The Oregonian

The long road back from Kent State

Sunday, July 01, 2007 The Oregonian

O n the morning James Russell died -- 37 years after Troop G of the Ohio National Guard came gunning for him -- his back was aching and his wife, Nelda, was drawing him an Epsom salt bath. They were both thinking he'd overextended himself the day before, forgetting his age, until Russell suddenly said, "Hold me." Nelda's hug wasn't quite enough to rescue him, so Russell begged her, "Hold me tight," and she squeezed him as hard as she could.

"I feel like I'm dying," Russell said, and Nelda suggested they call the hospital as she turned back to the tub. That's when she heard him say, more surprised than afraid, "Oh, God," and the sound of his head careening off the toilet as he slumped to the floor.

Just when she thought she didn't have any tears left, I had to ask about that morning again. Much of the last week has vanished in a blur for Nelda since Russell's heart attack, but there are moments of clarity when she can see all that she'll keep safe in the years to come.

If not for the worst day of Russell's life, he would never have met his best friend, married Nelda or discovered Oregon. "He ended up in a beautiful part of the state with a beautiful daughter and the most incredible circle of family and friends anyone could have," Nelda said.

"And none of it would have happened if it hadn't been for May 4."

James Russell was 23 on that May day in 1970. Walking across the Kent State University campus, days short of graduation, he stumbled upon a group of 76 members of the Ohio National Guard using tear gas to break up a raucous anti-war rally.

The hostilities were seemingly over, students returning to class and the Guard retreating up Blanket Hill, when a dozen Guardsmen, armed with M-1 rifles, spun 180 degrees and opened fire at the crowd milling through a campus parking lot.

Four students -- Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Bill Schroeder and Sandy Scheuer -- were killed. None of the dead was closer than 265 feet to the shooters. Nine other Kent State students were wounded. Russell, 90 degrees removed from the line of fire, was taken down by the lone Guardsman with a shotgun.

"He was on a turkey shoot," Russell told me on the 25th anniversary of the shootings. "I was just a target. He saw me running away and he just wanted to bag a student."

An engineering technician with the city of Beaverton, Russell forever carried one of those shotgun pellets in his head.

At 23, he was oldest of the students who were shot and survived. At 60, he was the first to die.

Nelda Pelosi was on her grandfather's farm outside Rome when the pictures from Kent State came flickering on Italian television. "I was wondering what was going on that the apathy capital of the world was making international news," she said. "All I could hear in rapid-fire Italian was 'Quattro morti! Quattro morti!' "

Four dead. She remembers screaming, "I have to go home. They can't start the revolution without me."

Revulsion, at the very least, was in the air in Ohio. On May 3, the day after students torched the ROTC building, an old wooden Army barracks scheduled for demolition, Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes arrived at Kent. He was a U.S. Senate candidate on the eve of the Republican primary, and he wasted no time torching the radicals on campus.

"We are going to eradicate the problem. We're not going to treat the symptoms," Rhodes said. The dissidents are "worse than the Brown Shirts in the communist element and also the Night Riders and the vigilantes. They're the worst type of people that we harbor in America. And I want to say that they're not going to take over a campus."

That antagonism didn't abate after the killings. When Russell, hit in the head and the thigh, stumbled into a dorm that day, a grad student mocked his wounds and said, "We're going to hold you for the police." An Ohio grand jury handed up 30 indictments . . . against students and professors. And as the rancor surrounding the Vietnam War intensified, Nelda remembers any number of people saying, " 'They should have shot more of them.' I could never understand that. When is a government ever justified in killing its children?"

Nelda pauses for a moment. "I feel like I'm channeling Russell," she said. "I can hear him in my head, saying, 'Tell him this, tell him this.' "

Curiously, neither civil suits -- the families of the survivors eventually settled for $675,000 -- nor Neil Young's "Four Dead in Ohio" radically changed those perceptions. Russell thought the memorial ceremonies at Kent State were public-relations shams, not gestures of atonement. And his daughter, Becka, was stunned at the accounts of May 4 she discovered in the history books at Rainier High School.

"They made the students criminals," Becka said. "People didn't want to believe that the people who were supposed to protect us would hurt us for no reason. If soldiers were shooting students, the students must have deserved it.

"Getting shot when you were on your way to art class wasn't enough. They had to put him through all that extra pain."

That pain dogged Russell for years. And years. And years. In the aftermath of the shootings, Russell became fast friends with Joseph Lewis Jr., who was shot twice by the Guard and lost six pints of blood. Lewis eventually introduced him to Nelda and invited him to Oregon. Russell accepted the invitation in 1975 and married Nelda in 1980, right after he started building the family home on Deer Island.

But Ohio and Kent State were never far removed. "It was a huge part of our lives," said Becka, an undercurrent of anger and torment magnified by Russell's inability or unwillingness to talk about it to anyone outside his inner circle. "He didn't want anyone to know he'd been a part of it. He was still so traumatized. And he had his conspiracy theories. He still thought they might come after him."

The knots in Russell's stomach finally began to unravel in the late '90s. A new president at Kent State changed the tenor of the May 4 commemorations. Each spring, Russell and Lewis would make the tour of area schools and talk about the lessons of that day, lectures given additional urgency after the invasion of Iraq.

And eventually, Becka said, her father buried his bitterness. "He was angry and afraid for a really long time," she said. "So much wonderful stuff happened when he left that behind. Spiritually, he had completely healed."

He came to accept, toward the end, that Kent State changed everything, but not everything for the worst. "I guess that day wasn't all that bad after all," Russell would say. "Look what I ended up with."

A circle of friends. A sense of history. The sanctuary of family. And that memory of his wife's arms wrapped tightly around him, holding on for dear life.

"I'm so glad I got to hold him tight one last time," Nelda said. "He died in the house he built and loved. Not everyone is that lucky."



©2007 The Oregonian