THE BLOG
05/05/2014 12:54 pm ET Updated Jul 04, 2014

Kent State - 41 Years Later. "Make a Difference"

The following is a speech recently delivered by Robert Gage to student leaders at the Kent State University College of Arts & Sciences Distinguished Student Leadership Awards Banquet. Gage is a former student leader at KSU and was on campus on May 4, 1970. His law firm, the international firm of Covington & Burling LLP, is a leader in pro bomo representation and was so honored this week by receipt of the Distinguished Achievement Award by B'Nai Brith International, in recognition of the firm's commitment to pro bono work and public service.

When Susan invited me to speak here tonight, I gave a lot of thought to what I might say.
I could share with you how I'm still pulling "all-nighters"..... only instead of paying for them ..... now I get paid for them.

But rather than speak about life after graduation for a former student leader, I decided to speak from my heart, sharing some very personal recollections and feelings that defined my four years at Kent.... and forever helped define me....but in a message that I hope will have meaning for you, with a few "take-aways" that may help you define yourself.

* * *

So let me go back in time, returning to the campus. I recall well one of the last times I spoke at KSU. It was my Commencement in June 1973. I addressed my graduating class in the new Dix Stadium -- over 4000 graduates.

My class was a polarized group. We were coming out of the Vietnam War era. We had been freshmen 3 years earlier on May 4, 1970, a day that each of us will carry to our graves and about which each of you have heard volumes.

May 4 had different meanings for each of us. You may be surprised to learn that despite the common bond of the tragedy, the attitude of my classmates sharply diverged.
As you would expect, there were those who felt deeply saddened by the occasion.
As I remarked that day, this would be the last time that our student body would share this common bond together.

For the immediate past 3 years, a day did not go by on this campus without a reminder of that day.

We suffered together with daily headlines in the Kent Stater of grand jury investigations, Congressional investigations, and conspiracy theories. The political overtones wrapped the campus in debate conservative politicians wanting to erase the memory of the shootings;
young radicals wanting to incite others to seek an end to what they characterized as a "repressive regime".

But also middle of the road NE Ohio kids who wanted answers that weren't coming forth.

We walked the campus pausing near the hill next to Taylor Hall and had a quiet cry alone...or a shared whisper as we watched the new freshmen point to the Pagoda and the bullet hole in the metal sculpture.

We got the invariable "were you there then?" when we mentioned to someone back home that we went to Kent State.

By the way, to this day, hard to believe, but as soon as someone roughly my age reads my professional bio and sees my alma mater and graduation year, they still ask me "were you there then?"

We had come to KSU to transform from adolescent to adult.
But our experience at the center of the national debate on the Vietnam War was not sought by most - - nor expected - - nor desired.

In contrast, I hope that you've found your college years similar to the years my two kids have just spent - -working hard, playing hard, setting and achieving goals for themselves,
and enjoying "the best 4 years of their lives" preparing for the following year when reality hits - - as it will for you the day after your May Commencement ceremony.

* * *

As I noted a few minutes ago, there was a sharp divergence in attitudes among my classmates. For there were also those at Commencement who said "enough is enough...move on". No sadness. Nothing left behind. No last tears.

* "We didn't ask for the politics."
* "We didn't seek the notoriety" - - the iconic image of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over Jeffrey Miller on the roadway below the Taylor Hall hill - - which has forever been linked with our college years at Kent.
* "We wanted to be just like most other recent high school grads" - - to come to Kent to explore, to figure out who we are...and who we want to become. To be a typical college student by day and to party hard on Water Street by night.

As I spoke, the "booing" which responded to me from a small part of the audience caught me by surprise, and only then did I appreciate the divergence among my classmates.

My reaction?
* A bit angered.
* A bit disappointed.
* A bit embarrassed.
It stiffened my resolve to deliver the message for which I had sought the podium that morning.

My message that day in May, 1973 was clear and concise. And it continues to resonate with me. If I may take you back there with me:

"This is the last day we will be together as the KSU Class of 1973. The last class who experienced together first-hand the tragedy of being at "ground zero" of the tumultuous Spring of 1970".

Our shared tragedy had been the fuse for a student strike which within a week brought over 900 of the nation's colleges and universities to an explosive close - - - and led to a demonstration of 100,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington to plead with the nation's political leaders
* to finally bring the frustrating and horrific War to an end,
* to demand a Justice Department probe of the event that forever changed this campus, forever affected the lives of 20,000 students at Kent,

and vaporized the innocence of the millions of college attendees who thereafter were left searching for an understanding of the randomness of life and death, the power of the State, the senselessness of war.

For me, I was left coping with the reality that the girl who often visited Barry Levine's dorm room directly across from mine in Clark Hall was never returning home to Pittsburgh.

Allison one moment was enthusiastically exercising fundamental freedoms of free speech and assembly in the most open and democratic nation in the world.....and the next moment was no more.

Nor was Jeffrey Miller.

And perhaps most inexplicable were the fates of Sandy, whom I'd met at a fraternity rush party, who was merely crossing the parking lot on her way to class, and Bill Schroeder, an ROTC cadet who was passively observing the day's events.

So as the last class to share that common bond, in my Commencement remarks I challenged my classmates to go forth and dedicate a part of their lives to our fallen classmates - - to do something in their lives "to make a difference" in their honor.

* to improve the lot of the impoverished;
* to clean up the environment;
* to work against injustice;
* to enhance educational opportunities or the health of the less fortunate - - whether trapped in inner cities, living in Appalachia, or growing up in a village in a third world country;
* to break down racial, gender or other barriers to equal opportunity;
* to work with those impaired by physical, emotional or intellectual disabilities;
* or to undertake the never-ending task of improving international stability and basic human rights.

It may sound a bit trite, but I asked my classmates to pause every so often and take stock of their lives - - what might they do today and in the coming months and years to make someone's life a little better, to make our society a little better?

...and to do it in honor of the memory of Allison, Sandy, Jeff and Bill, who would never have the chance to do it themselves.

Whether you relate best to my classmates who were saddened by the memories of May 4, 1970 and the senseless tragedy we shared as a University family - - by the realization that our collective bond was about to be cut - - or to those for whom "enough was enough" - - I'd like to reiterate today my graduation message - - as it is simple and timeless....and absolutely dominates my emotions and the memories which accompany my return to the campus, to visit the may 4th Visitor's Center, and to address a class of graduating KSU seniors:
"Try to make a difference in someone else's life."

I've read your bios. You are each an extraordinary soon-to-be graduate. You are the best and the brightest that Kent State has to offer. You have something that most of your classmates don't have - - otherwise they, rather than you, would be listening to these words.

You've attended a major university. That alone makes you very special - - in many cases sets you apart from your high school peers. We tend to get insulated living and working among other university attendees.

But most American teens did not have your opportunity - - to attend a major university.
And you've risen to the top of your class. Lest you not appreciate your position, that places you among the elite.

* * *

So let me share with you a bit of a post-graduation "look-back" for me. A look forward for you. Who have I seen "make a difference" these 41 years since I sat in your seat?
Hold up a mirror. It's you.

Pick up a magazine. Go on-line. Identify a polictical leader, a successful educator, scientist, engineer, or humanist.

Hold up a mirror.

These women and men were typically the academic and social leaders of their colleges and universities. Among all the kids in the neighborhood in which you grew up, among all the kids in your high school class, among all your classmates here at Kent - - -
my bet would be on "you".

Each of you are at this moment in your lives, well out in front....though it's up to you to decide what to do with your advantage.....whether you want "to make a difference".

And it's not just your intellect that you bring to the table. Without your intellect, you wouldn't have risen to this elite academic status.

It's more than just intellect. You all have a lot of smart classmates who are not sitting here tonight. No, it's something more...something that leaders commonly share.

Those who "make a difference" in their communities - - in the lives of others - - bring more than their intellect to their work.

First and foremost, they bring Passion. I love that word. It so captures the most special quality of a really successful person - - the men and women who are capable of "making a difference".
It is a quality that each of you have brought to your academics in the College of Arts & Sciences and to your roles as campus leaders, to enable you to distinguish yourself and obtain this evening's honors.

Don't lose your passion. Develop and feed your passion.

Select careers, jobs, lifestyles, avocations, volunteer positions and projects....that develop and feed your passion.

Don't "settle". Be inspired. Inspire others. Follow your interests. Pursue that which captures your imagination!

Second, Hard Work. There is no substitute for hard work. No one who isn't willing to work hard will become a successful leader. If you're not willing to work hard, you won't "make a difference".

But I think I'm "preaching to the choir". It was your hard work that brought you to this dinner tonight as a campus leader. Don't ever forget that.

Third, my absolute favorite. Your Integrity. As I remind my own kids from time-to-time, only you can hold your moral compass in the face of difficult decisions. When confronted with difficult choices, which direction will you take?

Short-term success may elude you. The spoils of fame and fortune may remain distant.
But more important than those trappings of success, is the satisfaction that you did the right thing. That you walked the moral high road.

That you took an ethical stance because you're a good person and you "let the chips fall where they may."

Your integrity is the most important asset you have. Once squandered, it's very very difficult to retrieve.

Out in the real world, it's no different than in your dorm, your fraternity or sorority, your club, your team, or with your friends and loved ones - - it's all about trust.

Break the trust of those with whom you deal, and you likely will not succeed.

Reputations take years to build. But they can be lost in a moment. A lapse of judgment - - showing lack of integrity - - and you could lose everything for which you've worked.

I've seen it first-hand. One bad choice can have repercussions for years. Without integrity, it will be very difficult to be a leader.

* * *

Thank you for letting me reminisce about my earlier speech to KSU grads. Perhaps some of the parents in the room can relate well to these distant memories.

For tomorrow's leaders, history may not seem too relevant. But from history we learn. And from the experiences of those who have traveled our path in advance...we learn.
From exposure to each, we gain clarity. Our vision sharpens.

Forty-one years ago I urged my classmates "to make a difference". Tonight I urge each of you "to make a difference".

My experience tells me that with Passion, Hard Work and Integrity, coupled with your intellect and leadership qualities, you are riding the wave. Hold on. Make the most of your lives.
Thank you.

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