Last Friday, in a rain-soaked ceremony at Ohio's Kent State University, a granite memorial was dedicated to commemorate the deaths of four students gunned down by National Guardsmen during campus protests against the U.S.'s military involvement in Southeast Asia. The 4,000 spectators included SI deputy picture editor John Paul Filo, 41, whose life has been intertwined with the events of that horror-filled day. Filo took the much-published photograph, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, of Mary Ann Vecchio screaming in anguish over the body of slain student Jeffrey Miller.
Twenty years ago, Filo was a Kent State senior, a journalism major dreaming of a career in photography. His campus, squarely in the news, was a ready subject. There had been extensive student protests that week against U.S. troop movements into Cambodia, and an ROTC building had been burned. Ohio governor James Rhodes had called in the state's National Guard to restore order. Another rally was scheduled that day, and Filo borrowed a Nikkormat camera to shoot the action.
"I gave myself an assignment on my lunch hour," says Filo. "I went out looking for a symbolic shot."
He shot several rolls of film of troops moving across the campus and of crowds of students milling about on the Commons. Then came 13 seconds of gunfire, after which Filo took his famous photo, which remains one of the most powerful images of the Vietnam era, a wrenching symbol of the nation's internal conflict.
May 13, 1990
For Filo, memories of May 4, 1970, remain tinged with melancholy: "Naturally, I'm glad to have won the Pulitzer. But I can never forget that fate was involved. I wasn't standing that far away from Jeffrey Miller, yet he was killed, and I ended up with a prizewinning photograph." He adds, "But I thought then, and I still think, it was an important picture for the world to see."
After graduating from Kent State, Filo worked as a news photographer for 10 years with the Associated Press and later moved on to The Philadelphia Inquirer. He then spent 2½ years as photo editor of the Baltimore Evening Sun before joining SI in February.
Although Filo has returned to Kent State from time to time, last week's visit had special meaning. "This was the first time I felt the school acknowledged the tragedy," he says. "What happened may never be fully put to rest, but the ceremony made a lot of people feel better."