This semester I've been one step ahead of my students while teaching a course that is new to me called Religion, Magic, & Shamanism. Using an excellent textbook and a couple of really good ethnographies, the students and I have explored how religions around the world provide people with various cosmologies or frameworks for how to live a good life.
Together we’ve discovered that having a blueprint, or a set of rules, for what to do when life does not go as planned, seems to allow people to recognize and respond to life’s challenges in constructive ways, rather than to recoil and react impulsively.
On a personal level, the course has been cathartic for me in that it has allowed me time to read and reflect on how my own cosmology has guided me through a tumultuous couple of years. The stress of living in a state that has not had a budget since July 2015, the strain this brings to a job I am passionate about, and the utter disillusionment in the actions of those I love most has not brought about the best in me. Top this off with being hit by a drunk driver two weeks ago as I headed to teach in the Quad Cities - talk about not seeing that one coming – and I have more than enough material to ponder.
That being said, my life is still pretty awesome and I have little to be unhappy with. I am married to a wonderfully kind and tolerant husband and have two caring and healthy children. But, to be completely honest, I haven’t done a stellar job at following the rules I try to organize my life around. I have serious anger issues, and I haven’t been as compassionate or accepting of the reality that is mine as I would have hoped. A religious person might look to their church or mosque or temple for examples of how to carry on. But since I have a severe aversion to institutionalized religion, I look to people around me whose behaviors and actions I hope to be able to emulate.
Dean Kahler is one person who is on the top of my list. He is, in my opinion, an unsung American hero. Someone who had obstacles beyond what he could have ever imagined placed in his path, and he is one of the most upbeat and positive people I know.
I’ve known about Dean since I was in college. Our paths crossed several times two decades ago when I was living in working in Athens, Ohio. My husband Michael knows him much better and has been friends with him for many years. It was Michael in fact who brought Dean up in a conversation we were having the other day. We were talking about people who we have overcome almost unfathomable challenges and go on to live remarkable lives. Michael looked me square in the eyes and said “Dean Kahler”.
On May 4, th 47 years ago today, Dean’s life changed forever. Dean was a first generation college student, a farm kid finishing up his first quarter at Kent State University. Raised in a religious household belonging to the Church of the Brethren he was and still is a pacifist. He was more than willing to serve his country, but wasn’t going to carry a gun to do so. Beginning on May 1st students at Kent State began protesting against the wars in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. When I spoke to him recently, I asked him what took him to the protest on May 4th. Dean said, “I went to express my views about the wars in Vietnam and elsewhere. And I was also there to find out what I was and wasn’t allowed to do.”
It is clear that Dean’s upbringing provided him with a set of rules that guides his everyday behavior. It was important to him that he knew what the rules of the game were so he wouldn’t overstep any boundaries.
What he and others did not count on were the lines that were about to be crossed in the most violent of ways. Twenty-nine Ohio National Guardsmen, under the orders of then Governor James A. Rhoades, fired approximately 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds. Killing four unarmed students and wounding nine others.
Dean was paralyzed from the chest down.
For many people a devastating event like this would be enough turn them into angry and bitter individuals. But not Dean. Although he was unable to physically walk away from the event, he has lived his life with a level of grace and dignity that we all should aspire to. When I spoke to him last week his voice was full of joy and compassion despite all of the challenges that life has presented him.
I asked him what his “Plan A” had been as a college freshman. He responded that he wanted to be a history or government teacher and a high school coach of some kind. He then said that I needed to remember that May 4th was “one day and one moment on one college campus.”
What Dean ended up doing professionally isn’t so different from his original goal. In 1977 he graduated from Kent State with a degree in education. For many years he was a popular middle school and high school history and government teacher in southern Ohio. He served two terms as an Athens County commissioner. He also worked at the state level for the Ohio Industrial Commission, the Ohio Attorney General’s office and the Ohio Secretary of State. He was even able to be a coach, although not in the manner he had originally imagined. Dean coached a women’s softball league, and he jokingly admitted that they were there mostly for the social outlet and he was never quite able to get them to fully grasp the rules of the game.
And despite the amputation of his feet almost a decade ago as a result of vascular problems resulting from the trauma of 1970, he continues to remain active and is an inspiration to those around him. His most recent Facebook posts are filled with birthday wishes and photos of him racing his wheelchair in local road races. A featured quote on his Facebook page is “I don’t let grass grow under my wheelchair.” The way he has lived his life is most certainly a profound testament to that.
Although no one from the state of Ohio or the National Guard has ever apologized for what happened to him, Dean doesn’t let that get to him. He found hope in the darkest day of his life and focused on the brightest parts of that day. He hasn’t judged the Universe for what happened to him and as a result has become one of the greatest teachers for all of us.
Thank you Dean, thank you.
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.