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Exhibit brings back memories of national crisis

By Brian Goslow

David Davis remembers that November 1963 weekend as clearly as if it happened last month.

“I remember everything,” said Davis, 60, of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the events that followed. At the time, Davis, who now lives in Sherborn, was in the sixth grade at the Tenacre School in Wellesley.

“My mother picked me up from school on Friday; we got out at 2 and we turned on the radio in the car and we heard the news (about the shooting of Kennedy in Dallas) and we went home and turned on the TV. We didn’t leave the TV till Tuesday morning.”

Like millions of Americans, Davis’ family purchased the following week’s Life magazine, its logo in black accompanying a portrait of the late president. Davis still has it, safely stored away.

However, his collection of Kennedy artifacts — and other similarly traumatic events that would follow in the years to come — did not stop there. Years later, Davis began acquiring photographs of seminal moments that took place between the time when Davis was a child and Kennedy began his run for the presidency to Davis’ college years at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, as the Vietnam War was coming to a close.

That collection would spawn “From Kennedy to Kent State: Images of a Generation,” an exhibition of 120 photographs Davis donated to the Worcester Art Museum that are on view through Feb. 3.

Images from Camelot greet visitors at the show’s entrance: the solitary figure of Kennedy walking on the dunes while Jacqueline and Caroline Kennedy play on the beach of Hyannis Port; the Kennedy-Nixon television debate; “The Loneliest Job in the World”; and frames from the Abraham Zapruder film, The Assassination of John F. Kennedy.

The theme of assassination haunts the exhibition — the lead word in photographs capturing the killings of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Kent State University student Jeffrey Miller, and the unarmed Viet Cong prisoner having a pistol fired into his head in a Saigon town square.

Museum visitors, some wearing ’60s garb, study the images intently, the older ones recalling the times and the stories associated with them while younger visitors try to comprehend the meaning of the images before them as the voice of Joan Baez singing We Shall Overcome from the March on Washington fills the gallery.

“I wanted the people who were alive back then to look at them and go, ‘Wow, I remember that’ and remember how they felt and remember how it formed who they are,” Davis said.

“It’s important for young people to really see what happened in that period of time because the whole country took a right turn. The ’50s weren’t as idealistic and innocent and perfect as people think they were.

And, the ’60s starting with Kennedy’s assassination marked the beginning of domestic unrest. Nothing defined the tumultuous state of the nation more than May 4, 1970 when four students were killed on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio after three days and nights of protests that followed President Richard Nixon’s announcement that the United States was expanding its involvement in the Vietnam War into Cambodia.

Kent student Alan Canfora had recently attended the funeral in his hometown of a friend killed in Vietnam. “I was there with my friends and roommates, including George Caldwell — it was his brother that was killed,” Canfora recalled during a recent interview with the Advocate. “When we stood at the graveyard, before his coffin was lowered into the ground, we all looked at each other and we swore that at our next opportunity we were going to protest vigorously to send our message to President Nixon to stop the horrible war in Vietnam.”

A noontime protest against the war’s escalation was called for the Kent campus. “We had been planning on making some protest flags throughout that weekend but we never got around to it,” Canfora said. “But on May 4, I did wake up in time to saw a broom handle off and cut it in half, and then I attached some black material with some help from my friend.”

What happened soon afterwards was captured in a John Filo photograph that would appear in the next issue of Life. Standing behind him, Filo captured Canfora waving his black flag at Ohio National Guardsmen, who stood 150 feet away.

“I thought, it was unlikely that they would shoot,” Canfora said. “I thought they had their fingers on the triggers but I really thought that neither I, nor anyone else there, was doing anything that deserved to get shot.”

Soon after the photograph was taken, students were given an order to disperse. The Guardsmen marched up a hill, then turned and began firing at the crowd — 67 shots in all. Canfora jumped behind a tree before feeling a bullet go through his right wrist. Four others, including Jeffrey Miller, whose image with then 14 year-old Mary Anne Vecchio standing over his lifeless body, would win Filo the 1971 Pulitzer Prize, died.

Canfora was in attendance at the opening of “Kennedy to Kent State,” where one attendee, noting he was in Vietnam in 1970, told him how his fellow troops had learned about the shootings through the Stars and Stripes newspaper distributed to soldiers in the field and they had been angry with those who fired the shots.

Canfora has had many conversations with servicemen over the years. “I have to admit, that there are a few, very few, hostile Vietnam veterans that blame the protestors for losing the war in Vietnam,” he said.

“But the majority of the Vietnam veterans that I’ve spoken with, either in person or through my website, thank the protestors because our main motivation was to stop the war so that our fellow citizens, our schoolmates, our neighbors, our friends, our relatives — you know those guys that fought in Vietnam were from our generation — could come home. We knew those guys — we loved them. That was our main reason for stopping the war and protesting so vigorously, along with our concerns about the deaths of the Asian people.”

Canfora regularly hears from people through his website, alancanfora.com, as well as May4.org, the website of the non-profit educational Kent State May 4 Center, asking about the events of 1970.

“The vast majority of people that make inquiries are college-, high school- and middle school-age students” doing school reports, Canfora said. “I think it’s the teachers, very often from the baby boomer generation, who are teaching these lessons about the 1960s, about Vietnam and Kent State, and consequently, they assign their students to study this information.”

He continues to work toward receiving an apology from and bringing to justice those who gave the orders to shoot and that did the shooting at Kent State.

Canfora has served as director of the May 4 Center since 1980 and is a charter member of the May 4 Task Force student organization which formed in 1975. But he makes it clear that’s not the only focus of his life. He is library director for the Akron Law Library and is chairperson of the Barberton Democratic Party, a position he has held for over 20 years.

The country has undergone significant changes since that day in May.

Davis believes we no longer experience tumultuous times on our student campuses or hold large-scale protests like in the 1960s and early 1970s because there is no longer a military draft. “The opposition to the current wars just doesn’t exist because people can forget that they are happening; (back then) it was the students and their friends that were facing the draft,” he said. “I was in the draft lottery so I know what that felt like, and it was not good.” Lottery numbers were based on birthdays, matched with a random number draw between 1 and 365.

Davis’ lottery number was in the middle, around 150, so Davis was told he was “really safe” from the prospect of being drafted. There was a back-up plan, however. “I had a wonderful, eccentric great-aunt who I think was a little bit crazy, but I loved her,” Davis said. “She had lost her younger son in World War II and was very bitter because it happened after peace had been declared but they hadn’t gotten the word where he was. So she said to me ‘If you get drafted, you come to me and I’ll shoot your toes off.’ She meant it and she would have done it.”

While the period captured in the exhibition was a very unsettling time to grow up in, Davis finds some of the things going on today even more unsettling. “But that’s more about the mood and the tone and the attitude (of the discussion),” he said. “I’m really surprised at the tone of the political discourse in this country because I think to myself, ‘My God, where are the flower children? They’re certainly not running the government. What happened to peace, love and freedom and respect for other people and live and let live and do your own thing?’ ”

Having spent 12 years of his life compiling the “Kennedy to Kent State” collection, Davis looks at the 120 images on the Worcester Art Museum walls as children that have left home.

“It was personal, almost a diary of what formed the person that I am in that very intense time of adolescence and young adulthood,” he said. “I think I needed to somehow, instead of putting it on paper and writing a play or a book, I needed to do it chronically and visually, because I’m a very visual person. And that was my way to express the core of who I am and what made me that way.”

For more information about the exhibit go to the Worcester Art Museum website at www.worcesterart.org.

 

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