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Northern Illinois University, one year later: a day of sadness and hope
A year after the shootings, NIU prepares for 'an emotionally powerful day'
By Jamie Sotonoff | Daily Herald Staff

A patron walks past a memorial quilt on permanent display Thursday in the Founders Memorial Library at Northern Illinois University's DeKalb campus. Quilt squares were sent in by dozens of people, then assembled to remember five students killed Feb. 14, 2008 during the shootings in Cole Hall.


Mary Beth Nolan | Staff Photographer

Harold Ng, 22, of Mundelein, was injured during last year's shootings at Northern Illinois University. Since then, he's written several stories about his experience.


Mary Beth Nolan | Staff Photographer

Harold Ng stands Thursday in the rain outside Cole Hall at Northern Illinois University, where he was shot in the head one year ago Saturday.


Mary Beth Nolan | Staff Photographer

A commemorative sign hangs near a doorway on the campus of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. The sign is hanging in many rooms on the campus, and was the slogan that helped the campus recover from the shooting rampage which killed five students.


Mary Beth Nolan | Staff Photographer



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Published: 2/13/2009 12:02 AM | Updated: 2/13/2009 6:14 AM

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One year ago Saturday, Northern Illinois University student Harold Ng was shot in the back of the head.

Three pellets hit him as he ran from the deranged man randomly firing a shotgun inside Cole Hall on the DeKalb campus. The pellets didn't penetrate Ng's skull and the 22-year-old from Mundelein survived the rampage, which killed five of his classmates and injured 20 others on Feb. 14, 2008.

For Ng and the 111 others who got out of Cole Hall alive, Saturday's anniversary stirs up a strong mix of emotions. On one hand, it marks their triumph over tragedy and the end of a very difficult year. But it also replays memories of a horrifying afternoon and the intense grief that followed.

Ng doesn't plan to attend many of the commemorative events planned at NIU on Saturday, but that doesn't mean the day won't be weighing heavily on his mind.

"There's no way you can forget about it," said Ng, an alumnus of Stevenson High School. "I'm just going to try to lay low the best I can ... because Saturday's going to bring it all back."

"It's still very sad," said Gary Parmenter, whose son Dan was among those killed. "There have been many positive things and blessings, but (we are) still living with the pain every day. We cannot believe that the life we had with our son so recently, for so long, is gone."

Many people find it hard to believe that it's been a year since the nightmarish violence that robbed five innocent students of their lives: 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.

There's still no explanation for what motivated the shooter to commit the crime, or to pick that day, that room or that time. But the shootings forever changed thousands of lives and an entire campus community.

On the anniversary Saturday, NIU will hold a "Day of Reflection." The day will feature a broad range of activities - mournful and hopeful, public and private, religious and secular, artistic and historic - designed to provide an opportunity for everyone to reflect on the day's significance. Counselors will be on hand at two sites on campus.

The day will conclude with a candlelight vigil in Martin Luther King Commons, which is expected to draw thousands. Plans also will be unveiled for a permanent memorial for the victims.

The goal was to make the day more "uplifting" than sad, said Scott Peska, the director of NIU's Office of Support and Advocacy.

"It's going to be an emotionally powerful day," Peska said. "Some people want to get out of town and be away from it, but others want to be there for all of it."

Gary Parmenter anticipates a "very, very tough emotional day" Saturday and understands how feelings of sadness can sometimes trump feelings of hope.

"It takes too big of a chunk out of you," he said. "This (day) is about everyone realizing how they need to support each other."

An outpouring of support, from people who wanted to do something to help, inspired many of the day's hope-themed exhibits. People made quilts, wrote notes, did good deeds or took photographs of things that made them feel hopeful.

More than 100 of those photos will run continuously in an "Images of Hope" slide show Saturday. One photo, taken shortly after the shootings, shows five ducks flying in a blue sky. Another has a smiling parent and infant wearing an NIU Huskies shirt.

"This is for people to sit down, take a break, and think of something hopeful for a while," said Rhonda Robinson, of Geneva, an educational technology professor who helped coordinate the exhibit. "We're not done grieving ... but we're happy to think about ways we can heal."

In another building, the windows are covered with hundreds of notecards. On each card, people from across Illinois wrote down a good deed, or "Huskie Act of Kindness," which the tragedy inspired them to do. "I let someone have the last piece of pizza (but I was still hungry)," one says. "We brought doughnuts to the ER workers at Kish," another person wrote, referring to DeKalb's Kishwaukee Community Hospital, where the shooting victims were brought.

"You can't possibly walk through that door and be sad," said Kate Braser, coordinator of the university honors program. "I think (these cards) have made this month a little easier for everyone."

Difficult milestones

Anniversaries of tragic events and deaths are very difficult for those left behind. The word "anniversary" conjures up happy images, which is why neither NIU nor Virginia Tech - where 32 students were shot in a similar rampage in 2007 - used that word. They prefer to call it a day of remembrance or reflection.

Since many people are still deep in grief, finding the right blend of activities for a day of reflection is tricky. You don't want to be too happy or too sad. One expert compared it to a funeral, where you want to celebrate a person's life but also allow for profound sadness.

"There were very sad elements for a lot of people on the first anniversary (at Virginia Tech). But you want to help those in the community to find hope and inspiration," said Mark Owczarski, one of the 20 people who helped plan Virginia Tech's Day of Remembrance last year. "What you do is, as a community, you're there together to support everybody."

As the years go on, there's a natural tendency to scale down the anniversary events, just as the 9/11 memorials aren't of the same size and scope as they were in 2002.

"Smaller and smaller might imply to the loved ones that we're forgetting, but that's not the case," Owczarski said. "There are many, many people who don't want to do less every year. It's not an easy thing to decide."

One thing's for sure: the NIU community is never going to forget Feb. 14, 2008.

NIU student Sumera Singapuri, 22, of Naperville said Valentine's Day will never be the same for her. Last Feb. 14, she was walking near Cole Hall when she saw police officers running inside. Even though she didn't know any of the victims personally, she still thinks about the shootings every day when she walks past the building. And if she sits in a lecture hall, she will silently figure out an "exit plan," just in case.

"This year, for Valentine's Day, I just want to do something good for the community," she said. "If we keep the 'Forward, Together Forward' motto, we can pray for those who didn't make it but still look to the future with hope."

Shootings: 'Day of Reflection' hosts wide range of activities