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Distance no barrier for many who felt need to come back to NIU community
By David Beery | Daily Herald Staff

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois speaks at the student memorial service Sunday night in Dekalb. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is seated behind Durbin and also spoke.

 

Eric Sumberg | Daily Chronicle

Eric Mace, right, father of NIU student Ryanne Mace, hugs Democratic Presidential hopeful Barack Obama after a university sponsored memorial service for Mace and four other students who were killed on Valentine's Day in DeKalb.

 

Associated Press

Democratic Presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama attends a memorial service for the five Northern Illinois University students. Seated next to Obama is Brian O. Hemphill, vice president for student affairs.

 

Associated Press

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Published: 2/24/2008 9:09 PM | Updated: 2/25/2008 1:36 AM

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DEKALB - "This board is not big enough."

The words, printed in black marker among a multitude of other colors and messages, refer to one of eight large boards set up on Martin Luther King Commons at the center of Northern Illinois University's campus.

Indeed, every square inch of space has been covered with thousands of words pouring out grief, pain, love, loss, sympathy and faith.

Not big enough, to be sure. Eight more message boards might well have been filled just as completely and poignantly. And on Sunday evening, as thousands gathered here to honor the memory of the five young lives taken by a gunman on Feb. 14, no stage seemed large enough to accommodate all who have been touched by the tragedy.

Indeed, among those who filled the Convocation Center to overflowing were many who traveled from across the country, compelled to pay tribute to five young adults they had never met.

A contingent of counselors from Virginia Tech University, which suffered the death of 32 young people in a campus shooting last April, attended the service.

As for alumni, they came from all over. Dennis Barsema, a member of the NIU Foundation Board, flew in from Mexico to attend the memorial service and, earlier, two students' funerals. Barsema, certainly, is no ordinary alumnus; his philanthropy placed his name on the school's new Business building. But he undoubtedly spoke for many when he said: "Somebody came into our family and killed five of our children. It was important for my wife and I to be here to honor not only the students who were slain, but all the students who were wounded as well. And to show our support to the university - just to be a part of the Huskie family."

Similar sentiments were expressed by Jim Rose, a 1983 NIU graduate and current member of the College of Business executive board. He came all the way from Dallas for Sunday's service, explaining simply that "it's important for us to show our support."

Prominent government officials lent their support, too. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Gov. Rod Blagojevich delivered remarks during the service. So did federal Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, sent on behalf of the Bush administration. Presidential hopeful Barack Obama took his place among the listeners.

On this night, though, the focus was not on dignitaries but on the NIU community mourning its loss and gathering the courage to move forward.

A member of that community, Barsema said he and his wife came back to DeKalb "not even knowing what we were going to be able to do. We just knew that we needed to be here."

They were not alone.

Back at King Commons, evidence of long journeys to NIU dotted the message boards. More words of comfort from Virginia Tech students. From a University of Wisconsin student. From the University of Illinois. From an NIU alumnus who wrote: "I was 200 miles away on Feb. 14, but my heart has been here all the time."

Along, apparently, with countless others.