St. Valentines Day, February 14th, 2008.
I had just arrived home after spending the morning at Northern Illinois University. A little while later my cell phone lit up indicating that I had a voice message.
Odd, it didn’t ring with the initial call.
The message was from an N.I.U. (Northern Illinois University) co-worker who said that her son was in class at N.I.U.’s Cole Hall when there was shooting. People were running everywhere. Did I know what was going on?
I tried to make some calls, but the cell phone service was overloaded and would remain so all day.
Turned on the radio, television, and internet to find that there has been a mass shooting in an auditorium classroom at Cole Hall. Eventually it was reported that five students had been murdered and seventeen others had been injured by a gunman who then took his own life.
N.I.U. students who could not reach family and friends by cell phone were able to communicate through Facebook. Facebook has be the subject of a lot of criticism, but in the middle of crisis and chaos it saved the day.
Jackie Yap (then Scott), today the publisher of thesexypolitico.com, was on that day was an N.I.U. student. She had seen me on campus earlier in the day. When the shooting happened, Jackie, a runner, ran through the chaos from the center of campus to a local DeKalb family restaurant where she made a land line call to my daughter.
My daughter Mary was on a Metra train returning from Chicago. Jackie said that she had seen me earlier and asked if I was alright. (Thank you, Jackie). Mary didn’t know and could not reach anyone by cell phone. It was a long ride home.
When I checked my e-mails, there were multiple messages from my brother Thomas who wrote every few minutes:
Hey are you OK?
Hey are you OK?
Hey are you Ok?
In 2019 my brother would have his own brush with mass murder when a gunman killed five at the Henry Pratt company in Aurora, Illinois adjacent to Tom’s workplace.
Over the course of the day I- like everyone associated with N.I.U.- received e-mail messages of concern from family and friends around the country.
The sound of helicopters in DeKalb County means bad news. Either someone was in a dire condition and was being rushed to Kishwaukee Community Hospital, or a Kish patient was being flown to another hospital for specialized treatment.
On this day and for days to follow, the helicopters circling campus were from various Chicago news stations.
For weeks parking lots near the administration building were filled with news trucks. Staff opened some buildings early in the morning so that reporters and their teams- who manned the news trucks all day and all night- could access bathrooms and vending machines.
A campus church erected large crosses; one for each victim and one more for the murder who had committed suicide. In the middle of the night the cross dedicated to the shooter was torn down.
After faculty, staff, and student were allowed back on campus, the N.I.U. administration took steps to help students cope with what had happened. In addition to counseling, N.I.U arranged to have therapy dogs visit campus.
The theory is that students can ease their emotions, reduce panic attacks and anxiety by having contact with the dogs. One cannot remain tense while petting a friendly dog.
I was petting one such dog when the handler told me “This dog was at Virginia Tech.”
A couple of worried secretaries asked me how to lock the front doors to their building with a hex key. I didn’t have the heart to point out to them that the doors were glass- one good kick and an intruder would be in.
One secretary said to another, ‘if he-(the shooter who shall remain nameless here)- had come to the door and asked to be let in, wouldn’t you have let him in? He looked like such a nice young man.’
The administration also increased campus police foot patrols. This may have had an unexpected effect: when student saw the police, they assumed that another crisis was happening.
There were rumors that the extremist Westboro Baptist Church would disrupt the campus memorial service, adding to the student’s confusion and anger. Many angry counter protestors formed to defend the students. Fortunately, the Westboro people never showed up.
At the memorial service there was discussion about the future of Cole Hall. Some, including Illinois Governor Blajogevich, wanted it torn down and replaced with a new building or memorial. In the end, Cole Hall was redesigned and now houses an art auditorium, collaboratory classroom and a Museum of Anthropology. There is a Memorial Garden outside of the building.
The memorial service would be held with Illinois elected officials in attendance. One of those officials, U.S. Senator Barack Obama was running for president. Several students, angry at the thought of a candidate turning their mourning into political theatre said, with fists clenched, ‘he better not speak’.
Obama attended, but did not speak.
My strongest memory of the aftermath of the murders is not of the students being fearful, although there was fear; not the student’s sadness, although there was sadness; my strongest most lasting memory is of the confused, unfocused anger of the students who would never be the same.
For more on the victims of the Northern Illinois University Valentine Day tragedy see:
The Cole Hall Memorial Garden: https://www.niu.edu/forward/memorial/index.shtml
For more on comfort dogs: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2008-03-14-0803130995-story.html
For what is known about the murderer see: https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a4863/steven-kazmierczak-0808/
Thanks and a tip of the hat to Wikipedia Commons for the image,