Gone but Not Forgotten

university removes living Kent State memorial, plans sculpture to replace it

Eric Larson

Above: What’s left of the four trees planted in front of UWEC’s Davies Center in 1970 to memorialize the victims of the Kent State massacre. Below: One of the stumps says “Soldiers are cutting us down,” a reference to the CSNY song Ohio, which was about the massacre.

    On May 4, 1970, gunfire echoed across the grassy knolls of Kent State University in one of the most infamous massacres in the country. During a protest of the expansion of the Vietnam War, the Ohio National Guard unleashed fire – 67 rounds in 13 seconds – on a group of students, killing four and injuring nine. These protesters were not single-handed, though; student protests were being held nationwide at the time of the shooting, including a group of 3,500 at UW-Eau Claire. To honor the victims of the Kent State massacre, UWEC planted four crabapple trees – one for each student – near the Davies student union as a memorial.

But now, 40 years after the event, the trees (or what’s left of them, rather) have been moved to make way for the new student union being built between Davies Center and the Phillips parking lot. Withered and starved, three of the four had died over the years, leaving little behind but bug-infested wood and a plaque – a sad memory, some would say, of a dark cloud in our nation’s past.

Rumblings around town say there are plans to construct new memorials, and many community members agree that it’s an integral step to honoring history, both locally and nationally.

“I have strong feelings about the need of UWEC to observe and honor its past,” said John Thurston, retired professor of psychology. “The removal or neglect of an important reminder of an event in history reflects negatively upon the university and its image.”

Thurston believes it’s time to “put up or shut up,” and paying respect and memorializing local history is part of the university’s mission, he said. Thankfully, two projects are underway with that very goal in mind.

Jason Lanka, associate professor of art, was contacted by a university groundskeeper in January. He told Lanka the trees were being removed, and wondered if he had any interest in using the wood to create another memorial.

“I thought it was wonderful that someone was concerned about a proactive, productive use of the trees,” Lanka said. “Knowing that they weren’t just going to be cut down or thrown away was great news.”