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Listening Together

It has been just one week. One week since Northern Illinois University met with unthinkable tragedy. But in the seven days since the school lost five students at the hands of a former student, community members have gained strength from one another. Their unity was evident at 3 p.m. Thursday, as at least 1,000 people assembled in the Martin Luther King Memorial Commons at NIU to observe five minutes of silence amid a gentle snow. The minutes — one for each NIU student lost in a Feb. 14 shooting that left six dead and 16 injured — began at 3:06 p.m., the time the shooting started a week ago. They were accompanied by ringing church bells. “I ask you to think of all we have lost and to remember,” NIU President John Peters said prior to the silence. “Know that where we stand now is forever hallowed ground. And we will transform that space into a vibrant learning environment that will honor the memory of Catalina, Dan, Gayle, Julianna and Ryanne.” It was unclear if those in the crowd huddled together for warmth or emotional support, or if their sniffles were from the cold or sadness. But like many other DeKalb residents, they stopped on Thursday to remember. “We are alone in our thoughts but we listen together,” Peters said. “Listen to the bells, but also listen to the silence. Listen for peace, listen for remembrance and listen for the healing that is yet to come.”
Photo audio slideshow of NIU gathering

MLK Memorial Commons Men and women clad in winter coats dotted with red and black ribbons stood quietly in the center of campus as more people slowly and quietly filled in around them. They wore hats, mittens, scarves and boots as snow flurries came to rest on their heads and shoulders. They pointed out with wonder to one another as they watched the steady stream of people still coming from Normal Road. A Huskie flag waved over the crowd. From behind, a woman said, “Remember to turn off your cell phone, pass it on.” The crowd became silent as Peters began to speak, and people leaned on each other as each victim’s name was spoken. Then the bells began to ring, not in a melody, but in a slow, steady low tone. People sniffled and dabbed their eyes. As the bells chimed more than 100 times, a female student crouched low to cry. A nearby woman with a red-and-black ribbon pinned to her coat placed a hand on her shoulder. The student didn’t turn to look at the woman, who stood by her side for the remaining minutes. One middle-aged man spent the moments clutching a gloved hand to his heart. He took a break to wipe tears from his eyes, which were shielded behind dark-lensed sunglasses. As the five minutes passed, the sound of the bells dwindled. Peters finished his remarks, and the music on the PA system began to play. — Inger Koch

Cole Hall It was quiet near Cole Hall just before 3 p.m. Thursday — except for a gentle tapping. Bianca McGraw, an NIU graduate student studying sculpture, made six white huskies out of wood and was hammering them into the snow in front of Cole Hall’s main entrance. The statues looked as if they stood guard around flowers and other tokens that have been left in honor of those who died there. “Huskies are symbolic of all of us here,” McGraw said. But all was quiet at 3:06 p.m. when the bells began to chime. The peacefulness was a welcome departure from the chaos that happened at that spot exactly a week ago. As the bells faded, it became a bittersweet reminder of lives horribly lost, but also a reminder that the grieving will eventually subside and memories will live. Many of those gathered at the MLK Memorial Commons for the five minutes of silence passed by Cole Hall after the brief vigil. Some stopped to look at the Huskie statues, while others prayed and left flowers. People solemnly consoled one another, and shared in their disbelief of the attack. — Benji Feldheim

Holmes Student Center When the first bell rang, a woman put her red-gloved hand on the back of the woman next to her and buried her head in her shoulder. They stood at the edge of the MLK Memorial Commons near the yellow-brick Holmes Student Center. A couple of hundred people gathered from the top steps of the student center to the entrance of the commons. Many were employees of the university. They greeted each other by name but could find few words for conversation. Most looked out at eight message boards filled with notes to the victims of last Thursday’s campus shootings and fidgeted for warmth. When the moment of silence came, the crowd became still. They stood shoulder to shoulder and seemed to draw warmth from concentrated purpose. Moment after moment, for five memorialized minutes, there was stillness. The only things that moved were the branches of the pine trees, buffeted by the wind. The sound of bells echoed in the distance. A female firefighter stood on a snowbank above the crowd. She was dressed in full gear with a black and red knit Huskie cap, bowed beneath the falling snow. — James A. Bowey

The Victory Bell On the outskirts of campus, few buildings block the wide expanse of flat land. Nothing stands in the way of a sound, even from miles away. So when the first bell rang out at 3:06 p.m. and its sound wafted over the surrounding parking lots, the Victory Bell chimed in. Convocation Center Director John Gordon reached up and tapped the bell. Anything more, even using the rope attached to the bell, would create more sound than needed. The bell’s use Thursday isn’t the norm; as its title might suggest, the bell rings after home game wins and victories for the U.S. After a moment, Gordon slipped back inside where work awaited. Already, the building buzzed with small projects in anticipation of Sunday’s memorial service. On the outer concourse, Matt Merritt and Pete Bussert of OC Imageworks worked on a 10-by-30-foot banner, with two others on the floor nearby. The duo used precise pressure to transfer the vinyl lettering onto the white backdrop. Together, the banners will spell “Forward, Together Forward” for the world to see. — Hank Brockett of The MidWeek

Kishwaukee Community Hospital The front lobby at Kishwaukee Community Hospital was filled with the usual everyday activities at 3 p.m. Patients in wheelchairs waiting for the bus, florists dropping off flower arrangements and visitors picking up last-minute presents in the gift shop. But in pairs and small groups, staff members slowly wandered to the main lobby, eventually forming a semicircle of about 75 people facing the front doors. Among them may have been those who helped the 17 people rushed to the hospital after last week’s attack. A little after 3 p.m., KishHealth System President and CEO Kevin Poorten’s voice came over the loudspeaker, announcing there would be a time of silence and asking that everyone observe the time “as best we can.” Most stood with their hands crossed and heads bowed; some in prayer, while others watched the crowd. Some wore blue scrubs; others had on white jackets or suits; a few wore NIU sweatshirts. When the five minutes had passed, there was a loud sound of sniffles and then talking, laughing and hugs as people greeted each other before heading back to work. — Cindy DiDonna

Downtown DeKalb At 3:04, a man and five women left the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce on the corner of Lincoln Highway and Second Street and stood on the sidewalk. They held signs in a show of solidarity. They all read: “Forward, Together Forward.” The marquee of the Egyptian Theatre on Second Street said the same. A vehicle honked its horn while passing by. Noticing a young woman in a green jacket who had stopped on the sidewalk, a woman in a black jacket extended an invitation. “You can stand here with us if you want to. You don’t have to be alone,” she said, and the woman in green joined the group. A church bell started to ring in the distance. Snow continued to fall, and traffic kept moving. The woman in the black jacket put her hand on the back of the woman in green. The woman in green leaned on her shoulder. The group stood quietly even as a passer-by, who didn’t seem to know what was happening, greeted them. Snow covered everyone’s hair, and two people across the street took a picture of the group. The bells stopped. “Are you OK? Do you need to go in to warm up?” the woman in black said to the one in green, adding, “Thank you for joining us.” The woman in green joined the group as they headed indoors, moving forward. — Melissa Puckett

First United Preschool and Daycare At their level, it was a special prayer to God. The nearly three dozen 2-, 3- and 4- year-olds at First United Preschool and Daycare in DeKalb may not have known exactly why they were praying in the school’s gymnasium at 3:06 p.m. It was suggested they think about their teachers and parents during that time — many of whom attend or work at NIU. School Director Cheryl Wheeler asked them to clasp their hands and bow their heads — as they do when they’re in chapel. “This isn’t the chapel this is the gym,” a boy named Justin protested. “This is the gym we play in the gym.” But he also fell silent, and with the exception of an occasional whisper, giggle or cough, they spent 60 seconds with their heads bowed or in the laps of their teachers or cross-legged on the floor. A green, one-minute hourglass timer was on the floor so the kids could see how long they had to be quiet, and as soon as it ran out, several called attention to it. As the bells continued to toll throughout the community, the children headed back to class. — Kate Schott

MLK Memorial Commons As the sounds of the bells faded into the distance, much of the crowd lingered. Some hugged each other, while others offered whispers of reassurance. “I think it will get better,” one man said to another. “It just has to get better.” Many stood on a hill that borders the commons, where a temporary memorial sits in memory of the victims and where visitors pile fresh flowers on top of wilted ones. “Look!” a young girl said around 3:15 p.m. She pointed skyward as five red balloons soared into the air. Together at first, the balloons separated and quietly soared in different directions. — Carrie Frillman

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