NIU community, victims’ families seek healing and reflection 15 years after 2008 mass shooting: ‘It’s always with us’

NIU’s “Forward, Together Forward: Moment of Reflection” marks grim milestone: 15 years since 5 students were killed in a mass shooting

Larry Gehant, uncle of shooting victim Julianna Gehant, hugs Harold Ng, an NIU graduate and 2008 shooting survivor, during a remembrance ceremony Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, at the memorial outside Cole Hall at Northern Illinois University for the victims of the mass shooting in 2008. Tuesday marked the 15th year since the deadly shooting that killed five students and injured dozens more.

DeKALB – Laurel Dubowski, whose 20-year-old daughter Gayle Dubowski was killed in a 2008 mass shooting on Northern Illinois University’s campus, said Tuesday she felt determined to return to DeKalb for an annual memorial despite how difficult memories of the day remain 15 years later.

University and DeKalb-area community members joined family and friends of the five students killed in Feb. 14, 2008, mass shooting Tuesday to pay their respects, honor the lives lost and move forward together.

“[I wanted] to be in the last place our daughter was alive and to share this time with close family and friends, and give strength and faith and love,” Dubowski said as she stood in front of the Reflection Wall in the Memorial Garden joined by family members of other victims.

Catalina Garcia, 20, Daniel Parmenter, 20, Ryanne Mace, 19, and Julianna Gehant, 32, also were killed in the shooting by a lone gunman and former NIU graduate student who fired almost 50 rounds into a lecture room inside Cole Hall shortly after 3 p.m. that day. Dozens more were injured.

Bells chimed outside at 3:06 p.m., once for each of the five victims. A moment of silence followed.

Dubowski said one thing that keeps her going, despite how tough it is not having her daughter, who was a sophomore anthropology major, around any longer is easy to pinpoint.

“Your faith and your church and family and knowing that God is in control,” Dubowski said.

Attendees took time to lay flowers near the memorial outside Cole Hall in memory of the students. University officials joined the somber gathering. Others embraced. Some victims’ family members greeted each other, giving homage to their harrowing shared experience. Some student passersby could be heard asking others what happened.

The day brought with it grim reminders of the reality of deadly school shootings across the country. NIU marked 15 years in the wake of fresh tragedy that took place about 280 miles north.

On Monday night, three students were shot to death and five others injured in a campus shooting at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, by a lone gunman who police said later turned the gun on himself.

In a Twitter post Tuesday, Gov. JB Pritzker marked the somber occasion for NIU. The governor also issued condolences for the deadliest high school shooting in American history that occurred five years ago, when a 19-year-old gunman murdered 17 and injured more than a dozen on Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the Miami suburb of Parkland, Florida.

“No parent should send their kid to school worried for their life,” Pritzker wrote. “No child should have to run, hide, and fight. It’s past time we act on this uniquely American epidemic.”

Among those on hand for Tuesday’s ceremony were NIU President Lisa Freeman, NIU Police Chief Darren Mitchell and DeKalb Police Chief David Byrd.

Matt Swan, instructor in NIU’s Communications Department, stood solemnly after the ceremony visibly moved observing the memorial with his wife, Judie Santacaterina.

“It always brings it back,” Swan said. “It’s always just so surprising that this happened. It’s so traumatic and heartbreaking.”

Swan said he can’t help but think about the tragic day that transpired at NIU on Feb. 14, 2008.

“I think about it every time I walk past the memorial,” Swan said. “It’s always with us.”

Lisa Boland, trainer for Mission III – the newest NIU Huskie mascot – stood observing the memorial. She said Mission is always a welcome presence at the Feb. 14 vigil, providing support and needed comfort for the gathered grieving.

“It’s always been just a way to help emotional support, therapy dog kind of thing,” Boland said. “All of the families have gotten to know and expect the Missions. We always reunite at this point every year. It’s been wonderful just to have a dog to lean on, something comfortable to distract, whatever they need in that time. We make the Missions available to them and, of course, the rest of the NIU community that’s here.”

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