Contact: NIU Office of Public Affairs
February 16, 2009
DeKalb, Ill. — Northern Illinois University spent Saturday, Feb. 14, in a day of reflection as the university community marked the one-year anniversary of the Cole Hall tragedy.
“One year after the worst day in our history, NIU remains determined to not let an act of violence define us,” President John Peters told a large crowd at a candlelight vigil.
“One year after the loss of five wonderful people, we have taken inspiration from stories of their lives and the strength of their characters. Twelve months after an unspeakable tragedy, we are much closer as a campus community – much more focused on each other. Random acts of kindness abound at a university where the only answer to hate is love.”
Saturday began with a memorial service inside the Convocation Center and ended with the vigil in the Martin Luther King Memorial Commons. The five recipients of the new “Forward, Together Forward” scholarships were honored at a noon luncheon.
A wreath-laying ceremony in the mid-afternoon, held at the site of the planned memorial garden near Cole Hall, came amid a number of art exhibitions inside the Holmes Student Center. Visitors saw photos and videos from a year ago as well as the pictures of “Images of Hope” and the postcards of “Huskie Acts of Kindness.”
Twenty-five hundred gathered in the morning to hear reassuring and motivational words from Peters and from Cherilyn G. Murer, chair of the NIU Board of Trustees, as they spoke of the last year: “Thousands of lives,” Murer said, “touched by five.”
“We discovered in our grief that we were sisters and brothers, united with loved ones and strangers, in the pursuit of healing,” Murer added. “We learned how to take care of others – and ourselves. We found in one another the strength to carry on, the compassion that allowed us to cry and the comfort that eventually dried our tears.”
They also heard music – a piano solo of Claude Debussy’s haunting “Clair de Lune” and the NIU alma mater – and witnessed a unique presentation called “The Legacy of Character.”
Five NIU theater majors told stories of the five beloved Huskies who lost their lives Feb. 14, 2008 – Gayle Dubowski, Catalina Garcia, Julianna Gehant, Ryanne Mace and Daniel Parmenter – and read thoughts on the meaning of “character” from heroes and thinkers both legendary and contemporary. They also spoke of “Character in Action,” an accounting of the outpouring of love and support Feb. 14, 2008, and the days that followed.
“In the lives of those we have lost, in the determination of those who were saved, in the unselfish acts of kindness which abounded after our tragedy, in all that and much more, we have seen character defined and exemplified,” Peters said. “For me, the best definition of character I’ve ever heard is also one of the simplest, and it goes like this: ‘Character is what you do when you think no one is watching.’ ”
By day’s end, the cold and darkness of the Commons were met with the warmth of hugs and the glow of paper cups that held the ignited white candles.
Spontaneous back-and-forth chants of “Red!” and “Black!” gave voice to the “Forward, Together Forward” determination of students and staff as the anniversary drew near its close.
“The lighting of fire is an ancient ritual. We light candles to chase away the darkness, to illuminate our paths, to warm ourselves from the winter chill,” Peters said. “Tonight, let our flames burn bright – if even just for a minute – and let those lights send a message into the heavens. We are here. We love each other. We will never forget. We are NIU.”
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