It was not long ago that Elaine Holstein refused to set foot on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio.
That was where her son, Jeffrey Miller, was slain - and had his image seared into national consciousness by a photo of his prone body - during a 13-second fusillade fired May 4, 1970, by National Guardsmen at a jeering, rock-throwing crowd of anti-war demonstrators protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.
Furious by what she perceived as school officials’ callousness for not including victims’ names on a granite memorial, Holstein, who had attended commemorative ceremonies in 1985, declined an invitation in 1990 and vowed never to return.
But she will be there today for ceremonies marking the 25th anniversary of an incident whose student casualties - four slain, nine wounded - made it a pivotal happening in the Vietnam era.
“I’ve become acutely aware of my age,” said Holstein, 73, who remarried after her son’s death and now lives in New York City. “This is probably the last time I’ll be able to make the trip, so I feel I should go.”
Still harboring a lingering bitterness about her son’s fate - although she stressed that “I’m leading a normal life and I behave very well” - Holstein added that she is going to Kent State hoping “there will be some kind of closure for me.”
Holstein’s decision came as no surprise to Russ Miller, her other son.
“I think my mother is going largely out of a sense of obligation to a major event,” said Miller, a Boston-area engineer who was 13 when his 20-year-old brother was killed. “Which is why I’ve decided to go, too. I don’t think either one of us will get anything personally out of such a ceremony at this point.”
In addition to survivors of other slain students, faculty members and some of the wounded, the ceremonies - expected to draw about 4,000 of the school’s 23,000 current students - will include Mary Ann Vecchio, the teenage runaway who was kneeling over Miller’s body in the prize-winning photo that has come to symbolize the Kent State killings.
“I’m looking forward to meeting her,” Holstein said of Vecchio, 39, a coffee shop cashier in Las Vegas, who until last week had not made any public appearances since the famous photo was snapped.
The central theme of the ceremony is “Legacies of Protest.” But a more personal effect will come from verbal portraits presented by friends and relatives of Miller and Allison Krause, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder, the others killed in 1970.
“The point is to make those people more than mere abstractions,” said Alan Canfora, 46, one of the wounded students.
Such descriptions might prove valuable to current students, most of whom were born after 1970.
“These days the students don’t even know how to hold a decent demonstration,” said Professor Jerry M. Lewis, 58, who has taught sociology at Kent State for more than three decades.
Thomas Hensley, a political science professor, said Lewis is being too harsh.
“I think our students know a good deal about what happened here,” said Hensley, 51, a veteran faculty member who attended the 1970 rally but left shortly before the shooting began. “You can’t attend classes here and not know about it.”