For nearly half a century, Elaine Holstein was periodically confronted with one of the most haunting images in modern American history: the bone-chilling picture of Kent State University student Jeffrey Miller lying on the pavement seconds after being fatally shot in the mouth by an Ohio National Guardsman during an anti-war protest.
Photographer John Filo later said, “The volume of blood that was flowing from his body was as if someone tipped over a bucket.” And, of course, there was the teenage girl kneeling over Jeff, screaming in horror, her arms raised in anguish.
Most baby boomers remember that photo as a symbol of May 4, 1970, the day four unarmed college students were killed on their own campus. For Elaine Holstein, however, the photograph depicted the cruel death of her beloved 20-year-old son.
Holstein died Saturday at age 96; she was the last surviving parent of the four Kent State victims. (Three of the four students were Jewish; nine other students also were wounded in the gunfire.) I’d known her since May 1980, when as news director of the Long Island, New York, radio station WLIR, I invited her to my studio to speak about Jeff on the 10th anniversary of what became known as the Kent State Massacre.
I was immediately impressed with this tiny, typical Jewish mother. She had worked as a high school secretary in Plainview, New York, before returning to college, earning her master’s degree, and becoming a psychiatric social worker when she was nearly 60.
As we began the interview, Holstein kvelled, proudly telling me about her boy.
“He was a cute kid; dark curly hair, very bright and precocious,” she said. “He did very well in school and skipped first grade, which became a problem because he was short and always felt like a baby.
“When he was little, he wasn’t that easy to get along with because I think he was a protester from the very beginning. Jeff had a kind of strong will. But his saving grace was he had a great sense of humor and a great intelligence, so he was marvelous company and I always enjoyed him. We had a very good, close relationship.”
As a teenager, Holstein recalled, Jeff was typical of the times.
“He liked the Mets, music, math and motorcycles. He had posters up all over his room: Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane…I don’t think that’s the group’s name anymore, right? I got a good education from him. He was very insistent that I share in what he loved so much,” she said.
In early 1970, on a visit to New York City, she and Jeff strolled around Greenwich Village, and he bought a small leather ring with a peace insignia. He had been an anti-Vietnam War activist since the age of 16, when he wrote a poem titled “Where Does It End?” It included the lines “A teenager from a small Ohio farm clutches his side in pain, and, as he feels his life ebbing away, he too, asks why, why is he dying here, thousands of miles from home?”
At the time, Jeff had never been to Ohio and had no idea his own life would end in the state.
In 1970, Jeff transferred to Kent State from Michigan State University.
That May, Holstein received a phone call from her mother.
“She heard on the radio there were protests at Kent State, and she was worried about Jeff. So I called Jeff and told him Nana was upset,” Holstein said. “He said it’s nothing to worry about. We talked about him getting a summer job in which he’d make those posters that said ‘War is unhealthy for children and other living things.’
“Two days later, Jeff called me in my office. He was concerned I might hear about more demonstrations and get nervous about it, and he wanted to reassure me. He mentioned Nixon’s speech calling the anti-war students ‘bums,’ and the impression I got wasn’t so much of anger but of wry amusement. There was going to be a rally at noon, and he said ‘I think I’ll go over there; is that OK with you?’ I thought, what power do I have to tell him no, from Long Island?”
Her voice breaking, Holstein said “And that was the last …”
Miller took part in the May 4 protest against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and against the presence of the Ohio National Guard on the Kent State campus. The shooting of those unarmed protesters led to massive demonstrations across the country. A federal commission later determined that the shootings were unjustified, although no criminal convictions were obtained against any National Guardsman.
Holstein, who was divorced from Jeff’s father, Bernard, heard about the shootings on the radio as she drove home from work and thought to herself, “I’m going to call Jeff and tell him to come home and wait until this blows over.” She dialed his number at college; a young man answered, and she asked to speak with Jeff. After a pause, he said, “He’s dead.”
As Holstein sank onto her bed, thinking it had to be a mistake, her soon-to-be second husband, Artie, grabbed the phone and was given the name of the hospital where the victims had been taken.
“I thought maybe somebody had borrowed Jeff’s wallet. This doesn’t happen to people you know,” Holstein said. “But then I heard Artie say, ‘Oh, he was wearing a leather ring with a peace insignia?’ And I knew it was Jeff.”
Within hours, the entire country had seen the iconic photograph, which won the Pulitzer Prize later that year. I asked Holstein how she managed to deal with it.
“In the first year,” she remembered, “I was just running. We drove across country to California, and walked into a place, and there was that photo, wall-sized, of Jeff lying there. I felt like someone was hitting me on the head, just pounding me. I think what’s happened over time is that’s how Jeff looked when he was lying in bed, so the only way I can bear to look at it is to think that’s Jeff sleeping.
“I kind of resent the fact that everyone knows Jeff as the figure on the ground and not as he really was.”
We ended our interview, I shut off the mike and Holstein grabbed her pocketbook.
“I don’t want you to only think of Jeff like that either,” she said, taking out a well-worn red wallet. “Come, look.”
She showed me pictures of Jeff with her older son, Russell, photos from elementary school, of his bar mitzvah, of him playing drums. It was beyond heartbreaking.
Holstein gave me a copy of Jeff’s 1966 poem that day, which I’ve had framed on my wall ever since. I began a tradition of calling or writing her every May 4, on Jeff’s secular “yahrzeit.”
Three years ago, she emailed saying “It means so much to me that you still keep Jeff in your thoughts. It’s amazing, so long after his death, you and other people who never knew Jeff still think of him. How he would love that!”
In 2016, at age 94, Holstein drove to my house for lunch, and for the first time I showed her Jeff’s poem on the wall; she beamed. This year, on May 4, I emailed her, as usual. The next day my phone rang.
“Steve? It’s Elaine. Thank you for the email. I actually was planning to fly to Kent State this week to speak at the annual ceremony. But I was just diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I was about to call you and let you know,” she said.
I expressed my sorrow and concern, but Holstein immediately said, “Really, I’m perfectly content to settle for this. I’m 96, a good age, and it looks like this will go pretty fast.”
And then, she sighed.
“I had a good life. The only horrible thing that ever happened to me was Jeff’s death.”
Holstein raised her children in New York, first in the Bronx and later Plainview.
After her 1969 divorce from Jeff’s father, she lived in Queens with her second husband, Artie Holstein, a high school principal, whom she married in 1971.
Elaine remained in Queens after Artie’s death and spent the winters in Florida until her cancer diagnosis. She then moved to an assisted living facility in Wayland, Massachusetts, near her son Russell’s home.
Elaine Holstein once told me that on May 4, 1970, she woke up as one person, and by the time she went to sleep that night, she was someone else entirely. I think many of us who remember that horrendous day can say exactly the same thing. PJC