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Kent State alum remembers 1970 shooting tragedy

Kent State alum Tom Deitz reflects at the SUNY Plattsburgh memorial to the 1970 Kent State shootings
Pat Bradley
Kent State alum Tom Deitz reflects at the SUNY Plattsburgh memorial to the 1970 Kent State shootings

In 1971, the State University of New York at Plattsburgh installed a small plaque near its administration building honoring the students who were killed at Kent State in Ohio and Jackson State in Mississippi during anti-war protests the year before. The northern New York college has held an annual commemoration on May 4th ever since. This year as the memorial ended a man stepped up to thank the college for its tradition. Grand Isle, Vermont resident Tom Dietz attends the event when he cannot make it to Kent State. He was an undergraduate there in 1970 and told WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley he was close to the shooting:

I was at Kent State as an undergraduate from 1968 to 1972 and was there on May 1st and May 4th. May 4 is when of course the shootings occurred.

So what did you experience?

Well, it was just terrifying. We were used to police reacting to demonstrations. But the Guard was completely out of control. I've talked with many military officers who sometimes use this in their classes training officers as a bad example of command structure. It was just inexcusable that those shootings could have taken place. And I always like to point out to people that half of the students killed, two of the four students killed, were not demonstrating. One of them was an ROTC cadet. And about half of the wounded were not demonstrating. They were going back and forth to class. So it was just an immense and horrible tragedy. It was shocking and as one of my friends put it the other day it changed all of our lives and I think the lives of many people who were college students and others. I've talked to many Vietnam vets who said this event changed their view of what was going on in the war, that we would murder people for peacefully protesting, and in some cases not so peacefully, but certainly not at the level that that deserves that sort of reaction.

You said it was horrifying, terrifying. How close to the shooting were you?

I was perhaps, oh, maybe two or 300 yards away, although I was not, I was going in and out of a student affairs building. The Earth Day celebration at Kent State was not going to be on April 22nd. It was going to be on May 6th. We knew we had to cancel it because the National Guard had come on campus. So I was running out of student affairs sort of making phone calls to cancel the speakers we had coming in. I didn't actually witness the shooting, per se, although I was say about 100 yards away and came out just about the time it was happening. And many close friends were there. I mean some of my close friends are among the wounded. Yeah.

How did the events impact your life going forward?

Well, I think it crystallized thinking about what we can do that's important in bringing about positive change. What kinds of actions will really make a difference and a positive difference. And so I for myself decided that science and academia, I'm a retiring college professor, would be the area. So I always saw the environment, which is my area, as closely connected. It is another form of violence against other species and against ourselves. It sort of crystallized that focus in me about trying to figure out how I could make a difference and what, what, what's the most effective things that I could do. My wife, Linda and I, are just retiring from Michigan State University, where of course we had a tragedy earlier this year, this academic year, which was actually in the building where we have our offices.

But you said you've been living here for 30 years.

Yeah, Linda was a faculty member here at Plattsburgh so we moved up here and we love the area. So we've stayed and we've commuted back and forth.

Boy, the Michigan shooting must have hit home again.

Yeah, we were in Tucson, but it was in our building. Several of our colleagues were teaching that night in those classrooms. And again these sort of random acts of violence. In this case it wasn't the government killing students and citizens. It was just overly easy access to guns and someone who should have had perhaps better health, access to mental health help. But it made me think early on in my life and academia I had the experience of this kind of violence and then late it happened to the institution I was at late in my career.

What can we learn from Kent State that we really should apply to what's happening today?

One of the things I think we can learn is that any time we normalized violence, we legitimize violence, we praise violence, the result is tragedy. We have to find mechanisms to resolve conflicts peacefully. And I think we sometimes lose track of that, that we can have great differences, but there are ways to go forward to resolve those conflicts without violence. And if we engage in violence the result is always tragedy in the long run.

Obviously, not many places commemorate Kent State and Jackson State. Do you come over specifically for the commemoration?

Yes. If I don't get back to Kent, I always come back for this commemoration. And the community of folks at Kent State, and I'm sure at Jackson State as well because I've met many of them, the community at Kent State really value so much what SUNY Plattsburgh has done since 1971. This means a tremendous amount to us to have this continuous commemoration of the events at Kent.

Tom Dietz, now 73, is an environmental social scientist who was born and raised in Kent, Ohio.  

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