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He said this place was very small and hard to find.

But we were on a mission. There was someone we wanted to pay our respects to, and so armed with a few somewhat inexact directions, from someone who had been down the same road and had the fore sight to post a satellite photo of the site, we were off. We had almost made it to where we thought it should be when we turned onto Highland instead of staying on Negley Road, Wilkens Township. This in turn led us to the dead end of a washout and some choice criticism from a somewhat agitated young man who questioned why anyone would disobey the “road closed” sign at the bottom of the hill. “We’re looking for the cemetery,” I said. “Ain’t no cemetery ‘round here” We apologized and made our way back down the hill.

With fresh calibrations and the aid of Sonny Malone’s excellent satellite photo, we had reached our destination – Parkland Jewish Cemetery and the grave of Allison Krause, one of the four students murdered at Kent State by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970 at a demonstration protesting the US invasion of Cambodia.

Monday had begun with what wasn’t exactly a happy accident, but it certainly wasn’t something planned and it set my mind off in a totally different state than it was when I left the house to drive to Best Feeds Nursery to exchange some pea gravel I bought the day before. When I arrived home, I discovered it was the wrong color. “It should be grey.” Turns out what I wanted was not pea gravel but pond gravel. So, I was in the car on a beautiful Memorial (or as my family called it Decoration) Day heading over to Babcock Blvd. I turned on the radio to the Pittsburgh NPR station and in the place of Brian Lehrer’s show that we always listen to in Brooklyn, a program came on called 1-A. They were broadcasting a documentary that had aired originally on the BBC. It was titled “4 Dead in Ohio” and was originally broadcast on May 4, 2020, the fiftieth anniversary of the shooting. You can hear a rebroadcast of it on FRDH podcast with Michael Goldfarb. It’s an extraordinary program.

One of the people being interviewed talked at length about how the killing had sapped so much drive and energy out of the antiwar movement and how the message of “You can go so far, but if you cross a certain line, you can be shot” changed everything for so many people who had grown up believing in a very different American myth.

That was me.

I was in graduate school the year of Kent State, trying to figure out who I was and whether I wanted to be an actor or a director. For a time, I became the former, until Barbara convinced me I’d be better off as the latter. By the fall of ’69, I had become something of a one toe in the water protester. I had marched in the rain from Arlington Cemetery past the White House to the Capitol on a cold November day, carrying a placard bearing the name of a soldier who had been killed in Viet Nam. I dabbled in draft counseling with American Friends, and, like so many others, was comforted and calmed by the singing of Peter, Paul and Mary when the police tried to provoke a confrontation by closing the route of the march and preventing access to the mall on the day of the Moratorium rally at the Washington monument. “If you take my hand my son, all will be well when the day is done – leave Constitution Ave, cross over the flower beds and make your way to the sound of our voices. And please step over the flowers,” And we did. Pete Seeger led us in singing “Give Peace a Chance,” Doctor Spock reminded us that we were all his children, Richie Havens serenaded us – I wish I remembered what you sang, Richie. Strangers shared sandwiches, and we all believed in possibility. It was our moment. But as we know moments don’t last. They change. They are questioned, Sometimes their spirit, their beliefs, get altered and take us in new directions. They might even end up leading to where we are today, when we don’t allow truth to be part of the story and there is no time for anything, not even to heal, and we’re told to move on.

But sometime one moment can shape the voice of your art, of your life

The seeds planted in that moment in time by those people whose courage and example we saw did manage to take root to grow and, to this day, influence all that we do at Irondale. From our choice of plays, to how we strive to treat each other. From why and how we teach and what we teach, to why and how we do projects like To Protect, Serve And Understand. It all goes back to this moment in time. As we grew and evolved, we aged and mellowed, and we came to understand that what matters most may just boil down to these few words from a great author who also came to prominence in the time of the Moratorium and Kent State. Kurt Vonnegut, “try not to make someone feel like something the cat dragged in,” Sometimes it’s so hard to pull that off, but I hope we keep on trying,

Thanks Alison Krause, for your example and for the words that you said on May 3rd, the day before you were killed. “Flowers are better than bullets.”

And that’s what’s on my mind today.


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

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