DeKALB – Many of the students who attended the Feb. 14 memorial at Northern Illinois University on Thursday were in high school when the shooting occurred.
They weren’t on campus when word spread of a former NIU student walking into Cole Hall and opening fire. They didn’t wait on pins and needles for news of what had happened. And they never had the chance to meet the five students who were killed on Feb. 14, 2008.
But that didn’t stop them from coming together like a family Thursday.
“Just because we didn’t know them – they’re still family to us,” said Jordan Casey, a senior communications major. “They’re still a part of the Huskie family. It still brings us together.”
Casey was one of a couple of hundred people who watched as university officials escorted the friends and families of the deceased – Gayle Dubowski, Catalina Garcia, Julianna Gehant, Ryanne Mace and Daniel Parmenter – from Neptune Hall to the Memorial Garden in front of Cole Hall.
The families and other NIU students laid wreaths and flowers next to each of the five marble slabs dedicated to each of the five fallen.
Five years is a brief moment in time, NIU President John Peters said, but it’s a generation on a college campus. Peters also remarked on how nearly all of the undergraduates at NIU were not here on that tragic day.
“While they may not realize it, today’s students are touched by the presence of those five students, each and every day,” Peters said. “Because what happened in Cole Hall five years ago forever changed Northern.”
Candice Friberg, a senior fashion merchandising major, won’t forget that day. Her mother learned that her class in the other Cole Hall auditorium was canceled on Feb. 14, 2008. But Friberg didn’t know that, and tried calling her multiple times without success. Friberg and her friends came out to honor the families and the victims.
“I came to remember that each day is a gift, and the next day isn’t promised,” Friberg said, a sentiment shared by Peters and others who were there.
Audrey Holmer said she always makes time for Feb. 14 memorial, as Parmenter was one of her close friends. Holmer, who graduated from NIU in 2010, went to York High School in Elmhurst with Parmenter, and he was the first person she called when news of the shooting reached her.
“Faith plays a big part in it,” Holmer said when asked how she’s coped for the past five years. “Dan was an incredible person, he was a very loyal friend. I think he inspired all of us in the example of the life he lived. I miss him every day, and I know he’s in a better place.”
The university’s undergraduates might not have been there during the shooting, but the thousands of teachers and staff members were. Patty Bittner worked in the university’s Housing and Dining office in Neptune Hall near Cole Hall.
“I had a couple of students who came into my office who were really frightened and didn’t know what was going on, so I shut them in my office and found out what was happening,” Bittner said. “I can still feel it today, like it was five years ago.”
Although she’s been retired for years, Bittner felt she needed to return for the memorial to pay her respects.
Joining Bittner was Gov. Pat Quinn, who attended the memorial as he has done in years past. In his remarks to the assembled crowd, Quinn said God had given the five students a purposeful life.
“In their opportunity to be on this Earth, they made a difference,” Quinn said. “It’s important that we remember their lives, and I salute the university and community here for this wonderful ... solemn memorial to what we all understand, in Illinois, is our fundamental purpose. We’re here to help others.”
Peters noted that it was the last time he would be preside over the Feb. 14 memorial – his 13-year presidency is slated to end in June. However, he said he would always remember the legacy of Dubowski, Garcia, Gehant, Mace and Parmenter.
“I will always hold in my heart those five lessons, and these five students,” Peters said. “Trying to apply them every day is a humble tribute to Gayle, Catalina, Julianna, Ryanne and Dan. And I hope you will do the same.”