Famous image captures horror of Kent bloodshed 39 years ago, forever ties student and teen runaway to darkest day on campus
By Bill Lilley
Beacon Journal staff writer
(Reprinted with permission of the Akron Beacon Journal/Ohio.com)
KENT, OH – Inextricably linked by the annals of history for the past 39 years, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer John Filo and his subject, Mary Vecchio, were reunited Tuesday at Kent State University.
The last time he saw her on the campus was through the lens of his camera as he took his historic picture on May 4, 1970, after the shootings on campus that left four dead and nine wounded.
Filo, then a senior photojournalism major, is now photography director for CBS in New York. Vecchio, then a 14-year-old runaway from Florida, is a respiratory therapist in Florida.
The two were the featured speakers at Monday afternoon's 39th commemoration of the May 4 shootings. The two-hour program on the Kent State Commons, the site of the student demonstrations, was organized by the May 4th Task Force. It was the culmination of events that began Sunday night with a march and candlelight vigil in the parking lot next to Taylor Hall, where the students were shot by National Guardsmen who fired 87 shots in 13 seconds.
Vecchio, who had taken a bus from Florida to participate in the antiwar demonstrations on the Kent State campus during that May in 1970, was kneeling with her arms raised in shock and screaming above the body of student Jeffrey Miller a few seconds after the shots were fired at 12:24 p.m.
Filo, using a Nikkormat camera with Tri-X film, snapped the image that captivated America when it was published on the cover of the May 18, 1970, edition of Newsweek.
Filo, however, avoided encountering Vecchio for 25 years.
''I thought I had ruined her life,'' said Filo, who worked for Sports Illustrated and several newspaper chains before landing a job with CBS in 1995. ''It took me 25 years before I could talk to her.''
They met in 1995, when Vecchio was speaking at Emerson University. They met again in Indianapolis. But Monday was the first time they were together at Kent State. Filo, who spoke first, gave Vecchio a warm embrace and a kiss on the cheek after their appearance.
''You can never determine how different [my career path] would have been,'' Filo said. ''But I know it was important, and made even more so by the fact that she was only 14 at the time. There isn't a day go by that I don't think about May 4.''
Vecchio said she has come to terms with her fame, which haunted her for quite a while.
''I have a much better appreciation today for my place in history,'' Vecchio said. ''Years go by, and I am much better able to reflect more clearly on what happened.
''And all of us who were there that day still feel committed and will be until we pass. It's something that will be with us the rest of our lives.''
The famous picture, however, almost never happened.
Filo, who received the Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1971, thought he had missed out on all the protests because he had been out of town working on his senior portfolio.
''I came back to campus May 3 and was told about all the things that I had missed,'' he said, referring to the weekend of demonstrations and the burning of the ROTC building. ''It was the biggest news event of my life and I had missed it. I was extremely depressed.''
Filo said that on May 4, 1970, he had set out on campus for lunch.
''I left Taylor Hall with the goal over the next hour to make a photo that represented what was going on in the nation with the students and their protests against the war in Vietnam,'' Filo said. ''I got what I thought was a great picture of [Alan] Canfora holding a U.S. flag, the lone figure against the mass of guardsmen. It was my best photo ever.''
That all changed a few minutes later, when Filo heard the gunshots and saw Vecchio kneeling over Miller.
''That was a reaction shot,'' Filo said.
Filo said he received hate mail after the picture was published. And he was told by an uncle who had served in the armed forces, ''If you were out there, you should have been shot.''
''The thing I remember the most is the feeling of total helplessness,'' Filo said. ''It's the same helplessness I feel at times now later in life.
''Sometimes, there is no help, just friendship and an attempt to understand what's going on. That's the way we all felt that day, a day that will be with us all until the end.''
Vecchio said she is a ''much stronger person and much smarter person'' than she was 39 years ago, when she gained instant fame. And she has a sincere appreciation for teachers.
''I love teachers because they are the greatest people I have come across in my life,'' she said. ''They saved my life with their support, and now I can go out and save people's lives.''