For three people, Kent State remains a haunting memory KENT STATE HEALING THE WOUND

May 04, 1995|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff Writer

Mary Ann Vecchio was a troubled teen who had panhandled her way to the Kent State University campus from Opa-Locka, Fla. John Filo was the son of a steelworker, a senior ready to embark on a journalism career. J. Gregory Payne was a University of Illinois undergraduate with law school on his mind.

On May 4, 1970, their lives entwined irrevocably when four students at Kent State were slain by the Ohio National Guard.

Photographed by Mr. Filo as she cried in horror over Jeffrey Miller's hemorrhaging body, Mary Ann, 14, instantly became an icon symbolizing the cost of conviction in America. Mr. Filo earned a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts, sealing a future in mainstream media. Mr. Payne dropped his plans to go to law school and, instead, wrote a doctoral dissertation seeking the truth behind the tragedy.

Anniversaries beget soul searchings, efforts to reconcile, vindicate, heal. So we mark the 25th anniversary of Kent State still trying to understand -- and looking to witnesses for guidance. If we know them, will we begin to know the events simply labeled Kent State?

A national ritual of cathartic reflection must suffice.

This week at Kent State, in Kent, Ohio, a series of commemorative activities are planned, including appearances by former Sens. Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, and folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary. But authentic healing is elusive.

The university "has never come to terms with what occurred there," says Mr. Payne, now chairman of the communications studies department at Boston's Emerson College. A gymnasium stands on the site of the shootings. It was not until 1990 that the campus dedicated a simple granite memorial to the four students slain that day, including Allison Krause of Silver Spring.

In spite of official findings, victims have never been properly cleared of posing a threat to the National Guard and to national security, Mr. Payne says. They're still "bums" -- as President Nixon branded those who opposed his decision to invade Cambodia four days before the shootings.

And so Mr. Payne, by now well-acquainted with survivors and families of the dead, is obsessed with "this cleansing, [this] removal of a blot on history." It is as if he, too, were wounded that day.

That is why earlier this month, he brought together Mary Ann Vecchio and John Filo for the first time at a conference on Kent State at Emerson College. "I have never seen such genuine emotion," Mr. Payne says of the moment Ms. Vecchio, now a Las Vegas cashier, and Mr. Filo, deputy photo editor at Newsweek, tearfully embraced.

"He reminded me of a wounded bear when I first met him," Ms. Vecchio says of Mr. Filo, a former photo editor for The Evening Sun. "I just looked at him and he had such sad eyes for me. . . . sure he felt guilty."

The meeting had "tremendous personal significance" for Mr. Filo. "I'm glad she doesn't hate me," he says. "For the people who were [at the conference] to share their experiences enabled some healing and some closure. Certainly with Mary Ann and myself, it's good to know we can just talk to one another."

Despite the genuine emotion it engendered, the Kent State conference followed a familiar Oprahtic script: Bring together the inadvertent victims of a tragic event, let them mourn, embrace, heal. The world watches, weeps, becomes whole again. Symbol of strife (Ms. Vecchio) becomes symbol of redemption and speaks openly of that day and the pain it has caused her.

After 25 years of avoiding attention, Ms. Vecchio is now granting interviews. She attributes her new attitude to the conference at Emerson. Mr. Payne and other participants "welcomed me with open arms," she says. "They really made me feel good and whole again."

In Boston, Ms. Vecchio watched "Kent State: A Requiem," a play written by Mr. Payne in which the slain students are portrayed in purgatory. The scene prompted Ms. Vecchio to say, "You don't have to be dead to live in purgatory." Her comments inspired Mr. Payne to write her into the script. Today, at Kent State, Ms. Vecchio will play herself in the revised play.

The decades after

It is a surreal footnote to the strange life of Ms. Vecchio, 39, who has spent miserable decades under public scrutiny. After the shootings, she was eventually returned to her family, which capitalized on her new fame by manufacturing T-shirts featuring Mr. Filo's photograph. The words, "Now Will You Listen," and Mary Ann's autograph appeared beneath the image.

Returning to school, Mary Ann was expected to be a spokeswoman for campus unrest, but she had little understanding of the country's turbulent politics. She was condemned by Florida Gov. Claude Kirk as a communist and was reviled by schoolmates. She received thousands of pieces of hate mail.

Later, Ms. Vecchio was arrested for petty crimes and prostitution. She told Geraldo Rivera about her unsavory career on "Goodnight, America."

The picture, she would contend, wrecked her life. Ms. Vecchio disappeared, only to be unearthed by the media on Kent State anniversaries.

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