DeKALB – As the Northern Illinois University community gathered Sunday to remember the lives lost two years ago in a campus shooting, university president John Peters asked for thoughts and prayers for the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where a Friday shooting left three faculty members dead.
“Just as the Virginia Tech Hokies supported us in our time of sorrow and need, we send our thoughts and support to the Chargers of UAH,” Peters said.
Two events held Sunday memorialized Feb. 14, 2008, when a former NIU student opened fire in a classroom in Cole Hall shortly after 3 p.m., killing five students and injuring at least 19 others before turning the gun on himself.
Hundreds of people packed the King Memorial Commons, in sight of the now-shuttered Cole Hall, for a candlelight vigil Sunday evening. As tiny flames spread across the plaza, Peters told the crowd the event was not only to mark the passage of time, but to take comfort in the presence of each other.
“Two years later, the lights of five Huskies still burn brightly on this campus,” he said. “Their memories are tightly woven into the fabric of this community.”
Peters went on to describe the personalities of Gayle Dubowski, 20, of Carol Stream, Catalina Garcia, 20, of Cicero, Julianna Gehant, 32, of Mendota, Ryanne Mace, 19, of Carpentersville, and Daniel Parmenter, 20, of Westchester, and he said each of their lives had lessons to teach the campus.
After the vigil, some participants walked up the hill next to the commons to leave their lit candles stuck in the snow surrounding five white crosses, reminiscent of the homemade memorials that covered the campus in the weeks after the shooting.
Earlier in the day, hundreds lined the sidewalk from Cole Hall to the Holmes Student Center, paying their respects to families and friends of the victims who walked with local and university officials from the student center to a memorial garden outside the site of the shooting. The walk was silent save for the tolling of bells, and onlookers joined the solemn parade as it passed by.
At the memorial, five wreaths were laid before red granite blocks inscribed with the names of the victims and the words, “Forward, Together Forward” – a line from the NIU fight song that became a motto for the grieving community in the aftermath of the shooting.
Some of those who attended the day’s events will never forget where they were when the shooting occurred. Annie Chen, 20, an NIU junior studying English, was getting ready to go to class when she heard shouting outside her dorm room.
“I think there was more community after it happened,” she said. “I think the students came together more.”
That sense of solidarity was one of the deciding factors for Jessica Cimms of Elgin, who had not yet chosen a school to attend in 2008.
“I was just impressed in the days that followed how the community came together,” said Cimms, now a sophomore studying English. “One of the reasons I decided to go to NIU was because I wanted to be a part of such a supportive place.”
Sophomore Meco Brown was a high school senior when the shooting happened, but had already made plans to attend NIU. He attended the wreath-laying ceremony to show his support for those who were personally affected by the tragedy, he said.
“First of all, it’s important to come here and show support for the family members,” he said. “Second, it’s important to show school support, being together, coming as one.”
Adam Kiel, a junior studying business administration, remembered that day two years ago as a scene of chaos, as bits of information circulated and people desperately tried to learn what had happened.
“You’re watching national television in your dorm room, seeing your school. It was surreal,” he said. “It was an unfortunate thing to happen, and you wish it never did, but it’s important to gather and become stronger and show support for the families.”