DEKALB, Ill. – The outpouring of aid and sympathy after a deadly shooting at Northern Illinois University should remind those struggling with the tragedy that they are not alone, the school’s president said at a memorial service Sunday.
In honor of the five students killed in the Feb. 14 shooting in a crowded lecture hall, five bouquets of red and white flowers were placed on the stage of the Convocation Center, where the memorial was held. Outside the arena, school officials had posted a banner reading, “Forward, together forward.”
“This past week, I have seen despair, and I have seen hope,” NIU President John G. Peters said near the start of the service. “I have seen deep sorrow of the five victims’ families, but I have seen your courage and I have seen your strength.”
An hour later, the service ended with a choir singing the school song in a darkened hall illumined only by audience members’ small flashlights.
Tears poured down the cheeks of Elizabeth Darrow, a 21-year-old studying education, as she made her way out of the arena with two friends. “It made it more real,” she said, sniffling and wiping the tears away. “It helps to process it. It’s a reality check.”
Classes are to resume today for the first time since the shooting, in which NIU graduate Steve Kazmierczak opened fire in a classroom, killing five people and injuring 17 before committing suicide.
Early in the service, a photo of each of the slain students was projected on screens around the arena as their names were read aloud. A choir sang the hymn “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
Thousands of people attended, and overflow viewing areas were set up around the campus, about 65 miles west of Chicago. The memorial was also simulcast to NIU gatherings across the country and in Iraq.
“For all of those who seek healing, your presence here tonight wraps us in a warm embrace and reminds us that we are not alone,” Peters told the students and members of the faculty, staff and community in the audience.
“We are not islands, but bridges – bridges to each other, and bridges to the world,” Peters said. “In the days and weeks ahead, let our message to the world be one of hope, let it be one of healing and the indomitable Huskie spirit. In the end, that is how all of us can honor the memories of five beautiful young people who are not with us this evening.”
School officials hoped the service would help the campus move forward, a sentiment echoed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who urged those present to help one another as they sought “to heal and to return this university to its proper place of higher learning.”
Blagojevich talked briefly about each victim: Daniel Parmenter, 20, remembered by an adviser as a “gentle giant”; Catalina Garcia, 20, who wanted to be a teacher; Gayle Dubowski, 20, a gifted musician; Ryanne Mace, 19, who wanted to be a counselor; and Julianna Gehant, 32, a military veteran.
“Now they are lost, but still loved. Their memory is a blessing – not just because of their spirit and intelligence, their love and their laughter, their curiosity and their friendship,” Blagojevich said. “Their memory is a blessing because it compels us all to search for meaning.”
Others who spoke during the service were DeKalb Mayor Frank Van Buer and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, who said he was speaking for the entire Illinois congressional delegation.
Illinois’ other senator – Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama – sat onstage during the proceedings but did not make any remarks. Afterward, he met quietly with the family of at least one victim.