts for the buses. He requested local businesses close their doors and dismiss their workers. He wanted Kent’s streets and public places emptied.

Slowly, the news made its way around the country.

Professor Jerry Lewis (left, with beard), Elaine Holstein, mother of slain student Jeffrey Miller (center in white coat), and Dean Kahler (in wheelchair) participate May 3, 1976, in the annual candlelight vigil march to commemorate the 1970 shootings on the Kent State campus. Ted Walls | Akron Beacon Journal

In New York, Elaine Miller was on her way home from work when she heard on the radio that four Kent State students had been killed by the National Guard. She wasn’t particularly worried about Jeff, but she was going to ask him to come home anyway.

She parked her car, then hurried into her apartment, leaving the door open as her sense of urgency grew. She dialed Jeff’s apartment. The phone rang repeatedly until someone finally picked up.

She introduced herself to the young male voice on the other end. She was Jeff’s mom and wished to speak with him.

The voice on the receiver was cold, numb, brief.

“He’s dead.”

Sources: MAYDAY: Kent State (1981) by J. Gregory Payne; Akron Beacon Journal; The Kent Stater; The May 4 Shootings at Kent State University: The Search for Historical Accuracy (1998) by Jerry M. Lewis and Thomas R. Hensley; Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State (1970) by Joe Eszterhas and Michael D. Roberts; Kent State: What Happened and Why (1971) by James A. Michener; Kent State University Libraries Archives and Special Collections.