The moment that changed it all

SUN JOURNAL

Fate: At Kent State three decades ago, one click of a shutter changed two people's lives -- and polarized opinions about the Vietnam War.

May 04, 2000|By Linda White | Linda White,SUN STAFF

Thirty years ago today a 21-year-old journalism student went out on his lunch hour to take pictures on the college campus. He got a photograph that changed his life. It changed the life of the girl in the picture. Some say it changed the world.

Rioting, sparked by President Richard M. Nixon's expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, had torn the Kent State campus over the weekend. The ROTC building was burned, and the mayor of the small Ohio town of Kent had called out the National Guard. Tension continued that Monday in 1970 when John Filo went out with his borrowed camera and lens.

It was an unlikely venue for violent confrontation. The Kent State campus, wrote the Akron Beacon Journal, was "normally so placid that little squirrels run unafraid across its streets." Eighty-five percent of its students, the journalist I. F. Stone reported, were accepted from Ohio high schools without admission tests -- "the insurance salesmen of tomorrow," he quoted a faculty member.

Filo was moving through the rally, snapping students and guardsmen, when a bullet whizzed by him, slammed into a sculpture of steel plate and tore a chunk of bark from a nearby tree. He turned and saw the body of Jeffrey Miller lying in a stream of blood. Four students had died in the fusillade.

Filo's first impulse was to flee. Students had been killed on either side of him, and he was amazed to have escaped unhit. But something drew him back. As he later told the Indiana Press Photographers Association, he realized that "someone has got to tell the story, someone has got to shoot some photographs."

As he began taking pictures of the dead student, a girl ran into the corner of his frame. She knelt, looked at the body and let out a scream. Filo fired his camera, and the girl, Mary Ann Vecchio, was on her way to becoming a symbol.

She was an unlikely embodiment of student protest. Vecchio was on the Kent State campus that day because it was where hitchhiking had brought her. She was a 14-year-old runaway from Florida who, since leaving her parents' house in February, had drifted from town to town, earning a meager living panhandling and selling underground newspapers, sleeping in welfare homes, hamburger stands, the streets.

When the shooting started on May 4, she said in a 1994 television interview, "I heard `bang, bang,' and I just hit the deck. And when I got up, there was Jeffrey Miller lying down -- dead. I didn't know what to do. ... I just panicked, and I was screaming 'cause I couldn't help him."

Filo's photograph became the emblem of the tragedy at Kent State. It ran on the front page of almost every newspaper in the United States and many throughout the world. And it confirmed the convictions of Americans on both the left and the right.

William F. Buckley Jr.'s National Review noted that the girl in the photo was not a student "but a runaway drifter inhabiting the hippie-radical fringes of the campus, and an excellent symbol therefore of the pathology of Kent State and many other campuses as well."

Years later, Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey summed up the horror the picture had evoked for him. "I remember the girl's face with her hands up and her mouth opened and thought -- what happened? How could that have happened? In this country, the military is not supposed to shoot civilians."

The picture brought unwanted opportunity to Filo. Life magazine paid him $2,000 just to look at his film. He received offers to license the photograph on T-shirts, posters and record albums.

"How can I turn around," wondered an appalled Filo, "and say, `Thanks for dying, fellows, because you made me a rich man'?"

Filo had to grapple not only with survivor's syndrome, but with hate mail and threatening phone calls at night. Some said the photograph was a fake; others had lost loved ones in the war and told Filo he should be next to die.

The picture won Filo the Pulitzer Prize for news photography; at 22, he was the youngest person ever to receive a Pulitzer. That brought a job offer from the Associated Press, and Filo quit school to accept it. To avoid being typecast as the "Kent State photographer," he went out of his way to cover assignments other than spot news. At the Evening Sun in the 1980s he was a picture editor. But wherever he went, whatever he did, he was asked about the photograph. He began to worry about the consequences of every picture he took.

The consequences for Vecchio, too, were harrowing. At first the photo reunited her with her parents, who had recognized their runaway daughter. But she was now a national icon, and unprepared for the scrutiny of newspapers, magazines and authors.

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