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Duchnowski: The far-reaching influence of Sept. 11

Twelve years ago, Kathy Countryman was a new principal at Southeast Elementary School in Sycamore.

She learned about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when a teacher’s husband called to tell his wife he was coming home from work in downtown Chicago because everything was closing “due to an unfolding event.” At school, Countryman pondered how they could keep the day normal for students as adults watched the news on TV in the teacher’s lounge.

“There was so much unknown, and as it was beginning, I never thought it would end as tragically and intentionally planned as it turned out,” said Countryman, who now is Sycamore School District 427’s superintendent.

In the 12 years since the attacks, we, as Americans, have developed narratives for the horrible events that day. We’ve remembered heroes, changed public policy and can almost talk about those events as a moment in history, similar to the day when President John Kennedy was assassinated.

But 12 years ago, it wasn’t history yet. It couldn’t even be contained in a headline. It was television reporters openly crying on the air. It was people choosing to jump from the crumbling World Trade Center rather than waiting for a likely slower death.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was a 20-year-old student at University of Illinois pondering whether I wanted to stick with a journalism major or switch to political science. I had interned in the White House Press Office the year before and was struck by the image of the American flag in front of the White House flying at half staff after the attacks. I remember being horrified at the thought that United Flight 93, which crashed in Shanksville, Pa., could have destroyed the White House or the U.S. Capitol.

Meanwhile, a woman I wouldn’t meet until this summer was just a fourth-grader at South Prairie Elementary School in Sycamore. Amanda Evans of DeKalb remembers not fully understanding what was going on while she was at school.

“I went home and saw the news,” Evans said. “Then I realized something bad had happened to our country.”

DeKalb Police Chief Gene Lowery was the chief of detectives at the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office. He walked into the undersheriff’s office and caught a news alert about the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center.

“The news show was discussing the possibilities of what caused the first crash, such as pilot error, equipment malfunction, or the possibility of it being an intentional act,” Lowery said in an email. “While the news reporter was commenting with a live shot of the towers, the second plane hit. At that moment we knew it was an act of terrorism. The country was shocked and angry, and as it all unfolded it was an act of war compared to Pearl Harbor in World War II.”

Northern Illinois University President Douglas Baker remembers watching the news coverage from the Washington State University’s president’s office where he was a vice provost.

“We quickly went to work on implications for the school, including security, anticipating student and community reactions, preparing counseling resources, reaching out to the Muslim and other faith communities, planning ways for students to discuss what happened, etc.,” Baker said. “The echoes are still with us today in the complex dynamics in the Middle East.”

What does this mean as the next generation of school children learn about Sept. 11 in books and documentaries and, perhaps, social studies classroom discussions? What does it mean for adults, like me, who have spent most of their lives in the Midwest and have never seen Ground Zero?

I like Countryman’s response.

“On Wednesday, I think it is important that we think about and remember the day as a day that changed many families forever,” Countryman wrote me in an email. “It is important to remind people about the events of that day [and] to ask the questions you did me, so we don’t lose sight of the sacrifice that many people made to try and help others.”

Our local fire departments are holding memorial events, but if you don’t make it to one of those, take a moment to talk with a friend or a coworker about that day 12 years ago that changed us in ways we wouldn’t have guessed.

Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, I abandoned all thoughts of majoring in political science: I may never have to cover anything as tragic or historic as Sept. 11, but I knew my heart belonged in a newsroom.

• Jillian Duchnowski is the Daily Chronicle’s news editor. Reach her at 815-756-4841, ext. 2221, or email

Two local events

What: Sept. 11 prayer service

When: 9 a.m. today

Where: Johnson’s Junction Flagpole, across from Sycamore Fire Station 1, 535 DeKalb Ave. 

What: “Why do we continue to remember?” presentation

Where: 8 a.m. today

Where: DeKalb Fire Station 1, 700 Pine St. in DeKalb.

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