CINCINNATI — Forty years later, Gary Lownsdale is still haunted by what he felt and what he saw in the last days of his senior year.
Shock and outrage over the May 4 National Guard slayings of four Kent State University students, on the other end of Ohio from his University of Cincinnati campus. Then fear and confusion as schools across the state and much of the country saw the demonstrations against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia swell into angry, combative confrontations.
One by one, colleges closed and students were ordered to pack up and leave, some amid the acrid smell of tear gas as police and armed soldiers stood guard. TV helicopters buzzed overhead. Rumors and reports were rampant, of undercover FBI agents infiltrating students, or violent radicals converging to escalate the protests.
For some graduating seniors of the Class of 1970, there would be no joyful mortarboard tosses, posing for photos with proud parents, or late-night celebration parties. They lost the chance to cram for final exams for a last boost to GPAs, or to say their good-byes to favorite professors and former roommates.
Until now. This spring, Lownsdale and other members of the Class of '70 will return to Cincinnati – or to Boston, or to Athens, Ohio – for the festive commencements they never had. Some will be accompanied by their parents, now elderly, or by grown-up children. Maybe they will find a chance to heal some old wounds.
"Even today, it evokes a lot of emotion," Lownsdale says. "There was a feeling of vulnerability ... all these years later, I'm still angry about it."
No one knows how many of the 1970 alumni will come back for the belated ceremonies. Meg Umlas, executive director of alumni relations at Boston University, says several hundred people, including family members, may attend that school's May 15-16 weekend. Ohio University and the University of Cincinnati will follow with gatherings in June.
"I think it's going to be a huge opportunity to get a sense of closure," says Roderick J. McDavis, Ohio University's president and himself a Class of '70 alum.
But 40 years ago, graduation ceremonies were not a priority. Marsha Epstein was a senior at Boston U; she remembers being clubbed in the back by police at a peace rally before the shootings.
"We were lucky to be alive," Epstein says. "As I reflect upon the time, we were still stricken by the shock of what had happened. It would have been ridiculous to bemoan not having my bourgeois graduation."
Lew Moores was executive editor of the UC News Record student newspaper then, and had written columns in support of the war. But the Kent State slayings rocked his outlook.
"These kids were my age," he says. "There was no excuse for that."
"You couldn't fathom that we as a society, in the United States, would shoot students on campus, no matter what," says Class of '70 senior Bill Mulvihill. "We were stunned. Then it became anger, and then anger turned into action."
UC students – 5,000 or more – marched on downtown Cincinnati the next day. There were rallies, sit-ins, silent vigils in the ensuing days. Student strikes disrupted hundreds of campuses across the nation. A presidential commission on campus unrest later described it as a time of the deepest U.S. social divisions since the Civil War.
At Cincinnati on the morning of May 8, notices were posted on dormitory doors and around campus: School was closing, everyone had to leave, buildings were locked down. Students flooded away, by car, bus, or plane.
The police shootings on May 14 of 14 more students – two of them fatally – on the campus of Jackson State University in Mississippi added to worries about whether schools should resume classes.
Cincinnati reopened for a single day. "There was a palpable fear," Moores recalls. "There was concern that outside agitators would gravitate to our campus if we were the only large university in the state that was still open."
School had already been shut down at Ohio University, the hilly Appalachian college town roiled in early May by riotous protests and the unnerving sight of National Guardsmen with bayonets fixed on their rifles.
"It's kind of a blur," says then-senior Connie Romine. "I just remember seeing the National Guard lined up along Court Street. You felt as if you were in another country."
Gary Lownsdale returned to UC's campus a few weeks later for what was a no-frills, solemn graduation ceremony. Kent State also reopened its campus for a commencement under tight security.
Mulvihill remembers wearing a peace symbol armband, as did other UC participants who represented only a fraction of the full class. Many seniors had already started their new jobs, and out-of-state students had gone home.
Classmate Candace Kendle lived in Cincinnati, but declined to attend commencement.
"I wanted no part of it," she recalls. "I was so angry. It was just an angry, angry time."
Over the years, schools across the country have recognized these lost commencements. Some have invited Class of '70 alumni to march with current graduates, linked class reunions to regular commencement ceremonies or recognized them at their children's graduations.
Myron Hughes, the former UC Bearcat basketball player who now heads the school's alumni association, has traveled among alums and had heard them tell tales of 1970. He proposed the makeup ceremony at Cincinnati.
"A lot of people didn't get the chance to go through commencement, and a lot of people who did tell me they don't really have any memory of it," Hughes say. "It wasn't the excitement and the energy one looks forward to."
Says Mulvihill: "There was a sense that you had lost a rite of passage in your life."
Putting together wider-scale events is a little easier these days, organizers say, thanks to e-mail, social networks and other, newer ways to find and reconnect with people. Graduates who are well-established in their careers or even retired, their children grown, are better able to travel for a weekend of receptions, discussions and ceremony complete with cap and gown.
And perhaps they are better able to consider the events of the past in a broader perspective.
"You go through life's evolution in major steps," says Kendle, who founded and heads the Cincinnati-based clinical research company Kendle International. "I think when you get to this place in your life, you can really see how your early choices helped you or hurt you. You're in a whole different world of appreciation."
She and others remember their campus years as a time of repeated tumult – not only the war, but the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and other movements for civil rights, women's liberation and more. They talk of gaining passion and commitment from those formative years.
"It was a very charged time. Particularly that spring, it seemed like almost every day something else was happening," says Mulvihill, now vice president of the University of Cincinnati Foundation. "Passionate is the word that always stuck with me about that time."
But this is another century, another time.
Lownsdale went on to a successful career as an engineer for major automakers; today, at age 63, he commutes from his home in Knoxville, Tenn., to work with a Vermont-based company making composite parts for high-performance vehicles.
Lownsdale says he was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor's guilt from the Kent aftermath. And he can still hardly bear to see the iconic 1970 photo of an anguished young woman kneeling beside one of the Kent victims.
He was one of the first UC grads to respond to the graduation invitation. He's eager to see old classmates to compare memories and feelings, and learn about their lives since the spring of '70.
"I'm curious to know: how did they make out?" he says. "What were their experiences? This is fantastic, for the class that never graduated."
These days, Marsha Epstein runs a nanny placement business she founded. At her home in Newtonville, Mass., she keeps a box she received 40 years ago, containing her diploma, grade report, a letter from the dean. Over the years, her parents died; she will be accompanied at the graduation by her two sons.
"It's bittersweet," she says. "It's a chance for a little closure, a chance to have more than what I called my 'graduation in a box.' I will go there and hug everybody."