"Don't go there," she said. "That's where they killed students."
This reaction is common. I don't know a student or professor who hasn't had a similar experience.
On May 4, 1970, five years before I was born (and five years before the fall of Saigon ended the fighting in Vietnam), four students were killed and nine others wounded on campus by the National Guard.
Every May since then, prestigious guest speakers come to campus to offer their opinions about the day. A candlelight vigil is held May 3, and the campus Victory Bell is rung on May 4 at 12:24 p.m., the hour of the shootings.
The media attention will be heavier than usual this week. Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, two former U.S. senators who ran for president on anti-war platforms, will be on panels spread out over two days. Folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary will perform a concert, backed by the Kent State Chorale.
To a lot of today's students, the discussions of 1970 seem endless. Some events draw more alumni and faculty than students. The campus, in northeastern Ohio outside of Akron, seems an unlikely place for symposiums on radical politics.
Kent State's student population of 18,000 is generally very conservative. It's said that before the shootings, the largest organized demonstration on campus was a 1950s fraternity panty raid.
Indeed, one week before the shootings, students held their annual "Spring Is Here" mud fight. But President Nixon's April 30 announcement of the invasion of Cambodia triggered four days of escalating protest that led the Ohio governor to call in the National Guard.
The events of May 4 changed the lives of those who were there.
Richard Bredemeier, who was director of student activities in 1970 and is now VP of enrollment management and student life, was a witness at the scene. He watched troops reach the crest of the hill about 100 feet in front of him. The guardsmen kneeled and fired into a crowd that included both protesters and onlookers.
The feeling of helplessness that rushed over Mr. Bredemeier at that moment eventually turned to a resolve to keep that kind of incident from ever happening again. Today, he acts as a liaison between students and the Kent State administration.
Mr. Bredemeier was an advocate for a recently enacted university policy designed to prevent harassment of any student on the basis of gender, race or religion. It's controversial because some claim it's an infringement on free speech.
He says: "You learn that violence is deplorable and whatever you have to do to avoid it is OK."
Dennis Carey, an adviser in the College of Arts & Sciences in 1970, remembers the shots and the ambulances. He remembers the canister of tear gas launched toward him and a group of faculty 50 feet away.
Mr. Carey is now an associate professor of Kent State's Applied Conflict Management Program, a direct result of the shootings. Started in 1971, the program was the brainchild of several professors, including Mr. Carey. The program is one of the few centers in the nation where students can earn a bachelor's degree in the study of peaceful resolution and mediation.
The majority go on to graduate work, often in law. Some find business or education careers, while others go on to mediation work in community programs.
About 40 to 45 students major or minor in the program, including Elizabeth Silliman. "I think it's important that we remember the history of May 4, but I don't think it's necessary to still be caught up in assigning the blame," she says.
Alan Canfora, one of those wounded in 1970, remains angry.
When the student activist came home with a nickel-size hole in his wrist May 4, his family was less than sympathetic. "Even my aunt was skeptical that they would shoot," he said.
Today, Mr. Canfora is chairman of the Democratic Party in Barberton, about 30 miles from Kent. He also works for the Summit County Board of Elections.
But his real career is talking about May 4, because he claims the government and university prefer to gloss over the details of the event. Mr. Canfora has spoken on 150 different campuses since 1977. And he is a vocal advocate for the completion of a $1 million memorial, which began construction in 1986 but was scaled back to $100,000.
In 1977, more than 30 memorial proposals were presented to a committee, but none were acted upon. In 1978, the Kent State administration refused to accept a bronze statue by George Segal, because it was deemed inappropriate and too violent, Mr. Canfora said. The sculpture, which now stands at Princeton University, depicts a middle-age man holding a knife to a youth, hands bound and pleading for his life.
On May 3, 1985, the Board of Trustees approved construction of a granite memorial that stands near the site of the shootings. It is surrounded by 58,175 daffodils, the number of U.S. casualties in Vietnam.
The plaza extends onto the hillside about 20 feet, ending in a jagged, abstract border symbolic of disruptions and the conflict of ideas. A progression of four black granite disks leads from the plaza to four aligned pylons on the hillside.
Engraved in the plaza's stone are the words, "Inquire, learn, reflect."
Ms. Ralston will be an intern in Advertising Age's Detroit bureau this summer.