WILMINGTON — The war that nearly ripped the nation apart served to bring the Wilmington College campus together when four students were killed at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.
Just like the country, the WC campus had been torn between the growing anti-war movement and those who favored the Nixon Administration’s handling of the conflict in Southeast Asia.
Throughout those divisive years of the Vietnam War, WC students held anti-war rallies, protests and peace vigils, while others voiced their support for the government sending American troops to Vietnam – and others did not take a stance.
Kent State served as a flashpoint that brought the war home.
Instead of 19-year-olds from the other side of the tracks being killed in a far-off land, college students from white, middle-class families had been gunned down on home soil when Ohio National Guardsmen fired live rounds at a gathering of protesters. Gov. James Rhodes ordered the Guard to KSU in the wake of the burning of the ROTC building several days earlier.
The slaughter resulted in protests throughout the country, including at Wilmington College.
“Kent State had a tremendous impact on this campus,” said former provost emeritus Sterling P. Olmsted, who describes Vietnam as “a futile and useless war.” He and interim president W. Brooke Morgan, along with trustees’ chair Wallace Collett ’36, provided senior level leadership during the crisis, which resulted in 536 other colleges and universities closing.
“Kent State brought us together. We were a divided campus before Kent State (“straights,” “grubs,” Aggies, blacks, Greeks, also polar opposite viewpoints among faculty), but, after the killings, all of a sudden everybody said, ‘You can’t do that!’ There was an almost unanimous anti-war sentiment.”
It was soon announced there would be a major protest in Columbus. WC and Oberlin College students were selected to coordinate.
Wilmington’s contingent decided to accentuate its stance by marching to the state capital. WC was involved in planning the event, as Wilmington and Oberlin colleges assumed the roles of organization centers for the anti-war protests in the state’s southern and northern halves, respectively.
Terry Miller, Class of ’70, recalls being on that 65-mile march as it left Wilmington.
“People shouted, ‘Go back to Yellow Springs! They thought we were from Antioch, which had a long history of student activism,” he said. “The College administration was supportive of student protests and actually sanctioned the walk to Columbus — some faculty joined us on the march and others drove empty cars up there to take us back.”
They also supported them by providing food and sleeping bags on the three-day journey.
“Kent State brought everyone together,” he added. “It was a binding force on campus, at least for the rest of that spring.”
At the Columbus peace rally, the nearly 100 Wilmington marchers were given a place of honor as they entered the Capitol immediately after their Kent State counterparts, recalled Larry Gara, emeritus professor of history.
“Behind us were state police with mace and billy clubs, but it was a very peaceful protest,” Gara said, noting many credited the WC contingent for insisting it remain peaceful. “The state police had been very tense at first, but they realized we only had peaceful intent.”
Olmsted looks back with extreme pride on WC’s reaction to the Kent State and Jackson State shootings, as the College’s peaceful protests and nonviolent demonstrations provided a desired contrast to violence elsewhere.
“We weathered Kent State and its aftermath without violence. When many colleges closed, we kept Wilmington College open,” he said. Indeed, while many schools suspended the remainder of the term, WC cancelled classes for one day as a period of “mourning, reflection and affirmation.”
“We were so spectacular doing this!”