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Remembering Toni: Student's death still resonates with DeKalb

Published: Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Rob Winner – rwinner@shawmedia.com)
Ben Thomas pauses for a moment while speaking Wednesday at a gathering to remember Toni Keller at the DeKalb Elk's Lodge. It has been nearly two years since Keller's death.

DeKALB – A Northern Illinois University housing staff member. A former NIU student. A mother from Virginia. A woman from Plainfield.

All of them and more were brought together Wednesday to remember Antinette “Toni” Keller and reflect on how their lives have changed since her disappearance and death two years ago.

Thelma Holderness, organizer of the Keller advocacy group Summoning of Yellow, held an open mic night Wednesday where community members and anyone affected by Keller’s death could share how their lives have changed from the events of Oct. 14, 2010.

For some, the memory of that day is a painful reminder of a perceived failure.

Ben Thomas, who works with the NIU housing department, recalled summer orientations where he would introduce first-time students and parents to the campus and explain all the opportunities that awaited. But he also told parents the university would keep their children safe and secure.

Just as he was recovering from the emotional toll of the Cole Hall shootings, he heard about Keller who went missing during a walk down Prairie Park and the discovery of burnt human remains in the days after.

“I knew I would no longer be able to tell parents the things I once said with such conviction,” Thomas said through tears. “I felt like a failure and a liar. … I felt responsible, a lot of us did, a lot of us still do.”

For others, the two-year remembrance was an opportunity to pay the respects they believed they failed to give at the time.

Laura Devine, who was a senior at NIU in 2010, said she remembered being so focused on school work, social responsibilities and safety improvements when she heard about Keller that she did not properly reflect on the huge loss the community suffered that day.

Now she gives Keller’s father a hug every time she sees him outside the courthouse for pretrial hearings in Keller’s murder case.

“I feel like I’m just giving hope or giving something that I didn’t give before,” she said of the embraces. “We have to learn to love through tragedy.”

Seeing Keller’s father wait for the trial to start has not been easy though, Devine said, and it is a feeling Lisa Cowling knows well.

Cowling, a Virginia mother who lost her daughter in a similar fashion, wrote to the group Wednesday and explained the waiting is the hardest part and she is struggling to see much justice in the justice system.

But she urged Keller’s family and all who loved her to focus on the support.

“I was not lucky enough to know Toni, but believe they are together now,” Cowling wrote of her daughter and Keller. “Nothing about this is OK ... but I have learned how loved my daughter was and I have felt the love of hundreds.”

Kelly Cusick, an advocate for Cowling’s family similar to the role Holderness serves for Keller’s family, also wrote encouraging words to the group and the Keller family.

“You are someone who rises,” Cusick wrote. “And so you overcome whatever comes your way. … this is how you are a hero.”

NIU spokesman Brad Hoey said he attended the event as a resident and was moved by the bonds that have been made between students and community members. He said Keller was a shining example of someone would could make such a large difference and touch so many people in a short time.

“She made a huge impact,” he said. “We’ve experienced tragic times here, but I think that is when you see the best of our community and this is an example.”

William “Billy” Curl, who is charged with killing Keller, is set to go on trial Dec. 3.

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