For Mitch Lustgarten, the events of May 4, 1970, remain as vivid as they were 41 years ago. As a young college student at Kent State University, he witnessed one of the most traumatic events in a troubled period of American history.
On that day he lost a friend and feared for his own life as National Guard troops opened fire on students protesting the Vietnam War, killing four and wounding nine.
To this day, the Manalapan resident thinks about those events — why live ammunition was used, how a quiet Ohio town became such a hotbed of radicalism, why then Gov. James Rhodes, who called in the troops, never suffered any consequences for the shootings.
He also wonders how it was that three of the four slain students were Jews on a campus where only one of 20 students was Jewish.
Five years ago Lustgarten, the president of Congregation Sons of Israel in Manalapan, began to speak about Kent State. On April 10 he came to Congregation Beth Ohr in Old Bridge, recalling the events of that tragedy.
Lustgarten explained how two nights before the shootings, the ROTC building had been set ablaze by antiwar protesters. When firefighters arrived they were pelted by rocks, and their fires hoses were cut.
Lustgarten was at the May 4 demonstration, which drew some 2,000 protesters. National Guardsmen ordered the students to disperse and were met with a volley of rocks, according to contemporary accounts.
Lustgarten said he heard shots ring out. Within minutes word spread through the crowd that students had been hit; the demonstrators began screaming and running.
Within hours a rumor spread throughout the campus that the Black Panthers were sending in reinforcements to join the fight and protect African-American students. In those days — before cell phones and e-mail — Lustgarten said, phone lines crashed as frightened parents tried to call in and students tried to call out.
“We all wondered what would happen next,” said Lustgarten. “People were crying. We already knew people had been killed. We wondered whether we would live to see tomorrow.”
Soon, that shock was intensified as Lustgarten learned that Sandy Scheuer, who was part of his Jewish circle of friends, had been killed — although she had not participated in the demonstration.
“Sandy was hit while walking to class holding her books,” Lustgarten said. “She thought the demonstration was ending. She was hit by a stray bullet.”
Lustgarten has always been troubled by her untimely death; her parents had fled Germany, he said, “and thought they would be safe in the United States.”
Last year, Lustgarten commemorated the 40th anniversary of the tragedy by remembering his friend. He was able to find a photo of her grave on the Internet, providing him with her Hebrew name, “Gittel bas Moshe,” and recited the El Malei Rahamim memorial prayer for her on her yahrtzeit.
The other students killed were Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, and William Schroeder, the last an ROTC member who was also killed by a stray bullet and the only one who wasn’t Jewish. Lustgarten cited Jews’ historical involvement in social causes like the civil rights movement to explain the disproportion.
In researching the events, including through such popular accounts as James Michener’s Kent State, Lustgarten learned that the “sleepy college town” of Kent, Ohio, was a center of radicalism. Leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society and the more radical Weather Underground had confronted the administration the year before, demanding, among other things, the abolition of the campus ROTC.
After the shooting, the campus was closed for the remainder of the year and courses were finished via mail. Lustgarten returned to college the following fall, eventually earning a degree in English. He is retired after a career in federal record management.
Today there is a large memorial on campus at the site of the shootings. An annual vigil is held on May 4.
“I’ve been back to campus at least two dozen times,” said Lustgarten. “I plan on going back nine years from now to be there at the 50th anniversary of the shootings.”