Memory and Memorial

A crowd gathers by the U.S. Capitol, holding a banner that says 'Oberlin' with the letter O containing the peace symbol. Black and white archival photo.

A half-century later, Oberlin’s musical response to the killing of four people at an antiwar protest at Kent State University still stands as a moving tribute.

May 4, 2020

Helen S. Paxton ’73

Special feature from the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of the Oberlin Alumni Magazine

The protests had been going on for years—students wearing black armbands lining Tappan Square, silently voicing their stance against a war responsible for the death of thousands of young American soldiers and Vietnamese men, women, and children. 

To be a student in those years was to be surrounded by news of the war, and for the men, a nagging fear of the draft and the draft lottery, instituted in 1969. Yet for young people in the academic bubble of a small college town, the war often seemed far away. As spring came into bloom in May 1970, there was even hope that the war was winding down; President Richard Nixon had recently announced the planned withdrawal of 150,000 troops.

“It was a beautiful sunny day on the quad and students were throwing frisbees,” says urban studies major Dennis Krumholz ’73, recalling the afternoon of Thursday, April 30, 1970. “But later that evening, we were all shocked as we heard the news.”

In just one day, it seemed, the country had moved from hope to horror, with no end in sight. Nixon had gone on national TV to announce an escalation of the war with an invasion into Cambodia. “To protect our men who are in Vietnam and to guarantee the continued success of our withdrawal and Vietnamization programs,” he announced, “I have concluded that the time has come for action.” Reactions to the announcement were swift and dramatic at Oberlin and hundreds of college campuses nationwide.

In Oberlin that evening, 300 emotional students assembled at the intersection of Main and College streets. Angry voices protesting the new escalation were heard throughout town. Students “took over” the college administration building, though they stopped short of disrupting regular administrative activities. The week progressed into the weekend. The atmosphere was tense, despite the annual outdoor May Day festival and other activities.

But by Monday, everything had changed. One hour away, at Kent State University, tragic events unfolded, now forever seared in the memories of millions. As the late Oberlin professor of history Geoffrey Blodgett ’53 wrote, recalling 1960s-era protests, “Kent State was different. Psychologically it brought the possibility of official violence against war protesters to every campus in America.”

Ann Sursa Carney ’75, a double degree student in music history and religion, was reading the news at WOBC that Monday, May 4. It was early afternoon when the teletype machine punched out news that four Kent State student protesters had been killed by National Guardsmen who had been called in to manage the unrest brewing at Kent throughout the weekend.

Kent State was different. Psychologically it brought the possibility of official violence against war protesters to every campus in America.

Geoffrey Blodgett ’53, history professor

“It was just stunning,” Carney says, “and immediately everyone was very upset.” As she and her fellow students pondered the news, questions and confusion compounded their sadness. “Everyone felt the need to do something...yet...not everyone wanted to go out and march and get shot at.”

But in this tight Oberlin community of faculty, students, and administrators, it did not take long for plans to emerge. Almost everyone wanted to embrace political and community action, especially with the end of the semester approaching.

Krumholz remembers the somewhat raucous “packed-to-the rafters” meeting in Finney Chapel the afternoon of May 5. Oberlin’s general faculty council announced that remaining classes would be cancelled. Students were offered the option to accept grades as of May 4, and if they wished, to engage in activities relevant to the crisis. Oberlin, along with 448 other campuses, was now engaged in a student anti-war strike.

The action center then moved to Wilder Hall, where a steering committee of faculty, administrators, and students discussed how to proceed. Krumholz, who had been drafted onto the committee (much to his surprise, since he was a freshman), remembers the energy and the “high” as the committee discussed radical disruptions and civil disobedience, even though he was unsure of and mostly uncomfortable with that level of response.

As it turned out, radical response and civil disobedience did not prevail. “Oberlin’s reaction to Kent and Cambodia turned out to be more intellectual than emotional,” reported the Oberlin Alumni Magazine the following summer. “After the first stunned reaction to the Kent killings, the response of many students and faculty was to ask, “How can we act positively to influence a change in a situation that we consider detrimental to the best interests of our country?”

That intellectual approach led to the formation of a “Liberation School” offering the courses History of the War in Vietnam, Political Decision-Making, and Western Religions and the War. A people-to-people campaign engaged students with townspeople and local issues. Oberlin also became home to “Kent in Exile,” hosting 200 Kent students and faculty members who gathered to discuss their institution’s future. All of this activity can be revisited in archived issues of the Oberlin Review, but also in a remarkable documentary film made by Oberlin communications major Richard Haass ’73 entitled 5/70.

Haass had never before used a movie camera, but as a part-time student photographer, he responded enthusiastically when asked by the Oberlin Alumni Magazine editor to document the local activity. Haass quickly took up the challenge, making tracks throughout campus and town and interviewing students, faculty, and community members. The camera accompanied him to Washington, D.C., the next weekend for what was to become the high point of Oberlin’s response to the May 1970 events.

A choir of young women and men perform in the cathedral. In the background are statues of religious figures.

A Different Kind of Response

More accustomed to immersing themselves in practice rooms and rehearsals than in national politics, most conservatory students were not as quickly swept up in the protest mood. Violinist Robin Bushman ’73 remembers feeling confused and somewhat scared during that time. “Being a real Connie—for me—meant not wanting to risk getting involved in what was going on politically,” she says. But in the days following Kent State, her thinking evolved. “As I was trying to practice, I began to wonder…why am I doing this?” 

As soon as he heard the announcement that classes had been cancelled, pianist Frank Weinstock ’73 recalls thinking “Great... now I’ll have more time to practice!” He also remembers feeling guilty about those thoughts. He was sympathetic to the protests, but like many of his musician friends, was not in the habit of getting involved. 

The conservatory students’ response to Kent State stands out, more than any other actions taken at the time, as a history-making event for Oberlin.

Two days after the Kent State tragedy, Warner Concert Hall was packed with students addressing the question of how to respond to the crisis. Voice professor Richard Miller, writing for Oberlin Alumni Magazine the following summer, explained: “over 300 students, approximately three-fourths of the student body” were meeting in Warner Concert Hall, chaired by conservatory board president Stephen Couch ’70. “Speaker after speaker rose to ask if there were not some way that a musician could use his craft as an expression of concern and dissent. Finally, Andrew Meltzer ’70, sensing that the group was clearly of one mind, suggested that a major requiem work, utilizing chorus, orchestra, and soloists, be prepared and presented as an anti-war expression…and an electrifying assent passed over Warner Concert Hall.”

The group selected Mozart’s final work, his Requiem Mass of 1791, and all agreed to invite faculty members as soloists. When Dean of the Conservatory Robert Fountain was suggested as conductor, a chorus of unanimous approval rang through the hall. 

“Fountain was at the pinnacle of the choral movement,” said J. Scott Ferguson ’79, a choral and voice professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, in a 1996 Oberlin Alumni Magazine article. “He lived and breathed music, and he constantly challenged us to listen and think.” 

During his 22 years at Oberlin, Fountain had established an exceptional reputation and the ability to profoundly move performers and audiences. He led Oberlin choirs on tours throughout the U.S. and Europe, as well as a tour of the Soviet Union in 1964. Following five years as conservatory dean, he left in 1971 for the University of Wisconsin, where he returned to teaching and conducting and established a graduate program in choral conducting. He retired in 1994.

Being a real Connie—for me—meant not wanting to risk getting involved in what was going on politically. [But] as I was trying to practice, I began to wonder…why am I doing this?

Violinist Robin Bushman ’73

On Wednesday, May 6, Fountain began rehearsals with the chorus, orchestra, and soloists for a performance of the Mozart piece that would be presented in town. What most participants didn’t know, however, was that behind the scenes, planning was underway for the Oberlin group to perform at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., just days later. The concert would follow the national anti-war protest at the National Mall scheduled for Saturday, May 9. A new energy and even greater commitment took over the rehearsals once the concert was announced.

“He was an unbelievable conductor,” Weinstock says, recalling lessons he learned from Fountain during that week, lessons he’s since used in his own teaching and performing.

Haass, documenting all of this on film, had a unique opportunity to witness Fountain’s own personal transformation. “What made this so powerful,” Haass says, “was that here was a man in his 60s who told me that he was apolitical and had never connected politics with music before. Something remarkably human became apparent, where the world of politics and music merged for him. Usually those ‘signature’ experiences happen to young people, yet here was a mature man and musician with a big ‘first’ experience.”

The choir sings at the cathedral. The conductor raises his hands in mid-performance. Two soloists are seated in front of the conductor, by the violin section.
Frames from 5/70.

On Saturday May 9, 1,000 student protesters, musicians, and faculty members, almost all wearing black armbands, arrived in D.C. after a seven-hour trip from Oberlin. Most joined the peaceful afternoon protest on the mall, where 100,000 people gathered to hear brief speeches and calls to action from, among others, civil rights leader Coretta Scott King; members of the Chicago 7, including anti-war activist Rennie Davis ’62; poet Allen Ginsberg; protest organizer Ron Young; Kent State student Mike Allen; and celebrated pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock. The protest ended in the late afternoon.

By 7 p.m. the mostly solemn musicians had gathered at the cathedral for an open dress rehearsal. The next day, after a night sleeping on the rectory floors, they assembled again on the stage, looking out at the pews packed with attendees. Stephen Couch intoned a prayer to the audience. A white-arm-banded Fountain then led the ensemble as Mozart’s powerful music took over. 

“It was not in the ‘how’ of the performance, which was superb,” Paul Hume reported in the Washington Post. “It was in the ‘why,’ the emotion of the day, that the 250 singers and instrumentalists reached beyond Mozart’s notes to sound their deepest meaning.”  

What made this so powerful was that here was a man in his 60s [Conservatory Dean Robert Fountain], who told me that he was apolitical and had never connected politics with music before. Something remarkably human became apparent, where the world of politics and music merged for him.

Richard Haass ’73

As the last measures of “Lux Aeterna” faded out, the cathedral fell silent. Then church bells rang out and the musicians left the stage, sensing they were experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Weinstock notes that presentations of the Mozart Requiem he would go on to hear over the decades would “seem flippant to me” by comparison. He recalled Fountain’s drawn-out tempo while conducting the piercing “Lacrimosa,” contrasting it with the faster tempos typical of contemporary performance practice. “Most conductors wouldn’t dare to do this music at such a slow tempo, as it would fall apart without the sense of line.”

Fountain’s mastery of the musical line and the inherent drama of this great music can be heard on the recording made of the performance, issued by Oberlin College later that year. The last few minutes of Haass’ film are devoted to dramatic footage of the final moments (“cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es”) of the performance.

“One of the least publicized events in the remarkable weekend of protest rallies in Washington took place on Sunday afternoon when a group of young musicians from the Oberlin Conservatory...came to the National Cathedral with their scores and instruments and performed the Mozart Requiem,” wrote Alan Rich in New York Magazine the following week.

“[T]he cathedral was jammed, mostly with young people who were still hanging around after the rallies...many of them barefoot. After the speeches, the yelling, the chanting and the outbursts of violence, the incredibly poignant music resounding against a background of architectural majesty and utter silence seemed, somehow, the ultimate summation of the feelings that were swirling around that place in these times, and Mozart’s music of 179 years ago took on a relevance that was beyond any challenge.” 

Many years later, as a retiree living back in Oberlin, Robert Fountain received a letter from his friend Ellsworth Carlson, who had served as professor of Asian history, provost, and acting president of the college. “[W]e have just listened to the recording of the Mozart Requiem, performed by Oberlin students, conducted by one Robert Fountain, in the Washington Cathedral in 1970. The music was beautiful, inspiring, and altogether wonderful. The event was one of the great moments in Oberlin history.”

Listen to the May 10, 1970, performance of Mozart’s Requiem

Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor by the Oberlin College Community Orchestra and Chorus was recorded live at the National Cathedral and later that year made available on vinyl. Soloists were Oberlin faculty members Darlene Wiley, soprano; Richard Miller, tenor; Doris Mayes, alto; and Howard Hatton, bass. Tom Bethel, former director of audio services and concert sound at Oberlin for 26 years, was the recording engineer for the performance and album. He also took the photograph of the National Cathedral on the album’s jacket.

Description of Record Cover Image

The front and back of a record album cover are shown, yellowed at the edges. On the front is a photo of the tower of a gothic building, the National Cathedral, alongside the title, “Mozart Requiem in D minor. Robert Fountain, Conductor.” The label is Mark Records, stereophonic. The back cover includes information about the tracks, too small to read in this photo.

About the Author

Oberlin College music major Helen Sive Paxton ’73 sang alto in the May 1970 Mozart Requiem, performances which remain vivid to her 50 years later. She thanks ’73 classmates Robin Bushman, member of the Orchestra of St Luke’s and assistant concertmaster of the Westchester Philharmonic; Ann Sursa Carney, retired church organist; Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations; Dennis Krumholz, attorney and partner with Riker, Danzig and Perretti; and Frank Weinstock, retired professor of piano at University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, for their time in sharing reminiscences with her.

To continue the discussion

Oberlin Conservatory Director of Vocal Ensembles Gregory Ristow ’01, who conducts the Oberlin College Choir and Musical Union, interviewed writer Helen Paxton about the experience of being involved in the performance of Mozart’s Requiem at the National Cathedral, for the conservatory’s Stage Left series.

Image Credits

All images courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

Additional Resources

The Oberlin Sanctuary Project, a forum for research, reflection, and discussion, includes on its website a page on anti-war protest and the Kent State shootings

“Oberlin’s Reaction to Kent and Cambodia.” Oberlin Alumni Magazine article.

Press release from college declaring May 5 a day of mourning and closing administrative offices and suspending classes.

Press release from college announcing, among other things, that Oberlin College has been designated by the Ohio Coalition of Colleges and Universities “Kent State in Exile.”

The website for special collections and archives of Kent State University has extensive documentation of the event and aftermath, including documents related to the Kent State University community in exile at Oberlin College.

Playwright Rich Orloff ’73 has written a documentary-style play of Vietnam-era college students, Days of Possibilities, based on letters from and interviews with more than 100 Oberlin alumni. Online versions of the play—produced at a number of theaters around the country—will be presented on May 4, 2020, at 7 pm.

For Further Reading

“Oberlin Requiem,” review by Paul Hume, Washington Post, May 11, 1970

“Students Organize Performance of Mozart Requiem in Washington,” by Louis Moansi, Christian Science Monitor, May 13, 1970

“War Radicalizes Many at Oberlin,” John Kifner, New York Times, May 17, 1970

“A Matter of Relevance,” by Alan Rich, New York Magazine, June 1, 1970

“Oberlin Honors Robert Fountain,” Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Winter 1996.

“Historian’s Notebook,” by Geoffrey Blodgett, Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Fall 1998