DeKALB – John Peters said he made a pact with himself 15 years ago not to write about the events of Feb. 14, 2008, when a former Northern Illinois University graduate student shot almost 50 rounds into a campus lecture hall, killing five students and injuring dozens more.
Peters was 63 and president of NIU at the time, almost a decade into his time as head of school when he was thrust into the national spotlight as the voice of the campus in the days following the shooting.
Now 77 and retired after serving as president from 2000 to 2013, Peters acquiesces to a phone interview.
“It was a damn cold day,” Peters said in recollection.
Peters returned to campus not too long ago with his family and four grandchildren for an October homecoming ceremony when the university renamed the Peters Campus Life Building in his honor.
“The five [victims] are never too far from my mind,” Peters said. “When I was on campus in October, the first thing we did as a family ... was we went to the memorial. To pay our respects to them. That was for me really quite a good moment. I always tell them [grandchildren] you have to do the best you can because these good students, these young people, were robbed of that opportunity. They would be approaching middle age, and they would have careers and families, and that was denied them by this very troubled individual.”
On Feb. 14, 2008, Peters was in his office about 3 p.m. in Altgeld Hall when he received word of the shooting. He said those gathered in his office, including his wife, Barbara, were numb. He coordinated the campus’ emergency response plan – which had been updated just months beforer following the massacre at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in April, 2007 – from his office. He held a series of meetings with a crisis group gathering information for students.
Peters was informed almost immediately that there were fatalities. He went and visited the site of the lecture hall massacre the next morning.
“It was more than tough,” he said. “People had weak knees. It was gut wrenching.”
Catalina Garcia, 20; Daniel Parmenter, 20; Ryanne Mace, 19; Julianna Gehant, 32; and Gayle Dubowski, 20, were killed in the shooting, and more than 30 others were injured. Peters went to all five funerals.
Toward the dinner hour that day, he went to Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb.
“To meet with the parents and those that were injured to provide any comfort I could,” Peters said. “And there was an onslaught of media. Helicopters, I think there were 40 media trucks there from various countries. ... I walked down from Altgeld toward the lagoon and it was truck after truck. And I just went and answered questions. I think I was interviewed in French.”
Questions came to Peters demanding answers: How to collect information from law enforcement agencies? How to comfort those grieving? How to communicate with parents desperate for news of their child’s wellbeing? Is school canceled? For how long? What about finals? Would the tragedy impact NIU’s branding or enrollment? Would scarred students want to return to campus?
Peters said he didn’t get much sleep that night.
“It’s true of people who, all of a sudden, are faced with some tragedy,” Peters said. “I think a force that’s beyond you touches you and gives you the strength to go ahead. All I could think of – I couldn’t get it out of my mind the whole time – was, I have to express to the world the grief and the horror of this, and I have to reflect the feelings of our students and our community.”
Little anecdotes kept him going. When students returned to campus after a few weeks, DeKalb community members baked 55,000 cookies to hand out.
Hundreds of certified grief counselors made their way to campus in the days that followed, marking the informal foundation for what later became the NIU Center for Student Assistance. The Center now provides on-campus support for students seeking personal or academic aid, including counseling.
A counselor was assigned to each of the victims’ families.
Peters said he believes universities across the country took stock of what had happened at Virginia Tech and NIU, just months apart, and began to take seriously emergency response plans if the unimaginable arose.
“The theme was, ‘We’re strong. We’re going to get through this. Remember our students. We’re Huskies,’ ” Peters said. “That’s when we picked up ‘Forward, Together Forward.’ It was perfect. I remember many students, I’d put my hands on their shoulders and look them in the eye and say, ‘Now you’ve got to be strong. Be strong for your friends. Call your parents. Call your loved ones [and] make sure they know you’re OK. If you have issues, we got counselors. Don’t be afraid to talk this out.’”
For President Lisa Freeman, who joined the NIU community in 2010 and was appointed the university’s first woman president in 2018, that Huskie spirit still stands strong today.
Freeman’s journey to NIU came at a time when the horror of Feb. 14 was still fresh.
“Since that time, I wouldn’t say that the nature of the tragedy has abated at all,” Freeman said. “Perhaps we will become as a society a little more desensitized because of the incredibly unfortunate frequency with which shootings occur. But in the context of NIU, what I would say is that legacy of pain has really given way to a legacy that’s embodied in the way that our community deeply cares for each other and responds to any adversity by coming together, rolling up our sleeves and supporting each other.”
The Forward, Together Forward scholarship founded in the wake of the 2008 shooting has over the past 15 years given five undergraduate students annually up to $4,000. As of this year, 75 students will have received the award in memory of the lives lost.
Three other scholarships in the names of the victims also offer aid to NIU students in their memory.
The Julianna Gehant Memorial Scholarship Fund supports those majoring in elementary education highlighting recipients with military service. The Ryanne Mace Endowed Scholarship Fund supports graduate students studying clinical or school psychology. The Daniel Parmenter Memorial Student Scholarship Funds benefit undergraduate students studying business and another for students working for the student newspaper the Northern Star.
Freeman said the scholarships are an unwavering message of hope that lives on in spite of tragedy.
Freeman said she would be remiss if she didn’t herald Peters’ leadership during NIU’s time of need. The Peters Campus Life building is also home to the Center for Student Assistance.
“The university can never really express the gratitude to the DeKalb community, to the staff at what’s now Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital for everything they did on that day and in the immediate aftermath,” Freeman said. “And John was an incredible leader during that time. He didn’t have a blueprint to work from. His compassion and humanity were critical for the way the university was able to move forward.”
An annual memorial ceremony or a scholarship giveaway are just a few of the ways the NIU community has pledged to never forget the events and victims of 2008, Freeman said.
“In a couple of years, the students who will be entering NIU as freshman wouldn’t have even been born before February 2008,” Freeman said. “But they will see the legacy of the way the community came together, the memorial garden, the scholarship, the town-gown relationships that were forged as a result of that imperative to come together on that horrible day. They will also see the way the allies of some and the survivors channeled their loss into advocacy for change.”