Families, students reflect on 5 years since NIU shooting
Every time he started to fall asleep and heard the house creak, Eric Mace thought it was his daughter, Ryanne, coming back to their Carpentersville home from a date.
It was always followed by the heartbreaking realization that it couldn’t be her.
“We had to get out of the house,” Mace said. “That was where Ryanne had grown up for a large portion of her life.”
Life had led Ryanne to be among the approximately 120 students in an oceanography class the afternoon of Feb. 14, 2008, in a lecture hall in Cole Hall at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Shortly after 3 p.m., numerous lives were changed by the person who emerged from a door near the classroom’s stage.
That’s where former NIU student Steven Kazmierczak entered the room and opened fire. His act left five people – Gayle Dubowski, Catalina Garcia,
Julianna Gehant, Ryanne Mace, and Daniel Parmenter – dead and 21 others injured. He then took his own life.
Today marks five years since that day. And at 3 p.m., as it has done for the past four years, the university community will honor those killed by laying memorial wreaths at the Forward, Together Forward Memorial Garden located next to Cole Hall.
Remembering his daughter is a daily occurrence for Eric Mace. His family’s move a few years ago from Carpentersville to the quiet Lake Petersburg neighborhood where they are the youngest people on the block provided an escape from some of those memories.
It also relieved him of something else: He had been bothered by children in his old neighborhood who would play outside by screaming as loud as they could, describing it as irritating before he lost his daughter, and maddening afterward.
“I went out there and screamed back at them,” he said. “If they are not hurt, they should stop screaming like that. ...You’re making everybody think you’re hurt and you’re not, stop it. Kids are going to be kids – but I needed to be not in that situation. It got to be too much for me.”
The shooting sent numerous people down unexpected new paths. Joe Dubowski, who lost his daughter Gayle, decided to pursue a master’s degree at NIU in applied family and child studies.
Gayle’s death was one of several factors that led him to pursue what he has described as a long-standing interest in psychology and helping people. He graduated in May 2012, and is training to be a counselor.
“I don’t know if I would have a career as a therapist if I didn’t go through what I went through, in losing Gayle,” Dubowski said. “I had to learn to acknowledge my feelings a lot more. Rather than try to suppress pain in my life, I had to acknowledge it. I became more self-aware and more sensitive to the feelings and motivations of people around me.”
He became a writer, publishing “Cartwheels in the Rain” in 2011. The book details his struggles and eventual acceptance of his daughter’s death. His next book will probably focus on his volunteer work.
And Sam Brunell believes the shooting put her on the path she was meant to travel. She was in the Cole Hall classroom where the shooting took place, but not injured.
But it changed her views on life. She switched her career focus from journalism to public administration, and she now works at NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies.
“You might as well live life to the fullest and if for some reason something happens to you, you’re remembered in a good way,” Brunell said. “I did a whole career change, and I don’t regret that at all.”
Others affected by that day, including Harold Ng and Gary Parmenter, have reached out after other mass shootings to those now in the same devastating situation. Ng was wounded when shotgun pellets grazed the back of his head during the shooting, and Parmenter lost his son Daniel.
Ng said it’s heartbreaking to hear about new tragedies, and he has reached out via email to those affected.
“I want to be there for individuals who have been through something as traumatic as that,” Ng said.
“You just feel so sorry for all of those families that don’t know the impact of how grief is going to change them, and you wish you could be there to comfort those other families,” Parmenter said.
Moving on has been a different experience for everyone involved. After his son died, Parmenter found a support group. He has become an active member of The Compassionate Friends – an organization that helps parents who have lost children regardless of age or cause – and has learned that every parent has some sort of ritual to commemorate their child’s death.
He suggests doing “something special on the anniversary of your child to remember them.”
Those affected by the shooting have lasting anxiety. Brunell has a hard time sitting still in large, crowded rooms, and things like fireworks or a vehicle backfiring can trigger memories of the shooting. After the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting in July, Brunell swore off movie theaters all together.
Movie theaters make Ng nervous too. And it took months before he was finally able to handle the violent content in video games and movies.
“It took time,” he said, now a park greeter at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. “It took me a good six months to get comfortable watching even the news.”
Mace finds it tragic that his daughter was studying to become the type of person who could have helped Kazmierczak.
“Her death, to me, leaves a void of society that she would have filled,” Mace said. “If he got the right kind of help at the right time, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”